The Cessna, The Sky ... and the Cartoonist: Chapters Ten, Eleven & Twelve
'Round and 'round we go -- doing 'circuits' (as they say Down Under) -- and where it stops is hopefully on the runway. Sometimes. Unless you go-around. How's a new (old) pilot supposed to know what to do? Our student pilot and cartoonist from New Zealand continues his tale of learning to fly.
This is the sixth in a series of excerpts that began with Chapter One.
Chapter Ten: Notes on Lesson Seven -- Introduction to Circuits
I wasn't terribly eager as I was doing the preflight checks. The wind was gusting worse than I had seen it before and I knew that controlling the aircraft was going to be important for this lesson. I have difficulty controlling the thing in good conditions; in gusty conditions I might as well be on a roller coaster. At least the roller-coaster would stay on the same track ...
We had the lecture first, and Andrew was good. The slide transparency he used is different from the page in my manual, but nothing completely foreign to me. I followed him easily enough. I now realize that the various "checks" are of the utmost importance. They are like rungs on a stepladder, leading the way logically from A to B to C, etc. The sooner I can rattle them off from memory the better. It's no good being on Final Approach thumbing through the syllabus to check things.
The Take-Off went well, I think. In fact, the first few moments went well even though the air was bumpy. I had a good attitude in the climb out and got the flaps up at the right time. I had to be reminded to turn off the landing light, though.
Andrew demonstrated one circuit with me making a small contribution here and there. The hardest part for me was to orient myself as to where I was in relation to the airstrip. With so many things to remember, and with Andrew, or any instructor, talking to my ears throughout, I seldom knew exactly where I was.
The reader may find this fact hard to agree with, but I offer my brain as proof that brains can simply fail to comprehend even the simplest things when they are viewed from a different perspective. I am better than average at picturing objects from different perspectives, because of art training, but I couldn't cope with the information my eyes were giving me, while at the same time having to assimilate other information coming in from the ear, and all this as the airplane goes relentlessly onwards, the view changing every second. Just about when I thought I knew where I was, the location was behind me.
On a final approach I noticed that the North Shore lawnmowing tractor was using the runway. I wondered what to do. I had no idea whether to consider such a thing dangerous, or to ignore it, or what. Was I to go ahead with my landing, or go around? I hoped that Andrew would suggest something so I wouldn't have to ask another dumb question. I decided once again to use the Throat Clear. That is often a good preliminary move.
"Ahem," I grunted.
"Leo's doing the grass. We'll do a go-around," said Andrew. The Throat Clear worked.
Andrew says we should do go-arounds every now and then just for the mental exercise. O.K. by me.
For the next circuit it was me doing the flying and Andrew giving instructions. I was very clumsy, in the main. I managed to maintain altitude through the turns well enough, but everything else was out of synch.
I got a pretty good look at the runway on the final approach, and hoped to be able to remember how it looked. I was too low for most of the approach and had to give the craft a lot more power than I would have supposed, Crossing over the fence I was sitting about right I believe. But then, as usual, everything went wrong.
I tilted up to port suddenly, and yawed out to the left over the grass area no more than six feet off the ground. I'd give as lot to know what was going through Andrew's mind about then.
My guess is that if he knew what a cartoon animator was he would have been wishing he was one of them instead of a flying instructor.
Andrew is pretty cool, though; simply took the controls calmly and straightened us out and landed NSD nicely enough, considering the mess I had got us into. I'm going to have to get better pretty soon or NSAC may increase my tuition to cover the mental stress I'm causing the instructors. I certainly never begrudge them hurrying up to the lounge to throw back a few in rapid succession after a session with me.
I have a couple of questions, or curiosities, about Base Leg. I am told that the Set-Up requires me to turn the Carb Heat on and lower the rpms to 1500. Then when the speed is into the white range I put on 20° of flap. Right so far? And yet I am to "maintain altitude." No one mentions that the Set-Up I have just done is the same one used to make the plane stall. If I "maintain altitude" I am going to stall.
So. Do I avoid the Stall by letting the plane sink naturally? Am I flying at just below a Stall Onset? Shouldn't something be said as to what altitude(s) I can expect under those conditions on the Base Leg? Wonder if I should ask an instructor ...
During the Crosswind Leg, when I was supposed to be able to look back and see the end of the runway at 45º, between the wingtip and the elevator tip, I couldn't see the runway at all. I won't guarantee that my eyesight under stressful circumstances is always 100% reliable, but I do think I would have seen the runway if it had been where it should have been. The explanation I offer, other than that this runway is inclined to be mischievous to nervous beginners, is that because of the crosswind we were experiencing the plane may have "crabbed" to the left, causing the tail assembly to obscure my view of the runway. Is that a possible explanation? Perhaps I should ask someone.
But that means that the 45º check depends completely on the plane being straight. Further, it means that the pilot could manoeuvre the plane in such a way as to place the runway at 45º anytime he chooses.
So what does a beginner do about such things?
I will ask someone!
The fact that we only did one circuit was due to the blustery conditions. Vaun and I agreed that for me to get the feel of what the airplane should be doing requires conditions that allow the controls to accomplish that. When I am being tossed all over the place by gusts, and can't tell the difference between a gust and a miscalculation by the pilot, me, then it's best to give it away and wait for better conditions. We want the results to be absolutely predetermined, dictated; if I get away with a string of goofy coincidences I may mistake it for good flying. I don't want that.
But today, over all, I had a slightly better feel for the circuit. And a very obvious sensation of the wind lifting me up behind and pushing me sideways. That will be useful for the future.
So, even though we only did one circuit, my feeling is that all time spent flying, at this stage, for me, is beneficial. Just doing the preflight and run-up and DVA is valuable experience for me. And even one takeoff beats sitting in the lounge.
I still have difficulty finding the windsock on the Downwind leg.
The single landing was every bit as remarkable as all the others.
Chapter Eleven: Circuits
Deeper and deeper we go into this flying thing. More circuits, which I now believe to be about as important in the overall learning to fly as any other factor. Why? Because we incorporate almost all of the manoeuvres that might go into a flying exercise. We take off, we climb, we turn, we level off, we do a powered descent, and we land.
It is assumed that eventually we will be able to do all these things properly, and instinctively, but after today my belief that the landing would be the trickiest part of it all was firmly confirmed.
Dang, I was all over the runway. Vaun had to rescue me on both our touch-and-gos, and then the landing itself. At least on the landing I made a better approach. I was thinking, "this might be the one" right up until the final few seconds. Then the airplane went nutty. Please don't try to tell me that airplanes don't have kinky natures. I know differently. They are very kinky. It's going to take some pretty clever doing for me to outwit them as I am coming over the fence.
I'd love it if someone said about landing an airplane, "Hey, it's mostly luck." I could understand that. But there's more to it than meets the eye. You must be devious, mentally, and dextrous, physically. The coordination required is a very elusive thing. Very subtle and complex in all but concept. The concept is simple: keep the aircraft straight with the rudder (feet) and over the runway with the ailerons (hands), and throttle back (fingers) until it simply has to sit down somewhere, like Aunt Petoonia when she has been mall-hopping all day.
But in practice my hands and feet seem not to have ever been introduced to one another; they seem to be suspicious of each other. I also am too tense -- not relaxed enough -- but I claim that anyone who can relax when hurtling towards a concrete slab at a hundred miles an hour is certainly not anyone from this planet.
I squeeze the control column too tightly, which seems to magnify whatever influence I exert. I overreact when I see I am too far this way or that, and as a result I am suddenly side-on to the runway and skimming along on one wingtip and kicking pedals and twisting things and swallowing heavily and I hear the sweet music of Vaun's voice cooing in the headphones, "I have control."
The only good thing about the whole operation, at this stage, is the vast amount of entertainment I am furnishing to club members and guests up in the lounge. Word gets around quickly. After my first "landing" the witnesses rush to phone their friends, the parking lot begins to fill up. Dozens of noses leave un-disinfected smears on the windows and the birds in the forests stop feeding their young to watch me.
Things will get better, though, and then where will those characters go for this level of entertainment? Television drama will never fill the void I will leave when I learn to land an airplane.
But at least I became more familiar with the circuit procedure. I am more aware as to where I am in relation to the airfield, both laterally and vertically. The manoeuvres are graspable, I believe, if I keep grasping with fervour and intensity.
Chapter Twelve: Circuits Continued
It was good to get back into flying after waiting so long for the weather to become compatible. I have never before been so vitally interested in the weather as I have since I started learning to fly. I find myself checking the flags atop the buildings downtown, and watching for any nimbo columbusses that might be encroaching on the area.
Alastair made a very good job of this outing. He is laid back enough to make me feel comfortable, sort of, about things. He exuded confidence that all was going to end well, no matter how gloomy the picture was at the moment. That suggested to me that he had not kept himself familiar with my abilities.
We had a crosswind, something I had come to suppose was going to be with me for the rest of my life, so my control was suspect right from the beginning. Out of the whole exercise I managed to come up with one nice approach from all the circuits we made. The landing itself on that occasion was pretty much like the previous ones: a three-ring circus. Still, I felt each time that I was progressing just that little bit.
I am getting familiar with my reference points; I can find the runway a bit more quickly now, and do not get it confused with the road that runs past the airfield; I remember a far greater number of things during all the excitement than I had previously been able to do. It's all becoming reasonably familiar.
On this occasion Alastair introduced me to the E.F.A.T.O. (Engine Failure After Take Off) exercise and the Flapless Landing. I didn't find either one of these particularly frightening, once I accepted that the words "engine failure" do not automatically translate to "death". There is a procedure to follow in these cases, and if followed can pretty well guarantee a generous measure of success, success here defined as survival with major extremities remaining attached.
I was flattered that Alastair walked away from the aircraft after refuelling and told me to take it up to it's pad. "Me? Taxi the plane without an instructor?" I was thrilled and jumped at the chance. Seventy metres without an instructor!
Today the weather was very, very nice, and I was out for more good results. And it went even better. It is quite simply a matter of repetition. If I can continue to afford the time and money and trauma and humiliation I will eventually be able to fly, uh, competently. No. Make that "passably."
Out of the four or five circuits we made I landed the plane by myself, I am pretty sure, twice. The fourth one and the last one. The fourth one was bouncy but it worked. The last one, well, allow me to use Alastair's words, "You nailed it!" I felt ten feet tall.
The knack is to be disciplined enough to let the plane fly itself down, sort of. That's not really possible, of course, but it is certain that when I did less with the controls the landing was good; and when I overreacted and "met" the controls ahead of time, the plane was all over everywhere.
I must keep a much looser grip on the control column and use my feet sparingly. I hardly remember any foot action during the last two landings. Alastair says he felt me using my feet only moderately, which indicates that I was doing it correctly. I am very pleased about that.
I was also slightly more adept at managing the two separate actions simultaneously; that is, keeping level with the wings, and keeping straight with the rudder. When I can do those two things, and control the altitude, I will be able to land the plane.
It goes without saying, of course, that there is also the flaps, the speed, the carb heat and the radio calls.
Happily, that leaves very little time to be concerned over the global warming trend.
Still later ...
I have had another session of circuits with Alastair since the last write-up, and managed further progress; but let me tell you, landings are frustrating. There is definitely a knack to doing it properly and the knack isn't acquired, I now realize, just by turning up at the landing strip. In fact, I don't know how the knack is acquired.
But today I may have turned a corner in my pursuit of the elusive article we are discussing. I found that speed is perhaps the most important factor in landing. Correct me, please, if I am wrong, but listen to this: almost all my problems up to now in landing have been a result of overreacting to the plane's twistings and turnings. I was "chasing it", in Alastair's quaint pilotese.
That is bad, of course, but to make the situation even harder for myself I was not maintaining enough air speed, thereby causing the controls to be less responsive.
That is, by slowing down too much there was less air playing over the control surfaces and they were thus less responsive. And because they were less responsive I was over-controlling, furthering the "vicious circle".
Now I realize and appreciate that greater air speed will allow me better control for a longer period of time as I come onto the runway. Later, as I get more experience, I will be able to anticipate more astutely the proper amount of controlling desired and narrow the margin of error down to what other pilots allow themselves. But for now I intend to keep the nose down more and/or the speed up more, so that I will be able to keep the wings level more easily.
As a matter of fact today's results were not all that bad, except for one very embarrassing and frustrating moment when I landed with the port wheel on the grass. Dang! Everything was going well and suddenly I was once again all over the runway.
We had a split session today, about forty minutes of circuits, then landed, had a cup of coffee, walked around, then back up for another forty minutes. I recommend this approach; it gives you a chance to rub some circulation back in your knuckles.
And you can think over some of the procedures (mistakes) while they are still fresh.
Alastair introduced a new wrinkle: low level circuits. Since the main emphasis was on landings it made sense to eliminate some of the miles spent on Crosswind, Downwind and Base.
We never got above 800 feet, which at first was disconcerting, again, because from this new perspective all my old original reference points were rendered useless. And just when they were becoming familiar to me. I became convinced that that is all a part of learning to fly: just when a trainee gets to depend on something it is taken away.
"Well," says I, "I'm getting there, but the rate at which I become a pilot is surely a much slower one than I anticipated."
Alastair suggested that I fly with Andrew next lesson, and gave several convincing reasons why it would be a good idea.
I hoped it wasn't true that the instructors drew straws and Andrew lost. Maybe Alastair simply bribed Andrew.
(The story continues in Chapters 13, 14 and 15 ...)
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.
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Michael Kussatz, of Olathe, KS, captures the essence of grass roots aviation with this image of a Luscombe just waiting to go flying at a grass strip in Kansas. Click through to see our other submissions.