Winning My Wings

I earned my pilots license in March, 2000, after four years of on-and-off again lessons. Before blogging was even a word, I started recording a brief record after significant flights or lessons and posted them on Compuserve, which I will now re-post here for your reading enjoyment. We'll start with…

May 7, 1996
Took my first lesson today and had a great time. We did the basics; preflight, taxiing, takeoff, climbs, decents, turns and the pattern. The only time I really got out of whack was on final—I was all over the sky trying to line up with the runway. I guess it gets easier with practice…

I’m learning in a Cessna 172 (four seat, single engine) at Stone Mountain (at least until they shut down for the Olympics—then it’ll be over to Gwinnett). BTW, my instructor (John Popps) got his license 50 years ago this year… he’s a real character!

May 10, 1996
Had the second lesson today. I got there early and preflighted the airplane. Someone was doing touch-and-go's in a Cub in the still of the early morning air. The whistling of the wind past the struts, a gentle “chirp” and then the roar of the engine as he went around again…

John arrived and we headed out. Did climbs, decents, power changes and more turns. Then he had me lower the hood to try out instrument-only flight. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, and after a few minutes, I could even fly straight and level, more or less…

We headed over to Gwinnett to get gas, and I was introduced to the wonderful radio jumble of controlled airspace. The approach was almost straight in, and I actually felt pretty comfortable through the whole landing (at least compared to last time).

We fueled up and after fumbling around trying to find the right runway intersection, got out and took off for Stone Mountain. A short flight, again with some power changes, and we entered the pattern. This time, I did okay until the turn on final, where I seemed to suddenly be gripping a live python. I was all over the sky trying to line up with the runway! John’s hands were pretty close to the controls, and on the flare, he had to push us down, as I adopted a somewhat nose-high attitude a little too soon. Thump-thump! Okay—so I landed, just a little too high!

We put the plane away (I was drenched by now), and went over the lesson. John showed me his Steen Skybolt project, and we set a date for the next lesson.


Steve called Monday to tell me I left the Master Switch on over the weekend. Of course it drained the battery… I guess I won’t forget that again!

May 16, 1996
Third lesson yesterday. I was feeling a little under the weather (and the weather was appropriately overcast and cool), but went on anyway. I preflighted and rolled the airplane out and waited for John.

He arrived in his usual cloud of dust and we had “class” on the hood of his aging silver Dodge minivan. We discussed the traffic pattern and how to identify yourself to others in uncontrolled and controlled space. Finally, we mounted up and taxied out.

I’m still a little behind the curve when the plane rotates, as I always begin to drift left. STOMP on that rudder! We climbed to 2000' (about 1000' AGL) and leveled out at cruise speed. We were probably 1000' below the clouds, which were solid. A little drizzle splattered across the windshield as we began more speed changes. I’m still tending to try to fly with the trim wheel—got to learn to keep my right hand in my lap instead of on the wheel.

After practicing slowing down to pattern speed (80mph, 70mph then 60mph), John took the plane and slowed us down to just above stall speed—about 45–50mph. The stall horn was sqealing away as he told me to take the plane. This was a little scary! After getting the hang (and it literally felt like we were hanging!) of flying slowly, John said to make a turn.

Now I can tell you that I have read many stories of pilots who spun in on that turn from base to final because they overbanked and stalled the inside wing. So I’m sitting there, stall horn blasting merrily away, and I turn the plane. We wallow all over the place as I overbank and then over correct. John’s hands are inches from the controls, but I finally get in the groove. I look out, and it appears we are doing circles over someone’s backyard, we are going around so tight! After a few more turns, I start to get the feel of slow turns—lots of control input, and lots of overbanking tendency.

By this time, my stomach is beginning to prod me and I’m feeling a little “loose” (I didn’t eat breakfast, and the air is a lot bumpier today). John asks if I’m okay, and I tell him that I’m about done for the day, so we head home.

John points me in the right direction (I never seem to know exactly where I am yet) and we enter the downwind pattern at midfield on a 45° angle, like the book says. I’m trying to remember all the right things to do, but John is still talking me through the speed changes, flaps, turns and radio calls. Finally, I turn final, 60mph, 30° flaps and about 600' AGL. Here comes that python again! But now having a better feel for slow flight, I get the plane lined up (more or less) and flare just a second or two too late. We settle after a slight bounce, and I roll out to the last taxiway, breathing heavily.

We put the plane away (check that Master Switch!!!), and John says I did good, but for me to stop trying to fly with the trim wheel. We talk a little while, and I go up to the shack to pick up the FAR/AIM and AFD books. Next lesson—Friday!

June 20, 1996
I’m reconstructing this from memory, as I got slack and let the weeks go past before sitting down to write.

Our fourth lesson started with the usual preflight, taxi, run-up and takeoff. John put me through the paces—Climb to 2,000'; turn to 030°; descend to 1,700'; slow down to 80, 70, 60… We did some slow flight profiles, and then cleaned everything up. John commented that today, I was flying the plane—not the other way around. Things were finally starting to come naturally, although I still had to really work at it.

We finished all this up, did a few stalls, and went back into the pattern at Stone Mountain. We had a pretty stiff breeze blowing at altitude, which I under-compensated for when I turned base, so when I entered final, I was way off to the right of the runway. I crabbed over to get lined up, and straightened out below the treeline, but flared a little late, so THUD! we settled in firmly.

I taxied around, and didn’t see Steve’s car yet (he was planning to go fly some Young Eagles when I finished up), so I asked John if we could go around again. We took off, and I flew the pattern again, planning better this time for the crosswind. I lined up a lot closer, but still had to crank in about 5–10° to fly straight in. This time, I flared at just the right moment, floated in ground effect for two or three seconds, and then came a gentle “chirp-chirp” as the mains touched down! Of course, it was pure serindipity, but it still felt great!

We took the plane in and met Steve. John filled in my book, and we set up another lesson for the next Wednesday. John asked if I had my student ticket yet, and I said I would go get it that Monday…

June 20, 1996
Still catching up on the diary, but at least this time, you get to find out why I haven’t written in a while.

I showed up early this morning, because Stone Mountain Airport was to be closed forever this coming weekend. I brought my still camera to capture some of the feel of the airport. I walked around, taking photos and thinking about all the people and planes that had passed through this little piece of Atlanta history.

Finally, I walked over to preflight 71Lima. As I went to unlock the door, something seemed a little strange about the airplane. When I opened the door, I noticed that the radio stack was a little bare looking—actually, all of the radios (except the GPS) were gone! “Steve’s playing a trick on me,” was my first thought. Then it hit me that I couldn’t fly without radios. THEN, it hit me that the plane had been burgalarized!

I got my camera back out and took some shots of the panel and doors where they had been jimmied, and then went into the flight shack and called Steve. I had to leave a message, so I hung around until John got there. His take was that professionals did the job, as they didn’t tear up the panel, and left the GPS, which requires a different type of tool to remove.

So, it’s been almost a month now with no flying. Steve said we should have radios back in in a week or so. It will probably take me a week or two to get back to where I was when this happened, but I can’t wait anyway.

July 10, 1996
We’re flying again! Steve and I went up about a week ago and I did three night landings (very interesting!). We flew over downtown Atlanta, and saw people practicing for the opening ceremonies in the Olympic stadium. Pretty neat.

John and I met this morning at Gwinnett for our lesson. While preflighting the plane, I saw a T-28 enter the pattern, land and take off again. What a great sound!

We taxied out, and made it down to the runup area just as the tower came online. We called in and were given clearance (the first airplane of the day for the tower operator). I had asked John to basically do review this time, since it had been about 5 weeks since our last lesson. We did the basic climbs, turns and decents. Then John asked me to climb to 3500'.

We got there, and he asked me to pull out the checklist. It then dawned on me that this was time for the “inflight emergency”! He talked me through various emergencies, and then said we’d try the engine out procedure. He pulled throttle, and asked me how long we had to find a place to set down. Since we were about 2500' AGL, that gave us about 4 minutes at our decent rate of 600'/minute.

I found a nice field, lined up for it, and at 1000' AGL (with the field made for sure), John gave me back the engine for the climb out.

We headed back to Gwinnett, were given a straight-in approach and I made a passable landing. John went as far as to say he could have soloed me based on the landing (but we still needed a few more lessons to cover other basic skills first!).

All in all, it went great, and it’s good to be flying again.

July 15, 1996
Actually, this isn’t a real “lesson”, but experience counts anyway, right?

Steve and I went up this past Saturday, and I took Chad with us. He had a great time, walking around the plane with me as I did the pre-flight. He “helped” check the control surfaces, and I showed him how the controls move the surfaces in flight.

Steve arrived, and we took off for Lake Lanier to practice turns, climbs and decents. Chad kept his nose glued to the window the whole time, and looked like he was enjoying himself. Steve started calling out vectors and altitudes to me (my pretend ATC), and I worked on these for a little while. Then, we set a course for Gainesville, and I entered the pattern and made a somewhat bouncy landing.

We taxied around and saw a nice little homebuilt biplane take off ahead of us. We then flew back out to Gwinnett, while practicing some instrument flight—simulating what to do if I flew into clouds. We entered the right-hand pattern (a first for me), and I made a somewhat better landing.

We taxied back in, and called it a day. Chad wanted to go again, so I’ll plan on taking him up again soon.

July 17, 1996
Okay, so now we’re playing catch-up. It’s been a little while since I caught up on this diary thing. I’m reconstructing this from my logbook and from memory, so this may be a little short on detail.

We did slow flight (It was actually neat slowing the plane down and getting on the back side of the power curve this time—it happened just like it says it does in the book!), some full stalls with power on and off, and then we drove over to a remote area to practice “ground reference manuevers”.

We did ‘S’ turns, which were pretty easy, and then tried turns around a point. This was pretty easy going around to the left, but going to the right for some reason eluded me. We drove around in big egg shaped ovals until I finally had to just start all over. Finally, I got one close enough to call it real, and we drove back to Gwinnett and put the plane away for the day.

July 19, 1996
More catch-up. We had a nice breeze blowing today, so we went out and worked on more ground reference manuevers, and then drove over to Monroe to practice slips (or skids, in my case), cross wind landings and emergency landings.

When John pulled the throttle the first time at about 700 feet AGL on departure, and then said “Turn back and land”, I almost had a cow! Aren’t you supposed to go straight if you loose power on takeoff? Anyway, I did it, and came in high, of all things! Steve’s plane really floats along there…

The only things I had trouble with this time were crossing the controls on the crosswind landings (this seems very unnatural!) and the emergency landings. I still am having a hard time judging how far the airplane will go. At least I’m misjudging on the high side!

July 24, 1996
Still more catch-up on the diary. This time up, we had some nice hazy fog to drive around in; this is what they call ‘marginal VFR’, I believe. At any rate, we didn’t have much of a horizon, and used the opportunity to do some more simulated IFR work.

For some reason, I had trouble all day flying straight. I would notice the compass heading swinging around, and would bank the wings more (no horizon outside, remember?), and then realize that I had my foot in the rudder a little. I was sliding around like an Atlanta driver in the first snow storm of the season (I told John it was my new sneakers)!

We did some more emergency procedures, slips and go arounds, and then tried some constant altitude turns. Now THAT is fun! It’s scary at first, but after you go around once or twice, it’s quite challenging. What’s cool is rolling out and flying through your own wake. A little bump, and you’re through the exact same spot you entered a few seconds before.

July 27, 1996
Son of catch-up—got to stop working so many late nights so I can get this stuff written when I get finished!

Today was more review stuff, as we have now covered everything I need to know to solo. John put me through the mill today, with practically everything we had covered before. There was minimal wind, so we didn’t get any crosswind technique in, but we did just about everything else. We even did some “extreme bank” turns at 60° bank! I couldn’t hold these very well and kept having to roll out of them. It’s a psychological thing, not a physics thing, though.

We’re getting close to soloing!

August 13, 1996
Okay, now we’re finally caught up!

It’s been almost two weeks since we last flew. The Olympics are gone, and so is the rainy weather that’s kept us on the ground (not to mention Oshkosh!).

We had a nice 9–11 knot crosswind this evening, so John kept me in the pattern, and we did crosswind landings and flying a square pattern. Fourty-five minutes was long enough to do six touch-and-go’s, with quite a bit of traffic in the pattern. The tower shut down after my fourth landing, so I got some uncontrolled field radio experience, too…

Actually, while the first five landings were all over the place, the last one wasn’t too bad. John said I did well on both the landings and the pattern work, and that we should be ready to solo next time, weather and wind permitting!

August 17, 1996

I soloed!

This past Thursday (8/15/96) out at Gwinnett in N8371L. I did one touch and go with John, went around again, and he said to make the next one a full stop and taxi over to the tower.

I told Tower I was ready to "extract my instructor and solo," which they cleared. I taxied and was cleared to takeoff on 25 with a righthand pattern, rolled out and held at the end of the runway. I took a deep breath, shoved in the throttle, and here we go!

Rotate at 55, off at about 65, establish climb, turn right on crosswind, nose down, power back and turn on downwind. Start breathing again <grin>, tell the tower my intentions (as if I had any other choice at this point!), motor down to the other end of the runway, 10d flaps and back on the power, looking for the turn on base. 10d more flaps, a nice decent established, ready for final, 10d more flaps, there's the VASI and I'm right on the glideslope, watch the numbers to the ground, power off and flare out--whoops! Without 200+ pounds less baggage on board (no offense, John), the plane really wants to float! Nose down a bit, and squeek! We're down!

Tower said John cleared me for two more, which went without a problem (other than that darned flare/floating effect!). It was a blast! The weather was perfect, and as I finished my third lap, another student pilot soloed, too.

I picked up John, we got gas and then tied down. John trimmed my t-shirt and also gave me a mug to commemorate the event. He said the guys in the tower were complimenting me on how smooth I was (they weren't there in the cockpit to see what it was really like)!

At any rate, no parts fell off the plane, and I had a great time.

What a day!

October 8, 1996
Just catching up on the old notes here. It’s been a very busy two months since I soloed, but unfortunately not involving airplanes. Either I’ve been working ’til 3:00am, or the weather has been socked in when we wanted to go flying. Somehow, we managed to slip in a few lessons in August and September (8.24, 9.14 and 9.24).

We basically went up and practiced everything we’ve been doing, plus a little pilotage. It’s amazing how easy it looks to get from Point A to Point B on the map. It’s even more amazing how whatever patch of land you happen to be flying over bears absolutely no resemblance to the map of that very area! At any rate, we managed to blunder our way into the vicinity of Monroe airport and practice missing all the gliders that hang out there.

The one thing that’s given me a consistently hard time has been slips, especially when trying to slip to a landing or in a cross-wind. We finally got a good day to practice this in late September, and I satisfied John that I could land the airplane with the nose pointed roughly in the forward direction. We did two laps, working on both cross-wind and power off landings, after which he said I was good to go for the next two or three hours by myself.

I finished this lesson by just flying off by myself for about a half-hour, just enjoying the ride for a change.

October 8, 1996 - First Unsupervised Solo
More catching up on notes today while this is still relatively fresh, and I have the computer turned on <g>.

October 3 turned out to be a beautiful afternoon after some pretty heavy storms. AWOS said the winds had died down to within my personal limits, so I motored on out to the airport. Keep in mind that this is my first UNSUPERVISED SOLO!!! I liken this to taking the family station wagon out by yourself for the first time after you get your drivers licence. It’s actually a kind of scary thing…

Anyway, I managed to make my way out to the runway without breaking any major rules, and they let me go. Actually, they let me wait in line, as it seemed that everyone else in Gwinnett County decided to go flying today, too. I could see the guy behind me doing his run-up right on the taxiway (he was the last one in line), but I decided he wouldn’t appreciate me providing extra forced ventilation in his direction, so I waited to do mine when I finally got up to the run-up area. After a line of planes that would make I-285 at 5:30pm jealous landed in front of us, we finally got to start moving out.

I climbed out and headed over to our practice area, not knowing exactly what I was going to do when I got there, but determined to make up my mind just the same. I climbed to our normal 3000' altitude. I decided to do a stall series. I then decided that without John there holding me down, I’d better climb an extra 500' for good measure. Then I decided to make sure I wasn’t over any populated areas. I decided to check the GPS, radios and make sure the doors really were securely fastened. Then I decided I’d better go ahead and get the stalls over with before I ran out of gas and got to practice power off landings instead!

I pulled the power back and got down to Vs (actually, I want to get so good that I can fly the airplane slower than John in this configuration—but not this time <g>). I went through straight and turning power-off stalls, and had no problem. I then climbed back up to altitude and tried power-on stalls. I could get a nice break straight ahead and to the right, but never could get a clean break to the left. I think maybe I’m too timid with the controls sometimes, because John usually grabs the yoke and yanks it deep into my stomach to prove his point…

After that, I tried a constant altitude turn (which was pretty non-constant). I set up for another one, and noticed that it was beginning to get a little dark out there. So I abandoned the aerobatics, and headed back to the airport. I called Tower and told them I was headed in and to clear the field. They said not to worry, as it was quitting time anyway and that I had the field all to myself (and about 3 other airborne “parking cones”).

Anyway, I set her down just as the sun was dipping below the clouds on the horizon, and taxied in for gas and to put my trusty steed away for the evening.

October 8, 1996
Another solo by myself today (is that an oxymoron?). The morning started dreary and rainy, but by mid-afternoon, the skies were blue, except for that patch that said “Come fly, Ed!” over in the corner.

Since the wind was still kicking up around 7-8 knots (thankfully pointed pretty much down the runway heading), I decided to practice cross-wind landings and pattern work today. While taxiing out, I noticed liquid spilling out from under the right wing, so I taxiied back to check it out. It turned out to just be water, but I figured better safe than out of gas on crosswind!

I’m getting better at slips to a landing, and did a passable one on the first touch ’n go. I went around again, and this time had a time trying to locate the traffic I was supposed to follow in for landing. Finally Tower told me when to turn base, and I thanked them for being understanding, being a student-type of pilot. They replied that it was no problem. I’ve found the tower people to be very helpful so far.

Anyway, I went around again, but by this time, Tower had 5 planes approaching from the South, on top of me and about 4 others floating around the pattern. They asked me and one other plane to circle around while they took care of the North-bound folks, so I motored up to the North for a while to stay out of everyone’s way. I did see quite a few airplanes that I would consider to be ‘close’, although I was never in danger of even a “close miss”. It’s just that the density at my altitude was getting thicker than I had seen before.

Finally, Tower said we could come back, and I called to make this one a full stop. They said they hoped they hadn’t run me off, to which I replied that I was having a great time, which I was. I lined her up, and planted her on the numbers (in front of three planes holding short), and easily made the first turn-off. Two bills and a few minutes later, N8371L was full and bedded down until next time.

October 10, 1996
Well, I'm 34 years old today. Never thought I'd live to see the day <grin>…

After sleeping in late this morning and being treated to a nice breakfast by my family, I took a peek outside and decided that I should continue the festivities in an aerial manner.

The airport wasn't busy at all, and I took off and headed out to the "bombing range" as usual. I started out with some power-off stalls and then did a couple of constant-altitude turns. The left turns were easy, but the right turns really required some muscle to hold altitude!

I then descended to about 1000' AGL, and started some turns along a line. I kept loosing my "line" though, because I had chosen a line of power lines, that happened to intersect at a shallow angle with another line of power towers. I then chose a tree in a field (near some long barn-type buildings) and did turns around a point. I must have circled that tree six or eight times going one way and another four or six times the other before moving on. I kept waiting for someone to come running out of the barn, shaking their fist at me.

As long as I was down low, I decided to try an engine-out simulation. I got my airspeed stabilized, and went through the checklist while I was choosing my field. I'm still having a hard time judging hieght and distance though, because I came in pretty high. By this time, I was down to minimum allowable hieght, so I pushed everything in and headed back to the airport, where I was cleared straight in for landing.

Altogether, a very nice birthday!

November 18, 1996
Steve Ashby picked me up early Saturday morning for breakfast at IHOP, which was pretty good. We went out to the airport to finish putting 71L back together after the annual annual. It had taken a couple of weeks longer than planned for the annual due to various items that needed a little more attention this time around. We worked for a couple of hours, and finally got the bird back together.

We pushed out on the ramp and fired up on the first swing of the prop. All the gauges came up fine, so we taxied out and took off for some touch and go’s. The wind was pretty stiff, around 10 knots, gusting to 15 or so. At least it was pretty much straight down the runway. Steve did three circuits. The last one was preceded by Steve saying “Watch this!” He was trying to nail the airplane down right at the edge of the chevrons at the end of the runway, and at the last moment saw the landing lights protruding up right at the point he was aiming for. We ballooned up and about three feet off the ground, the airplane stopped flying and we thudded in. Mental note: get real nervous when someone says “watch this”.

With the strong frontal breeze, the airplane lifted off quickly and shot up like an express elevator! It was pretty bouncy, but not unmanageable. I did three circuits and set it down to head for the ramp. It had been so long since I flew last, my radio procedure was a little random—I asked Tower where he wanted us to go, to which he responded, “I don’t know—where do you want to go?” The hilarity of this exchange didn’t strike me until that night, laying in bed, when I started laughing. My wife is slowly getting used to this, as each flight usually leaves me with at least one humorous (at least after the fact) moment.

Since my solo endorsement ran out the day before, these T&G’s won’t go in the book, but at least I’m ready to start back up with John. Now I just need to finish studying for that written exam!

November 22, 1996
Had my first night lesson last night. It was pretty cool—there was a full moon, no clouds and very little wind. We flew from Gwinnett down to Monroe to practice landings. On the way, we had a bird strike, which left an interestingly shaped deposit on the windshield. The first landing at Monroe went pretty good (with landing lights & runway lights on), but the second (w/o landing lights) was a bouncer. It's really different with no ground reference to determine when to start flaring out.

At any rate, after several of these, I got fairly decent at them and my instructor said to head back to Gwinnett. We got about 700' AGL, and he reached over and yanked the throttle back while telling me through a grin that my engine just quit. Now I have trouble with this little excersise in the daytime (usually come in too high), but I gritted my teeth and turned around for the strip. This time, I actually came in about right and made a sqeaker landing (my turn to grin).

So I turn around and start down the runway to leave for good, and my instructor yells “a truck just pulled out on the runway!” What is this? Emergency night? I stopped the airplane to his satisfaction, and he finally lets me head back to Gwinnett.

It took me a while to find the beacon (all lights at night look like airport beacons, I’m convinced), but after finally locating the thing, we motored over and did a touch and go. On climbout into the pattern, my instrument panel suddenly went pitch black. Arrrrgh!! Not again! I managed to grope around in the dark and do all the right things at the right time and got us down in one piece.

I went home tired but happy.


I'll add more as I have time to convert them…