The Piper Arrow, or PA-28-R 200, was the first complex aircraft I have been checked out in. It's considered to be a good introduction to complex aircraft since it is fairly forgiving.

Staring up the nose
Who wants a piece of me?

-- Checking Out --

   I now have the flight hours that allow me to get checked out in the club's Piper Arrow. Insurance and club rules require 125 hours before you can get signed off, and 10 hours of instruction, so at 115 hours, I decided there's no time like the present to get educated on operating a 'complex'. The Arrow is complex, but not high performance (it's 200 hp - if it were 201 hp, it'd be high performance!). It has the same engine as the Musketeer, but thanks to a constant speed prop and retractable gear, it cruises nearly 20 knots faster.

First Flight.

Sunday 10th May, 1998
0.3 hours, complex. Instruction from Lee Simmons.

The panel. The three green lights  are just to the left of the throttle quadrant, and the blue prop control is between the throttle and mixture controls.
   My first flight in this aircraft came on the 10th May 1998. I had been trying to get out in this plane for a couple of weeks but weather and alternator problems had kept me away from it. Our intention was to do some airwork, then take the chance to fly to Corpus Christi and back for a good cross country and Class C airspace workout (we were intending to do some airwork in a session before, but the broken alternator stopped us) We were  also in the midst of the smoky weather caused by fires in Mexico. A front had cleared them out, so it was a golden opportunity for VFR flight after a week of IFR in smoke! (Incidentally, by the end of the next week, the plume of IFR and MVFR in smoke weather could be clearly seen stretching into Quebec!)
   However, Fate always wins. (Unless the Lady is playing *). I dragged the plane from its hangar, got it fuelled, preflighted and got ready to go. Lee Simmons, my primary instructor, is instructing me again for complex, so we strapped in and rolled out to runway 31 at SPX. Lined up and ready, Lee warned me that I needed to pay careful attention to the right rudder as the 200 hp engine had plenty of torque, so I expected to have to keep Musketeer-like rudder inputs. This worked out good. We rolled, and the airspeed came off the peg. 65 MIAS (this aircraft is marked in mph) is time to rotate, so I rotated, and the plane broke ground shortly after this.

Detail view of the controls new to me... the blue prop control, the wheel-shaped gear switch to the left of the throttle quadrant, and the manifold pressure/fuel flow gauge to the left of the picture. On the ground, the manifold pressure guage reads the ambient air pressure.

   The gear should be retracted once you've run out of usable runway. Once this happened, I pulled the little wheel shaped switch into the up position. I could feel the gear go home, accompanied by a slight pitch change. I checked the instruments again...whoa! We aren't climbing! The airspeed is coming back to a stall! And I'm only in a 10 degree nose up attitude! What gives? I immediately lowered the nose and checked the panel. The altimeter was still showing zero feet and we were quite clearly 300 or so feet off the ground. Simultaneously, Lee said "We've lost the altimeter". The VSI was not showing anything either. The airspeed indication was falling off as the air pressure outside fell (giving less ram air pressure) while the static pressure stayed at 22 ft MSL. We went round the pattern once and that was it, just using power and attitude to get the right airspeed. So I got to do one GUMPPS check (Gas, Undercarriage, Mixture, Prop, Pump, Seatbelts) on downwind, one on base, one on final - first time in the plane without airspeed, altitude or VSI! I have a feeling we landed a little hot because I floated quite a bit down the runway (no problem, SPX is 5000 ft!), then got to squawk and ground the plane. I know the owners very well, so we just called them and let them know their plane's staic system was blocked. Oh well, so much for going on a cross country today!

   I learned a lot though. Note that with the blocked static port, the airspeed indicator will also die quite completely. The ram air pressure is tiny, and the ASI will drop to zero at about 600 ft. At 1000 ft with a blocked static port, you'll have approx 1in Hg more pressure than you should have in the static system.
   The blocked static port turned out to be ants! How they got in there, I'll never know because the static hole on a Piper really is tiny. The plane is also hangared.

(* Read some of Terry Pratchett's Discworld books for more information about Fate, and how the Lady plays to never lose which irritates Fate quite badly)

-- Feeling behind it --

Monday, 11th May, 1998
1.1 hours, 1.4 total complex, instruction from Lee Simmons.

   The static system was fixed on Monday. Chris DuPont, John Sollinger (two of the four owners) and Bill Wynn (Bill's the A&P) had worked on it over the afternoon, and evicted the ants. I got to the field just as Chris and John were about to test-fly it and make sure everything worked. It all checked out good, so we were ready to fly. Of course, I had the job of doing a warm start on the truculent, injected Lycoming IO-360 in front of the owners! On the third try, the engine came to life (I'd got the hang of the Musketeer which has the same engine, but I'm sure the engine was in cahoots with the owners to try to embarass me while they were looking on!).
   We went out and did the usual checkout work - some stalls (gear up, down, flaps up, down, power on, power off), steep turns and just generally getting the feel of the aircraft. Stalls are docile, much like in the Warrior with plenty of prestall buffet. The Arrow reserves the horn for the gear - stalls are indicated by a light. In practise this still works because the light is in your peripheral vision pretty much all the time, and the aerodynamic warning of the stall is hard to miss in this aircraft. In steep turns, the aircraft was quite sensitive in pitch, so it took careful control pressures to maintain altitude. We then did emergency procedures. The best glide speed is 105 MIAS. The gear should be held up using the emergency gear override switch, because the airplane has the glide ratio of an anvil with the gear down(it's a Hershey-bar wing Piper - see the picture below for why it's called that; the constant-chord low aspect ratio looks like a Mr. Goodbar)
   Back in the pattern, we went through short and soft field takeoffs and landings. This is where I felt very behind the aircraft - running through the landing checklist I'd be way past where I normally turn base by the time I was done. Takeoffs are a little more demanding than simpler aircraft - once you're off and at about 600 feet, you reduce MP to 25 inches, and the prop to 2500 RPM for cruise climb - you don't just keep the throttle firewalled until you are at your desired altitude (you also have to nudge the throttle in a little as you climb, as the manifold pressure falls off by 1 inch per 1000 feet). I'd say I was so far behind the aircraft during this first set of pattern work that if someone had run into my airplane, I'd not have noticed because I would have been about half a mile back!

   I told Lee how far behind it I felt and he said it's quite normal on the first couple of times out in a faster, complex aircraft (he remembers the feeling too). I'll see how long it takes before I get over it!

-- Let's Try Some IFR --

Flight 3. ADF and some hoodwork

Monday 18th May 1998
1.2 hours, 2.6 hours complex total. Instruction from Lee Simmons

   On a long checkout such as this (10 hours are required) it's worth getting some revision of things that may have been forgotten and some hoodwork (I intend to start my IR when the next local groundschool session gets going).
   On the ground, we went over ADF navigation again. I'm not surprised that IFR students get their brains in a knot trying to figure it all out. In the air it didn't seem so bad as on the ground since I could see the needle swinging around in front of me and try to make sense of it. This is something I could practise on Flight Simulator until it becomes instinct. One of the main points is you have to keep yourself honest on your heading and make sure the DG is properly set, and that you set the moveable card on the ADF. Once we had had a good work out on this, we went and did an ILS approach into Galveston with me under the hood.
   Well, I've done an ILS VFR without the hood and it seemed easy. The needles stayed welded in place then. However, under the hood it is an order of magnitude more difficult. (I need to develop a good scan!) The ILS needles looked like two people having a swordfight. It wasn't a bad first attempt in the end since at the middle marker, when I popped the hood up, I could make the landing (and we did a touch-and-go). After this, we reversed course and followed the localizer back course at altitude to see what that was like, as we departed Galveston's pattern. (We were careful to stay well above the glideslope of course!). The thing to remember about the localizer and glideslope is that they are very sensitive - especially the glideslope. At the middle marker, a 1 dot deflection on the glideslope is 8 feet.
   Back in the pattern, we did another three touch and goes. The Arrow runs out of elevator authority in the flare very quickly, so I've found this the hardest aircraft I've flown so far to land. Not even the nose-heavy Musketeer runs out of elevator this quickly. Anything but a perfect flare results in a sudden bump. When you're down, the nose comes down almost immediately despite hauling back on the stick (the aircraft is noseheavy too). It can be helpful to keep a touch of power on right into the flare to keep some elevator authority from the propwash. While in the pattern, Lee tried some distractions (basically talking about some construction work on the ground and serruptitiously trying to get me distracted). Midfield though, I quit responding and started the checklist (as he continued to comment about other things). When we turned base he said that was good - I remembered to put the wheels down etc. even though I had been distracted by the conversation. Lee taught me to do a GUMPPS check 3 times - on downwind, base and final so if I get distracted even twice I should still get it all done. I also check the three greens quickly over the threshold too. We also did an emergency landing from the pattern - Lee pulled the power just after I'd put the gear down. This meant we had to do a direct turn to the runway from downwind while pitching to Vbg because of the high sink rate that develops with the gear down. This got us over the runway with altitude to spare, so I put all the flaps out to slow us down to approach speed. (In a C172, you can fly the full pattern if you cut the power on downwind with no problems!)
   I didn't feel so behind it today. I tried to fly the pattern slower, and get the gear out earlier so by the time we were abeam of the numbers, the pre-landing checklist was complete. When we re-entered the pattern after going to Galveston, I got the GUMPPS check done before even entering the pattern so I could spend more time on scanning for traffic once I was in.

Smoky cross country.

Wednesday 20th May (my birthday!)
1.5 hours, 4.1 hours total complex, instruction by Lee Simmons.

   Due to the weather always giving way on me, I've been trying but failing to do a cross country for the last 2 months. Whenever the weather's nice, I'm at work it seems. Recently we've had a lot of smoke from wildfires in Mexico which have kept me grounded. It nearly grounded us today. Visibility was 6 miles, and the haze went up indefinitely (usually you can get to about 3,500 and you get above the haze layer). The sun was a murky orange this evening. There were patchy areas on the coast where visibility fell to around 4 miles. Being with an instrument instructor was a great comfort!
   As I've not gone on a cross country in a while, my ATC communication skills have got a bit rusty, so this was good revision. We went to Beaumont Jefferson County, a Class D airport with a surrounding TRSA. We got flight following from Houston Approach, the Beaumont Approach, and went and did the ILS into runway 12. This flight gave me an opportunity to learn the autopilot and the navigation avionics on this aircraft (as well as the usual VOR receivers, it has a Northstar loran receiver). The haze made pilotage a challenge, so it was nice to have all of this stuff in the panel. The other thing was although you could see land, over Galveston Bay the haze and water blended meaning a total loss of horizon reference. There were a few small clouds floating about too, and they blended in with the haze meaning that you had to look carefully to avoid them.
   We did the ILS without the hood so I could see what it was like again. It is so much easier without the hood! I guess the cues from your peripheral vision in regards to attitude and heading changes are very much stronger even though I was concentrating on the instruments while Lee was looking for traffic. I looked out a few times to see what it looked like in reference to the ground when properly on the ILS. It was an educational experience.
   When we returned to SPX, we went under IFR - I Follow Roads, and we followed Interstate 10 back towards Houston, then the Baytown hump and the shore of Gavleston Bay back to SPX. I think I got the landing technique cracked on this now - nail the approach speed numbers, and late in the flare get both hands on the yoke so you can pull back fast enough as elevator authority is lost. I got a nice smooth landing that way.

Fried by ILS

Wednesday, 27th May, 1998.
1.2 hours, 5.3 hours total complex, instruction with Lee Simmons.

  We did a session of ILS approaches into Galveston today. They say ILS is easy, but for the newcomer, it fried my brain pretty much after two. The concentration required is quite a lot.
  We got flight following from Houston Approach as we did our approaches into Galveston (Approach likes to be advised when you're doing multiple practise approaches). They vectored us in for the ILS with me under the hood. Once on the ILS, small corrections was the key. And I mean small! Just 3 or 4 degrees maximum, otherwise the ILS needles will start a swordfight as you weave down the localizer and play catch the glideslope. Using the rudders only to make small corrections worked well.
  Once we had done two approaches, we broke off and did some ADF work again to keep me on my toes. It worked out pretty well. We just had to watch out for the low-flying Cessna retract to make sure it wasn't going to ascend underneath us. After quite a work-out, we returned back to the airport. I found that a smoother landing in the noseheavy Arrow was easier to make by using both hands on the yoke in the flare. You have to start pulling quickly as it runs out of speed and the elevator loses authority, and the two handed method seems to work well (I palmed the yoke back rather than gripped it with both hands).

-- Finishing Off --

June 1st, June 3rd, June 27th then nothing till July 17!
4.7 hours, 10 hours total complex, instruction with Lee Simmons.

   The last three sessions were reinforcements of what we'd done so far. There was two big breaks in this. Between June 3rd and the 27th, the aircraft went in for its annual. I was there when they were doing the compression test, and saw for myself that one cylinder had too low compression. They got a new cylinder (the exhaust valve/seat had been cooked). The owners had been watching that cylinder for some time. (If you get time to watch maintenance on an aircraft, do it - it's informative (and I at least find) interesting). Then shortly after that, I tried to finish up, but someone had the plane for the next 2 weeks or so and weather and scheduling conflicts prevented me from finishing off before he went! So it was another three weeks or so before I got to fly the Arrow again (however, I flew the Cessna 172 and the club's new 150 quite a bit during that period).
   The last session was the most...interesting...weatherwise. We had to cancel once because in the time it took to preflight and get the plane pulled out of the hangar, a supposedly northwards moving towering cumulus had made an about turn and was headed straight towards us, and had gone from fleecy white to an angry black color with lightning flashes liberally scattered below. In fact, comfortable in the knowledge that it was moving north and wasn't serious, we had actually started the engine. The cloud was hidden behind the hangar and we didn't see it until we rounded the corner and saw three quick, successive lightning flashes straight ahead! We turned around without getting so far as the taxiway.
   Afternoon thunderstorms are a fact of life this time of year and if you didn't fly with some towering cumulus clouds, you'd never fly at all in the summer around here. But you must be extremely vigilant and keep watch on these clouds just in case they do what this one did to us.
   We finally got out two days later to finish off once and for all. This time it looked as though all the thunderstorm activity was done for the day - most of them had collapsed leaving their scattered remnants behind, and the weather radar looked good. We did some ILS work at Galveston. I was pretty pleased with myself tracking the needles until we got close in then turbulence had me. I think I fought it too much and started swerving all over the place. After doing a couple of these, we headed back for home. Lee kept me under the hood to do the VOR-A approach into Houston Gulf. As we got closer he told me to take the hood off and look ahead. You never guess of those fleecy white clouds had gone coal black once more and was heading south straight for the airport! We decided to get home as quickly as possible. Funnily enough, the air now was glassy smooth despite the ominous looking wall of clouds less than 10 miles to the north. We landed, followed by another aircraft bolting for home.
   As I pushed the plane into the hangar, I watched the windsock reverse direction and the gusts pick up as the storm got closer. This definitely makes you respect these airmass storms!

Complex concluded - some thoughts.

Main gear    It feels good to have those three levers and the gear switch, but this is more work for the pilot. There is a saying that goes "There are those who have, and those who will" (land gear up) so attention to landing checklists is critical. It's a big difference going from a Cessna 172 (mixture rich, fuel on both, seatbelts on), to the Arrow (Fuel pump on, Gas on good tank, check the airspeed is below gear extension speed, drop the gear, mixture set, prop fine pitch, seatbelts on). Acronyms like GUMPS are very helpful in these situations. There's also a bit more to preflighting - you need to carefully inspect the gear retraction mechanism and that the switches are in place.

My "first solo" in this aircraft... I checked the three green lights no less than five times whilst in the pattern for landing!

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