Week 21
November 1 - 5, 2004

This week didn't start off well. I had to begin my week by dealing with vehicle problems. Apparently there was a failure somewhere in my cooling system. All my coolant gushed out in a rather spectacular fashion. And it stormed all day which prevented me from going flying. I was to do my first of two aerobatic flights. I was really looking forward to that. So, instead of zooming around the skies having fun, I spent my day hoping that my Explorer's problems weren't severe (which they weren't, thank goodness), pushing weights around in the gym, and doing some preparatory reading for our Shuttle systems classes next week.

Tuesday's weather was not much better than Monday's. It rained all night and most of the morning. I spent my time reading Shuttle systems information - about launch abort modes and their accompanying display information, to be specific. About lunch time the rain stopped and soon after the fog rolled in. I could see it approaching from the Gulf from my office window. It was a pretty interesting sight, but not a good omen for flying. All morning flights had been canceled. My pre-flight briefing was scheduled for 2:30. I headed out to the airport at about 2:00 just in case the weather cleared by the time I was scheduled to fly at 4:00. As I was walking out of my building I ran into one of my classmates who had just come back from Ellington. He said that he had gotten to fly. The fog and clouds tops were at about 10,000 feet. Things were looking up. If the tops stayed at that level, then I could go do my aerobatic flight, since we could just use the space from 10,000 feet up.

The weather didn't change during our pre-flight briefing, so my instructor and I decided to go see for ourselves. If the cloud tops were too high, then we would just come back. Luckily, the weather was in our favor. We popped out on top at about 10,000 feet and above that the sky was clear and blue. Aerobatics, here we come. We did a lot of the things that I have done on some of my previous flights - a loop, aileron rolls, and barrel rolls. I got to fly a few aileron rolls. I am getting pretty good at those. I also got to try and fly a barrel roll. Let's just say that mine wasn't quite as pretty as my instructor's. When we did our loop, the bottom of it just dipped into the clouds. It was interesting to be diving down in the clear blue and then all of a sudden get enveloped in grey. Then we pulled right out of it and continued on in the sunshine. We also flew a couple of stalls - both with and without the landing gear extended. Those are quite interesting since the plane buffets a lot. And, it can roll back and forth a great deal - sort of like riding a mechanical bull. The key thing is that you can lose a lot of altitude when recovering from a stall. When I say a lot of altitude, I mean 2000 feet or so. It is very easy to see how dangerous stalls can be when coming in for a landing at a pattern altitude of 1000 feet.

One of the other things we did was fly a negative g profile. This was a hoot. I have done zero g before in the T-38 and we did more of that today. But, negative g is entirely different. Cinch up your seat belt, we are flying upside down. We basically just rolled over until we were upside down and cruised along for awhile. How odd. How fun. Once again, my hat is off to the pilot who can keep a conversation and the plane going when either upside down or pulling a bunch of g's.

We had to keep a close eye on our fuel level. Actually, we always do, but in this case, we wanted to make sure that we had enough fuel to divert to somewhere else should the weather have gotten too bad at Ellington to land. This meant that we had to cut our flight short a little bit. We definitely had real instrument approaches. We were in the clouds from about 10,000 down. On our first pass, where we did a touch and go, we broke out of the clouds at about 900 feet above the ground. On our second pass, the clouds had dropped to 800 feet. But, that was high enough to get us on the ground safely. I surely wouldn't have thought by looking out my office window that I would have gotten to fly today.

Not much of a heavy work day on Wednesday. I spent the morning at my house waiting for a repairman. You know how that is, they will be there sometime between 8 and 12. He showed up at 11:15. But, I have to admit; he did his work quickly and was finished before noon. I read in some of my training books while I was waiting.

I did start some new training in the afternoon. I had a Russian class. Most of my classmates haven't had any Russian language training. Next spring we are scheduled to have an introduction to Russian. Since I have taken a lot of Russian lessons, I won't need to go through that training. But, rather than letting my paltry Russian skills languish, I made arrangements to start taking "maintenance" lessons. This is a really good deal. When I had lessons before at NASA, I was part of a class. As an astronaut I get one-on-one training. The only drawback is that you can't really wait for someone else to answer a question if you don't know the answer. . . A wee bit more pressure, but I will definitely have the opportunity to practice my conversation skills. Or, as the case may be, develop some conversation skills.

I am taking lessons from a Russian lady who taught some of my classes in the past. I really like her. She is a very interesting person and quite funny. Her background is art. Not living-in-a-commune art, but major-museum art. She is a good person with which to discuss the subtleties of Russian culture since she has such knowledge of history and is a great study of people. Today I struggled through an hour's worth of conversation. I can still understand a lot, but man, oh, man have I forgotten a lot of words and grammar. The general plan for these lessons is going to be lots of talking, a review of grammar, and some reading and listening exercises thrown in for good measure. I'll have a couple hours of lessons a week and, hopefully, I will soon start remembering the words and grammar that I used to know.

Thursday was just a day of study and Russian, much like yesterday (except for the home repairs part). I did a lot of reading in Russian class today. I read short blurbs on the Soviet space program and then my teacher asked me questions to see if I understood what I had read. I did all right with that, better than I expected. Later in the class, when I had to read sentences and fill in the blanks out loud, it was a bit rougher. I must sound like a kindergartner trying to sound out words.

Friday was a beautiful day and I had my second aerobatic flight first thing in the morning. We had a blast. I experienced around 5 g's in some of the maneuvers. At one point, I nearly passed out. That was really interesting. Blackness started coming in from the sides and eventually my field of vision was narrowed such that it was just a circle of light in front of me that was more flashing colored spots than an actual view of anything. Our maneuver ended before I completely blacked out. Nothing serious would have happened had I blacked out. Once the g forces are gone, the brain reboots and you come to in about 30 seconds. Basically, this is the point of these flights - to see how extreme maneuvers affect your body so you can be prepared to counteract them. In this case, I just didn't do my anti-g countermeasures enough. I did for the rest of the flight and had no more incidences.

In addition to the usual suite of loops and rolls we did what the pilot called his Shuttle launch maneuver. We would start out at the bottom of our maneuvering block and build up a lot of speed. Then we would turn and go straight up in the air - like a Shuttle launch. After a short time of going up, we would put in a slow roll to mimic the roll that the Shuttle does on launch. This morning the moon was a crescent and right overhead. So, when we played like we were the Shuttle, it was as if we were launching towards the moon. Pretty nifty.

I had a Russian class in the afternoon - more reading out loud and having conversations. I guess the week ended up just fine after starting off poorly.

© Shannon Walker   2004

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Revised 11-08-04