BFG and the BFR

Roald Dahl knew how to write. And he had a little cabin on his property that was his writing space. He disappeared to it almost every day, which is one of the secrets to doing something well: do it all the time. Frequency is important to honing a skill. That’s why I try to get into the plane, and into the sky, every week. That frequency keeps the skills a lot sharper than if I fly just when the family is all going on a trip. In fact, the FAA is pretty sure that frequency is key to keeping you alive. So they have regulations about how often you need to fly in order to legally carry passengers.

The Feds require that you have a Biennial Flight Review, a BFR. That’s every two years, with a CFI, Certified Flight Instructor. There is some required ground time and some required time in flight but I am, already, unclear on whether there are particular tasks and skills that are tested. I was extremely aware of those things when I took my check ride to get my certificate. And, I believe, when I did my first BFR I studied up beforehand on the things that would be tested. There might have even been a take-home test. Now I am simply aware: I will be tested as a pilot.

My CFII, Liz, said she would meet me at the field at 8:30am. I have been a little dissatisfied with my landings lately (I come into the runway too fast and, usually, a little too high.) So while I waited for her, I did some “pattern work.” Around every airport there is a rectangular pattern an airplane flies to take off or to land. When learning how to fly, a LOT of time is spent in the pattern. At Santa Monica it is “left closed traffic,” which means taking off toward the beach, turning left when you are past Lincoln Blvd, left again when you are about a mile south of the runway, left as you pass over the I-405, and then left to line up with runway two-one to land. After a pre-flight inspection, I started the plane, talked to the ground controller to taxi to the runway, did my run-up to test the engine and controls, and taxied up to the edge of the runway. I said, “Santa Monica Tower, November nine, seven, one Romeo Delta is holding short two one for left closed traffic.” After a Cessna landed I was cleared to take off.

To fly the pattern around KSMO we are meant to be at 1,400 feet above sea level. The airport itself is at 200 feet, and most pattern altitudes are a thousand feet above the airport, but KSMO raised theirs another couple hundred feet as a noise-abatement concession. 1RD climbs about 700 feet per minute with just me on board, so two minutes after the wheels leave the ground I am pulling the throttle back, turning left, and trimming the aircraft for “cruise flight.” I am in contact with the tower the entire time and it’s a little busy this morning. President Obama is visiting Los Angeles today and at 3:30pm none of the small airplanes will be allowed into the sky.

As I pass abeam the tower I put in a notch of flaps and reduce the throttle. We start down. I have been “cleared for the option,” which means I can either land and stop or I can land and immediately take off again. This is a “touch and go,” a maneuver I did only a couple times during my training. My primary instructor said that he didn’t believe in teaching with touch-and-goes since if you studied the NTSB accident reports for incidents during training a lot of them happened during touch-and-goes and he didn’t know what was gained by using them. For a long time I did no touch-and-goes. Then another instructor said, “I consider a touch-and-go an aborted landing, which is a really important maneuver to teach.” There is a considerable time savings: in half an hour you can do three landings with touch-and-gos and only one (and a bit) if you are doing full-stop landings.

I turn left a little past the 405, because I have been following a Cessna which is slower. Or, at least, it is being flown more slowly. The Diamondstar is a very slippery airplane and it happily zips around the pattern at 120 knots, when I should really be down around 85 knots.I turn left again and line up on the centerline of the runway. I close the throttle almost all the way and add the second notch of flaps. There is a lot more drag on the plane now and I slow to 90 knots. It used to be such a struggle to keep the plane pointed toward the runway. There would be a little gust or a bump and the plane would wander off course and it seemed to take forever to wrestle it back, only to have it hit another little jog. Now it seems one bump points it away from the centerline and the next one points it back again. I am not sure how that works, but the plane has just gotten better at flying and knowing where it needs to go.

Really, it makes the hard part my airspeed control. And that’s only because I am so much more comfortable when there is more wind over the control surfaces. It shouldn’t matter, because I know the plane CAN be controlled when it is meandering along at 65 knots, but it FEELS so much better at 90 knots. But 90 knots is too fast to land. In fact, the plane won’t stop flying until it is going 47 knots, and that means that until I have bled off 40 knots of speed the plane will glide over the runway, happily flying six inches above the tarmac. Running out of runway becomes more of a possibility every time you add 5 knots to your airspeed, so I need to get better at crossing the fence at 75 knots and getting right down to the last three feet at 60 knots. It takes discipline. And practice. My friend Susan is great at it.

I am over the fence at 75 knots. I get it down close to the tarmac at 60knots and just as I pass over the thousand foot markers I set the wheels down at 47 knots. No time to even smile though, I have to pull back up the Landing Flaps to T/O Flaps, full forward on the propeller speed and throttle, keep the centerline right under my butt, keep from skittering sideways in the little breeze and let the plane ease back up into the sky.

So I did two touch-and-goes and then spotted my instructor’s car parked next to mine and made the next one a full stop. After almost a thousand and a half landings, this one was passable. I expect if I did another few thousand I would be happy with almost every one of them.

Liz has her own Facebook and blog pages, so you can follow her there. She taught me how to fly my plane without looking outside and, thankfully, replaced the voice of my primary instructor in my head a lot of the time. (She’s much calmer and doesn’t yell the way Bob Dellio did.)

We talk a little about the flying I have done since my last BFR with her, We discuss a plan for the flight today. Then I fire the engine back up and we taxi over to take off. I ask for a right turn at the shoreline (approved) and after the noise-abatement wiggle over the VOR and golf course at the end of the runway we fly north (well, west) along the coast toward Malibu. We fly north of Point Dume, just before the restricted airspace around Point Mogu’s naval base, one of the designated VFR practice areas in the LA basin.

She has me practice a few steep turns, which are important to be comfortable with because you usually do them close to the ground when flying around an airport. So I fly 45 degree banked turns, 360 degrees without losing any altitude. And I demonstrate some slow flight at Minimum Controllable Airspeed (MCA, for you Beastie Boys fans). That’s also something that happens as you are landing and it’s critical to be able to change your direction without losing lift on either of the wings. (Losing the lift generated by a wing is called a stall. If you lose lift on only one wing the plane will tilt abruptly toward that wing and enter a spin. Spins entered close to the ground are almost always fatal; even professional pilots are unable to break a spin when they are in the landing pattern around an airport. So we practice being able to fly the plane slowly, near the edge of a stall, without inducing a spin.)

For similar reasons, Liz has me practice stalls, both power-on and power-off stalls where I am flying the plane straight ahead and pull the nose up so much that the thrust from the propeller is unable to keep the plane moving fast enough to develop lift on the wings. So the plane wobbles (keep it straight ahead, avoid a spin), and then the nose dips as the plane begins to fall. I push the throttle full forward, allow the nose to dip for just a moment and then recapture a positive rate of climb. The goal is to lose as little altitude as possible since, again, the worst-case scenario for this is to have it happen when you are close to the ground, either landing or taking off.

Even though it isn’t standard or required, I have Liz remind me how to do a chandelle. This is a maneuver which commercial pilots are required to master and someday I would like to get my commercial rating. The scenario is that you are taking off from a runway where there are obstacles straight ahead, and perhaps all around. So you need to turn 180 degrees and climb as fast as possible. So flying straight ahead, I pull back on the stick and begin a fairly sharply-banked turn. I am meant to climb fast enough that I am at my maximum climb airspeed (72kts), all the while turning as quickly as possible to the heading directly behind me.

My first one is a mess. After some discussion I try it again and it is much better. I feel like if I practiced it with my friend Art I could get the hang of it after about half a dozen of them. There are six or so maneuvers in the commercial pilots’ check ride which I would need to get a handle on.

Turning inland, we fly over the Santa Monica mountains toward Van Nuys. I call Point Mogu approach control and I ask for an instrument clearance into the Camarillo airport. As I scramble to get the approach plate loaded on my iPad (in Foreflight), Liz points out many of the gotchas that I could be falling into. I keep my head ducked under the glare shield, simulating the instrument conditions which would require an approach clearance. I get the airspeed under control, get the airplane trimmed for more easy handling, and get the approach plate “briefed,” which means reading it aloud. The approach controller hands me off to the Camarillo tower controller and in a few minutes I am rolling out on the landing. We taxi back to the start of the runway, pickup a clearance back to Santa Monica, and are inside the sky again in less than ten minutes. A good instruction flight is one that has minimum time on the ground.

For the whole BFR I have avoided using the autopilot. That is not true when I am really flying, but if I lose the autopilot to some malfunction, it is better than my hand-flying skills are very sharp. When I do my weekly flights (usually to lunch or to drop a friend somewhere), I always hand fly at least one direction end-to-end. Keep it sharp.

On the way into Santa Monica I am behind the airplane a little. I am worn out from the flying and I drop below the published altitude on one segment of the approach. It is only fifty feet, but Liz has me look out the window to see Century City sliding by on the right. “There’s a good reminder of why you want to stay above the approach minimums all the time. They are there to protect you from obstacles.” I am high enough on the last leg of the approach that we go around on the landing. We discuss the various places where I fell behind, and what I would have been doing if I were actually “in the soup,” or inside the clouds on the approach. This is my home airport and I have to remember not to be in a hurry to get on the ground.

My logbook is buried somewhere in the back of the plane and I have to get back to work, so my CFII will have to sign off on another day. Since she manages three planes over at Justice Aviation, she is on the field often enough. All in all, it was a great lesson, which what a Biannual Flight Review should really be.

About Colin Summers

I am an architect, programmer, private pilot, husband and father. A couple of those I am good at.
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