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Flight Lesson Journal: I’m Back, Baby, With a New 172!

Cessna 172, at a flight school for flying lessons

Finally, I made it back into the sky for more flying lessons!

[This is the fourth in a series of articles detailing my journey to earning a private pilot certificate: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.]

It’s been almost two months to the day that I’ve been ground-bound, and I can hardly put into words how exciting it was running my hands over the leading edge of those wings, knowing that soon frigid mountain air would be rushing over them instead.

But, before we get into all the fun stuff, I’ll catch you up with where I’ve been for the unfortunate hiatus in my flying lessons and posting.

How I survived TWO WHOLE MONTHS without flying:

I live in the Lake Tahoe Basin, and I’m learning to fly at Sierra Aero at KTRK, the Truckee-Tahoe Airport. Thanks to Bryan, my boss/friend/flying mentor/founder of Disciples of Flight, I was hooked up with a new instructor to test my wings with. Dave Tranquilla, my new CFI, is the MAN! After a phone call to make sure I knew what I was getting into, (hours of studying, total cost, etc.) Dave and I set up a couple lessons. This was way back in early December.

As I just mentioned, I live in the Sierra Nevadas, and this year we got one of our biggest winters since I moved here about five years ago. That being said, anyone who knows anything about mountain flying knows that when Mother Nature declares a “no-flying day”, she really means it. Between the regular storms and the literal blizzard we just had, my crummy two-wheel drive car could hardly make it to the airport, so obviously the planes were staying hangered. Even though I couldn’t get up in the air, I dedicated myself to reading and taking notes on Jeppeson, listening to Rod Machado, watching Sporty’s, and chilling out listening to the Student Pilot Cast when I couldn’t stand to memorize yet another acronym.

Reading METARs

Cloud view from small airplane - Reading METARs

With today’s cool apps like Foreflight, it’s easy to forget how to read the standard weather information in its raw form, such as the METAR, TAF, etc.  I’ve heard it said that after you pass the FAA written exam, you’ll need to know this stuff less.  Well, I disagree, but not on the premise that weather information is becoming more available and more detailed from many sources that do not require you to read the METAR code language.  I disagree because the METAR is such an integrated part of the information required to be informed before a cross country flight. [Click here to read more…]

We got about 5-6’ of snow dumped on us down at lake level (approx. 6,225’ MSL) in the last blizzard, and forecasts are showing another storm rolling in tomorrow (Wednesday, January 18th), so after a series of cancelled lessons due to snow, Dave and I arranged to meet this morning at 9:30 AM to take advantage of the break in the weather.

I went to bed with a smile on my face and woke up before my alarm went off. That doesn’t ever happen, so that should give you an indication of how flippin’ excited I was to get up in the sky. After gathering all my stuff, including Bryan’s Jeppeson book, my Rod Machado book (thanks again, Rod!), my logbook, my laptop, my student pilot certificate, my two notebooks, and of course, some very stylish shades, I was tearing out of my packed-snow driveway and driving to the airfield.

In the immortal words of Willie Nelson: “In the air again, I can’t wait to be in the air again!” 

The whole way, I was beaming and singing as per usual on flying days, but this time I was also trying to rehash the massive amount of information I gathered over the last couple months while studying on the ground. I got stuck behind some incompetent tourists driving 20 mph under the speed limit (okay, okay, maybe like 5 mph), so I took the time to do some cloud-gazing. A thick gray sheet, flat on the bottom, with lighter, fluffier tops way up. Wracking my brain, I tried to mentally visualize the page in my notebook I scribbled some pictures of clouds. Altostratus? Stratocumulus? Crap. I have no idea.

As I drove down SR 267, through the snow-blanketed marshy area on the outskirts of Truckee, I gazed into the fog that settles in the valley surrounding KTRK. As long as it’s not that treacherous freezing fog I’ve heard of, lowhanging mist seemed like a good sign. No turbulence, on the ground at least!

Arriving at Sierra Aero

I got a green light at the intersection, so I whipped right down the airport road and bounced along the chunks of packed, half-melted slush until I pulled up to Sierra Aero. I yanked my ridiculously heavy backpack from the passenger seat, naturally getting the strap caught on the parking brake. My first instinct- to yank it harder, never works but I tried it anyway. After wrestling with that for a while, I freed my pack, hoisted it onto my back, and turned to see some guy staring at me without saying anything. I tilted my head to the side, narrowed my eyes, and stared back. There was a half a moment of silence before the guy said, “Carly?”

I could feel the blood rush into my cheeks. “Oh hey, you must be Dave!” As we shook hands and started chatting, my internal monologue was stumbling over itself, trying to decide whether my excitement to fly outweighed my embarrassment surrounding the backpack fiasco. I’m sure you pilots out there can guess which motivator came out on top!

We launched into a long talk in the still, freezing air outside Sierra Aero about where I left off with Sarah, my old instructor, and how “over” winter I am. The snowstorms make it awfully hard to schedule lessons. Once we wrapped up any loose ends, we trekked over to the Bravo hangars, where Dave had me punch in the code. I was happily surprised that I remembered it!

Meeting Six Eight Foxtrot, the Cessna 172n Skyhawk

Then, I was introduced to Six Eight Foxtrot, the Cessna Skyhawk 172n with a glass cockpit that I would be flying this lesson. She’s navy blue with flecked gold detailing, and in excellent shape compared with One Zero Hotel, the 172m I flew for my last two lessons. The interior was just gorgeous too, and the glass cockpit was less overwhelming than I was afraid it would be. With the hangar door closed, to keep out the chill, we did the pre-flight checklist after untucking 68F and unplugging the various heaters in the engine and the cockpit.

I realized that I remembered most aspects of the plane to check out, but couldn’t remember some of the names. I think Dave was trying to gauge where I was at, and so I sort of ran loose, though I had the checklist with me. I went from the cockpit to the left main landing gear brake pad (wrong order!), to the empennage, to the antennae, to the power plant, then the wings, then the nose wheel, and so on and so forth until my jumping around finally allowed me to check everything off the list. Dave was happy to see I knew how to correctly check all the control surfaces (thanks, Bryan!), and he then showed me how to wiggle the prop back and forth just enough to determine it wasn’t too loose, or too tight.

flight lesson journal
The turn coordinator is the best thing in the world. Photo by Matthew Piatt.

Eventually, Dave had me consult the list, and nonchalantly declared, “Well, I think we’re ready.” It was nonchalant only in comparison to my internal voice, which was screeching, “WE’RE READY TO FLY *%&$#@#$’s!” Just fill in the blank with whatever explicative comes naturally to you, and chances are I was thinking that, too.

Rollin’ rollin’ rollin’, let’s get this lesson rollin’

Needless to say, I was freaking stoked. So stoked, in fact, I didn’t even shy away when Dave offered me the motorized tug. After a brief lesson, I pulled 68F out of the hangar and into the brilliant white glow of a cloudy winter day, framed with the torrent of melted snow and chunks of ice crashing off the raised hangar door all around us. I was practically hopping around with excitement whenever Dave turned his back.

I slipped my shades on, and we climbed into the cockpit, me in the left seat, Dave in the right. We did CIGAR (Controls, Instruments, Gas, Altimeter and Run-up) and I taxied us down to “Runway Two Nine.” It could have just been beginners luck all over again, but man, I was glued to that center line like scales to a snake. Feeling pretty good, we did some clearing turns, completed the checklist, listened to radio chatter (it was a surprisingly busy day, but more on that later), lined her up on the center line of the runway, and pushed in the throttle. I could hear and feel the RPM’s skyrocket, and (unsuccessfully) tried to hold 68F on the center line as we raced toward 55kts. Once we hit it, I did as Dave instructed and pulled up on the yoke, but apparently, I didn’t pull aggressively enough so he hopped onto the controls and peeled us off the pavement.

And here we were: airborne again! My smile threatening to split my face right down the middle, I tried to focus on achieving a specific climb rate and keeping the plane over the highway below, in accordance with KTRK noise abatement procedures. Dave gave me a minute to just enjoy the sensation, and we climbed in relative silence until we hit our goal of 8,500’. I felt like I was doing a decent job holding altitude, and so we headed Due North.

Holding Altitude in Steep Bank Turns

I ended up climbing closer to 9,000’ than 8,500’ by the time we got to our destination, a flat farming area between Truckee in Reno. When we arrived, we got back down to 8,500’ (Pitch, Power, Trim), and Dave introduced me to steep turns, which are pretty much exactly what they sound like: turns in a more intense bank than average.

We found a peak that was almost exactly Due North from our position, and Dave demonstrated a 45-degree bank, 360-degree turn without an excessive altitude change (Which I then asked about. Apparently, for check-rides, “excessive” means “a difference of 100 feet.” As I watched the altimeter throughout the lesson, I realized I would need some serious practice with holding altitude!).

Then it was my turn! I got 68F into a 30-degree bank to the left before getting the sensation that I would roll the little plane right over. I told Dave this, and he said something I’ll need to remind myself of time and again: Cessna didn’t just throw the plane together and hope it flies; there’s a lot of time and engineering that goes into making sure your plane won’t just roll over if you look at it funny. He also said that if I feel like everything’s going wrong and I’ve gotten myself into a bad spot, I could essentially let go of the controls, and the plane would figure itself out (with adequate altitude, of course!).

I completed two more 45-degree bank angle turns, one to the left and one to the right, and we decided to start making our way back. Every time I fly, it’s like entering some sort of jacked up time warp. I never feel like I get enough time in the cockpit, but by the time I land, I’m late for everything on the ground!

Heading Home to KTRK in an Imaginary Crowd

flight lesson journal
68F at Truckee-Tahoe Airport, mid-January.

About ten miles out from the airport, we started our pre-landing checklist, and Dave rejoined the radio dialogue and determined there were two jets, a helicopter, and a small plane (which I would find out was equipped with skis later!) all dancing around the Lake Tahoe Basin. By the time we were flying over the airport, one of the jets said he was on final, but he was so far away we couldn’t see him, and the helicopter was just a glint of light against the snowy peaks. To those pilots who learned to fly out of busy, towered airports, I salute you. Knowing there was just four other aircraft airborne nearby had my head on a swivel that would make a fighter pilot proud.

Dave let me fly the pattern, and as we got ready to turn onto final ourselves, he instructed me to “ghost” the controls as he landed the Skyhawk, narrating as he went. It seemed so easy! I didn’t feel any anxiety as I watched the runway jump to meet us. In fact, I just felt sad that we had to land, but ecstatically happy that I got to fly. Airplane emotions are very confusing.

Mixture, Master, Mags, Money

After I taxied us back, admittedly wiggling around the center line more than before, we parked 68F next to a snow-dusted Cessna Citation tied down on the tarmac, and headed into Sierra Aero to take care of the dirty work.

I signed my last paycheck (plus a couple hundred bucks!!) over to Dave and Sierra Aero in exchange for a block of five hours of flying lessons, jotted down my homework, and hopped back into my leaky old car, which is currently lacking a side mirror and a rear windshield… Trying not to think about the finances, I closed my eyes, turned on my jams, made eye contact with myself in the rearview mirror, and said, “It’s all okay. I’m gonna be a pilot.”

Featured image courtesy of Sierra Aero

Carly Courtney graduated summa cum laude with her BFA in Creative Writing from Sierra Nevada College nestled in the Lake Tahoe Basin. Carly is still there, living the dream writing articles and flying (as a student pilot) whenever she can!