Monday, May 23, 2011

A little closer to the stars

On Saturday, after flying a Piper Comanche from Midland to Schlemeyer Field (20 miles?), I had a brief ground school class with my instructor.  We covered airspace types and he gave me a pre-solo quiz.  During the training he got a call from a pilot services client who wanted to be accompanied to Dallas Love Field in his Cirrus SR22.  My instructor then told me "if you can be at Love Field tomorrow at noon, you can fly an SR22 back to Midland".  Well, no problem there.

Arriving at Love Field on a Southwest 737

Sunday at 10:45 am, I boarded a Southwest 737 for the short (1 hr, 5 min) bunny hop to Dallas Love Field.  10 minutes after arrival, my instructor picked me up in an FBO courtesy car and we went for lunch at La Madeleine's, in Dallas' prestigious Preston Hollow neighborhood.  It was super-humid in Dallas, which I've never visited except to drive through, and stopovers at DFW.  Preston Hollow is an upscale area, everything reminding me of Houston and River Oaks.  Lovely, vibrant, full of life -- in a way that Midland is not.

My ride back

Cirrus SR22, 4-seater, air-cooled 300 hp 6-cylinder engine

Plane on Love Field with Dallas skyline (vague) in background

After lunch, Josh filed our flight plan by phone and back to our FBO at Love Field we drove.  The SR22 is a lovely plane, the outer skin shiny like a new car.  Because planes are expensive to buy, people keep them flying a long time -- many trainers date from the 60's or 70's, like the (awesome) late-60's Comanche I flew on Saturday.  The SR22 is nearly new.  It is a 4-seater, single-engine, high-performance plane, with a ~300 hp 6-cylinder engine, air-cooled of course.  It has an automatic mechanical variable-pitch propeller and non-retractable landing gear, meaning it is not a "highly complex aircraft". This particular non-turbocharged model is capable of cruising around 165 knots airspeed (190 mph ground speed in still air).  I took the left seat and after engine start, pre-flight check, and many communications with ground control (handled by my instructor), I taxied out onto the massively wide, super-long, 747-accommodating runway at Dallas Love Field.  Full power is flying power, we slowly moved down the runway, wiggling a little side to side as I got the hang of the rudders.  Pulling back on the elevator, back pressure, feel the controls get mushy, pull back a little more, quiet, we're flying.  Up, up, up like you're being lifted by an invisible hand.  It is not like climbing in a commercial jet; instead, it feels like rising in a hot air balloon or an elevator, like going straight up but with the plane horizontal.  Air traffic control (ATC) (or somebody -- there are 3 or 4 levels of control we talked to before, during and after takeoff) gave us a new heading and I gently turned to it, heading west.

Our flight was IFR -- an instrument flight rating trip.  This meant we were cleared to fly through clouds, because we were being tracked by radar and given commands by ATC.  Due to this, we were flying several straight-line segments rather than flying directly to Midland as we would try to do on a VFR, or visual flight rule, trip.  The SR22 has a very sophisticated glass-panel instrument system which guided me to help stay at the desired altitude and heading, which I still failed to do.  Josh adjusted the throttle and fuel mixture to get an ideal, efficient cruising speed of about 140 knots indicated (~160 mph).  I controlled the plane and did occasional radio transmissions, which are oddly difficult (due, I think, to fear of messing up, which of course I did plenty).

Along we went, heading west at about 6000' above sea level (ASL).  All around us were billowing towers of fluffy white clouds -- future thunderstorms by the looks of them.  In IFR flight we were supposed to stay at our assigned altitude (6000') plus or minus 100'.  I found this challenging, and we yo-yoed along, going up then down, up again... Level at about 6000', we plunged straight through clouds, losing visibility in the grey mist for a few moments before popping out into brightly-lit valleys in the clouds.  Several times we just clipped the top wisps of a fluffy cloud.  It was a joyous experience to be piloting a plane through this fluffy cotton wonderland.  Halfway through the journey we requested and received permission to go up to 8000' ASL, which we did, but we still didn't clear the cloud tops.  Josh flipped through the XM stations and handled the radio communications, and tried to show me how to adjust the trim to keep the "dynamically stable" plane on a somewhat level course, which I never mastered.

Playing in the clouds.  Blur is the propeller.

The most unflattering picture of me ever; piloting the SR22

Glass instrument panels, with some standard instruments below (thankfully)

In clouds, I stared straight down at the instrument panel without looking outside.  Even with a bright color display showing  the exact orientation of the plane, I felt disoriented and slightly dizzy, like I was losing my feeling of where "up" was.  I can see how flying into clouds as a VFR pilot is often does not end well.  When out of the clouds, I tried to look outside as much as possible - which is a good VFR habit, because in VFR it is solely the pilot's job to watch for other aircraft.  In IFR flight, ATC was watching out for us, as we often couldn't see outside at all due to being surrounded by a cloud.  Several times I looked down to see the passing Texan countryside.  I saw Abilene and noted that we were roughly following I-20 on its course from Dallas-Fort Worth to Midland-Odessa.

The ground down there

About 20 miles from Midland International, Josh asked if I wanted to land or handle radio communications.  I took the latter, because I'm more intimidated by the radio!  Also, landing (and even flying) this plane may not really help me much when flying the Diamond 20, which is the plane I normally fly and will be FAA-tested in.  As I handed the plane over to Josh, he commented that he was amazed I had hand-flown the plane (without autopilot) the entire way from Dallas to Midland, with only a few ten-second breaks while I took a photo or while Josh showed me something.  He said most students go to autopilot after 20 or 30 minutes.  I admit, I was tired by the end of my ~2 hours piloting the plane.  It takes so much brain attention, especially for a beginner like me.  It consumes a tremendous amount of energy.  There was also the wow-factor, trying to drink in the experience. It was almost too much to take in, and I feel like I'm still processing it now, over 24 hours later, waiting for it to hit me.  Writing this blog is useful because I get to replay the facts and emotions of the experience in my mind, further cementing and allowing reflection.

Looking back, this flight from Dallas to Midland was one of the highlights of my life.  Maybe that explains why I've been exhausted ever since and napping in the evening despite getting 8 hours regular sleep.  Try having your brain and all your senses 100% on and 100% wide-open for almost three hours, knowing your life is on the line and you and actually, really, for real soaring through the clouds, and you can go anywhere you want.  It is the ultimate feeling of freedom, bound only by nature's laws; supported entirely by man's understanding and application of those laws.


Anonymous said...

Oh wow, Andy, I don't know where to start commenting! It's so cool to read about your flight and to know that you were flying the airplane, not just along for the ride. I like your description of take off feeling like "an invisible hand" was lifting the plane straight up but level. You made the experience come alive. It's interesting how you feel writing this blog - that's why I keep a journal. Thanks again for the plane ride!

Anonymous said...

Ooops, didn't sign my name - I felt like I was talking to you! This is your Aunt M'ree, of course. :)

Tonia said...

Defying the laws of gravity. And I thought the life of a man who studies rocks was suppose to be boring. Excellent writing by the way and the cloud pictures are beautiful.

Anonymous said...

Andy, Sugar and I loved reading your information about your flying. You speak very eloquently and the description is wonderful. Hope you are keeping this experience on a permanent place. Aunt Mary Jo Hats off to you!