Sunday, May 25, 2008


My wife and I went up together for the first time for a nice tour of downtown Pittsburgh and a fly over our house. After putting up with me, and moreover, supporting me, throughout the whole training process, I was excited to show her a little of what general aviation is all about. It is so important to have a supportive spouse through this process and Emel was a true friend through the whole private pilot ordeal.

For the trip, we had an amazing combination of calm winds, clear skies, unlimited visibility and a setting sun, in other words, a picture perfect evening for flying. I had just been checked out by the club to use the 172s so I figured we would take 573, one of our club's training Skyhawks. We met the plane at the fuel pump as it had just been out with a great fellow club member, Larry Teal. After a preflight and a run-up we were off and headed south towards downtown. I called PIT approach and she was very pleasant, giving us a squawk code and some traffic information. Emel got a chance to see a lot of the area we go to in the North Hills from the air and helped me with avoiding some towers and traffic. I slowed down as we neared the city and we circled the skyscrapers a few hundred feet above them. We also got a great view of the new, just about completed, construction and renovation project at Point Park.

After snapping a few pictures, we headed up the Allegheny River toward out house. I dialed in two VORs to triangulate our house position and before we knew it, we saw the steeple of Fox Chaple Presbyterian and the Fox Chapel High School football field. We circled our house a few times, got some waves from our neighbors and we then headed off back up to Zeli with a wing waggle. After an easy landing, we tied down the plane and had a fantastic post-flight dinner at MadMex to cap the perfect evening.

Saturday, May 24, 2008


I took my daughter flying today. I learned an important rule with new passengers: strive for zero turbulence... Our goal was to make it to Carroll Co (TSO) for lunch. It was a beautiful day, the wind was a bit strong at 10kts but was right down the runway from the north. The sky was dotted with some small, puffy, cumulus clouds at about 4,000 feet. After strapping her car seat into the passenger seat of the 152, we got settled in and departed 35 at Zeli. Virginia was very happy and excited looking out the window and asking questions as always. It was a bit bumpy but not particularly noticable. I soon learned however that what may not be noticable for the pilot is very apparent to the passengers. I called Beaver tower to request clearance to transit their airspace and was granted with a request to report over the airport. 10 minutes into the flight and over the airport I realized Virginia had gotten quiet. I looked over and her face was scrunched up and she said her tummy hurt. I immediately called Beaver tower and said I was doing a 180 and heading back to the east. By the time I was on downwind at Zeli, she was wailing. I kept trying to calm her, but realized I had to fly the plane first, get us down and then deal with that part of the situation. I put the the audio panel on isolate to reduce the noise in my headset, and upon listening to the AWOS realized the wind had picked up and was gusting to 20 kts. It was still down the runway luckily and the landing was not particularly hairy. Virginia calmed down on the ground, we fueled up and put the plane back in the hanger. She is now still interested in flying but I will pick my days carefully from now on.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

First Passenger

My family members drew straws and my mom ended up with the short one, but she bravely suited up and got the the car with me for ride to Zeli, and for the "honor" of being my first passenger. Arriving at the airport, my mom took a look at the trusty 152 that had gotten me through thick and thin and said "we're going up in that?!". Ok, so it was an inauspicious start, but once we did the preflight together and answering every question along the way, she got past her tin can fears and legged up into the passenger seat. Once in the plane and taxing to the end of the runway, she was a picture of calm. Luckily, we had the perfect evening. Interestingly, the day had been rather rainly and stormy, but the current conditions were calm winds and forecasted to be that way though the night. After doing the run-up and checklists, I called our departure for 35 and we were off.

We took off to the north and I was able to find the Mill at McConnell's Mills which she got a kick out of. Then we flew over Lake Moraine and we reminisced about riding our bikes there when I was a kid. We then headed over to Beaver County Airport for fuel as our pump at Zeli was down. My mom was the first to spot the glider off to our right and up about a 500'. It was the first glider I had seen in the air and I give her kudos for even seeing it. Good thing she did however as he was headed to Beaver as well and when I talked to Beaver tower they advised me of the traffic and I was able to respond that the glider was in sight.

I followed the glider in on final, negotiated a decent 5-7kt x-wind landing, and taxied to the fuel pumps. After getting our fuel we headed back out and took off with a beautiful sunset behind us. By the way, whichever controller was on that night, he was a really nice and engaging guy. After a short flight back to Zeli, I planted a greaser and received a nice compliment from Mom. She had been a great first passenger and I wanted to show her how much I appreciated it!

Thursday, May 1, 2008

"Congratulations, you’re now a Private Pilot"

Those were the words I heard at the end of my checkride, this past wednesday's evening! Here's my recount of the day: I arrived at my home airport of Zelienople (PJC) , or the Pittsburgh Jet Center as I suppose it is supposed to be known now, about one and a half hours before I was to be meeting the examiner. I wanted to have plenty of time to get the weather briefing, plug the winds into my flight plan, eat a snack, review the POH and preflight the airplane. In actuality by the time I got everything done and was pulling 549 out onto the ramp I was a bit more rushed than I wanted to be. I jumped in the plane and fired it up. As I was taxing I noticed that the LEDs on COM1 were bad, showing only part of the frequencies. "This is great", I thought, "my checkride is about to begin and the radio goes haywire". Not a huge problem as there is a COM2 in the airplane, however COM2 does not have flipflops and it was always nice to have two radios to have one tuned into the ASOS, etc. and the other to the current CTAF. I would have to make due it seemed however and I hoped that this would constitute the extent of the bad luck for the day.

I took off for the DE's airport of New Castle Municipal (UCP) and made it there without incident in about 4 tenths on the hobbs. I parked the plane on the ramp and headed into the FBO. After waiting a few minutes in the lobby, the DE who would be administering my exam came out and asked me to come back to his office. I had heard that Mr. Haski of Haski Aviation was challenging but fair, and I had met him a few times earlier before this meeting. I found him as engaging and cordial as ever. In his office we first looked up the IACRA application that my instructor and I had set up earlier. Everthing seemed in order except for the fact that on my student certificate I had used my middle name and on IACRA just my initial. He seemed to think that would not be a problem. After getting through some of the formal things like examining my certificate and a few other documents the oral portion of the exam began.

Marty basically went right down the PTS categories: the limitations of private pilot, airspace – types, ceilings, requirements (clearance, communication, etc), visibility/clouds, went through my weather breifing, weight and balance (I covered all scenarios such as the W&B for when I departed PJC, for when we would begin the flight portion of the test, and for when we would return assuming we actually completed the cross country). In addition we discussed other items such as aeromedical factors and even factors related to scuba diving! There were two questions I did not give a satifactory answer on: Difference between a 100 hour and annual? – there is none, and what is a special flight certificate? –issued by FAA to allow a plane to be flown if not currently “airworthy". Marty was satisfied overall however that I understood the applicable regulations and all the other items on the PTS and he told me to head out and pre-flight the plan, and that he would see me in about five minutes. The whole oral portion took approximately one hour and a half.

Out on the ramp, I did another preflight mainly checking the fuel in the tanks, the oil level and generally making sure nothing changed from the two hours before I preflighted in Zeli. While waiting for Marty I reviewed the flight plan and the map making mental notes of frequencies, checkpoints, and locations of potential airports I could be diverted to. Marty came out and asked if I was ready, and of course I said I was. We got in the plane, I went through the checklists (asked him if he would like me to brief him on how to fasten his seatbelt...) and I started to turn the prop, only to look up and see the fuel cup sitting on the cowling, doh! I unfastened my seat belt, backed up the seat, open the door and got back out the retrieve the cup. "Ok, must calm self down", I thought. A few seconds later, fuel strainer back in the glove box, I was back to cranking the airplane, only in my haste I forgot to prime. So I spent the next embarrassing minute struggling to get the engine to fire, which it did eventually, and painfully. Now I'm really starting to sweat, when did it get so hot in the cockpit?

We taxied at a brisk walking speed to the end of the runway and I started to get back in the swing of things, thanks to the checklists. A no-issue runup, and Marty requests a short-field takeoff. Luckily, it was one of my better short-field TOs and I proceeded to climb in the pattern turning crosswind and downwind and then calling my departure flying over the airport to the north-west at 2500 feet. I started my timer.

The conditions were partly cloudy with winds about 5 knots out of the west at the surface and 7 from the north-west at 3,000, however it was incredibly bumpy making holding altitude a bit more of a challenge than usual. I turned onto my heading and started looking feverishly for the first checkpoint. I was glancing around for traffic, at the altimeter, heading indicator, etc when Marty says "how are you doing on your checkpoint". I replied, "Good, here's that lake on the map,..." etc, etc, but then I look right and see the prominent tower that was my first checkpoint about 30 degrees off to my right. "It helps to look around" Marty said and I immediately corrected to get back on course. Apparently the winds were not was the briefer gave me and consequently the heading that I had calculated was erroneous. All was not lost however and I was able to quickly get back on track.

Marty had me keep flying until I could point out my next checkpoint and when I did so he took the sectional, pointed to Youngstown Elser (4G4), and said "Take us to this airport. Where are you on the map?". I showed him where we were and said that a heading of approximately due south would take us in the vicinity. I turned about 110 degrees left and started scanning for identifiable items on the ground and the map. I started to make sense out of the lakes and the roads and thought that the airport should be very close by for now. After was seems like an eternity, I looked down out the right side window and lo and behold there was 4G4 almost right underneath us. I told Marty that I believe we had found it, he smiled and said "Indeed we have."

He then had me take a left turn for a clearing turn and had me perform a steep turn to the left. Then we went right into slow flight, a power off stall, a power on stall, and some VOR tracking. There were some other maneuver tests but honestly they were all so quick and mashed together I'm probably leaving out a few. He then pulled the power for the emergency landing. I exercised CRM asking Marty for help and received no response. I looked over my shoulder, found a suitable farmer’s field (which almost looked like a grass strip, and may have been) turned base and final, slipped it in, and at about 100’ AGL Marty says to climb back out to 2500.

Now the foggles go on and we do some turns and headings under the hood and unusual attitudes. The foggles come back off and we are magically back at UCP. He asked me to turn into the pattern and do a short-field landing. The winds were still rather light, but changed around a lot and were somewhat gusty. I managed to nail a sweet short-field landing. He then asked for a soft-field TO which was one of my better ones too. In the pattern again he asked for a soft-field landing. Truth be told, I came in a bit high. I told him I should go around but he suggested we had a lot of runway left and to put it down. I did, and the landing left a lot to be desired, but we were back on the ground safe and sound.

He told me to taxi back to the ramp and at this point I was beginning to thing I may have actually passed this thing. After shut down he looked straight ahead and said "Congratulations, you’re now a Private Pilot". and then turned to me for the handshake. After the nine and a half month, 55.2 hours of flight, and countless nights studying, the whole effort had paid off. The privilege of flight had finally arrived! We went back to his office to complete the paperwork and about 15 minutes later I was walking back to 549 on cloud nine.

The flight back to Zeli was the most enjoyable one I have ever had. Even COM1 started to work a little better (2 of the LEDs turned back on...). I watched the shadow of my airplane cross over the trees, valleys, fields and houses below and that is when it really hit me that I was now actually a pilot. In reality the journey has just begun, but I'm looking forward to many years of flight and continuing the process of learning.

I have to give a shout out my awesome instructor Mike Woods, without whom none of this would have happened. Mike is incredibly patient, a wonderful teacher and has the ability to know when you need help and when it's best to let the student try it out for himself. Mike also did a great job with keeping me on track throughout the whole process with no superfluous training. He had the goal of getting me to the private pilot certification with maximizing our training time and safety being the main goal at every step. Also, I can't stress how important and efficient it was, for me at least, to have the same instructor the entire time. I believe finding the non-transient instructor should be a goal for every student. Thank you Mike!