It was difficult to get up on a holiday Monday, especially when the weather was looking a little dicey, but this was to be the restarting of something I have been working on for more than a decade: my career as a pilot. Well, that is something of an exaggeration. When I got my Private Pilot License back in 2001, it was impossible for me to qualify for a Commercial Pilot License (i.e. something that could be a "career") because of my eyesight; however, in 2005, Canada changed its laws such that I could
potentially qualify for a Class 1 Medical Certificate (required to be a commercial pilot, along with, of course, a Commercial Pilot License). Before, if you needed more than a certain eyesight correction, you couldn't hold a Class 1 medical; but now, as long as your eyes are healthy and correctable
to 20/20, then you're good to go. Well, you have to be generally healthy as well, but that had been my only issue with getting one, so I have maintained a Class 1 medical since then. Well, that's not entirely accurate either... when you're over 40, a Class 1 only lasts for 6 months and then lapses to a Class 3 for the next year and a half (if you don't get re-examined and issued another Class 1), and a Class 3 is what I need to fly non-commercially (i.e. to fly as a private pilot you need a valid and current Class 3 [or Class 1] medical, which is all my license currently allows me to do... this is all so complicated, heh). And that's what I kept doing: getting my Class 1 every 2 years to make sure it was still worth trying, and then letting it lapse to a Class 3 and using that to do what flying I was able to do. I got examined and issued my latest Class 1 at the end of March 2013.
As a note, because it confuses some people, as a private pilot I can take up passengers, and I can even let friends chip in to cover the aircraft rental and fuel, but I can't make money flying or hire myself out as a pilot or run an air taxi service, etc.. It's a fine line to walk, but pretty much as long as it's friends and I going for a flight and we share expenses [even if I end up actually paying nothing], then it's okay. If I'm flying strangers under the same circumstances, that's not so good... unless it's part of a "flying day event" and I'm just volunteering my time in an aircraft provided for the event... sigh, there are so many rules... Here is one of my favourite Canadian air regulations as an example of esoteric stuff you have to know to fly (or at least if you want to be a good pilot, which I do): TC AIM RAC 1.14.1 – Farms marked with chrome yellow and black strips, or flying a red flag, especially during the months of February, March, April, and May, should not be overflown by rotary wing and fixed wing aircraft at altitudes less than 2000 feet AGL
[Above Ground Level] due to whelping foxes, or the stampeding behaviour of ostriches and emus
The real issue is (see? complicated.) that the last time I've really had enough money to devote to flying was during the high technology boom around when I got my private pilot license. As soon as I had that, I got my Night Rating and then my VFR Over-The-Top Rating (which allows me to fly over the tops of clouds, as long as there was a hole to pop up through where I was leaving from and clear enough skies where I was going to land... it does not permit me to fly into or through
a cloud). Then the bottom fell out of the job market here in Ottawa and I ended up having to find work in the US, where I lived from 2003 to 2009 when my work visa expired and I decided to return to Canada rather than seek a "Green Card" (the place I worked for was a socially toxic environment... in one year I was there, 15 of 9 people quit the engineering group I was in). So, if the laws in Canada had not have waited until 2005 to change, I would likely be flying for an airline or other air service now (because I would have gone on to get my commercial license in the early 2000s as well). But, such is life. I did fly in the US and got most of an IFR (instrument) Rating, but the cost of medical services for my children there (even with insurance at the Fortune 50 company I was at), and the cost of travel back and forth to Canada so the kids could visit their mother, and the fact the closest airport with rental aircraft and instructors was a 2 hour cross-state drive, meant that I flew a lot less than I needed to complete that work. I did still manage to get my Complex Endorsement (that I could fly aircraft with retractable landing gear and variable-pitch propellers) and my High-Altitude Endorsement (that allows me to fly where pressurized cabins or supplementary oxygen is needed).
Well, because of several factors, I have been unable to do much flying at all since I've been back in Canada (that whole "starving student" and "university overload" thing and a need to devote what money and time I had left to family-related issues). In fact, the last time I flew was in November, 2011 when I was in Vancouver, BC for a set of meetings at TRIUMF
related to the work I was doing as an undergraduate Research Assistant for the CRIPT project
. I flew (on Air Canada or some such) to Vancouver a few days early, stayed in a hostel (my first time), and found all sorts of wonderful things to do in the couple of days I had before moving into the residence for visiting scientists next to TRIUMF. Anyway, I had booked a flight on the very off chance that the weather in Vancouver was nice on the Saturday (the people I knew from there laughed when I suggested I was hoping for nice weather), but... the weather was gorgeous the entire time I was on my "vacation time" (and rained pretty much the whole next week I was working... sweet!!!). Well, the weather was great and I took public transit to Delta where the airport was located (the transit system in Vancouver is wonderful... especially compared to the festering pile of shit that is Ottawa's system... no disrespect to most drivers, they are as much victims of the political interference and gross management incompetence as the people stuck riding it). Unfortunately, the address they had on their web site was not the one I should have gone to... it was an airport in an entirely different city :(. I sat outside the locked building with their name on it for a while before phoning to find out where they were... yup. The good news is that they agreed to send the instructor that I was going to fly with (I certainly wasn't flying into the Rocky Mountains on my own even if they'd let me, I didn't have any prior experience mountain flying) to come get me at the airport I was at (I had to pay for the aircraft rental and their time, but that certainly beat the alternative of not flying at all, so it was great!). Here's one of the pictures I took out of the window as I was flying (click on it for a giganormous version of the photo if you are so inclined):
Oh, as an aside, while I was on my Vancouver "vacation time", I also managed to get in to see one of the last Pink Floyd laser light shows in the planetarium there... an institution ending after almost 30 years :(... and I also got to see Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman at a sold-out concert (thanks to my friend Marc)... I hadn't even known they were going to be there until I walked past the venue and read the sign!!!
So it had been roughly a year and a half since I had last flown... and I knew I was going to be horribly rusty (not necessarily dangerous, just rough around the edges). Because it's Rockcliffe Flying Club
rules that to rent aircraft and fly solo, you must have flown in the past 30 days (a generally good rule), I need to go through a "checkout" process and that means flying with an instructor until I've proven my competence (here, an excellent
rule). But when I looked at the weather reports (you can have a peek here if you're brave enough to see what aviation weather data for pilots looks like
), it was showing lowering cloud ceilings, but still nominal for the flight. When I got in my car to drive there, it was looking a lot crappier than what the forecast had said... and sure enough, when I got to the airport, the forecasts had been amended to show 800 foot ceilings, which is way too low even to do what I needed to do. But... things were supposed to get better fairly quickly... right after my booking's time slot was finished... ugh. In the end, it was somewhere in between... the weather wasn't good enough to go and do the work I needed to do to get current again, but it was good enough to do some circuits, and take-offs and landings are where the rustiness really sets in quickly (well, that and radio work). So I managed to get in 4 takeoffs and landings in the time we had remaining for the lesson. The good news is that I am still safe to fly (the landing is certainly the hardest part of a flight usually), but I can't say that the landings were what could be called "pretty" (again, they were functional and safe, but they were far from what I would consider elegant, which is where I want to get back to being). It's amazing how much work it is to do just that, and when we were done, I was all wibbly in the legs from the effort and the excitement (all good).
But... just as we landed and the instructor switched on his phone again... he had received a text from his 1PM student that they weren't well enough to make it in... and the weather was already starting to get much, much better... so... well, it just made sense for me to jump at the chance! I headed off for an hour to grab a sandwich, and came back for a "proper" flight. This time, we headed out northwest of the city to practice "upper air work". In this case, steep turns (45 degrees... quite tricky to do well, but a necessary skill to have as a pilot... one mistake and you could stall or enter a spiral dive) and slow flight (maneuvering the plane just above stall through level turns without changing altitude, as well as slow flight climbs and descents... all with the stall warning blaring). Again, so much work, but it was glorious to be in the air again after so long (and in such beautiful weather... it's apparently the last we're going to see this week). I even got to bop around and above a few isolated clouds at around 3500 feet (practicing steep turns all the while), which made me happy. I still have to go up with an instructor at least one more time to practice stall and spiral dive recovery and emergency landings (at some point the instructor will pull the throttle back to idle, glare at me evilly, and say something like "ooops, your engine has failed, what are you going to do now?" ... so I will have to find a safe spot to land, set up for the landing, and then at around 300 feet, abort the landing [the engine is still running, it's just at idle, so I just have to push the throttle back in] and take us back up). I suspect I will be "signed out" after that session and plan to do a whack o' solo flying this summer (pop into other airports for lunch or a day of touristy things). How, you might ask? Well, I had a lucrative 3 week contract at the start of the summer to help pack up the CRIPT detector
and move it to the Chalk River nuclear facility
, and I landed another part-time gig on helping Carleton set up North America's only EUDET Pixel Telescope facility
for the rest of the summer (let me know what you think of the web site, I'm the one writing it). I have decided to use all the money I'm making to advance myself toward this remaining goal of getting my commercial license finally (although I don't think I will make it all the way during the summer, I should be well positioned to wrap it up in the fall). Okay, maybe "all the money" is an exaggeration, but I'll put what I can toward it, and that's more than I've been able to do in over 4 years.
The flights I did today have put me in a much better mood (it would be honest, if a little smirk inducing, to say that my spirits are soaring, heh), and have made me more motivated to get more organized and focused on all the work I want to get done in the next few years. There wasn't much to share about the flights today because, for me, it was mostly hard work and concentration on flying rather than the pure enjoyment of flight. But... when I do manage to get solo again (and take passengers and stuff if there are any takers... yes, SW, I know you will want to go, heh, don't worry)... I'll try to wax a little more poetic and less functional (and maybe take some pictures) when I post about those. Well, off to sleep, I have a big day at work/school/etc. tomorrow.