The Cessna, The Sky ... and the Cartoonist: Chapters Thirteen, Fourteen and Fifteen

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Crosswind takeoffs and landings -- new students learn to dread them, while old-timers seem to seek them out. But they weren't the most challenging aspect of the day for our cartoonist/pilot: What do you think you get when you mix a stiff breeze with a light plane and a fence?

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

Chapter Thirteen: Crosswind Circuits

Cessna and Cartoonist

A very stiff breeze was blowing as I drove out to Dairy Flat, but I have given up hope of finding an ideal piece of weather for a lesson. I try to hold on to the thought that if I can learn to manage the plane in these conditions I will be more than qualified in normal circumstances. The thought is less than satisfying, however.

Mike said, yes, it was a bit gusty, but to go ahead with preflight and we'd see about the breeze later. He also thought it appropriate that we have the Crosswind lecture, get it out of the way.

I found our plane, NSA, parked in a different spot, about twenty feet inside the fence and parallel to the road. I pre-flighted (that is a clumsy word, but very pilotful; and "pre-flew" is hardly better) her and waited for Mike to appear; but to save time I decided to turn the plane around to face the taxiway.

I had seen this done before, had helped in doing it before, so gave no thought to any possible problem in doing so. After all, changing the position of an airplane shouldn't be too complicated, should it?

Well, I had not taken into account the stiff breeze mentioned above, and I started by pushing NSA in the wrong direction. By pushing on first one strut then the other I managed to get NSA cocked at an angle slightly towards the fence. This was wrong; I wanted to face her in the other direction. I paused to take a breath before turning her back in the right direction and found, to my dismay, that the wind was now pushing NSA more swiftly than I could keep up with.

I desperately raced forward and grasped her by the nose, a tactic I learned playing football. I pushed as hard as I could—old football instincts are useful on occasion—but without noticeable effect. Body position is important in cases like these, so I got lower, just about level with the landing light, kept the back straight, and after a couple of mighty heaves I had NSA headed in a better direction.

I barely had time for a much-needed "Whew!" before realizing that now NSA was facing slightly downhill and still kept rolling, this time towards the little iron-rail fence separating us from the road. Dang! I bowed my back and really put the weight in and held her back as best I could, and the contest, I believe, was a draw. A draw, that is, as long as I kept straining mightily against that strut. The moment I relaxed a bit NSA pushed me firmly towards the iron-rail fence, with my feet ploughing two, clear, size-10 furrows through the loose dirt.

"Well, this won't do," I puffed. I have propped scrums in rugby, yes, but this was a Cessna scrum, and it looked for all the world that I was going to be found wanting. Added to that was the humiliation of passing farm 4WD Toyotas stopping to ogle this strange relationship developing between The Cessna, The Cartoonist, and The Fence.

There was also the question of Mike coming out and finding me wedged tightly in amongst the nose wheel, the strut, and the fence. I doubted he would believe my story that I was just checking the tread on the nose wheel tire. My body position was all wrong; head too high.

Doug Cholmondeley-Smith says, in speaking of Situational Awareness, to "Ensure that I do not interpret the world as I want it to be, but as it is." And there was little doubt that my Situation at this precise moment, as far as I was concerned, was not what I wanted it to be.

I weighed up the odds, found that I had no options, and took the risk: I loosed my grip on the spinner and jumped for the cabin, hopped inside, and plunged my feet desperately onto the brakes, halting NSA just short of the fence.

And now I had time for a more leisurely, "Whew."

The things I learn out there in Dairy Flat.

We had the Crosswind lecture, which is pretty much exactly like the handout page I was given, then went out and "aviated." Pilotese. Neat word.

In my first climb-out Mike didn't say too much, just asked about my speed. I checked and found it to be about 70-75 knots, which seemed O.K. to me. We were climbing nicely, I thought, so took no action. But in discussing it later it became clear that I had the nose too low, the climb too gradual, so we went too far away from the normal circuit pattern before we could turn onto the Crosswind leg. My landmarks could get lost if I do that. I should have made my attitude compatible with 65 knots. That way we would have reached our 600-700 feet much sooner and the whole circuit pattern would have been more nearly standard and recognizable.

Mike took the first landing, I guess to see what the wind was going to do to us, and it turned out to be pretty, uh, dynamic. We had a good bounce ("Nice balloon!" Mike said) just after touch down, caused by a gust of wind. Well, Mike said it was the wind, but I knew it was the Devil.

I made the next two landings and Mike said mine were better than his. He was being very, very kind. In fact, I thought one wheel was on the grass on my first attempt. But my last one was pretty smooth. Not great, but acceptable, and Mike said he hadn't helped me. Whatever it was was all mine.

Well, I now have about 13 hours of flying time and the suggested solo time is around the fifteen hour mark. Not much longer to go, chronologically speaking; but perhaps a bit longer if we consider the matter from the perspective of correctness.

Or survival.

Chapter Fourteen: Circuits, Continued

It has been awhile since I wrote anything down about my circuits. That is doubtless due to the fact that nothing worthy of mention has transpired, to put the matter more poetically than is usually the case in the Ewing mana. But that is not to say that I haven't been more and more gratified with each session in the cockpit. (Is "cockpit" the accurate terminology here? After all, it isn't a P51 ...)

Today the weather was good. The wind was so mild the planes were behaving peculiarly. NSC seemed to stay just about where I put her, in the main. For me, that was peculiar. And the runway rose to meet me in a more orderly fashion, something that happens so rarely that it must be remarked on.

We switched from RWY 21 to RWY 03 after the first landing because of the light winds. This served to acquaint me with the discipline required to keep the nose in a 65 knot attitude when those trees on the ridge to the north seemed to be looming uncomfortably close to my undercarriage.

We executed a couple of E.F.A.T.O.s and I will say that the terrain at that end of the runway is much more hospitable than at the other. There is an area that looks like a swamp that I will aim for if ever the situation should call for it. Normally I dislike swamps but when I think of a Cessna going to ground at 65 to 70 knots, with me in it, I think I prefer a swamp to the firmer ground, thank you.

Because I delayed too much on one circuit going onto the downwind leg I found myself much too high, and with little time and space to lose the extra height. Mike said to just sideslip it. I didn't like the sound of that; I knew very little about side-slipping, but the very name suggested something a bit unsavory.

I wasn't sure I wanted to get a reputation as a side-slipper so early in my flying career. Could be hard to get rid of once all the other pilots started calling you one. In fact, I seem to recall my Momma teaching me as a youngster never to sideslip because it could make you blind.

So it came as a pleasant surprise when Mike said to simply use lots of right rudder and drop the left wing. I followed his instructions, risking the possibility of going blind in the middle of a manoeuvre, and suddenly there I was, side-slipping as though I had been doing it all my life. Hey, Mom, look at me! I'm side-slipping! We lost the unwanted altitude quickly, just glided right on down to the runway, boy. Felt neat.

We used the grass runway, which was a first for me. It is a different kettle of fish taxiing on grass. The nose wheel tends to get lodged in amongst the mowed-grass clumps, or something, and it takes quite a bit of throttle to get an airplane moving.

The first landing was spot on. Even I could tell it was on the dot. But we had to cross runway 09, which is raised an inch or so, and the slight upslope there acted as a ramp, sort of, and we just sailed off it for another 50-100 feet. Another good landing corrupted.

The other landings were O.K., but not remarkable. The last one was the worst of the lot. I was high, which caused complications such as bouncing and going off-line. And I learned from it that my basic problem is that I get afraid when I see the ground rushing up to meet me, and so I tend to draw back too soon.

I guess I have heard so much about "holding back, holding back", that I overemphasize it's place in the scheme of landings and do too much of it too soon. I think this is what is called "the flare." Mike says I must not be frightened to fly the airplane down to within six feet off the ground before flaring. In my words, I will hold back, yes, but slightly later than I have been doing. I will get closer to the ground before beginning the holdback.

Executing the "Touch and Go" manoeuvre is not a problem, I'm told, once you get the knack. Well, neither is performing one of Tchaikovsky's symphonies on the banjo, once you get the knack.

The way it usually happens is that just as you're landing the instructor breathes in your headphones, "Away you go," which means you must get back into the air again immediately. Immediately, because you don't usually do a touch and go unless there is something wrong somewhere. There could be a sudden problem with you or your plane making it imperative that you get back up in the air quickly.

And as usual, there is a procedure to follow. You obviously must have full power to get the plane back into the air, but since you have just shut down the power, and are slowing down, you must reopen the throttle quicker than "immediately".

To make matters even worse, you have also put your flaps all the way down, 30°, to help you land. Of course the flaps are good in allowing you a slower flying speed, but they are bad in that they create drag. And 30° is a lot of drag for you to now eliminate as quickly as possible. You flip the flap lever up to 10°, without looking, because you are moving at high speed and must keep your eyes on the runway. It is frightening and exciting.

Once your wheels are clear of the ground, when you are airborne, you manoeuvre to the right so as to be clear of the runway area should the worst happen. For one thing is certain: wherever the plane comes down there is likely to be bits and pieces of various things, including me, scattered all over, and this sort of thing clutters up the runway, leaving it with an untidy appearance.

I'm not sure of the priorities the authorities have requested in this case. Sure, the runway area will remain unscathed if the airplane crashes out to the right, but what about our clubhouse, which is also out to the right, along with (in order of importance) the bar, the meat-pies, tea, sugar, coffee-cups, charts, headphones, and instructors?

Maybe I was getting away with something I shouldn't have before, because today I was busier than at other times on touch-and-goes. I had Mike in my ear telling me to raise the flaps 10º at a time as we went from landing speed to full throttle. All this while trying to keep Charlie straight and hold back pressure. Well, I managed it, with Mike in my ear. But on that day coming, soon I hope, when I won't have Mike in my ear, I expect to remember it all.

We did a "glide approach", which was interesting. No one told me, but I assume the glide approach is what I would do in the event I had engine failure while in my landing pattern.

Mike closed the throttle about halfway into the downwind leg. Just like engine failure. It was then a matter of estimating, gauging, guessing, just how much and when to turn towards the spot for landing and how much and when to lose altitude. Sorta had to juggle things a bit. It is very much a visual thing; you rely heavily on what you are seeing. If you turn too sharply and visualize yourself touching-down too far down the runway you must ease the turn back to the right, juggle it a bit, then bits of left turn as you need them, playing the plane in and out, like a trout, just easing the airplane towards the piano keys.

Maintain all the altitude you can at first because you can't get it back once your engine fails. Stay high for a while. It is better to be too high in such cases than too low. Remember we can sneak in a quiet bit of sideslip if we need to lose altitude quickly.

And during the glide we must remember to warm the carburetter up for a few seconds. I don't know why; we are already so close to the ground I can't imagine a warm carburetter being much help.

I will list a few of the things I forgot during today's exercises. I don't like doing it, since I was never a great fan of catharsis, but I must be fair.

I forgot to turn carb heat off before applying full throttle when climbing out from EFATOs.

I forgot to acknowledge with my call sign the "fives" I received on my radio check. Mike reminded me and I quickly stammered something like, "Oh, yeah, right. Thanks very much," into the microphone. I hope no one with authority was listening.

I forgot the dead-cut check at the stop.

I forgot to change frequencies from 121.50 to 118.00, and

I forgot the anti-squelch move on 121.50.

I forgot to provide Base with full information on "rolling" call, such as "circuits".

I'm booked for a couple of longer sessions on Friday. Maybe I'll do better.

Chapter Fifteen: Circuits, Again

All of you are aware, I assume, that in the heh heh game of life sometimes you're the windscreen, sometimes you're the bug. Gotta take the bitter with the sweet. Today I had a measure of both, which is not unusual, but I am beginning to feel distressingly at home on the windscreen. That seems to suggest I am more often bug than windscreen.

I was with Mike today. We did one circuit and the weather got nasty quickly. We landed, secured the plane, and took a break.

The weather looked to be clearing soon so I went out and sat in the plane going through the Start-up, Run-up, DVA and Take-off procedures. It was very worthwhile; I would seriously suggest that student pilots get themselves into a quiet airplane more often, away from the sound of an instructor, and go over the procedures slowly and calmly a number of times. It would be a help. I can see more clearly that there is a routine and it can be learned. You become more confident each time you go through the routine. And it is easier than trying to keep glancing down at the laminated cue card on your lap. Mine always slid off onto the floor just when I needed it most anyway.

Because of the wind coming at us from a different quarter today, we made use of the crosswind runway, known as 09/27. Runway 09/27 is covered with a fine crushed rock type of material, and is shorter. I had never used it before, and was surprised to learn that there is a different procedure for taking off from such surfaces. The main point is that when the airplane is stationary the propeller can suck small loose stones up into the blade and do damage. If the plane is kept moving, this won't happen; so we don't want to stop the plane to do any of the preparatory stuff; we want to get those things out of the way well before we reach the takeoff position on the runway, line the plane up while still moving, then go straight onto full power and down the runway.

We taxied smoothly down to RWY 09 turn area for takeoff. The radio calls were different using this runway, of course, and we simply gave a "rolling" call as we swung around in a tight circle and opened the throttle. It was a nice feeling, getting into the air more or less non-stop. It gave me the illusion of being an expert at what I was doing, as if I did this sort of thing a dozen or so times before breakfast every day. An illusion, yes, I admit it, but a nice one.

Years ago I would climb up into a gun-control tower on the fantail of my aircraft carrier and watch as Corsairs, Hellcats, Bobcats, TBFs, etc. would whoosh within inches of my head and drop down onto the flight-deck. My admiration for the pilots of those planes was boundless, as was my envy. And now, many years later, on RWY 09/27 I was enjoying a minute fraction of the elation those fellows must have known. Oh sure, you can laugh, but as far as I am concerned elation is elation. It is a matter of complete indifference to me that their elation crossed over into the sublime while mine remains bogged down in mediocrity.

My circuits were a mixed bag. Once or twice I went away out far too wide and had a very long Final Approach. Other times I did it correctly and had a normal Final. Once I by-passed completely my Cross-wind leg and turned straight from Climb-out onto the Downwind because the familiar cement of RWY 21/03 was staring up at me. I forgot that 09 was gravel and looked different.

So all in all there was at least the usual amount of zigzagging around the circuit, which isn't, I suppose, a particularly earth-shattering piece of news.

The landings are coming along. I think I am managing slowly to overcome the problems. Today I got closer to the ground before flaring, most of the time, but still managed to just about stand the plane up on one wing a couple of times. But overall I am seeing more of what I need to see, and the distances are becoming more familiar to me.

For instance, I feel quite confident about judging my height on the final, and using the throttle to get down to the fence. Today when I said, "I think I'm too high," Mike's eyes agreed with me. And I simply used more power when I felt too low, without asking Mike. Later Mike said that was good. He says my landings are the best part of my circuits, whereas with most students it's the other way around. I appreciated vastly those words, of course, but that ignores a quite large portion of all that actually happens during a circuit.

I still forget things, like turning carb heat off on the final at 200' AGL, and radio calls, and flaps up from 30º to 10º on a touch-and-go. There is simply too much information required in too-short a time period for one single brain to cope with. Here are my thoughts on the matter, ready or not:

My brain works on a theory opposite to the Venturi Tube principle. With the Venturi Tube principle objects speed up through the narrow part of the tube; with me, things slow down as they go through my brain, because my brain is the narrowest part of me. My thoughts get jammed up and clog themselves together in the strictures of my brain, jamming up the whole tube, as it were.

My theory is that my brain, as presently constituted, can cope with only so much information in a specified time frame. The load of information under which my brain must function—and most other student-pilots loads as well, I wager—simply floods all the available space in the gray matter, leaving no space with which to speculate on, say, the status of Farmer Brown's dairy herd down below.

An example: I can usually discern left from right, given a moment to mull at it. But if you up the ante, and want my hands and feet to follow more complex instructions, such as walking, a further load is placed on my brain, requiring more space amongst all that gray matter. As a matter of fact I cope well with walking, and can even run a bit. Dancing proved to be too much for me, though; not enough space available in my brain.

But think about it for a moment: it is the brain that tells me the difference between my right foot and my left, especially when I am using them in a completely new exercise. You are correct to say this is a minimal function, yes, but it still requires the brain to function, no matter how fleetingly. And surely you will admit that keeping a frivolity-minded Cessna heading for the correct runway is at least on a par with dancing.

Luckily, with unlimited repetition, the brain learns to cope with the demands made on it. Each manoeuvre the pilot is required to make becomes easier for him as he repeats it over and over and over. After a hundred or so repetitions of, say, reaching for the flaps lever on a go-around, the trainee may have the luxury of as much as one or two seconds to spare for other things. I dare say that after a thousand repetitions there will be enough surplus left over to be utilized in remembering such things as carb heat, the landing lights, radio calls, and, who knows?, even Farmer Brown's obviously undisciplined cows.

I have listed a few things I discovered today that should make my circuits better.

I must anticipate each manoeuvre earlier. By keeping an eye on the altimeter I will anticipate and make my turns earlier so that I get a smoother transition from Climb-out to Crosswind, and Crosswind to Downwind, and Downwind to Approach, and Approach to Final, and Final to Landing.


At 150' AGL (Above Ground Level) I reach for the Flap Lever and the Landing Light switch. By the time I get my hand on them I will be at 200' AGL and it will be time to raise the flaps and turn off the landing light.

Onto Crosswind:

At 400' AGL I have a look and find my reference point for the turn. By the time I have done that I will be at 500' AGL, just in time to make the turn onto Crosswind.

Onto Downwind:

Climbing through 700' AGL I will probably be at 45º from the runway so I have a look and pick out my reference point. By the time I have done that I will be at 800' AGL, so I start the turn.

During Downwind:

Coming out of the turn I will more than likely be at 1000' AGL, so I adjust the attitude, power and trim. By the time I do that I will be abeam the runway threshold and can (2) give my Downwind call. I then (3) do my BUMFHW checks, which will coincide with my being 45º from the other end of the runway, and take enough time so that I will probably then go straight into setting up for the Approach.

Just Before Approach:

(1) Pull the Carb heat knob out for "on", throttle to 1600 rpm. Make no mistake about the 1600. Look at the gauge carefully. No fooling around; do it positively. Get in the right attitude to lose altitude correctly. I now understand that the mode is the Stall mode. The sooner we can get our flaps down the sooner we are going to start losing altitude. (2) Flaps to 20 degrees when the speed drops. I feel the airplane slow down dramatically when the flaps take effect. (3) Get the runway in sight. Anticipate making the turn so we don't cross over the centerline of the runway. It's probably better to be a bit "loose" and turn early than to be too tight and go past.

During Final:

From here on I think the exercise is 90% visual. The other 10% is airspeed. I watch the runway carefully. If it seems to flatten out I am probably too low; if it sort of "stands up" to me I may be too high. I will now (1) turn on the Landing Light, and (2) a combination: apply full flap, check forward with the control column, and trim, and (3) make the Final radio call. I put my right thumb on the carb heat knob, ready to push it in at 200" AGL. All I have to do now is fly the plane down with my hands and feet, and land it.


Close the throttle completely as I cross the fence (there were times when my landings were made bad by inadvertently having a slight bit of power on). At this point the main thing, it seems to me, is not to flare too early; let the plane stay in level flight as long as it wants to, which can't be too long, since there is no power. One method I read about is to pretend you are simply going to fly the airplane down to the other end of the runway. Without power, of course, this isn't possible, but the effect of trying to fly to the other end will enhance the attitude of the plane significantly. It seems to stay straighter and level for longer, then settles nicely.

(The story concludes in the final excerpt ...)

Editor's Note: AVweb is serializing 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.