Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Skycatcher

I had traveled across the country to a Mathematics conference. My presentation had gone well and I'd had some interesting in-depth conversations with other mathematicians. The conference was over, but I still had 24 hours before my flight home. I could spend $100 (round numbers) for a ticket change, I suppose, or...

A quick check of airnav.com showed that one of the local FBOs was renting a Cessna Skycatcher, the Cessna 162, Cessna's entry into the Light Sport category. It was time to fly the Skycatcher!

(This kind of fun is not new to me; see, for example, this post about a similar adventure. Someday I will write about flying adventures in Australia, England, and France.)

I explained my situation to Tom, the instructor. There wasn't enough time for a full checkout, but he walked me through the preflight and showed me the Skycatcher's addition to the catalog of Cessna scars pilots can suffer. First, the door swings up, landing ahead of the leading edge, so it can hit you in the face. Second, the pitot tube is small and at eye level, which could lead to a very nasty injury. This complements the diamond-shaped scar many have acquired walking into the aileron of a 172.

The O-200 started nicely, and that's when I discovered another quirk: castering nosewheel. I've flown a bunch of airplanes with castering nosewheels, including the Grumann Tiger, the Aero Commander, and the DA-40, but this was the most awkward example I have seen. By the time we parked I almost had the hang of it.

The Skycatcher controls are unusual as well. The stick moves fore-and-aft, like a yoke, but it slides left-and-right rather than rotating about an axis. This violates a basic but unwritten law of aircraft controls: the control device should move like the actual control. Landing gear controls are shaped like wheels, flap controls are shaped like flaps, and the like. A roll control usually rolls!

The checklist says to rotate at 50, and the Skycatcher leaped into the air. We headed to the local practice area for some steep turns, stalls, and slow flight. The breakout forces on the controls were a little harsh, making it harder than I like to be smooth, but manageable. There is no trim wheel, just electric trim on the stick, and I found it easy to trim the airplane to fly level. At 2400RPM cruised at about 90 knots (we were at sea level so this was both KIAS and KTAS).

The Garmin panel is super slick, much like a larger airplane, and I think this fits in well with Cessna's long-term design philosophy that a trainer should prepare a pilot for a career. There was a nifty terrain display on the PFD, showing local obstacles sliding by during my steep turns, and of course all of the engine instruments were visible on various pages of the MFD. We didn't have time to explore all of the pages, and the reversionary procedures, but I imagine that this is similar to all of the Garmin panels.

The Skycatcher is placarded "Intentional Spins Prohibited;" a little exploration with a search engine will reveal why.

There was only time for one landing, with a rather hefty crosswind, but it was easy to track the centerline (once I found it).

The baggage area is pretty big, but of course it's Light Sport, so you will max out on weight before you bulk out. Still, a skinny retired couple could have a lot of fun in this airplane. They might have more fun in the spiffed-out RV Cessna Caravan I saw a little while back, but that would take a lot more money and a medical certificate rather than just a driver's license.

Still, if someone bought me one I'd take the Caravan.

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Sunday, March 4, 2012

Finding the Cure

During my first instrument flying lesson, deep in the last century, we were climbing through the marine layer at Carlsbad-Palomar. My instructor, Tom Carroll, was an ex-Marine who didn't hesitate to ask students to do hard stuff, and had flown with me enough at that stage to trust me to have my first "hood time" be actual IFR.

"Hey, Jim," he asked, suddenly, "At 100 knots, how far do you go in one minute."

When faced with this kind of calculation, even a proficient mathematician rolls his (or her) eyes up into the back of his (or her) head. It's an instinct, like ducking. And when your eyes are in the back of your head, they are not on the instruments. That's the real lesson: keep your eyes on the instruments.

Ever since then, when people are starting to get the hang of instrument flying, I ask them Tom's question. The Federal Aviation Administration calls this a "realistic distraction," and some of the Flight Instructor training materials suggest dropping a pencil as a realistic distraction. Everybody laughs at this, rightly so. But the calculation is realistic, a distraction that might actually come up in flight.

Today's student was doing quite well under the hood, so I asked him how far we would go at 100 knots in one minute.

"One-point-six-seven miles," he shot back, almost before the question was out of my mouth.

He's a new student, and I had not suspected that he was so good at mental math; few are, right? But now I needed a realistic distraction. I figured if he was good at numbers maybe spelling would get him.

"How do you spell Philadelphia."

He answered, more slowly, and we lost 100' of altitude and turned 10 degrees. That's a realistic distraction!

Then I had him trim the airplane to the best of his ability, so that all was required was a feather touch on the yoke. "OK, now spell Penicillin."


"Nope," I interrupted.


"Uh-uh," I said. This was turning into a realistic distraction



But then we got to the good part: while he had been working so hard at visualizing a difficult-to-spell word, the altitude hadn't budged.

So penicillin is the cure to teaching pilots to trim.

After the flight we found ourselves in a lively hangar flying session, and I was chided because spelling is not part of instrument flying. But I had a reply: how many times have you heard "Ahh, Center, how do you spell the name of that intersection you just cleared us to? I can't find it in the box."

Spelling counts.