29R - Nothing but blue skies...

Alamosa, CO

Weather: KBJC 131349Z 23004KT 60SM SKC 15/03 A3002

The airport in Alamosa, CO possessed two rewards for me, that lifted it from a small town airport no different from any other, to something I actually wanted. The first reward was nothing different from any other airport, but just so happened manifest itself at Alamosa: completing my first long cross-country flight after getting my pilots license. In that case Alamosa just got lucky, but for me it was still special. The second reward was was held by Alamosa purely due to it's location. Sitting in the center of the San Luis Valley, surrounded by mountains. Flying in, over, and through mountains can be a dangerous undertaking due to unique weather conditions very different from the flat lands. Flying to Alamosa requires crossing the mountains at some point. Fortunately Alamosa has access via a relatively easy to fly mountain pass, La Veta. La Veta pass is a great introduction to the mountains, and yet doesn't require a mountain flying course to transit it. Passing between the Spanish Peaks to the south, and Blanca Peak to the north (both 14ers), is a beautiful sight. It was a nice introduction to the mountains without getting too technical.

I was flying with my friend Javier in a Diamond DA-20 I've just been checked out to fly. The fun of flying the 20 is something I could take an entire post to tell you about. The combination of the low wing, size/weight, control stick instead of a yoke and responsiveness all add up to a really good time. That is not to say flying the 172 isn't fun, we'll just call it different. They really are two different planes, and now knowing how to fly two different planes, it is nice to know I'm learning new things. Not that I don't learn something new every time I fly, but to feel like I'm making some additional progress, even if it's just for fun.

There really isn't much to note about Alamosa (or the airport at least). It was little different from any other small town airport, and with no restaurant close to the field, it was a quick stop to stretch our legs and get some gas, and then back in the plane. One more thing about Alamosa that I didn't realize before the flight, is that it is also very close to Great Sand Dunes National Park. I've been there before on the ground, and it is an amazing place, but to see it from the air was also very interesting. From the ground, the park slowly comes into view and although seeing these giant sand dunes is still very impressive, since it comes more slowly, it is almost easier to process. But from the air, not only are you traveling much quicker, so the dunes appear more suddenly, but you can also see the bigger picture, and realize how strange it is to see a giant swath of sand dunes nestled up against the mountains, in a completely foreign place.

The flight back was pretty uneventful, and about 40 minutes longer due to a decent headwind. The best part about flying back was using flight following. Since Javier flew down to Alamosa, and I flew back this was my first oportunity to try it out. It was nice to have constant radar contact and to get to hear other traffic in the area. Another set of eyes watching what's going on, gives some additional piece of mind. Another observation from the flight: when I was training all my flight planning was with a pen, paper, chart, plotter, etc., and things took a while while I planned every checkpoint, and calculated all the data. While this was great practice and probably the best way to learn about flight planning, I was ignorant of the amazing tools available that could greatly reduce the amount of time spent taking all this information down. Flight planning with duats, using flight following and having a GPS in the cockpit felt like I was cheating. The time it took planning the flight was cut by almost 10 times. The extra time that was freed up in the plane I could use to actually fly the plane, and check the acuracy of these tools, and it was very nice.

Weather: KBJC 281547Z VRB03KT 20SM BKN030 OVC039 18/08 A3037

Not that I was taking note, but on Saturday at 12.04 pm I became a private pilot. This happened to be the exact time I shut down the engine and turned off the master switch in the plane. My DPE, Bev Cameron said she never tells a student they passed until both of those two tasks have been completed. There has only been one time I forgot to turn the master switch off, but I wasn't going to forget that day, since I was following every checklist from top to bottom and making sure to double check everything.

Despite my own self assurances and those of my instructor and the chief flight instructor, it is a very good feeling to hear from a DPE that they could find nothing to critique you on, only a few small tips. As Bev told me as she was leaving, if you don't learn something on every flight you take, you aren't paying attention. There were a few things I learned about myself on that flight, but was happy to take the additional tips she gave me as well.

Even now I find it hard to believe I'm actually a private pilot. It think it will take a few flights and a few days to really sink in. And at this point I have to thank both of my instructors for getting me to this point. I had some excellent help along the way, and feel very prepared for moving forward on my own for a while.

I think my favorite moment in the flight was my last landing, which was a shortfield landing. I use everyone's favorite trick on shortfield landings, where the landing spot you pick, isn't the numbers, but past them, so you don't have the same feeling of trying to land it right off the front of the runway. It is known by most pilots that this makes the landing spot easier to hit for various reasons. I picked the first center line after the number 8 at BDU. Maybe it's just because I thought I was being tricky that I really tricked myself into nailing the landing. I really didn't do anything different than I normally do, but I nailed the landing perfectly. It was a bit harder landing than I would have liked, but shortfield landings should be harder than most. I was just happy I put it down right on the center line and had that spot lined up just after I finished turning final. It was a great finish to the check ride.

Thank you to everyone for the thoughts and prayers and tips in the last few days, hours and moments before the check. It was all working for me on Saturday morning. Let me know if you want me to take you up for a ride anytime.

I'll see you in the skies!

Weather: KBJC 251551Z 00000KT 50SM SCT070 27/03 A3016

The stage 3 flight went by without too many nerves and with even less mistakes. As suspected, my shortfield landings caused the greatest problems of anything. The flight was as expected as far as what was being tested. I started with a shortfield takeoff, in 9kt gusting to 20kt crosswinds and got up to altitude for an otherwise smooth ride. We headed straight to the practice area for some steep turns, power on and off stalls, slow flight and unusual attitude recoveries. After that, there was a simulated engine failure and S-turns across a road before checking the weather at Erie and Longmont for the most favorable winds.

Longmont won out with a 6kt crosswind that was close to direct, but still favored runway 11, and we started our way there. One the way, we were being followed by another aircraft planing to use 11 and a third aircraft in line that wanted to use 29, despite the prevailing winds. In the mean time, two additional aircraft decided to takeoff using 29 and things were getting seriously messy in the pattern, with the aircraft planning for 29 deciding he had the right of way and landing before everyone. On the downwind leg of the pattern we decided against making any landings as it was just too messed up in the pattern and we headed back to Boulder for our landings.

A shortfield landing was on the schedule and I flew the pattern well, especially after having the winds die down at Boulder. On very short final, I left the power in just a half second too long, and landed right at the limit of a PTS shortfield landing. This was ok, but I asked to fly one more, and do a better job. The pattern was good again, and even with a slightly gusting crosswind on short final and touchdown, I made a nice landing within PTS. This was a full stop, and we called the day right there. A quick taxi back to parking and I knew I had made it. The cheif flight instructor asked for a quick self critique, and I commented on the shortfield landing and a slight loss of altitude during the steep turn to the left, but said I thought everything else went well.

He agreed with me on those two points, but commented on an overall good flight as well. I asked for any additional critique but he didn't have any so things were feeling good. Check ride passed. Finally.

I did a little extra shortfield practice today to get things in line completely before the check ride, and have the final flight with the DPE on Saturday morning at 8.00. Studying is on the menu for the next few night to make sure I have all my knowledge in line. That is the biggest area of concern right now and I don't want that to stand in the way of completing my check ride. Wish me luck on Saturday and I'll keep you up to date

Weather: KBJC 201848Z 02007KT 12SM SCT080CB 24/11 A3028

Bout that time eh chaps? Right-o!

It's been quite a while since I last wrote. Progress was slow and flying not too often after my long cross-country flight. Work and life seemed to be getting in the way of flying and life. Since May I have been consistently flying again, and everything has come back now. I spent a while in April getting ready to finally take the written knowledge test, and ended up passing after only missing two questions. After all the time I spent studying and the nerves before taking the test, I'm glad it all paid off.

So after many flights in between now and that knowledge test, my instructor gave the sign-off to take the stage 3 check. This is the final proficiency check with the chief flight instructor before the school gives their approval and lets me try to prove my worth with an FAA designated pilot examiner (DPE). For some reason, the chief flight examiner always makes me nervous. This is both good and bad. The extra nerves drive me to study and practice more than I might otherwise, but at the same time just make me nervous while I need to focus.

My stage check was scheduled on a Friday morning, starting at 10.30 for three and a half hours. The first two hours are an oral review of my knowledge and a review of a flight plan I put together before the test. The remaining time is a flight review of all maneuvers and just about everything else. This check is basically exactly the same as the FAA check ride, just with the school instead. I was a complete wreck the few days leading up to the test, and in my mind, this check was going to be more difficult than the check with the DPE. I didn't sleep much the night before, and got up extra early to review the knowledge one last time.

This time of year, flights in the morning are with the least wind, and the closer you get to noon, the more the winds pick up until a possible thunderstorm or two in the afternoon. An early morning flight would have been nice, flying at 12.30 isn't so great. As I prepared for the knowledge test, I watched in disappointment as the winds slowly picked up to a sustained 7kt direct crosswind. Not good. Fortunately by the time 10.30 rolled around my nerves had slightly dropped and by the time I started answering questions, my mind was mostly at ease. This was a nice change of pace from the past few hours. The knowledge test passed surprisingly quickly and by the end, there were only three small areas that were noted I should spend a few extra minutes on, but overall, I had done well. That was an extreme relief but instead of feeling great at this point, I started to sweat the flying portion now.

I'm much more comfortable now with every maneuver and most all aspects of flight, except for shortfield landings. They still cause me trouble every once and a while, and I was just hoping that it would be a good day for all my landings. Despite the direct crosswind, we were going to flying to Erie (EIK) and practice all landings there, where the wind was almost perfectly down the runway. This way I wouldn't have to worry about a crosswind and a shortfield landing combination, which might have spelled busted check ride.

The preflight question and answer session went well, and the only thing that was noticed was a slightly low front tire. The air tank for the tire pump was completely depressurized and wouldn't work, so the chief decided to continue with the flight with one change. This turned out to be the biggest blessing of the day, as shortfield landings were ruled out and we would only practice softfield landings and takeoffs. So now my biggest concern of the flight was just taken off the menu and we hopped in the plane. A quick radio and brake check and we taxied to the run up area for the final checks before takeoff.

Before you even conduct the run up, you set the instruments to make sure everything looks good for the run up checks. It was at this point it became extremely obvious that things didn't look right. The attitude indicator was cocked 5 degrees to the left and was limping along. We could continue the flight without it, but it's a pretty key instrument when it comes to making a few of the maneuvers, especially steep turns. The flight was pretty much done at that point and we started looking around and noticed that none of the vacuum instruments looked good and the suction gauge was maxed out, meaning no suction. All signs pointed to a vacuum failure. The plane was most definitely still flyable, but not in a position to be taken on a check flight. It was a quick taxi back to parking and that was it.

So my free pass on shortfield landings had expired and the check ride was rescheduled for Monday morning at 8.00. Hopefully the winds will be favorable or nonexistent, and nerves will be at a minimum. I'm a bit worried about not having flown in almost a week, but I'll give it my best shot and see what happens.

Weather: KBJC 231650Z 35003KT 25SM FEW070 SCT100 BKN200 07/M06 A2983

Flying alone still carries a sort of magical charm that is so difficult to describe. The feeling of being able to fly yourself places gives you a feeling of freedom that is very difficult to match. The restriction of 5 hours of usable fuel, and the even tighter cost of that fuel, is the only thing that keeps me in check. As I learned after my long cross-country, I'm additionally limited by my energy levels.

I just completed my long cross country flight this weekend. The weather was cloudy and slightly hazy, but overall good. The important thing is that the winds were calm. I left Boulder (BDU) for Cheyenne, WY (CYS) with the second leg of the trip to Sidney, NE (SNY).

Flying to CYS from BDU is very easy to navigate. There are plenty of landmarks and cities along the way, there is a VOR just past CYS and inline with the airport, but you can really just follow I-25 straight north, and you can't miss it. (Once I get close to the city though, finding the airport is another story.) On the way up, there was some scattered clouds and virga, and I had to make a course deviation along the way to avoid some of the virga. It was mostly light, and I was trying to decide weather or not to fly through it, or around it, knowing that there can be some significant down drafts associated with it. Before I got very close to it though, I started to pick up some turbulence and a decent amount of wind shear and altitude changes. That was enough for me to fly around it, and I was able to avoid any other bumps along the ride.

I always have difficulty finding the airport in Cheyenne since it really sits in the middle of the city, so it is more difficult to spot. Flying into CYS, I contacted the tower about 12 miles out and was directed to runway 27. As I continued my approach, I heard some other traffic in the area that would be landing at the same time I was. The wind was calm and I was lucky enough to get clearance to land on 31 as I was about 4 miles out. This was nice because landing on 31 from the south, is a more of a straight line than working your way into the pattern for 27. This gave me a nearly straight in approach and I was able to fly a long final in from about 3 miles out. That ended up perfectly and I flew it well, landing maybe 200-300 feet from the end of the runway. This is especially good for me, since it is always more difficult to judge when to add flaps, etc. when I don't fly the base leg of the pattern.

The stop at CYS was quick and easy, and I was happy to head off for SNY. The flight to SNY is just as straight forward as the flight to Cheyenne as far as navigation. There is a VOR at the field in Sidney, you can follow I-80 just about straight there, and there are some good landmarks along the way.

If you've never been to Sidney, apparently the best thing in the city is Cabella's. Shortly before approaching the city, I heard another pilot ask UNICOM about the winds, and choice of runways. The winds were calm and since I didn't hear any other traffic, I was also curious to see what runway was preferred. The guy at the FBO responded that the current runway was 13 and "will you be going to Cabela's today?" I had heard that they asked you this when you fly in there, but was still surprised to hear it. After some research, I learned that Sidney is home to Cabela's, and has quite an impressive store there. While I was there, I also learned that if you call them on UNICOM while you're flying in, they'll send a free shuttle to the airport to come and pick you up. Apparently it's popular to go there for lunch while they fuel your plane.

I spent a few minutes at SNY to get fuel for the plane, fuel myself with some snacks as I was getting pretty hungry, take a few pictures, and check the weather before heading back to BDU. When I checked the weather at BJC it was getting windy and was only supposed to get worse. I made another call to Journey's at BDU to see how things looked there, and fortunately the winds were fine there. I wasn't going to risk it, so I hopped in the plane and started my way back to try and beat any weather that was approaching.

The flight back was good, but pilotage (navigation) in northeastern Colorado is not easy. First of all there aren't a lot of cities out there (and cities make for good reference points), and secondly there isn't a lot of anything out there (no major roads, landmarks, anything!). So at the suggestion of my new instructor earlier, I changed my altitude from 8,500 MSL to 10,500 MSL to get a better view of things. This helped the view through the haze, and was also a bit fun to take the plane the highest I've flown it. I flew at 10,500 for about 40 minutes before I had to drop back down to 8,500 due to some clouds at about 10,000 MSL. The clouds were being reported as broken by AWOS stations along the route and I didn't feel like violating any FARs by flying around them. It did make for some good views for a while there before dropping down and I like flying near clouds, as long as I don't catch any associated turbulence.

The rest of the flight was mostly uneventful. That is mostly a good thing, but I realized as I got closer, that the long flight was wearing on me a bit. I could tell I was ready to get back to BDU and the lack of interest in this section of the flight made me take a bit more notice to my waning energy. Another thing about flying this area of the country, is that you can set your radio to 122.8, and forget about it. All the airports in a large part of the tri-state area have the same frequency for CTAF. This is nice from the stand point that you don’t have to worry about changing frequencies, but most of the traffic is for Greeley/Weld County Airport, and to be honest, I kind of get tired of listening to their traffic.

Anyhow, to turn a short story into a long post, I made it back to Boulder without much else to report. My landing at BDU was pretty bad, and by far the worst of the three for the trip. I realized that I need to really work on my pattern, as I think I’m overflying the downwind leg and coming up short on my final, which throws a few things off as I recover from my mistakes, and generally makes for a less than perfect landing.

But one of the biggest lessons from this trip, was realizing that after I landed, I was physically exhausted. The flight was over 3 hours of actual flying. While I was flying, I was focused and just fine, but I was running on my last bit of energy. Part of flying by yourself (or at least without an instructor) is that you are solely responsible to pay attention to everything. Mostly for me, that means not having any help looking for traffic, as all else is handled by me while flying anyhow. But when I complete a solo out of the pattern, I’m much more tired than when I fly with an instructor, or another pilot. Maybe I just unduly stress myself out. If that’s the case, I’m sure things will get better with experience.

So the next flight is just some pattern work at BDU to get back into better shape there. Now is the time to start greasing my landings, since I really only have practice before I’m ready to take the test.

Weather: KBJC 101448Z 00000KT 80SM FEW000 FEW060 BKN200 04/M07 A3018 RMK FEW0000 HZ

My instructor is gone. I've know this for a few weeks now, but am just getting around to relaying this. She accepted a new job in Florida as a flight instructor. Teaching never really picked up for her out in Boulder and she was working another part time job, as the flight instructing wasn't really full time. So she was guaranteed a full time job in Florida and she is off now. I enjoyed learning from her and feel like she did a good job. Fortunately, I don't have much else to learn for my private license, outside of just learning how to be a better pilot. My next flight is a long solo cross country flight and then just a lot of practicing to PTS so I can pass my check ride. Anyhow, on to some more news.

Times have slow around here lately. It has been snowing less, but windy more. I have had the usual cancellations relating to weather recently. I think I finally got my stage 2 check ride completed after the third attempt. I flew with a new check instructor and was much more calm than before. That doesn't mean I wasn't nervous, I just was more comfortable and got over my nervousness quicker. He is a really good guy and I think I'll be finishing my training with him before my private check ride.

The flight went well for the most part. I practiced some navigation, some stalls, emergency engine out, short-field/soft-field landings and takeoffs, etc. The only thing I didn't do well on was my last soft-field landing. Soft field landings should be the easiest as they are completely normal, except you are trying to land as lightly as possible. I won't go into any of the details, but let's just say, depending on how soft that field really was, we might have nosed over. Ok. It wasn't that bad, but was very good.

But the most important part is that I passed the check ride. He said I did a really good job otherwise, so that makes me feel pretty good. So now I get to go on my long solo cross country flight. I'm very excited about this one and hoping to get to go this weekend. I have it planned from Boulder to Cheyenne, WY, Cheyenne to Sidney, NE, and then back to Boulder. A nice little three state tour.

Weather: KBJC 271854Z 09008KT 50SM FEW060 SCT120 SCT200 17/M14 A2983

Winter has presented quite a few problems when it comes to flying. Snow, clouds, frost, and worse yet, wind. In the past month and a half, I think I am about 4:1, flights scheduled to flights actually flown. Winds contribute to most flights missed, but snow on the runway has caused a few problems as well, since they don't seem to plow the runway at Boulder as often as they say the will.

But yesterday I finally got a flight scheduled and continued some work on instrument flying and getting my required hours in. I worked on intercepting radials, tracking to and from a VOR, and homing to a Non-directional beacon (NDB) using the Automatic Directional Finder (ADF).

The true excitement of the flight was the takeoff. Not the time when you want any excitement at all. On the ground, the winds were light and variable, but I knew that up higher there was going to be some turbulence because there were a significant number of pilot reports out saying so. At about 50 feet off the ground we started to get bounced around a bit and it continued throughout the climb. At about 300 feet above the ground, we hit a down draft, stopped climbing, the plane went into a 45 degree bank to the right, and even with full controls in the opposite direction, we weren't changing anything. Even though I was doing everything we could to correct it, my instructor instinctively went to the controls to try to correct and for a brief moment we both looked at each other, thinking we may have to land the plane somewhere off the end of the runway.

Fortunately the plane finally returned to level and after another 10 seconds we started to climb again. Behind us I could hear a call on the radio of another pilot, who aborted his landing, going around. The turbulence only got worse during the rest of the climb and our attention turned to landing as soon as we could at another airport. The alternate airport of choice for our flight school was reporting worse winds than BDU on the surface, so we started north and checked the weather along the way at each airport to see what looked good. We flew up to Fort Collins/Loveland and the winds were light from the east. It looked like our best place for now. On the way up I put the foggles on and got in some instrument time. Although it was bumpy, it really wasn't all that bad.

We made a full stop at FNL and went into the FBO to call back to BDU and check the weather in the area. As before, all reported winds were light and people were making landings at BDU. We decide to head back and see what the conditions were for ourselves. Using the instruments, I flew us back to BDU and when we got there, gliders were landing and it didn't sound like there was going to be any issue. The runway had changed from 8 to 26 and we flew the pattern without much wind. I decided to bring us in with 20 degrees of flaps to help with the low level winds. When we were on final, the winds were a direct 13 kts crosswind. Maximum demonstrated for the Cessna 172 I fly is 15 kts. I don't want to sound pompous, but I think I did a great job with the crosswind controls on the landing. We were lined up perfectly, came in at about 70+ kts, 20 degrees flaps, and touched down smooth just for an instant. The winds gusted at that moment and picked us off the ground. The last second winds surprised me and although we could have set it down, I didn't like the gust and how high it took us, so I pushed full throttle and went around.

With one less knot of crosswinds and 10 less degrees of flaps, I lined us up again and this time came in a little smoother. After we touched down, it was just another landing for the most part. Outside of the takeoff, the flight was really good. Just to give you an idea of the winds, there were two more runway changes in a period of about 5 minutes after we landed, but the gliders kept flying, so it never got too bad.

Checking the weather on our return, there was a temperature inversion in the Denver area, and thats what was causing the variability and all the turbulence. It was great as usual to get another flight in, and as well as good crosswind practice and lessons learned.


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