Annoyance and gratitude

Usually I fly Cessna 172s at my flight school/flying club but, just to mix things up, I bought some time on a Cessna 150 at another local airport and I spent a few hours in it over the winter. My flying club is closed because of the coronavirus so I haven't flown at all for 4 weeks but today I was able to get up in the 150 again. It's a self-serve operation and I can come and go on my own so it works for these times.

It was a beautiful sunny day (even if it's STILL winter) but it was pretty windy and the flight was quite turbulent. You feel it even more in the 150 because it's so light. I was eager to get back in the air again after so long and it made me a bit mad that it had to be so windy on the day of my booking. I debated whether I'd even go but figured I shouldn't let the opportunity pass.

It was icy on the taxiways and the wind made the plane skate around. Annoying. There was wind shear on the climbout. Annoying. It was annoyingly bumpy at altitude, as I made my way toward the practice area. By the time I got there, I didn't feel like working on any exercises because it just wasn't pleasant. I was feeling very disappointed about the whole flight. So I circled around and headed back toward the airport. I had to wrestle the plane down to the runway (but the landing was a beauty lol). When I was refueling, the wind caught the last drops of fuel from the hose and blew it into my face. By the time I got out of the plane, I was shaken and irritated. It wasn't as windy or bumpy as a lot of flights I've done but this just wasn't what I needed today. But as I tucked the cute little plane back in the hangar, filled out the aircraft journey log, and then looked at the pictures I had taken (a couple of the door handle because of the bumps), I knew how incredibly fortunate I was to have done such an amazing and wondrous thing, how lucky I was to have that plane to fly, how good it was to be in the air again to see the beauty and practice my skills.

The annoyance didn't fade away; it was a miserable flight! But I was able to reflect on the privilege and gratitude that was also part of the day. I believe these seemingly opposite perspectives can co-exist. We can be grateful for experiences and seize what they offer while also being disappointed that we cannot have what we had hoped for. This is a metaphor for these times. I will cry and stomp my feet and be annoyed about what has been taken from me AND I will remember to be grateful for what this time will show me and teach me and for the ways that it will change my plans.

Flying always teaches me about life.

Right seat dreams

I decided that it might be a good idea to get a flight instructor rating so I could teaching flying as a way to enter the world of commercial flying. My first job ended up being skydiving flying (see earlier post) but I have been working toward being an instructor since June 2019. I picked away at it over the summer but have focused much more earnestly on it since last October.

It's been weird. Flying from the right seat takes getting used to. I felt very disoriented at first, feeling like we were going to crash on landing when actually everything was fine. Not knowing which hand was doing what with the controls. It took about 10 hours to feel comfortable with it.

I also find it very awkward to be role playing all the time as my instructor and I take turns being the student and the instructor as well as being the student and instructor for real. I feel very self-conscious pretending to teach my highly experienced instructor with 10 times the flight time that I have as if he's taking his first flying lesson ever. I wonder if I'm good enough to teach someone how to fly an airplane.

But all those worries aside, I have loved the opportunity to become more proficient. I have learned so much that I can't believe I didn't know and have become even more comfortable handling the plane. My instructor and I have spent some lessons just playing with the plane, setting up very slow flight against a strong headwind, doing 60 degree steep turns, and spinning the plane over and over again. I've come to see flight instructing not just as a good first job but as a role that would be a great fit for me.

I expected to finish my instructor rating this month. I have six hours of training time left and was planning to do my written exam today, with my flight test to follow by mid-April. I had a job lined up and people who were waiting for me to finish so I could be their instructor. Alas, we are now in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Aviation has been profoundly impacted. Many pilots are out of work. Training is on hold for almost everyone, including me. It's hard to say what things will be like on the other side of this. I do hope very much that instructing will still be waiting for me and that my friends and I can continue to live our aviation dreams.

My summer as a skydiving pilot

This summer I had my first job as a commercial pilot! I randomly emailed a skydiving company to ask if they needed pilots and a few days later I had a job!

To get started, I spent a few days at the company's main drop zone, a couple hours south of where I live. I met the other pilots and flew along with them in the Piper Navajo to see how they did the skydiving flights. Then I did some training in the Cessna 182 that was to be "my" plane at their sister drop zone north of Edmonton, my home. I had a lot of fun during my couple days of training. Skydive flying is exhilarating.

After my training, I ferried the 182 to the drop zone that would be my base. My job was to fly on weekends, taking tandem jumpers up to 10,500 feet above ground (12,500 feet above sea level). I took two pairs per load. It's busy flying because it's all climbing and then descending and landing. There's really only about two minutes of level flight and during that time, I was lining up, opening the jump door, and watching the jumpers exit to be sure they left safely. The climb had to be managed efficiently so it took as little time as possible. The "jump run" - the whole point of the flight - involves leveling off and getting into position over the drop zone on the right heading to accommodate for the wind. I used a GPS to set up the course to fly  - so much easier than doing it visually by watching for the airport so far below, especially when there were clouds. It took me a few flights to get the timing right but after a couple of weekends, I managed to cut a few minutes off my climb and jump run time.

The jump run requires focus and control. After lining up, the door is opened and the jumpers move into position. It's loud and it feels like the side of the plane is missing. I was buckled in and wearing a parachute myself but you definitely feel like you're on the edge. The jumpers jostle the plane around as they move into position, sit on edge, and then suddenly go. Sometimes I took solo jumpers up and they would hang off the wing strut before letting go and stand on the step so they could jump together. It isn't really hard to control the plane during that phase but it does have to be managed. I would watch to be sure that their rigs weren't caught on anything in the plane and that their parachutes were properly tucked in. Pilots and jumpers can die if the chute opens early and gets caught on the plane.

Closing the door after the jumpers were gone involved slipping the plane hard (basically flying it side-on to the wind to use the airflow to push the door down) and then securing the latch. As soon as the door was closed, I would begin a fast and steep descent in a big circle, slowing it down just in time for a nice final approach and landing. I loved the descent phase - just a few minutes alone to enjoy the flight before taxiing around for another load.

Enjoying the view on the descent
It was a learning experience to work in my first job as a pilot. I challenged myself to get faster and more efficient. I learned to judge the weather differently than before and know when it was still OK to go. I learned about managing customer expectations and I felt the responsibility I had for their safety. I found it very stressful at first. I wanted to be good at it right away and I felt the pressure of everyone's expectations. I got the hang of it, though, and came to enjoy it. It was an exciting, crazy environment and I watched a lot of people experience the thrill of their lives. And then the summer was over before I knew it.

Being a skydiving pilot made me feel badass. I would do it again.

Flying over Africa

This month, I had the incredible opportunity of visiting Africa with my dad and his wife. We were in Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa (and I stood in Zimbabwe for 5 minutes, too).

Of particular interest to this newly-minted commercial pilot (I passed my commercial flight test two days before the trip) was the time we spent in Zambia. My father is an organizational consultant and he has worked for several years with an aviation mission based in Zambia. For him, this was a work trip and his wife and I were tagging along. During the three days he worked with them, we stayed at the mission compound in the countryside outside of Lusaka. The compound was beautiful and the guesthouse was charming and quiet.

It wasn't safe to leave the compound to walk on the country roads but one of the staff members mentioned to me that their grass runway was 1000 metres long and I noticed that people would sometimes go out and walk along the edge of it. So I made it my morning routine to walk briskly up and down the runway to get some fresh air and exercise. I did 4 kilometres the first day, then 6 and 8 the next two days. It turned out to be a transcendent way to start each day. It was, for me, almost a spiritual experience to be walking in the warm morning African sun and to be standing on a runway, which is usually not allowed but represents to me the heart of flying.

One day, I was poking around the hangar, looking at the planes, and the chief pilot told me he was taking a visiting VIP up for a flight and that he had room for me if I wanted to join. Did I?! We went for a short local flight in a Cessna 206. I was amazed at the beauty of the landscape. It was great to get the lay of the land around Lusaka.

When it came time to leave Lusaka and move on to the next leg of our trip, the general manager of the mission, also a pilot, gave us the ride of our lives! He flew us in a Cessna 210 from Lusaka to Victoria Falls, a flight of a little over 1.5 hours. The early morning flight over southern Zambia was stunning, taking us over misty rivers, scruffy bush, and verdant farmland. Our pilot let me have the controls for the whole flight. Once we arrived at Livingstone, he flew us over the breaktaking and magnificent Victoria Falls before giving the controls back to me and letting me land the plane at the Livingstone airport. That flight was a once-in-a-lifetime thrill.

All in all, these three days in Zambia were heavenly for me!

I'm a commercial pilot

I passed my commercial flight test today! I'm a commercial pilot!

Last week, I finished the required hours for the commercial license. I took my pilot dad with me for the flight on which I reached 100 hours of pilot in command time. I've been practicing flight test maneuvers over the past couple of months to prepare for this day. I've done some dual time with an instructor and taken a couple of my fellow pilots along to critique me and give me pointers. It's been a lot of fun. Finally, I felt ready (enough) and I wanted to get the flight test done. You just get to the point when enough is enough!

As is typical for spring on the prairies, today was very windy and bumpy. I don't mind turbulence but I worry about landing well on windy days. Somehow, today, I didn't care about the conditions. I just did my thing. After a 30 minute oral exam on the ground, we started the flight with a circuit for a soft field take off and landing. Then we did the cross-country departure procedure and the en route ground speed and ETA calculations. That took us to quiet airspace about 20 nautical miles from the airport, where I demonstrated slow flight, steep turns, stalls, and spin recovery. I did some hood time including timed turns, unusual attitudes, and partial panel. While in that area, I also did a forced approach. Then he gave me a diversion scenario, which was to fly to his airstrip on his farm, about 15 minutes to the south. Once at his strip, I showed him a precautionary landing. Then I put the hood back on and did a GPS intercept and navigated back to the airport. I took the hood off in time to join the circuit for a short field landing and take off. The final trick was a precision 180 power off landing, which I nailed in a 25 knot wind. He made me wait to find out whether I passed! He never really said it; I just assumed as the de-brief went on that I made it. He was actually a nice guy and a very fair examiner. It was a good flight test.

Me and my beloved 172M GJJL
This is a huge milestone in my aviation life. In many ways, this is another beginning but I feel like I've accomplished a lot in the last couple of years and today I feel legitimated as a good and capable pilot. In two days, I'm leaving for a three week trip to Africa. It will be a great reward and a nice break from the intensity of training. Then, when I get back, I'll think about what the next step will be in my flying career!

Instrument rated!

I passed my multi-engine instrument rating flight test last Friday! Flight test day is super stressful but my examiner was a relaxed, supportive guy, which helped make the experience better. I actually enjoyed the flight and he said I did a solid job.

I started the instrument training last September, right after I finished my multi-engine rating. Initially, I spent most of the time in the simulator, learning and practicing radio navigation, approach procedures, and holding patterns. Once I was introduced to those, I did them in the Cessna 172 a few times, alternating flying with more simulator time, depending on the weather. I wanted to earn the multi-engine instrument rating; the training for that can be in a 172 as long as the flight test is in the twin. As I got closer to having the required number of hours, I started flying the Piper Seminole to get used to it again (I had started my multi-engine training in that plane, although I finished in another) and to acquaint myself with the flight test route. My instructor was awesome! I was able to bring a couple of friends along for the ride during my lessons. He also paired us with other IFR students and we rode along on each other's lessons to observe and become more familiar with the route and procedures. That was a great strategy to help us learn more without additional expense.

Meanwhile, my instructor offered a preparation course for the instrument rating written exam. The course was intense - two 13 hour days - but we had a lot of fun. I wrote the exam (called the INRAT) in early January. Right after that, the winter weather treated us to daily flurries and then 3 weeks of extreme cold, putting the last two hours of my training on hold for 5 weeks. Finally last week, we just decided we'd go anyway and did a couple of flights in -30 C so I could finally get to the required 40 hours of instrument training time and go do my flight test!

I loved the training, the way the runway was always there in front of you when you followed the procedures, the radio work, the detail. Because it was so fun, I didn't realize what a big deal it was to having this rating. But after I finished, one pilot told me it was "the one rating to rule them all." My examiner said it was the difference between being an amateur and a professional. And my dad, a 50-year commercial pilot, said "what an accomplishment that is. I know the requirements for that prize, and I am super proud of you for getting to this level. It's definitely the beginning of a career in aviation." I got a bit choked up at that, I have to admit.

I was walking on sunshine for a couple days after the flight test. But now it's time to move on to the next challenge, which will be to pass the commercial pilot license flight test. I'm getting closer!

New year reflections

There's something about the dark, cold, snowy winter days between Christmas and New Year's that allows for quiet reflection about what's been and what's to come.

2018 has been a great year of flying for me. As this year began, I reached my 100 hour milestone. I was so excited that day as a new pilot just launching into the commercial training. Since then, I've earned my night, seaplane, and multi-engine ratings and have made it almost to the end of my instrument rating. I've also successfully completed the written exam for the commercial license. I'm just pushing 200 hours now and, although I'm still a fairly new pilot, I can't believe what I've learned this year.

The night rating training, which I did on those long, cold nights in January and February, was magical and peaceful. I will never forget my first solo night circuits when it was -25℃ or my first night solo cross-country when the moon was full and the fields were silvery white.

The runway at Killam airport on a solo cross-country at night

The seaplane rating was the most fun I've ever had! I was introduced to a whole new world of flying - landing on the ocean or a lake with boats around me, flying low over the water, shutting down and standing on the floats in the middle of a smooth, still lake. I have flown a float plane by myself and it thrills me to think of that. I want float flying to be my job someday.

Just after soloing this beauty

The multi-engine rating, on the other hand, was so frustrating that I had to remind myself to enjoy the flying when I could go. There were so many stops and starts due to instructor availability, a change of flight school (and airplane type), weather, forest fire smoke, and airplane maintenance. It took 4 months and way too many hours (and dollars) to finish it up. My flight test was canceled three times before I finally got to do it. But even this was a great learning experience as I kept myself calm and patient, told myself I would get it done and do it well, and gained confidence and skill flying a more advanced airplane. In the end, I had a great instructor and I loved the Piper Comanche. I was so proud and pleased to have made it through! It made me a better pilot to learn to fly the twin.

The Piper Comanche I trained in for (most of) my multi-engine rating

I spent a good part of the year building time and flying with friends at my primary flight school. We had so much fun as we explored Alberta and learned from each other. Once we all started doing our advanced ratings and training, we didn't fly together as much but those few months of fun in the first half of the year were times I will cherish forever. That wonderful time was capped off with a flight into Saskatchewan in July with a fellow commercial student so we could both do our required 300 NM cross-country trips. That was a great day!

In Humboldt, Saskatchewan

Recently, I've connected with a fellow pilot out at my second flying club and we've flown together a few times this fall. It's been great to have a buddy pilot there, too, so I can have someone to fly with in those planes as well, especially since we both want to build our night hours.

Heading out for a night flight from Villeneuve

It's been an honour for me to fly more with my dad this year. My dad is a retired pilot, with whom I flew hundreds of hours during his flying career. It's the coolest thing to be able to take him up now and continue to enjoy the wonderful world of aviation that I grew up with.

Flying with my dad

This fall, I've been working on my instrument rating. I have loved it! I have a great instructor who is patient, funny, and knowledgeable. I've spent a lot of the training time in the simulator and done most of the flight training in a Cessna 172. A couple of days ago, though, I climbed back into the Piper Seminole, in which I started my multi-engine training, to do a flight in preparation for my multi-IFR flight test. I hadn't flown that plane for 6 months so I wasn't sure how it would go, especially with the busyness of the IFR procedures. But it went so well! It was a great way to end the year of flying.

Last flight of the year - IFR in the Piper Seminole

So what will 2019 bring? I have to finish the instrument rating, which includes a written exam that is notoriously difficult. So there's that. I have to do 5 more hours of instrument training time and then the IFR flight test, which, weather permitting, I hope to do in late January or early February. I am also going to do some dual time with an instructor to prepare for the commercial flight test, which I will aim to do in February/March. Then, with a little more time-building left to do, I hope to complete my commercial requirements by April.

After that, it's a little uncertain. I am planning to work as a commercial pilot but I have to see how that fits in with my current career as a professor. I want to make something of it, though! Aviation has changed my life. It has been the hardest, most exhilarating thing I've done. It has given me confidence and faith in myself. It has shown me freedom. It has given my life beauty. Through it, I have met amazing people. I anticipate great things in 2019.

Now to get on with the work...