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"Flying figures in the sky - Learning to handle the controls"

Monday, December 23, 2002

Flying figures in the sky - Learning to handle the controls 
The North County (CA) Times

Editor's note: This is the latest in our series of articles on what it
takes to learn how to fly. 

My S-turns looked more like Z-turns.  

My rectangular courses turned into trapezoids. 

And my circles, try as I might, became ovals or maybe pear-shaped

Together the cross-winds and my heavy-handed touch on the airplane's
controls made every attempt at these maneuvers, well, less than perfect.

I was trying to fly the plane around specific landmarks on the ground
during my most recent lesson, looking down from about 1,000 feet in the
air. It was my fifth flight lesson for this series about what it takes
to solo, and by the books I was halfway to reaching that goal. 

I had the preflight inspection down, I could taxi the plane, and I had
talked on the radio to the tower a couple of times. I'd even handled a
few take-offs and touchdowns, mostly with the help of my instructor. But
my attempts at this newest task, called "ground-reference maneuvers,"
were giving me trouble. 

Ground-reference maneuvers teach the beginning pilot to fly a precise
course. A well-executed S-turn can buy helpful time and space when
approaching other aircraft lined up to land at a busy airport. A neatly
flown rectangle will take the plane around an airstrip for another shot
at a safe landing. But obviously for me, perfection takes practice. 

Try as I might, the plane kept drifting with the wind. It gained or lost
more altitude than I intended. My banked turns were too steep or too
shallow. I had too much power or too little. Nothing truly hazardous
happened, but enough to show I didn't quite have the maneuvers mastered.

Permit me this one excuse. The crystal-clear air and spectacular views
tended to distract me from the task at hand. Sometimes up there, I just
want to stare out the window. 

Fresh snow covered the peaks on the horizon. An emerald green cover,
nourished by the recent rains, had sprouted over the countryside below
our plane. I noticed that inland North County has more lakes and huge
ranch houses than I ever could have guessed. And the constantly changing
topography ---- from sea to valley and mesa to mountain ---- fascinated

But I digress from the plight of my most recent lesson. 

The idea of these maneuvers was to fly about 1,000 feet above the ground
and maneuver in specific, text-book patterns around landmarks such as
roads, intersections, trees, ponds or buildings. 

"Fly by the seat of your pants," my instructor told me. "Fly the plane,
don't let the plane fly you." 

These are old aviation axioms, I'd guess, and as the lesson continued
they began to make more sense. 

Flying by the seat of your pants means to develop a feel for the plane,
to know without thinking where you are in the air and to sense the
aircraft's movements as they happen. 

Steer the plane gently, and it goes where you want. Push or pull the
controls too hard, and you've overshot the mark. Then you're constantly
making corrections. But sometimes restraint is hard to remember, and
it's going to take me more practice to do it well. 

Fortunately, I've got at least a few more lessons before I leave my
instructor behind and attempt any solo flight. And I enjoy every minute
in the air.


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