Mount Rushmore

After departing from my fuel stop in Rapid City, SD (KRAP) I asked for the “Mount Rushmore Tour” from ATC, they were very helpful and gave me headings to help me find it! Don’t ever be afraid to ask for help from Air Traffic Control, in this case it was for a fun reason, but the help can just as easily be used to save your life!

Mount Rushmore – April 17, 2008


Up in the Air


Is there a RIGHT way to change the runway?

I’m stubborn…very stubborn.

I flew into a non-towered airport today with two runways. It was mid-morning, so the wind had shifted at some point from calm to out of the south. The runways were 10/28, 18/36. Winds shifting between 170 and 200 at 6-7 knots. There were a couple other airplanes in the pattern for 1-0, and I imagine they had been there for the past hour or so since they were using that runway. And here I come, out of the Northeast, looking to set my struggling student up with the fewest worries. No tower, calmer winds, and so on. We set up the way we should for runway 1-8, calling inbound, saying our intentions to cross mid-field and enter back on a right 45.

One of the instructors already there jumps on and tells me “a couple aircraft are already using 1-0”.

What do I do? Of course this had to be on an off-day, a day I’m not in the greatest of moods (a whole blog could be made into why no one should fly in a bad mood!)…So I reply “Winds are at 1-8-0, at 7 knots, I’m trying to switch it up to the more favorable runway”…and I bluntly add in, “go back to [insert home airport here] airport and get your crosswind practice there!” Shouldn’t have said that, I know, but again…not off to a great start for the day.

“The wind is barely noticeable, you’ll be okay.”

Now we’re attacking my skills? “Just trying to teach my student right, trying to use the right runway.”

Eventually the couple of planes switched over and continued on as if nothing happened.

So I have a question today…did I take the right action?

I could have easily entered the pattern for runway 1-0 and dealt with the light crosswind/tailwind and gone on with the day. But at what point do we say there needs to be a change? Winds were forecast to be out of the south for the entire day, so at what point does someone finally say “let’s make a change!”

Whether my actions were right or wrong (disclaimer: I’m still learning, as everyone should be, especially when it comes to flying!), should someone be met with an angry voice on the other side of the mic? Is that really constructive? I guess with every “family” there are going to be confrontations, I’m just sad to hear it when everyone is learning. My student, his student, everyone.

I’ve had the reverse happen to me. Being at an airport, winds changing, and someone else coming in and changing to the new runway. It’s inconvenient, yes, but since when is an inconvenience a bad thing in aviation? Only when you don’t accommodate for it?

Please, opinions are welcome, I’m open to new or better ways to handle situations! We are only able to make decisions to the extent of our experience, training, and the experience of others! So…what would you have done?

To more learning experiences!

Up in the Air

Originally Written: April 20, 2012 // Rewritten: April 29, 2012

Love of the Mountains

I haven’t done any major or “hardcore” mountain flying just yet, but I have done a little. One of my absolute favorite places to go in the Sierra Nevada mountain range (so far!) is the small town of Quincy, CA.

Nestled in a valley at about 3500 feet, it would be what I consider a well-kept secret! I’ve gone in there several times, and always make sure to stop at the Morning Thunder Cafe, which is about a 10 minute walk, 15 if you take in the sites, plane to doorstep.

I even flew in there once on a Father’s day fly-in and got to see a little more than I thought I would! Made my day, my friend’s too!

So if you’re looking for beautiful scenery, small town and feel, and good food (huge portions!), then fly to Quincy (Gansner Field “2O1”)!

Happy Flying,

Up in the Air

The Black Hole Effect

I can’t say that I’ve ever met a pilot who didn’t believe they were above average.

Any pilot who is reading this should know what I mean. Even I won’t call myself less than an above average pilot. I can admit my instructing skills can still use much improvement – but that’s easy to admit, I’m still relatively new to it (and we should always be working on improving).

When it comes down to my flying skills, I really do think I’m good.

I’m being honest too. I know deep down that it is entirely possible that I’m wrong and I’m not above average, maybe I’m just average or below average! Even in everyday situations in life – we feel that given a certain situation we can handle it. We can handle it better than most, so we say. Until you experience that difficult situation, you still believe you can handle it better than the other guy.

Have you ever heard of a black hole? I’m not talking about those holes out in space that scientists say we get sucked into and I’m not talking about internet black holes that drop clients (I really don’t know what I’m talking about there…), but I’m talking about the black hole in aviation terms. The black hole illusion you were warned about by your flight or ground school instructors. This is the illusion you encounter when flying into an airport at night that has little surrounding features (for example, lights!) to help guide you to touchdown. For those who have no experience flying this means there’s nothing around the airport to use to judge distance and height to the runway. Pilots don’t even realize, myself included, how much we use visual cues to judge our approach, that is, until they’re gone.  Take a look at the following short video.

The video was a landing I did at the Georgetown airport in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, after one of our famous trips to Willows airport and Nancy’s airport cafe for some good (greasy) food and chocolate pie (summer 2007).

There were absolutely no visual references to judge where I was at on my approach. Lucky for me, I had been there earlier in the day and had an idea of the layout of the obstacles (by that I mean pine trees!) – so the whole way down I at least knew I wasn’t going to hit anything. I was being so cautious that on the first approach I ended up coming in way too high. I was past the half way point and still floating (3000′ runway). At that point, I thought, well, I’ll just go around and do it again (a bad decision looking back). I added full power and began slowly retracting the flaps. I lifted the gear handle to bring the gear up. The gear wasn’t coming up.

My 1972 Piper Arrow had a gear switch that didn’t allow the gear to come up below a certain airspeed – a “safety precaution” that I wasn’t so happy with it at this point. You could choose to change that manually whenever you wanted (located just by the flap handle) – but it was hard to tell sometimes which way you had it set up. Apparently mine was activated and fun time to find it out. From earlier that day, I knew there were trees off the end of the runway, this time on the departure end, and I was worried. With my little Arrow fully loaded (all 4 seats filled), it wasn’t climbing out as fast as I wanted it to. I was nervous. For the first time, I was thinking, “what if we don’t make it”. With a little bit of light from the moon I could see the outline of the trees on nearby hillsides, but in the pitch black I had no idea where I was in relationship to the ones below me. To this day, I don’t know how close I came – maybe I cleared it by a lot, maybe just barely. I nursed the airplane to traffic pattern altitude. Maybe not the proper way to say it since it was my pride that was hurt and not the plane. In the darkness I hadn’t been able to find the override switch and had decided to focus on just flying the airplane. I leveled off and waited for the airspeed to increase, then brought the gear up.

When I finally landed the second time around, I was close to shaking, and my friends had surprisingly landed ahead of us (that’s another story I may have to tell later).

I had always been warned about the ominous “black hole”, but I had always wondered why anyone made a big deal about it.

After all, could it really be a problem for such a great pilot as myself?

Don’t let that happen to you, you may not be as lucky as I was.

The factors sure set me up for disaster – night time, in mountainous terrain, no lights, a full airplane, an incomplete knowledge of my airplane’s configuration, and my arrogance. Don’t be caught by surprise. Sometimes, situations are tougher than you think, and I’m still learning that!

To lend a word of advice from someone who has learned A LOT since then:

  • Avoid flying in the mountains at night (especially in a single engine airplane)
  • Don’t fly into an unfamiliar airport, in the mountains, at night
  • Don’t put yourself in a situation where you’ll be testing the limits of your airplane with friends on board (or anyone for that matter!)
  • Know the airplane you’re flying! (V-speeds, controls and knobs, etc)
  • FLY the airplane!
    • Just about the only thing I can be proud about from that night, if that, was the fact that I kept flying the airplane – I didn’t get too slow despite the terrain I knew was ahead, and I knew when to quit fiddling around with controls inside the airplane and just concentrate on the most important aspect…controlling the airplane.

Fly smart and you’ll be able to talk about it.

Have you ever been in a similar situation or ever doubted the outcome of a fight? What happened? Do you have any words of advice?

Fly safe,
Up in the Air

Originally Written: April 29, 2010 // Rewritten: April 25, 2012

Why the Rules?

Astounded. Frustrated. Concerned.

So many feelings running through my brain, and yet not one of them could I verbalize! What is there to do when the person whose life is entrusted to me calls the rules stupid?

Just as I think I can call myself an “experienced” instructor, I get a wake up call! Nothing really prepared me for what I heard, but perhaps out of stress from his impending checkride or perhaps out of honesty, my student exclaimed in the middle of our pre-checkride ground session, “These rules are stupid! Why do I need to know these rules? I did not study for my driver’s test, why do I need to study these rules for flying? What about the Pilot Operating Handbook? What is this? Why do I need this chart, and why do people need to know this?! I do not even know the horsepower of my car…” and so on.

It is one of the most frustrating experiences I have had so far – to sit there and look at someone with the desire to scream at them, to yell something, anything that would make them see the light and not being able to. Not able to form the sentences nor the words needed to convey the important response. I wanted to smack myself! Okay him too…

This is my best attempt to answer, from the comfort of my computer chair:

Before I dive in, I’d like to take a side-road for a moment – if you lived where I live right now, you’d know that the remark about the driver’s license test/rules doesn’t mean much. Half the people don’t have a license and the other half seem like they neither like driving nor spend much time doing it…perhaps myself included?! Okay, whew I feel better…I hate days like these.

Yes, driving has it’s rules and often the importance of following these rules is undervalued. They of course should be followed, but to stay on topic…

Most, if not ALL Federal Aviation Regulations (the “rules” as my student so eloquently put it) relate directly to safety! To make it perfectly simple (and how I wish I could have put it for my student), not following the rules will kill you! In addition, knowing them and ignoring them is just as much of a problem as not knowing them. It scares me, more so saddens me, to think of the people that do not respect the rules. The rules are there for a reason, and they were created from the blood of others. They would not be there otherwise.

When I was first learning to fly I used to have a “competition” with a classmate in my ground school. We sat right next to each other and always compared our scores on our tests (he always seemed to do better!). He usually had a score in the high 90s, a very bright, smart young kid…he apparently “knew his stuff.” He went out one December night, on a night I vividly remember as blizzard-like, and went flying (some of us already had our licenses before attending this ground school). The next day in class he was not there and we all found out from the professor that he had gone flying the previous night – both him and a buddy of his were killed. What happened? This smart, knowledgeable classmate had killed himself and his friend. He would have been the last person I expected that to happen to. He knew the rules, he knew what they meant….why did he go? He couldn’t have gone…

But it did happen to him, and it can happen to anyone with or without the knowledge of the rules. With this knowledge there needs to be respect, and by respecting the rules one respects flying, and when one respect’s flying, one respects his own life and that of those who would fly with him.

I wish I had a good answer for every question – I know it will come with experience. Until then…

Flying can kill, but in my opinion a respect for ourselves and what we do is the #1 antidote. Knowing and following the rules is all part of it.

Fly safely,
Up in the Air

Learn to Fly

So you want to learn to fly?

Many don’t know where to begin. If you’re like I was, until someone points you in the right direction it’s really hard to believe that it’s even possible. So what does it entail? Lots. Not to worry, it’s easy enough to show you where to start.

To give you a little bit of background, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires that certain minimums be met before you ever become a private pilot. Their regulations require that a person who wants to become a private pilot must

  • Log at least 40 hours of flight time
    • 20 need to be with an instructor in the airplane
    • 10 solo (no instructor on board)

The 10 hours solo is similar to a teenager with a permit who is required to “log” so many hours with his/her parents. The main difference being that once your instructor feels you are ready to solo, he/she signs you off and sends you up on your own, usually for a short amount of time. During these hours, while you do not need your instructor with you, you cannot carry any passengers (sorry no friends or family just yet!).

What is important to remember is that while the minimum is only 40 hours to test for a private pilot certificate (in some cases that can be shortened to 35), the average I see is usually anywhere from 60-80 hours and depends on a variety of factors. You will be able to apply for your private pilot license in a shorter amount of time if you fly 3 times per week versus once per week. If you’re older you will most likely take longer to learn the fundamentals than the newly-graduated high school student. And then, sometimes it just comes down to…having a “knack” for it (and in that case sometimes these other factors don’t matter!). Some just pick up new skills faster than others, and most know where they stand. I’m probably as average as average can be. Not too fast but just not quick enough to brag either (bummer…)!

Alright, so there’s clearly A LOT of flying to be done…but not so fast! There’s a catch. There’s studying to do too. Don’t panic yet, if you’re not one that was ever great at self-study, there are ground schools and of course your flight instructor to sit with and learn in a classroom environment. Yes, you will have homework (you should), and while there’s no letter grade system (usually), you do need to give your instructor a reason to be confident in you, your ability, and your knowledge. When your instructor feels you are ready, he (or she) will sign you off to take the FAA Private Pilot Written Test which is required to be done and passed before you meet with an examiner to take your private pilot test (“checkride”).

There are some key milestones on your journey to becoming a pilot. The first (and most exhilarating in my opinion)? Solo. No more instructor sitting next to you, at least not in the short 30 minutes that it may take to do your first three takeoffs and landings all by yourself. Next are your two solo cross countries and last is your private pilot checkride.

Let’s tie everything together here for a moment before we get into the last stages of your training. The following is what you accomplish along the way and the order, more or less, which you do it in:

  • Introductory flight lesson
    • Most flight schools offer a discount, flat rate, so you can “get your feet wet” and decide if flying is for you
    • Usually after this lesson, if you’ve decided you loved the flight, you schedule your next lesson and set up a plan with your instructor
    • The introductory lesson is often done with an instructor that is available on the spot, and doesn’t have to be the instructor you continue on with, but once you choose your instructor (whether it be that first guy, or the guy that looks really experienced!) it would be best for you to stay with that instructor for the remainder of your training (unless you’re just not “meshing”, and even then you should try to work through it)
  • Pre-solo flights with your trusty instructor
    • This is more a stage than anything else, in this portion of the training you are flying with your instructor and accomplishing all the flight training that is required prior to you being endorsed to go solo
    • At some point during this stage you are also going to need to obtain at least a FAA Third Class Medical/Student Pilot Certificate. This is typically not hard to get, ask your flight instructor for more information or message me below!
  • Pre-solo written test
    • Usually done a lesson or two prior to the lesson you are expected to solo on
    • The test is administered by your instructor. It is not an “official” written test that the FAA gives, it is simply a required test that must cover regulations applicable to a student pilot, questions on your home airport, and questions specific to the airplane you will be soloing in. Once you are done, your instructor will sit down with you and go over it, correcting it to “100%” as you go – and that’s it!
  • Solo flight
    • The morning, afternoon, or evening you solo, your instructor will have flown with you and made sure that you could land without him/her saying or doing anything – and all done safely without any doubt of your abilities (I like to say proof beyond a reasonable doubt! We want to be sure you’re going to come back safe and sound!)
    • After the short flight with your instructor he/she typically signs you off and sends you right back out again
    • Don’t be worried if your knees are shaking when you get out of the airplane, you’ve just done what most have never done!
  • Cross country lessons (ground and flight)
    • What does the FAA define as cross country flight that you can use toward your license?
      • A flight with a landing at an airport more than 50 nautical miles from the original point of departure
      • The rules you will follow as a student pilot and that you need to meet to take your private pilot test are more strict than this but when you hear cross country, this does not mean traversing across the entire country or multiple states (although it could!); it can be as short as flying from one airport to the next nearest or as long as around the entire world
    • These lessons include (not limited to)
      • Learning new takeoff and landing techniques
      • Learning to fly (and land!) at night
        • You will log flight training at night including a night cross country and 10 night takeoffs and landings
      • Cross country planning and procedures
        • You must receive and log a minimum of 3 hours cross country flight training
  • Cross country solo flights
    • After you receive the proper cross country training (both ground and flight) you will be endorsed to fly cross countries solo
    • You will need to log 5 hours cross country time solo
  • Checkride prep
    • Your “checkride” is the practical test that comes at the end of all your training and is described in the paragraph below
    • When you’re ready for your practical test you’ll be endorsed to take it and usually during this “checkride prep” stage of training the checkride will be scheduled
    • This portion of your training will include flight and ground training as your instructor sees necessary to prepare you for your private pilot test
    • The only requirement that you would fulfill in this step is to meet the practical test rule which states that you must receive and log 3 hours of flight training in preparation for your practical test within the preceding 90 days
      • English translation: your instructor will make sure that you have flown with him/her for at least 3 hours in the 90 days leading up to your test
  • The Practical Test
    • Here’s where you get to brag about your vast knowledge and display your amazing flying skills!
    • More explained below

Your flight instructor will sign you off for your “checkride” when he/she feels confident in your abilities, knowledge, and decision-making. Your checkride will be with an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner and includes both an oral and a flight. For completion of the oral you and the examiner sit down together and the examiner questions you on a variety of topics (your instructor will prep you on what these can and will include). The examiner will quiz you until they feel they have an understanding of your knowledge.

The oral can be as short as a couple hours or as long as three or four or more. The reason for the vast differences in length? One big one is your answers. Are you answering well? The oral will usually be shorter. The other difference is in the examiner.

Is the examiner like your Uncle Ernie who can’t stop talking and adding in personal stories and experiences? If so your oral will no doubt be longer than “normal”. I prefer this guy! On the opposite scale, some examiners are strictly business, and this might suit you better…you’ll certainly be done sooner. If you have the option to choose an examiner then…examine yourself – you know you the best. Do you want to be in a stressed or relaxed environment? Which do you perform better in? Do you like stories and a conversationally-driven test, or do you like to get to the point, and so on…

After the oral (usually on the same day), the examiner goes flying with you in the airplane you’ve been training in and tests you on various procedures and maneuvers. This flight is usually around two hours. Afterwards, if you’ve passed both the oral and the flight, you will be an FAA licensed private pilot! You’ll deserve it too!

The last question usually comes down to cost. How much is all of this?

It depends largely again on factors I mentioned earlier, such as frequency of lessons, learning ability, and the airplane you fly in (what the hourly rate is). Plan on $8,000 to $10,000 and don’t be surprised if you go over budget for an unexpected reason such as weather delays. Keep in mind too, I’ve seen guys pass in the bare minimum 40 hours and I’ve heard of one guy taking 200 hours. The number mentioned is based on 50 hours and can vary depending on the flight school, their airplanes, and the instructors they have.

  • Does the school have newer or older airplanes?
  • Does the school cater to a “get ’em in and get ’em out” mentality or is it focused more on quality and customer service?
  • Are the instructors there more experienced / considered life-instructors or are they on their way to an airline (i.e. working for cheap)? Such differences can make thousands of dollars in difference.
  • No two schools are created alike.
  • Don’t believe that the cheapest one is the best, and don’t believe that the one with the greatest pitch or the largest number of students is either.
    • Schools cater to different kinds of customers. Find the school that fits you.
    • The school with more students is more often airline-driven – maybe this fits you if you’re looking to pursue a career in aviation.
    • The smaller school that costs a little more but has beautiful new airplanes and a customer-oriented staff may be for you if you’re looking to fly for business or recreationally
      • Looking to buy your own airplane? These schools often allow their instructors to teach in “outside” aircraft, i.e. an airplane not provided by the school itself

Diamond “DA-40” known as a TAA or Technically Advanced Aircraft

You have to think of flying as a lifetime experience. Once you have your license, you will always have it, it never expires! There are also many uses for it: business trips (see my July 1, 2010 “To Fly or Not to Fly: The Benefits“), leisure trips to exclusive fly-in resorts and camping sites, day trips to visit friends for golf or to grab a bite to eat (breakfast, lunch, or dinner and back), simple “get-out-of-the-house-itis”, and many more I’m forgetting! Think of flying as a hobby. You wouldn’t necessarily give a second thought to the “costs” of your RV, boat, vacation home, or new car…it becomes a part of your lifestyle, and as such you see it in terms of value, and not cost.

Still interested in lessons?

Your first step is to find out as much as you can about your local airport. Is there a flight school on the field? There are several sources you can go to in order to find out: You can start with a simple google search. Try “flight lessons [city, state]” and see what you get. You may also try – a database of flight schools, but not a complete list just yet. If you’re not having any luck try, click on “Airports” and type in your city and state. Scroll down to near the bottom and you will find businesses on the field listed. Flight schools aren’t ALWAYS listed there, but it’s a start. If you find a flight school through one of these methods, but it’s the wrong airport, try calling the place and see if they know of any flight schools in your local area – they should be more than glad to help! The same goes for any businesses you may find on the airport, i.e. a maintenance shop, fixed base operator (FBO), or pilot shop. Any of these places should be more than willing to help an aspiring pilot!

Step two: Go to the flight school and ask questions. If the person you are greeted by doesn’t know all the answers to your questions, they will certainly try to find someone who does. This will usually be a flight instructor or manager.

Lastly, if you have any questions or comments you can also comment below and I will get back to you!

Happy flying,
Up in the Air