The Pilot’s Lounge #139: Sweat The Small Stuff


The other evening I headed into the pilot’s lounge at the virtual airport as the sun was approaching the horizon. I wanted to sit in one of the, um, experienced, OK, beat up, recliners, look out the windows at the runway and experience the quiet magic as dusk settled in.

Once in the room, I saw two of my favorite people sitting on either side of the table over in the corner. Karver was listening intently as Sandy used a model of a Citabria to emphasize a point she was making about three-point landings in crosswinds. Sandy retired from the airlines a couple of years back and, to the joy of the owner of the flight school, is instructing part time. I’d met Karver as he was finishing up his private ticket. He’s a tool and die maker at a local factory who jumped into flying with both feet in the last year.

They looked up at me and I said, “Hey, I don’t want to interrupt a lesson. I’ll head back out.”

Karver smiled and replied, “Naw, stick around. I think we’re wrapping up. Sandy is trying to get me to sweat the small stuff and I’m a guy who just likes to cut loose when I’m flying. In a moment she’ll glare at me, we’ll finish up this lesson and I’ll come back tomorrow. Then she’ll keep trying to convince me to fly final on speed, keep the airplane pointed straight ahead on touchdown and keep flying it until it’s tied down. I think I’m going to set a record for the most time needed to get a tailwheel endorsement.”

Sandy glared at him, then started laughing and agreed, “What he said.”

As I picked out a recliner, sat down and moved the lever to tilt it back and raise the footrest, hoping it would work, Sandy and Karver collected their paperwork and the model airplane and stood up. When they approached the door on their way to the lobby where Karver would pay for his lesson he stopped abruptly. Sandy almost bumped into him. He looked at me and said, “She’s trying to teach me precision flying. Man, I want to fly tailwheel because it’s real flying and this precision stuff is a buzz kill. I want to toss the airplane around. I want to go into backcountry strips and so far all I’ve been doing is slow flight and stalls and landings on a long, wide runway while she’s on me about how fast I’m flyin’ final. I want to have FUN in the airplane. You do aerobatics and fly into the funky strips in the mountains—she’s an airline type, all rules and regs and no fun—maybe you can convince her.”

Karver settled himself into a recliner near me as I tried to get words out. “Wow. Sandy’s got at least four times the flying time I do; she flew airliners for years without scratching an airplane and she’s had her own Citabria and flown aerobatics since I’ve known her. She’s probably forgotten more about flying tailwheel airplanes than anybody I know. Besides, you’re a tool and die guy—you think in tolerances so precise I can’t wrap my head around them. I’d think you’d eat up stuff like nailing your airspeed and landing right on the centerline.”

As Sandy sat down next to Karver, he fired back at me, “I hear you, but flying is what I do to have fun. I put up with the b.s. of learning the regs and holding my altitude within a hundred feet for the private checkride, but even then the fun part was stuff like steep turns. I’ve got the rating and I want to enjoy it. I don’t want to feel like I’m stuck in kindergarten and having to use training wheels. I want to do the tailwheel stuff like super short landings on grass runways and aerobatics and steep slips to landings, not stabilizing my approach at 500 feet while holding 1.3 Vso.

“I know I just called Sandy a no fun rules and reg type, but I’ve watched her in her Citabria come storming into the pattern on the 45 to downwind, wrap it up into a steep bank to enter the downwind, then chop the power to idle, kick it into a slip that she holds all the way around base, on to final and into the flare. The airplane comes down like a polished drop hammer—she even flares in a steep slip. At the last moment she kicks it straight, touches down on all three with the airplane barely at walking speed and makes the first turnoff. That’s what I want to do. I feel like she’s giving me the old ‘do as I say, not as I do’ crap that I watched teachers do when I was in school.”

I waited a moment to make sure Karver had completed his turbocharged thought. “Believe it or not, Sandy’s teaching you to do exactly what you want to do. She can make that Citabria talk, right?”

“That’s for damn sure.”

“I doubt you’re going to like to hear what I’m saying, but right now she’s giving you language lessons—she’s in the very first part of teaching you to make that airplane talk—and I get the impression that you aren’t listening to what the airplane, or Sandy, is saying.”

“Nonsense.” (He used a stronger word. After all, he is a tool and die man, but this is a family publication.)

Sandy stepped in, “All right. I’m always polite to my students and I’ve shown you respect during every lesson even when you clearly tell me that I don’t know what I’m doing and that you are ready to do inverted passes down the runway but I’m some old geezer who can’t recognize true talent and let it shine.

“I’m going to continue to be respectful to you, but I’m going to give you some hard truths about flying and yourself that you may not care for. You’re good, but you’re firing a shotgun at a target that takes a rifle and a scope and you don’t yet know the difference. I see a lot of myself in you when I was in your position—a 200-hour private pilot with an ego writing checks that my skill and judgment couldn’t cash and putting myself at risk without even knowing it. I lucked out. I had a couple of very good instructors when I got my complex aircraft checkout, tailwheel endorsement and took aerobatics. They somehow got me to listen and taught me to focus on the important stuff, to sweat the small stuff. Amazingly enough, the discipline and precision I learned from them made flying even more fun. Some of the pilots that were at my age and experience level died when they made stupid decisions—they either didn’t get the right instruction at the right time or they didn’t listen to it.

“You’re absolutely right that I come whistling into the pattern entry with excess speed. I do it on a 45 to downwind where I have the best chance to see every airplane in the pattern and I’ve been listening on CTAF for the last 10 minutes and broadcasting my position from the time I was 10 miles out. That’s step one.

“When I’m almost where I want to be for the downwind leg, I roll into a 50-degree bank and pull hard. That gives me a clearing turn—a change in perspective that uncovers some of the blind spots the airplane has in level flight—and it creates motion and puts a wing up so the airplane draws the eyes of other pilots. I want to do all I can to be seen by other airplanes in the area. I’ve got the landing light and strobes on, and the steep turn—it’s less than a 60-degree bank, so it’s legal—makes the airplane more visible. The rapid roll in, hard pull and rapid roll out combine to scrub off about 20 knots of airspeed. That way I’m on downwind at about 110 knots—not so fast that I run over the trainers, but not so slow that I’m an en route altitude block for the high-performance airplanes.

“I’m going to be teaching you how to do that once you demonstrate that you can do straight and level at the same time and hold altitude within plus or minus 50 feet when doing steep turns, including the entry and exit. In plain English, right now you’re so busy trying to be laid back that you aren’t using the talent you have to fly the airplane well. You’ve pretty well got the monkey motion of controlling the airplane down; I’m trying to reach your burgeoning aviation brain and keep it from killing you while you learn the value of precision flying.”

Sandy had Karver’s undivided attention; she went on without pause. “I love doing power-off spot landings. I usually fly the Citabria at 1.3 Vso from the time I’m finishing up my base leg because that’s the best speed for a combination of control response for crosswinds, gusts and turbulence, glide distance and energy to manage prior to touching down as slowly as possible. I touch down low to minimize the risk of loss of control on rollout. The rollout accident rate for tailwheel airplanes is more than twice that of nosewheel airplanes, so I want to minimize touchdown speed to minimize risk on the landing roll.

“As you’ve seen, from time to time I slip all the way through the approach because I know the airplane and what it will do. I like the responsiveness of the controls so that I can hold a slip into the flare and then kick it out so I’m going absolutely straight, with no yaw, at touchdown, and, above all, because it’s a lot of fun. And, I’m going to teach you to do it once I see that you can nail your airspeed within a couple of knots on an approach.

“So, answer me this: With a slipping turn to final in mind, what happens when you stall an airplane in a slip?”

Karver knew that one cold: “It rolls really quickly and the nose pitches down hard.”

“That’s why I’ve had you do cross-controlled stalls,” Sandy said. “You’ve gotten pretty fast at recovering, but how much altitude do we usually lose?”

“300, maybe 400 feet.” Suddenly the light bulb lit. Karver went on, “So if I stall the airplane while doing the slipping turn to final, there’s a pretty good chance of hitting the ground.”

“I knew you were smart,” Sandy responded. “OK, so what happens if you’ve got lots of extra airspeed in that slipping turn because you’re worried that you’re gonna stall and over-compensate?”

Karver thought for a moment. “Then I’m probably going to float a long ways down the runway, even if I keep the airplane in the slip for a while once I flare.”

“Right. And you’re the guy who wants to go into way short, backcountry strips. Are you going to have enough runway to touch down and get stopped if you float?”

“Oops. Nope.”

“Is my focus on speed making sense now?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“Good. Because I’ve been having you fly final at 1.3 Vso, which is really cooking when the strip is short. Once you show me speed control, I’m going to have you coming down final at 1.2 or even 1.15 Vso so you can make those cool STOL landings you want to make. That’s going to mean really tight speed control so you don’t stall and don’t float. What do you think?”

In a quiet voice he said, “I think I can do it.”

“I know you can. Let’s talk a bit about what happens if we touch down with the airplane yawed—after all, we may slip all the way into the flare so the airplane will be yawed when it’s only inches above the ground and we’ve only got moments to straighten it out.”

“You keep telling me that if you touch down yawed in a tailwheel airplane there’s a good chance that because the center of gravity is behind the main gear the airplane will swerve so violently that I won’t be able to control it. But, hey, a little yaw isn’t bad. I’ve shown you that I can straighten the airplane out on roll out.”

“The question,” Sandy commented, “is how much is a ‘little’ yaw? I’ve let you touch down with what I consider to be a little yaw and you’ve nearly hit both edges of the runway as you tried to get the airplane under control. Because there are so many variables—wind, airplane center of gravity, weight, touchdown speed, you name it—the exact number of degrees of yaw on touchdown that will generate loss of control versus letting you get the airplane stopped without bending anything is unknown. So, knowing that you may have your work cut out for you on rollout in a crosswind anyway, why not put your tolerance for degrees of yaw on touchdown at zero? I think you’re good enough to do that, even when slipping all the way into the flare—but only if you’ve made a conscious decision going in as to what level of precision you’ll accept for yourself.”

“Sandy, I’m not one of those ‘hold my beer and watch this yahoos,’ I just want to have fun in the airplane.”

“I never thought you were. I keep thinking of the way some friends of mine who race cars talk about how they go into a high-speed corner. They say that they want to make sure they have the car ‘collected.’ They want to be on speed, with the weight centered on the suspension and the throttle in exactly the right position so that they can ‘toss’ the car into the corner and take it at maximum speed. You want to toss the airplane around. I think that’s fine. But you’ve got to have it collected first. That means you’ve got to know what it will do and won’t do and you’ve got to have the skill and judgment to know when it’s collected for that short field landing, or loop or snap roll. You’ve got to know how much runway you’re going to need and how to pin the airspeed on the number you know will allow you to get down and stopped.”

“Ok, that makes sense.”

“I don’t mean to come across as preaching. You have the makings of a very good pilot and right now you’re feeling pretty indestructible because of a combination of your age and experience. If there’s anything flying has taught me, it’s humility. Flying is hugely fun, but the sky’s tolerance for ignorance of aerodynamics and physics or foolishness on the part of pilots can be nonexistent. The more I know, the more I realize how much I have to learn. I have learned that by doing my best to internalize the need to be precise all of the time has done a couple of very good things: It’s heightened my enjoyment of flying; I can toss an airplane all over the sky because I’ve got it collected all the time; and it’s kept me alive when things have gone badly wrong and being able to make a spot landing really mattered.”

“Sandy, it sounds like you want to make me into an autopilot.”

“I don’t mean to come across that way. I agree that autopilots can usually fly an airplane more precisely than a human and, to my disappointment, I think that most military ops and civilian flight for hire will eventually be automated. But so far machines don’t think and they can’t experience the joy we pilots feel of a slip to a landing on a summer evening, a nearly perfect slow roll around a point or breaking out on an approach to minimums and seeing the runway through the driving rain. We’re flying because we love to do it. In my opinion, that means doing it in a fashion that we’ll be able to continue to do it instead of erasing ourselves because we messed up and crashed, and doing it with some lan and panache. When it’s the hardest to learn to do something, that’s the thing we most enjoy doing once we’ve learned it, right?”

“I hadn’t thought about it that way, but yeah.”

“Flying is a part of your life, isn’t it? In many ways, doesn’t it define who you are?”

“Damn right it does.”

“Then how to you want to be defined—as somebody who just drives airplanes around and so far has managed not to wreck one or as a someone who truly flies them, who moves comfortably in the third dimension, who is alive in the sky, who knows what an airplane will and won’t do, who has precision flight in his very soul, takes joy in always putting the airplane right where you want it and is always trying to learn and be a better pilot?”

“When you put it that way, that’s easy.”

“Good, then you’re alive. Now it’s time to teach you how to become one with the Citabria.” She got up and started toward the door; Karver followed in close formation. “Tomorrow you’re going to show me that you can hold airspeed within five knots on final and then we’re going to do slips down final, all the way into the flare.”

As they disappeared down the hall, I heard Karver’s voice, “OK. What time are we flying?”

Out of the window I could see the beam of the rotating beacon sweeping through the darkness, calling out its song of a safe haven to pilots.

It was a very nice evening.

Rick Durden is a CFII, holds an ATP with type ratings in the Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation and is the author ofThe Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing it, Vols. 1 & 2.