Back In the Saddle

A rusty pilot regains his currency in a whole new world of aviation.

Cirrus SR22
Pilot Jeff Berlin hadn’t flown a Cirrus SR22 for about a year, and before that quick round trip from Los Angeles to San Diego and back he hadn’t flown one for at least two years prior.Jeff Berlin

TOMATO FLAMES? Are you kidding? I’m sitting with my friend and CFI Paul Sallach in the restaurant at the Inn at Furnace Creek in Death Valley, California, nibbling on a turkey BLT while doing the ground portion of my flight review, what people used to call a biannual flight review. All is well thus far. I know my airspace and cloud clearances. I know what I need to know about sunset, sunrise and the beginning and end of civil twilight. And I’ve got all the buttons, switches and functions of the Cirrus Perspective by Garmin avionics suite dialed in. But TOMATO FLAMES? Seriously?

A short while ago, I alighted here at the lowest airport in the continental United States and could feel that the air was quantifiably thicker by my little balloon in the flare. Then again, what am I even talking about — felt quantifiably thicker? Until today, I hadn’t flown a Cirrus SR22 for about a year, and before that quick round trip from Los Angeles to San Diego and back I hadn’t flown one for at least two years prior. During all that time, the only other flying I’d done was some right-seat time with my friend in his Citation 501SP — SP as in single pilot, or in my case, superfluous pilot. And heck yes it was fun to scratch my flying itch with some stick time in that jet. But really, in the past seven years, the only things I’ve truly been pilot in command of are my Audi, my Sony cameras and my TV. And my fridge, definitely my fridge.

So on that first flight of the day, when I flared over the numbers at Furnace Creek Airport, elevation minus 210 feet, I was still just trying to get my sea legs in the SR22 and not really noticing the below-sea-level elevation at Death Valley. At that point, rusty as I was, I probably wouldn’t have felt the difference between flying 200 feet below sea level, or 200 above, or even 200 feet deep in the sea — that’s six atmospheres to scuba folk.

Jeff Berlin
Taking in the view between maneuvers.Jeff Berlin

Still, when I decided to get current again after so many years away from the left seat, far longer than the 24 calendar months stipulated by the FAA for a flight review, there was no question which airplane I wanted to fly for my training. I’d been flying the SR22 since January 2003, and there is no plane I know better. Back in the day, when I was fully current with lots of recent experience, I could jump in the ’22 and head off as if I were hopping into my car (after a preflight, of course); I was that comfortable (but never complacent). So, realizing now that there is also a whole new frontier of technology and many regulations to get up to speed with, there was no way I wanted to learn a new airplane at the same time. I wanted the SR22 to feel like I was pulling on a well-worn baseball glove. Really, I wanted to stack the deck in my favor as much as possible as I embarked into a brave new world of iPads, ADS-B, medical reform and scenario-based training.

What did it really feel like to slide back into the left seat of that SR22? Let’s just say that my broken-in mitt needed a lot more glove oil and a good beating, which is what I got when we started the airwork. But first …

Garmin Pilot
Dragging our course line to create a new waypoint in the Garmin Pilot app.Jeff Berlin

Flying In a NextGen World

I started flying integrated flight decks as soon as they were introduced into piston singles. And I became used to, even spoiled by, those glass displays, having flown hundreds of hours behind Avidyne Entegra- and Garmin G1000-based systems. But oh, how things have changed. The panel in the SR22 is familiar, sure, but as I sat there in Death Valley, with my Garmin Pilot-running iPad cooling off from the flight over, I found that I had become an “ExGen” pilot flying in a NextGen world, and I felt like a fish out of water.

But even before I stepped back into the Cirrus cockpit earlier that morning, which felt great, by the way, I spent a few hours brushing up on everything I needed to know to satisfy the review. This began a few nights prior, when I fired up my MacBook Pro, logged on to the Sporty’s website and started to run through its Flight Review course. I also signed up for the private pilot Learn to Fly course for even more review. Both courses are downloadable to a tablet, so I also studied with my iPad over a double espresso at a nearby cafe.

I was impressed with how engaging the courses were, and I couldn’t help but note that the last time I did any computer-based review of aviation material it was from CD-ROMs and DVDs — online courseware just wasn’t ready for prime time back then. After progressing through the material, I secured the downloadable endorsement noting my completion of the course by taking the review quiz, which requires a score of at least 80. I did rather better and would not have accepted less.

The Sporty’s course has a chapter on tablets and their use in the cockpit. I ran through it a couple of times, as this was all new to me. Until I started this review and downloaded the Garmin Pilot app, picked up Garmin’s GDL 39 3D ADS-B receiver and installed the Cirrus interactive flight operations manual (IFOM), my iPad only saw use as a fancy way to read books and magazines. And thinking now about what I just saw my iPad do on the flight over from North Las Vegas Airport (KVGT), I’m stunned. It’s witchcraft, I tell you. The Garmin Pilot app, paired by Bluetooth to the GDL 39 3D — 3D because it sports an AHRS sensor and provides attitude information — is a jaw-droppingly capable device. Since I have so many years flying boxes like the GNS 430 and Garmin glass, I chose this app out of familiarity, and it doesn’t disappoint. Because it has that Garmin look and feel, getting up to speed with its use was pretty intuitive.

I also found the iPad Pilot News website from Sporty’s quite informative. And the Cirrus IFOM impresses with interactive tools, instructional videos and coverage of single-pilot resource-management theory and procedures. Using this new technology made my training and review a pleasure.

flight information
Next-level situational awareness with three screens of flight information.Jeff Berlin

Before I even got to see the Garmin Pilot app strut its stuff, Sallach, president of Las Vegas-based All In Aviation, put me through the wringer minutes after my first takeoff in over a year. I was a bit apprehensive initially about handling flying duties and the radio, but with a few local-knowledge prompts from Paul I got us up and out of KVGT pretty smoothly. During the taxi to run-up, I had memories of how my checklist and operational flows for the Cirrus were second-nature. Today, this was not to be.

As we climbed out of KVGT, I started to get back up to speed with the buttonology of the Cirrus/Garmin panel, hand-flying for a while before setting our initial altitude and selecting a 130-knot-indicated-airspeed automated climb. I was moving through the systems a bit slower than I once could, but I was doing it without help, which I considered a win.

Then the real fun started. Paul fired up his iPad and opened a cool app for instructors called the Cirrus Training Binder, a PDF agenda and checklist for training events just like this. Paul asked me to click off the autopilot.

First up was slow flight in a 30-degree-bank turn to a specific heading, because, you know, Paul wanted to start easy. This was a great exercise in coordination, of not getting fixated on the big screens in front of me and instead dividing my attention between inside and outside, of learning how to feel an airplane again, and of the relationship between pitch and power. Let’s just say I didn’t fly these to ATP standards.

Paul then glanced down at his agenda and decided it was time for stalls. Already? Really, though, ever since my aerobatic and spin training years ago, I was never worried about drilling stalls during airwork. It’s just that I hadn’t done a stall for perhaps seven years — and boy, was I rusty. There’s a reason AOPA calls its flight review seminars “Rusty Pilots,” for folks like me. “Hi, I’m Jeff, and I’m a rusty pilot.” “Hello, Jeff.”

My first couple of stalls were ugly. We did a couple of autopilot stalls, which I don’t recall having ever done before. My feet were so all over the place it felt like the airplane was practically falling — leafing out of the sky. I’ll bet the electronic stability protection in the Garmin system was thinking, What’s up with this guy?

A couple of stalls in, though, I was starting to get my air legs back, and I flew a couple of handsome approach-to-landing stalls with a nicely stabilized approach, a smooth flare into the stall and a good recovery. And even though the ailerons in the Cirrus remain mostly attached to the air during stalls, my spin and aerobatic training ingrained in me that I use my feet to keep upright, and that was still automatic for me — like riding a bike.

We also reviewed high-performance engine management. Just about all of my recent experience in the SR22 has been in turbocharged models, and it has been ages since I last flew a nonturbocharged engine. As such, I was a bit unsure about the procedures for leaning. Paul had me set us up for our cruise to the airport at Death Valley (L06). He then reminded me about the lean-assist function in the Garmin, and I used it to find peak EGT and then pulled the mixture back a bit further to set for best economy cruise. Lightbulbs in my mind were flickering. It was all starting to come back.

Death Valley
Departing Death Valley for North Las Vegas.Jeff Berlin

We had some terrain to cross on the way to Death Valley. The TAWS alerts on my tablet were impressive and exactly like what I was used to seeing on the Cirrus MFD. That I was also able to check current weather conditions at my destination and even check winds aloft, I mean, wow. Regardless of the fact that there was so much information and capability available in the Garmin Pilot app — terrain, weather (FIS-B), traffic (TIS-B), sectional and instrument charts, SafeTaxi, model-specific checklists, flight planning, and a PFD with synthetic vision and attitude information — I couldn’t help but think that the way an airplane flies hasn’t changed, but how we fly an airplane is totally altered. And to think I used to navigate by running my finger along a paper chart and following the largest moving map — the one outside the window. I’ll always appreciate that I learned to fly in planes with the most basic of instruments, but now, situational awareness is next-level, and as a pilot, I appreciate that even more. It’s just incredible, as though I have a mini G1000 in my pocket.

After our airwork, I was feeling back in my groove. No doubt my familiarity with the SR22 helped me get up to speed in a reasonable amount of time, and my second landing at Death Valley was a squeaker, like butter. It’s great to be current again. Just don’t ask me what TOMATO FLAMES means.

Note: TOMATO FLAMES was a bust for me during our Death Valley stopover. It’s an acronym for minimum VFR equipment for dispatch. Do you remember what those letters mean? I didn’t.