Yesterday I wrote about the preflight process to make sure the plane is safe to fly. Today, it's about the second part of that lesson- the actual flying.
Once my instructor and I were strapped in, I started up the avionics computer. The Skycatcher has what is called a glass cockpit- flat monitors replace the round steam gauges seen in older airplanes. The avionics computer displays loads of information about the state of the airplane, including the health of the engine.
After the electronics are warmed up, I looked around the airplane for anyone walking around the ramp area. Since the propeller on my plane can spin up to 2,750 times a minute, it's bad news if anyone walked into it.
I yelled "Clear!", then turn the ignition. The starter made a whir-whir-whir noise and in a couple of seconds the engine starts up with a roar. I pulled out the throttle to keep the engine from revving up too much. After making sure the engine and oil pressure are okay, then it's time to run through the rest of the startup checklist. That includes items like checking a radio broadcast service called ATIS which gives me the current weather conditions for the airport, which runway is being used and any other pertinent information such as taxiway closures or hazards like bird activity.
I admit I still get nervous when starting up the engine- that's the point where things can go wrong in a hurry. Anything from forgetting to set the parking brake and causing the plane to lurch forward to an engine fire to some other mechanical problem can cause damage or injury. Even though the plane is on the ground, I have to be ready to handle an emergency at any moment.
The next step was to taxi over to a spot on the ramp and call up the tower for permission to taxi. I fly out of KORL, which is a tower-controlled airport. Lots of small airports don't have a tower, so pilots will just announce over a common radio frequency what they're doing and look for traffic rather instead of having to ask for permission.
Once I got near the runway, it still wasn't time to takeoff. I had to go through another series of systems checks called the runup. This is checking things like the flight controls, setting up the GPS and revving up the engine and doing some high-power checks to make sure everything is working correctly.
"Skycatcher 30383, left-base traffic, runway 7, cleared for takeoff."
My instructor handled the takeoff, but told me when to pull back on the yoke to rotate. It didn't take much to nudge the plane off the ground. It wanted to fly! Once we were away from the airport, my instructor let me have the controls.
The first challenge was just maintaining straight and level flight out to the practice area. If I let up on the controls even a little, the plane started nosing down. I didn't learn about the magic of trim and its ability to keep the plane level until a later lesson.
The main practice area is located over a large lake called Lake Apopka. Most of the airspace is uncontrolled and a couple of small airports are nearby which make it great for doing maneuvers.
Once we were over the lake, I started with some shallow turns first. A shallow turn is generally a turn where the bank angle of the plane is kept under 15 degrees. I find turning pretty easy- I just need to remember to put in enough rudder to keep the turn coordinated. Next was slow flight. It's pretty much like it sounds- it's getting the plane to fly just above stall speed and keeping it there. If the stall horn isn't wailing, I'm doing it wrong.
Slow flight in the Skycatcher has two configurations- clean and dirty. Clean is the way the plane is set up when cruising. Dirty is when the flaps- the metal slats that extend out the back of the wings- are out. They help slow the plane down and let the plane descend at a steeper angle for landing. The dirty configuration also occurs whenever the plane flies through a swarm of bugs. ;)
The biggest challenge of slow flight is maintaining the correct airspeed. Too slow and I stall. Too fast and it's not slow flight anymore. The other tricky part is that the controls get "mushy" on the plane. The plane can do tight circles, but bank too much and it could stall and spin out. So turns have to be kept shallow.
After an hour of practicing slow flight and some other maneuvers, it was time to head back in. My instructor took over and did the landing. My first flight was done. And I realized I had a lot to learn when it comes to flying.