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Mon, May 12, 2008

Earning My Wings... At Long Last (Part One)


by ANN Managing Editor Rob Finfrock

"You are SO gonna owe me, Bubba." It was with these seven (vaguely ominous) words Jim told me the final arrangements had been made for me to come down to Florida two weeks before Sun 'n Fun, to start down the path towards earning my sport pilot rating.

"Um, how much?" I meekly asked.

"Your eternal soul," he deadpanned, but the sound of his grin was evident over the phone.

"OK, but that's only worth a few hundred..."

Truth be known... I didn't want to know how much Aero-News was paying to rent a plane for two weeks, when all was said and done; paying an instructor; AND covering fuel. (And I still don't.) At that point, all I was worried about was making it worth all the effort. For years, I've talked about getting a pilot license... and now, the time was quickly approaching for me to either put up, or shut up.

So... what to do with the roughly two weeks I had before I was destined to catch a Southwest flight to Jacksonville? Apart from anxiously watching the clock and calendar, I had to do what I could to prepare ahead of time.

Some things were much easier than others... like a quick visit to Sportys.com to order the Florida sectionals, and the terminal charts for Orlando and Tampa Class B.

I then hauled my Jeppesen student-special pilot bag out of the closet... and started frantically searching for my logbook, which I had last seen just before Sebring (after a 1/2 hour searching, I came across it on my desk... the same one I sit at everyday, writing stories for ANN.) That was followed by a trip down the road to my neighborhood Barnes & Noble for a copy of the 2008 FAR/AIM.

Learning From The Masters

The next -- and most important -- part of my "pre-training-training" was taking the King Schools Sport Pilot CD-ROM course. Way back in the early days of my flight training, I had completed the VHS-based Jeppesen Private Pilot course... but that was close to six years ago, with no formal ground schooling since apart from pre-and-post-flight briefings with my instructors.

I felt I had a pretty good idea of the various rules and regulations... but a tune-up certainly couldn't hurt, and it would also give me the chance to see what all the fuss was about. I'd met John and Martha King before... but this would be the first time I'd ever taken one of their interactive training courses.

Like other King Schools interactive training aids, the Sport Pilot course consists of a number of CD-ROMs (Nine in this case, plus a setup disk and a CD-ROM copy of the FAR/AIM) and a softcover training booklet that roughly corresponds to the computer syllabus, and also contains the necessary charts and graphics for reference. Installing the software on my Dimension desktop was a breeze, and I was up and running within about 15 minutes.

Working at my own pace -- completing a section or two on breaks between writing for ANN, with a final, three-hour marathon at the end -- I completed the entire course within four days. As I had expected, much of it involved regulations and basic flight principles I was already familiar with... but I resisted the urge to "fast-forward" to the quizzes at the end of those sections, and instead made a point of watching John and Martha's respective presentations all the way through.

Sure enough, more often than not I did learn something new... or, had a particular point made clearer... that I wouldn't have had I skipped to the end. What's that line about "a good pilot is always learning?"

There were two areas, in particular, where the Kings helped me understand concepts that had made me uncomfortable: airspace definitions, and cross-country planning using my six-year old, but still pristine, E6B flight computer.

From my first flight lessons, I'd trained within the Class C airspace over Albuquerque; at McKinney and then Grand Prairie, it was Class D, with the DFW Class B umbrella overhead. So I was familiar with the definitions and requirements to operate inside those areas (and very importantly, from the start I had no fear of operating within controlled airspace, or talking on the radio.)

Where I consistently ran into trouble, however, was when determining Class E limits over uncontrolled airports -- what coloration indicates a 1,200 ft. AGL ceiling, for example, versus a 700-foot ceiling? And what equipment and weather limitations were called for? For some reason, I had a Class A-sized mental block when it came to Class E airspace... but the Kings helped me understand it, and more importantly, REMEMBER it. Now, magenta-and-blue-shaded circles no longer send shivers down my spine.

Ditto with the infamous whiz-wheel. I'd half-heartedly learned to use it to compute true airspeed and such in the past, but I never truly understood how all the concepts were interrelated, and how the E6B helped figure out such problems.

I have Martha to thank for helping me understand it all; the moment it all snapped into place was a true "Eureka!" event for me. In fact... besides using my newfound knowledge to solve the course problems following the lesson, it also sent me to my sectional chart to compute my own problems, using various wind- and-air-speed values I made up.

If it sounds like I'm now a believer in the Kings, you're right. Needless to say, I passed the written... albeit with a lower score than I'd wanted. I scored a 90 when I took the exam, 10 days after I'd completed the King course. (I attribute the 10-point lapse to test-day nerves... as I answered the missed problems correctly when quizzed by my instructor, Jim Crone, later that same day... but as you can probably tell, I'm still kicking myself.)

Are there things I wish the Kings did differently? Perhaps one... though this one gripe can be chalked up to the nature of the training, more than particular faults on John's or Martha's part. Understandably, the Kings recycled presentations from their other courses, including the private pilot course, in creating the fairly-recent Sport Pilot-specific course.

One unavoidable result is that in some cases, the aspiring sport pilot is given more information than he or she really needs for the category. I didn't mind that a bit -- too much information is better than too little -- but I found it somewhat humorous to sit through a 15-minute video presentation, only to then have to answer just one test question related to that section.

Instead of culling those sections to just the info a sport pilot needs to know, I'd like to see the Kings ask a few more questions... regardless of whether a sport pilot wannabe would actually see those questions on the written. As a student planning to pursue more ratings down the line, anything I can learn now for later is a plus in my book.

In a related vein, that same "recycling" also results in some very minor -- and mildly humorous -- production discontinuities. For example... as the student navigates through the sport pilot course, he or she is presented with a virtual timeline of the Kings. An obviously younger John covers one segment; in the next, he's a little older. When you next see him, the clock has once again magically reversed.

Since the older segments were taken from VHS recordings, they're also somewhat grainy compared to the more recent segments recorded for DVD presentation. Is any of this a significant flaw? Not at all.

And most importantly, there's one constant throughout the entire course, no matter when a particular segment was recorded -- it's obvious the Kings love what they do. Their enthusiasm is contagious, and truly timeless.

"Flying" My Cross Country... At Home

With the Sport Pilot course out of the way, there was one final area of "pre-training-training" I performed ahead of the start of my actual lessons. I'll be the first to admit it was of dubious educational value... but it was fun: I plotted what I expected would be my cross-country route online, courtesy of SkyVector.com (below)... and then "flew" that route several times on Flight Simulator 2004.

Last year, I came across a free FS9 add-on for a Eurostar -- the microlight equivalent of the Evektor Sportstar I was flying at the time. While I wasn't going to be training on a SportStar this time around, I figured the sim aircraft was close enough to the Gobosh 700S for these purposes; after all, I wasn't going for complete virtual reality, just a rough approximation of flight times and control responses.

(Another way to approximate "flying" an LSA on Flight Simulator: select the default Cessna 172, and then "fly" in cruise flight at 3/4 throttle. This will result in a top indicated airspeed of about 95 knots, spot-on with most light-sport aircraft at lower altitudes.)

As it turned out, this strategy proved more beneficial than I had planned. When the time came for me to fly into Kay Larkin/Palatka (28J), Flagler County (XFL) and St. Augustine (SGJ) for real, many of the basic visual cues from Flight Simulator were present in real-life. My actual flight times were within a few minutes of what the sim had recorded, and Flight Simulator helped me become familiar with runway layouts before I entered the pattern.

Of course, not even Flight Simulator can replicate the feeling of actually taking the controls, and performing your first takeoff from a grass runway. Some things can only be experienced in real-time.

Coming Thursday: Time To Fly! (Alternate Title: "RIGHT RUDDER!")
FMI: www.sportpilot.org, www.kingschools.com, www.gobosh.aero


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