The Cessna, The Sky ... and the Cartoonist: Chapters Six and Seven

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Stalls -- a word (and sound) that strikes fear in the hearts of student pilots. And professionals, for that matter. But our bold aviator and cartoonist knows it is a required part of pilot training, and he's ready to take his partner, C152 Charlie, into the air again.

This is the fourth in a series of excerpts that began with Chapter One.


Chapter Six: Notes on Lesson Five -- Basic Stalls

Cessna and Cartoonist


The flying was going wonderfully well, as far as I was concerned. That the instructors were reduced to casting lots to see who would have to fly with me was not something I particularly cared about. That, after all, was their job wasn't it?

I had been thumbing through the pages of the NSAC syllabus from time to time, and the section that had caught my eye repeatedly was the section referred to as Stalls. Of all the descriptions of the various actions to be taken in an airplane, the Stall was the one term that I recognized. That is, I knew the meaning of the word and the relationship (bad) it had to flying; more than that, however, I did not know, although that lack of knowledge did not prevent me from experiencing the fear and dread that any sane person attaches to the word Stall.

And why not? Consider some of the other terms: Climbing and Descending. Medium Turns. Straight and Level. Effects of Controls. Circuits. Rejoins. Do any of those terms instil fear and dread? No. They are perfectly harmless-sounding, suggesting nothing more than an airplane floating lazily and smoothly over the beautiful New Zealand landscape. But the word Stall, in the same sentence as the word airplane, is a word that is impossible to read or hear without experiencing an uncomfortable surge in the pit of the stomach.

Now there are some people -- even some pilots -- who actually seem to like that sort of feeling. These people are certifiably cuckoo. They fly things called Aerobats, or Pitts, and do flips and loops, and wear belts 10 inches wide to keep their stomachs from trading places with their feet, and such. These pilots are a distinctive lot, insisting to all and sundry that they are in a class by themselves.

And here I must agree, and it is only my charitable nature that prevents me telling you what that class is; it is enough to point out that the Smithsonian Institution are looking for a few of that species to store away in oversized crocks of formaldehyde for future study.

People who enjoy that sort of thing are people who might enjoy having lighted matches inserted under their toenails.

On the day of my first lesson on Stalls I was introduced to a tall slim young man named Vaun. I had earlier decided that it was only fair of me to issue a comprehensive warning to all instructors that I was raw and dumb and that they should without exception be suspicious of my every move. Vaun seemed to appreciate this warning, and didn't seem too surprised. No doubt he had been talking with the other instructors.

We went to the lecture room.

The question, a very good one, is asked: How and Why does an airplane stall? Well, I do not know exactly. During the lecture I took in as much of the information as I could. I looked carefully at the diagram, listened carefully to Vaun, and the only thing that was really useful to me, or the point I remembered most, was the way turbulence on the surface of the wing eliminates any possibility of getting lift from the wing. Consider this: as a wing is tilted upwards, say, during a steep climb, the leading edge goes higher and higher, and acts as a shield, preventing the air from flowing over the rest of the wing.

Only the front portion of the wing gets a good flow of air; the back part gets only the disturbed air, the turbulent air. Of course if you can maintain airspeed it doesn't matter what angle the wing is pointing; the airflow will remain the same.

I imagined, thanks to Alistair previously, a couple of hundred babies sucking through straws, and could see immediately that they couldn't get a decent purchase on a wing because of all the tumbling air.

The print material in the lecture was once again composed mainly of combinations of numbers, sections of an alphabet in disarray, slash-marks, etc. Nothing for an ordinary brain to lay hands on, to coin a rather clumsy phrase. I grasped only a sliver of the information being presented verbally, hoping that when the crucial time came, if it came, my Stall would not contain formulas in a foreign tongue.

So I had been inoculated, as it were, by a good amount of advance information in the lecture regarding The Stall. But as with much that involves flying, that knowledge was practically useless in preparing me for what actually took place in practice. The inoculation didn't take. I am now convinced that the gulf separating the Theory from the Actual in flying is vast and deep. It is one thing to read words on pages in the quiet serenity of the lounge upstairs while sipping coffee. It is altogether another matter to find yourself in the cramped confines of a C152 with the amplified whine of the instructor -- er, no, the whine of the engine -- piercing into the brain.

And if all that is not more than enough mental turmoil to cope with I discovered that there were different types of Stalls. Dozens of them. Stalls with flaps down, Stalls with flaps up, Stalls with power on, Stalls with power off, fully advanced Stalls. I seem to remember Vaun mentioning a Human Factors Stall. And a Steinlager Stall, something I hadn't heard of, but something I will certainly be on the lookout for.

The takeoff, no problem, although we used Runway 03; I was used to Runway 21, and I was suspicious of change. Besides, to use any other Runway seemed an act of ingratitude. Runway 21 had always served me well in the past and I resented having to deal with a usurper. But I learned that it was because of the wind, that in fact it was quite possible that there could be other occasions in the future when Runway 03 could be utilized. Vaun was gentle in breaking this piece of news to me. And since it served to round out my thinking I accepted the information for what it was worth.

Vaun suggested I dip the nose of the airplane every 1000 feet and have a look around to make sure no other airplane was trying to fly under my chin. A very good idea, by the way, and I am happy to share it with other pilots.

When we had reached the proper height and gone through the safety checks, Vaun stalled us a couple of times with my hands resting lightly on the controls. But really, I had no idea what the airplane was actually doing; my hands were not sensitive enough to pick up the nuances involved. I was pretty tense and would have liked very much to ease forward onto the edge of my seat, but the seat-belt wouldn't allow it. In fact, breathing was the limit to what the seat-belt would allow.

Vaun was encouraging me to feel NSC shudder, or buffet; I felt nothing. NSC simply slowed down, her nose pointed higher and higher into the sky, then slid over slightly to one side and dropped her nose. That was all.

Vaun told me to try one.


Now here's a funny thing: as long as an instructor's hands are on the controls everything just goes as smooth as silk. But let him remove his hands -- let his hands be replaced with my hands -- and a platoon of fanged demons take over. I can prove it.

What other reason can there be for that dry throat, the sweaty palms, the raging fever in the brain? It's demons for sure.

I was scared. I had no real idea of what was to happen, but was pretty sure I wouldn't like it much. I had got very little from Vaun's demonstrations, and was quite unprepared. If Vaun had said that NSAC was under attack from Martians and that we must return to render assistance I would have displayed disappointment on my rugged features, of course, but I would have been very relieved.

But as you may be aware, Martians seldom venture onto NSAC property. And so one does as one is told, if one wants to advance his or her skills.

So I took the controls when Vaun told me to and followed his instructions. By resolutely holding back on the control column, insisting that NSC hold her nose up against her wishes, I seemed to be doing an unhealthy, unnatural act. Deep inside I knew the thing I was doing wasn't morally right; but Vaun insisted, "Hold back, hold back."

Every instinct I possessed (good ones, if I may say so......) screamed for me to have pity on NSC, to ease her torment, to put her out of her misery; but Vaun, showing a sternness I hadn't noticed earlier, would have none of it. He kept up the chant relentlessly, "Hold back, hold back."

I was tense, and strained against the controls far more than was necessary; I didn't know how much force to exert, nor what to anticipate. It was all very confusing in a way; I was being told by Vaun what to do, and did it, but I was not able to relate his words to what I was feeling from the plane. All I could do was keep straining back on the control column and hope my feet would somehow do what they should when the time came.

Meanwhile the flow of air over the wing area became more and more turbulent, and less and less of the wing was in meaningful contact with the air flow.

The recovery action for these Stalls consists of pushing the carb heat knob in ahead of time, once I knew the Stall was imminent, for a cooler and more effective engine, then, when the Stall was full-blown, I was to push the control stick forward, pause a heartbeat, then push the throttle in for full power. (If I applied full throttle when the plane was in the nose-up stalled position, I could precipitate a quite nasty manoeuvre in giving it full throttle at just that precise moment). The ritual I had in mind, as expressed by Vaun, was (1) Push forward the control stick, pause, apply throttle, (2) keep straight with the rudder, (3) bring the nose back up to the horizon, (4) pause a few seconds, then (5) lift the nose up into the climb attitude to regain the lost altitude. Then (6) put the flaps back up.

NSC fought gallantly, as gallantly as any little craft ever did, but finally had to submit to higher authority (the broken-up airflow over her wing-surface). She shuddered ever so delicately, and suddenly gave up and went limp, her nose tilting down to the left as she fluttered Earthward. I think I kicked one of the rudder pedals, maybe both rudder pedals -- I am sure I kicked something; maybe it was Vaun I kicked -- and pushed the throttle open. Pushing the throttle open was the one thing I was sure to remember, since it was the one thing that would most firmly secure my salvation. In fact, if I forgot all else I would have remembered the throttle.

NSC glided back to level flight and suddenly, unbelievably, all was correct once more. We were back to soothingly normal flight. The full surface of the wing once again had air flowing firmly over it. The thought occurred to me that NSC was simply being coquettish, pretending to resist, playing hard-to-get, stringing me along; for she certainly was a different plane now from what she was only moments ago. From a tiger to a pussy-cat.

I had lost about 100 feet, which under the circumstances wasn't too bad. Vaun said I did well, but if I did well it was all coincidental, for I do not know what I did.



Chapter Seven: Revision II -- Stalls

Girded up the old loins and booked a revision flight with Mike for a bit more on Stalls. I wasn't by any means impressed with my performance in the previous chapter, and these pesky Stalls stood between me and further advancement. Bite the bullet, so to speak. As the venerable W.C. Fields said, "Take the bull by the tail, and face the situation."

We took off and climbed up to about 2300 feet and levelled off. Mike asked if I wanted to start off straight away with a Stall. All by myself? Sure, why not? Uh, right.

Let me think, now: HASELL. OK, Height. I got up to 2600 feet, made sure I was over unpopulated areas (the ocean, which takes care of Location, one of the Ls in HASELL). The Air frame is beyond my control, so I ignore that. The Security is managed simply by glancing around for loose articles and leaning forward to see if the seat-belt is tight. Engine. A quick glance at the Oil and Temp gauge shows that the needles are in the green area, and finally a good Lookout, the final L, and I was ready.

I took a deep breath and pulled the Carb heat knob out, for heat. Seems there is more of a risk of ice at the slower RPMs during a Stall. I then reached over and pulled the throttle all the way back, closing it completely. The sudden quiet came as a shock. I held the breath I had just taken. I'd give a pretty bauble to know what my heart-rate was during those moments.

Of course November Sierra Charlie wanted to sink down towards the ocean. "None of that!" says I forcefully, remembering the ruthlessness with which Vaun had treated NSC before.

I jutted the Ewing jaw forward and pulled my elbows into my ribs, the control column into my stomach. That nose was going to stay at 2600 feet as long as possible if I had anything to say about it.

We got slower and slower as NSC struggled. The nose tilted higher and higher as I strained at the control column. The Stall Warning shriek started, gently at first, hinting that things weren't right, then went an insistent octave higher to reinforce the point, although I had no need to be reminded. I felt that I alone had physically pulled the airplane to a stop in midair.

I remembered at this point to push the carb heat knob in, for more efficiency in the engine.

Charlie was really struggling now, and I didn't do too good a job of keeping her nose on the cloudmark I had selected; my excuse is that I was too busy. Charlie shook and humped herself a bit, and I realize now that she was probably in the Stall at that moment. But I was in a mind-set (wrong, of course, according to the philosophy behind Human Factors) that rejected any thought other than to keep that nose up. I continued to hold the control column against my belt buckle. This prolonged the Stall, of course, and we lost more height than would have been acceptable under some conditions.

When at last Charlie shuddered delicately and tilted her nose downward, I pushed the control column gently forward and pushed the throttle forward at the same time. We levelled out easily and once again pointed her nose upwards into a climb.

We had lost about 250 feet, which isn't too bad, Mike said, except that losing 250 feet when you stall at 200 feet above ground level raises questions about what happens during the other 50 feet. One of the "unacceptable" conditions mentioned in the earlier paragraph, perhaps?

Point well taken. On the next Stall I was quicker to take corrective action and we lost about 100 feet. And I was much better with the rudder pedals, keeping the nose on the cloudmark almost perfectly. "Flushed with the feeling of success", I believe, is the term writers would use to describe me in those moments. I was very satisfied.

I still rely heavily on the instructor to do the radio calls for me. I'm far too busy biting my lip to have to tend to the radio, and when biting the lip one is at best only marginally intelligible. Better for me if all I have to do is follow verbal instructions from Mike. Or Vaun. Or Alastair. Or anyone.

The return landing was the first one in which I felt like a participant. It was I who managed the throttle (once or twice being warned that we were dropping short, use more power), who kept the nose up with back pressure, who at the last second cut the power and felt Charlie drop onto the runway. Now, I must admit that in my opinion we were definitely not very straight, and were perhaps a bit over to starboard a fraction too much. And we seemed to hit rather than settle on the runway. Never mind. I felt that I had accomplished something.

I may even one day allow the bird of optimism to pick a stray crumb from my table.


(The story continues in Chapters 8 and 9 ...)


Editor's Note: AVweb is serializing several sections of John Ewing's book, "The Cessna, The Sky ... and the Cartoonist," starting with Chapter One. If you want to read the whole book, you can order it from John's Web site.