Airport Stories: Airwork

My fellow pilots, please note the following: yes, I did simplify some parts of the flight, and possibly some dramatic license in one or two places. That’s because I don’t want to bore the non-pilots to tears. This is primarially entertainment, not flight instruction
Here I am at last, sitting in the cockpit of a Citabria, ready to start my taildragger lessons!

I spent the first ten minutes squirming around in the seat. Really.

You see, this isn’t like a car, or a later airplane, with adjustable seats. Oh, no - the seats are firmly and permanently affixed to the airframe floor. So, I got in, sat down, and felt for the rudder pedals. I could just, barely, get full throw on them using tippy-toes… um, not acceptable. So we dug the spare cushion out of the back of the airplane and put it behind me, pushing me further forward and allowing more comfortable rudder operations. Yeah, that was important, given that taildraggers require a LOT of rudder on the ground, during take-off, and landing.

Next step - can I see out the front? Um… yeah… sure, the engine and prop block some of the view but I’ll be able to avoid obstacles in front of the airplane. Onward!

I suspect there’s this idea out there that the cockpit of any airplane is Very Sophisticated, full of dials and gauges and what not, and I have flown some that had a lot of stuff in front of me on the control panel. The Citabria in question, however, is not like that. Sure, there’s an airspeed indicator, and vertical speed indicator, tachometer, a bare-bones turn indicator… but no artificial horizon. There’s an ILS glideslope but C (sitting behind me, owner of flight school and my instructor for the day) tells me that it’s past due for an accuracy check and she couldn’t say for sure if it was working or not. No one has actually used that particular instrument in a long, long while because this is a VFR airplane - that is, it is flown under Visual Flight Rules. It is not legal to take this airplane into instrument-requiring conditions, and it would be very, very foolish to do so. You see, even the most accomplished instrument-rated pilot requires a certain complement of instruments to fly safely in such conditions, and this airplane simply doesn’t have those instruments. OK - so we’ll stick to good weather. In addition to these minimal instruments, there is one communication radio and one navigation radio, and a transponder. And, oh yes, an electric starter. No ignition key required here - the starter is a push buttom affair.

Hey, where are the gas tank indicators?

Oh - they’re up there, above my head, on the wing roots where I can’t possibly see them from my seat. And, I’m informed, not very accurate. “Terrible” was the word used. Still no problem - I know how much gas is in the tanks (I just supervised the fueling as part of the pre-flight), the amount of gas it burns per hour is on the paperwork for the airplane, and I have a watch.

The “electrical system” - such as it is - is also mounted behind and above the pilot, on the left. At least the switches are within easy reach. Master, magnetos, beacon light, navigation lights, in-plane intercom… and that’s it, really. No extras.

The throttle is on the left, on the wall of the airplane, as is the trim. These are both knob-like affairs mounted in a slot so they can slide back and forth. These slots have a metal surrond that used to have enameled print on them, but 40 years of hands have worn most of the writing away. There is an honest-to-Og joystick mounted on the floor. No, it’s not one of those little jobbies you use for computer games, this is the original incarnation of a control stick, about three feet long, with a push-to-talk switch on top - clearly, an after purchase modification. This arrangement, power with left/steer with right, is opposite that of the more common Cessna/Piper/Mooney/Beechcraft airplane makers that use yokes instead of sticks. The change can bother some people - I know this because I started with sticks and switched to yokes so I’ve been down this road before, in the opposite direction. I just hope that six years of yokes haven’t made me completely forget about sticks.

Fuel control is under the left side of the panel. It’s another minimal-looking affair, a lever-type switch painted red. Pointing to the right is OFF, pointing down is ON. It’s a good thing C told me this, because the markings are entirely worn off that baby.

Finally, I locate the jacks to plug in my headset. You know that big honkin’ headsets with enormous ear cups you see pilots wear on TV and in the movies? Yeah, those. Yes, they are heavy. But I like my hearing, and they’re good for 30 db of protection (when properly fitted and worn), not to mention it’s a LOT easier to hear the radio and your flight companion with the headsets blocking engine and wind noise. The jacks on are on the left side of the minimal control panel.

Alright, ready to start engines!

Going down the checklist - I skipped the “passenger briefing” because there aren’t any passengers and we just spent a half an hour discussing the flight prior to coming out to the airplane, so that’s done. I check my seat belt. I turn in my seat to check C’s got hers on - yes, I’m really that anal. Seat belts - verify no interference with rudder controls. WTF? Oh, right - see, the there is a second set of rudder pedals, the ones for the back seat, mounted left and right of my seat. Pretty close to where my safety harness is achored (since this is an aerobatic plane, the seat belt isn’t just a lap belt - it’s a four-point restraint over hips and both shoulders that’s strong enough to hoist a 1967 Buick off the ground, but I digress…). Thus, it is important to make sure that the lap belt portion of my restraint system is not wrapped around or otherwise interfering with the second set of rudder pedals. OK, that checks out. Make sure fuel valve is ON (very difficult to do visually when strapped in, it is done by feel - hence, worn-off printing is not an issue during flight). Brakes on - that means my feet are pressing on the tops of the rudder pedals, 'cause that’s how the brakes are activated on this thing. All electrical switches OFF except the BEACON - that’s the blinking light on top of the airplane. Door closed, window “as desired” (yes, I have been known to fly with an elbow sticking out the window, much as if I were in my car or pickup truck).

NOW we’re ready to start the engine! Yes, finally.

Master switch - ON. (This starts the beacon flashing, which informs folks within view of it that an airplane is getting ready to start up) Magneto switches - ON (both of 'em. So I turn slightly in the seat, raise my left arm, reach backward slightly, and flip those three on. Throttle - “cracked open”, with the helpful notation that this means 1/2 to 1 inch. That’s distance along the slider starting from all the way back. Carbeurator air - cold… OK, check that knob. Mixture, full rich - grab bright red mix knob, push all the way in. Primer - unlock silver knob, pump four times, push back in, re-lock. Propellor - CLEAR, front and rear… look (really look) forward, to sides, and towards back for people/animals/vehicles that show a high probability of coming near, lean out window and shout “CLEAR PROP!” Starter - PUSH, release after engine starts. Alright - push silver button. Starter and prop go rrrRr…rrrRr…rrrrRr…rrrRr… through several rotations until the engines catches and goes BRRRRRRRRRROAR!!! and the prop spins into near-invisibility. Throttle - check it’s at 1000 rpm and adjust if necessary. Check oil pressure within 30 seconds of start. Proceed to adjust lights and radio “as desired”. Headsets are adjusted, with the phrase “can you hear me now?” repeated a few times, a phrase we flyers were using long before Verizon made it an ad catch-phrase.

OK! Wow! After two years of researching flight schools and thinking about the problem, two weeks of talking with this flight school in particular, and a week of “book learning” and anticipation I am finally at the controls of a taildragger!

I nudged the throttle forward until the Citabria started rolling, then gently applied the brakes to stop it (want to make sure they’re working, ya know?). I slowly taxi out to the run-up area. Directional control isn’t bad - I had been told it wasn’t a problem at slow speeds - but turning requires some definite pushing on the rudder pedals as the airplane is reluctant to respond. OK, just take it slow, easy, and anticipate the turns. First 90 degree direction change starts well, but the airplane keeps going past 90 - oops, didn’t put the “straighten-out” input in quite soon enough so I correct back to my course line. Second 90 change is better. I put-put across the ramp to a spot where I can orient properly to the wind, run up the engine, and not sandblast bystanders or other airplanes. Oh dear, this requires a 180 turn – which goes alright, especially after that extra nudge on the throttle to use some power to turn it around.

Alright - brakes SET (me doing the shove with the toes routine again); flight controls - CHECK freedom of movement, that is, the stick goes all the way left, right, forward and back to make sure the controls are operating properly (proper parts of wings and tail move in the correct directions) and easily, nothing snagged anywhere. Elevator trim - SET for take off - trim is… oh, don’t want to interupt here… it helps the pilot maintain the proper angle of attack and airspeed so it’s somewhat like a gear setting on a car and somewhat like cruise control but really like neither at all. Flight instruments - CHECK, or in other words, make sure your altimeter is reading correctly and your radios are on the correct frequencies. Fuel - ON, check it again. Mix - RICH, make sure knob is all the way in. Primer - CHECK, make sure it’s locked. Engine instruments - CHECK, in other words, make sure all the gauges are “in the green”. Yes, they really are marked with green paint along the “acceptable” range.

Now we can do the engine run up. By the way - have you noticed that in aviation there’s this continual aspect of getting ready, preliminary procedures, and more getting ready before you actually do anything?

OK, stick all the way back. Throttle to 1800 rpm Mageneto check - you turn one off, observe the rpm drop, turn it back on, and repeat with the other. After which you make sure both are in the ON position. This confirms that the magnetos are both working. Each mageto supplies spark to half your spark plugs so, yeah, they’re sort of important to continued engine running. Carb heat - turn on (you use this if you start get ice forming in your engine, which can happen in ambient temps as high as 20 C), observe drop in rpm that indicates it is functioning, turn carb heat off. Check engine gauges are in the green. Return throttle to 1000 rpm’s Check the magnetos again, make sure both are ON. Make sure cabin door is closed and latched. Close and latch windows. Check seat restraints again. Turn on lights as needed (not needed this day). Turn transponder to “ALT”, which is “altitude Mode C reporting”, which is way more technical that anyone here probably wants to know. Check for traffic before proceeding to runway and sky. In other words, look both ways and up.

By the way, needing to hold the stick all the way back during run up is an illustration how you should think of the Citabria as flying even when on the ground. If you don’t hold the stick back, which has the effect of holding the tail down, then during engine run up or other high throttle settings the prop+engine is capable of causing a “nose-over” if mishandled, especially if you’ve been careless about positioning and the wind is coming from behind. Essentially, the prop is spinning with such force that it can pull the airplane into a nose stand (although you really have to screw up awfully for that to happen). This will qualifty as a Bad Day for several reasons. First, a nose-over will, if allowed to proceed far enough, result in a contest between prop and ground as to which is tougher. So far, props have largely lost these duels. Depending on what the prop hits, you will have dirt, rocks, grass, or large chunks of pavement slung right and left with great force and speed. I’ve seen this sort of debris punch through the metal walls of hangars a surprising distance away - a hundred meters is still not safely distant. Frequently, the prop shatters at some point. This means shards of metal or wood flying about, again with great speed and force, and they can go any direction - left, right, up, down… usually more forward than back, but back/aft is also possible. Around this time it will be noted that the airplane is now sort of standing on its nose, an inherently unstable position. Shortly after the prop disintegrates the airframe will flop over. Typically, back onto landing gear or to one side or the other although forward somersaults resulting in inverted landings are also possible. This will result in crumpling and breakage of various bits, which have probably already suffered from flung debris. But we’re not done yet - interactions between the prop remnants and engine (which is likely to still be running, if the idiot in the cockpit hasn’t been able to shut it down - this will all happen in a matter of a second or two) can impart a spinning motion which will result in the airframe rolling over and over, with much folding and crumpling and breaking until you have something resembling a ball of aluminum and wood sticks mixed with shredded cloth. Which is more or less what you wind up with. People have survived this sort of adventure, but the odds of severe injury or death are significant. These things don’t happen very often but it’s terribly embarassing when they do. So, um, do please try to remember to point yourself into the wind properly and keep that stick all the way back into your belly. You’re using a flight control to hold the airplane in place, and thus you are “flying” even though you are on the ground and standing still - if you weren’t “flying” it at a standstill you’d be moving, and most likely not in a way you’d want to go. If the engine is running - you’re flying. (You can also fly without the engine running, which is why airplanes left outside are literally tied or chained down in place. It really is to keep them wandering off on their own).

After everything checks out, we go to the runway. Yes, we really will get off the ground today! I remind C I probably know just enough about taildraggers to be dangerous, and she says OK, remember I’ll be right here as I talk you through a take-off.

Well, here I am, strapped in and facing down the runway.

Have I ever mentioned my worst experiences in airplanes are usually during take-offs? I never pull onto a runway without a tiny bit of trepidation. At a certain point during the take-off you are committed to flight in a way that’s hard for non-pilots to understand - there’s a point at which it is more dangerous - no matter what is happening - to try to stop than to go forward and up. It doesn’t help that I’ve never rode in a Citabria before. Although it’s an airplane and all airplanes share many features in common, no two airplanes are exactly alike, either - there’s an aspect of not quite knowing, for sure, what will happen next. And I will be doing the take-off - you learn to fly by flying.

Deep breath. I’m ready. Full power. We roll forward, slowly at first, then picking up speed. C is talking to me, words of encouragement and “right rudder-right rudder- more right rudder”. It’s the engine torque pulling the airplane to the left, you see. We’re rolling along and so far not much is different.

Then the tail comes up.

It does that automatically, by the way. Remember, boys and girls, it’s the wind over the wings that makes the magic happen. When the airplane is going forward at a certain speed it flies. In a taildragger, when the airplane is going foward at a certain speed the tail - the horizontal portion of which is also an airfoil, just like the wing - starts flying and lifts up. Which means the front part - where I’m sitting - rotates somewhat forward and down. I now have a MUCH better view of the runway, and I start to lose control of the airplane. Partly it’s the change of viewpoint, but it’s also because at that point the airplane really is less stable on the ground since it went from being a tripod to a bipod at that point.

C goes tap-tap-tap on the rudders, getting everything under control again, and says “Your plane, hold it there, let it fly off by itself”

So that’s what I did - hold the airplane on center (that took a LOT more footwork than airplanes I’ve been flying, but was manageable) and the throttle forward. A couple hundred more feet we reached the Magic Airspeed and, all by itself, it lifted off and up. Which really is like magic - that this bundle of metal and wood and cloth suddenly leaps up into the sky.

I used the stick to adjust my airspeed for best climb. The airplane bucked slightly in a gust as we went up, but stabilized almost immediately. 400 feet off the ground I started a gentle turn to the right to leave the traffic pattern over the airport. I ask C what next. She said to climb to 3,000 feet and we’ll do airwork.

You see, although 90% of what I’ll be doing to get my taildragger endorsement is getting off and onto the ground, the first hour or two will take place at several thousand feet. And why is that, you say? Because landing is no time to be figuring out how to fly the machine.

This is true of any aircraft - you have to learn it’s features and quirks. Even more so with the Citabria. C needs to know that I’m comfortable with steering with my right and throttling with my left, instead of vice-versa. I need to know where the controls are by second nature - on final approach I won’t have time to hunt around for anything. I need to know how fast it climbs and descends at different power settings, how much force is needed to turn it - and how much needed to stop turning. I need to get used to the particular noises of this airplane, its engine and the wind against the fuselage, learn if that rattle is the door or a seat belt or something else. I need to get used to how the wind nudges or throws it around.

So, we start with the very basics - straight and level, can I hold altitude and airspeed, can I climb or descend and stop that vertical motion at a precise altitude (or do I overshoot the mark?). Shallow turns, standard turns, steep turns. Then we combine those manuvers - a turning climb, a turning descent. C asks to see particular altitudes and airspeeds and it’s up to me to deliver. This gets me used to the airplane, and it allows her to judge my piloting ability. Time goes by, and I get more precise - mind you, C hasn’t touched the controls since just after the tail rose up. She’s letting me make my mistakes and correct them, offering advice but the point here is to let me fly the airplane.

Then she asks for slowflight.

When I talk to non-pilots, they often ask me about flying fast. That’s nothing - it’s easy to fly fast. Flying slow is what takes skills. The more air going over the wings and control surfaces the better the airplane responds, but when you slow down there’s less air going over those bits and the airplane just…doesn’t…respond…fast.

If you’ve ever driven over a road that has a thin, slick, slightly damp sheet of ice on it - that’s what flying an airplane at it’s minimum airspeed is like. If you waggle the controls it just wants to ignore your inputs, it responds slowly, very slowly, and you slip and skid.

Slowflight it is, then - I pull back on the throttle, put on the carb heat, raise the nose, pull back the power some more, easing into this new edge of the flight envelope. The airplane gradually becomes less responsive. We start pulling towards the left again - engine torque and also p-factor (which is a feature of propellors and airstreams I don’t care to explain at the moment, because it would take awhile) I push on the right rudder pedal to compensate. If I had to use one word to describe how this whole thing feels at the moment, it would be “wallowing”.

“OK,” said C “Show me a right turn.”

Slowly I turn… the trick here is to turn at minimum airspeed without going below that airspeed, or climbing, or descending, or speeding up. Turn on the edge of flight, and make it smooth.

So, turns right and left. Then it’s time for a stall or three.

“Stall”, in airplanes, has nothing to do with the engine, it has to do with the wing, and whether or not it’s flying. Remember, it’s the air going over the wing that holds you up, that makes this whole trick work. But it’s not just any airflow that works - the airflow has to be “laminar”, that is, smooth and lift-generating. In order for that to happen, the wing has to impact the air within a certain range of angles, called angle of attack. In slowflight, at MCA or minimum controllable airspeed, you’re flying at the maximum angle of attack.

So, while as a general rule, if you pull the stick back you go up, at maximum angle of attack that’s no longer true. Our first stall was power-off - that is, I pulled the throttle back to idle, still maintaining things at the very edge of flight. Things are getting relatively quiet - not only is the engine noise at minimum, but the sound of air flowing by the fuselage has dropped away to nothing. There’s a faint whiff of exhaust - the airstream is no longer carrying it away with the usual efficiency. Then I pulled the stick back just a little bit more. The airplane shuddered gently as the airflow over the wings went from laminar to turbulent. When that happened, lift ceased to be generated and down we went.

Which gives you entirely the wrong idea.

A power-off stall in competent hands is pretty gentle in most airplanes, including the Citabria. Remember that airplanes are designed to fly. Yes, we were losing altitude rapidly, the vertical speed indicator pegged to the stop in the negative range. But it doesn’t feel like falling, not when you’re high up. You don’t tumble, not if the wings are kept level (which, by the way, is done with the feet and rudders, because the wings aren’t working, which means the ailerons aren’t working either - you can rock the stick back and forth sideways with zero effect, or close to it). You’re just… descending. The nose drops, but then stabilizes. If you’re willing to work the rudders, and you have the altitude, you can continue in this manner for some time (it’s called a “falling leaf stall” because you’re flutting down much like a falling leaf)

I released the backpressure on the stick. The nose dropped even futher - but that’s a good thing. Why? Because it decrease the angle of attack, which restores laminar airflow, flight, and lift. At the same time, I push the throttle full forward, which pulls the airplane forward, which also increase the airflow. The airspeed goes from zero to 40… 50… 60… we’re not only flying, we’re back to climbing.

Why do we do all that - you’ll find out later.

We do more of that. Then we do power on stalls. First I slowed the airplane down to 50-60 mph (take-off speed). Then full speed ahead, and pull back hard on the stick. Up we go, up - up - up… but our airspeed is dropping off rapidly now. The engine is still roaring at full power, but the noise is dropping off anyway, the airstream diminishing into silence. I’m really having to jam that right rudder in, because the engine is trying to turn the airplane over while the flight controls are becoming less and less effective due to dropping airspeed. The shudder returns - harder now, and I’m dancing on the rudders to keep the wings level and things under control –

The nose drops, we’re dropping - we’re stalled, even if the engine is at full power, because the airflow has come unstuck from the wing. I let the nose fall until the airspeed comes alive again, and now the wind is roaring along with the engine as we speed up and fly again.

C checks my altitude after every stall - acceptable is 100 feet lost or less, preferably a lot less. In fact, it’s best if you lose no altitude at all relative to where you started - you fly, stall, and fly again as quickly as possible.

After stalls we climb up to 3000 feet again then try some best glide practice. That’s a practice for an engine failure. You pull the engine back to idle, then adjust for the most efficient airspeed, the one that will allow you to travel the furthest distance before touching the ground. More turns - when gliding you’re always descending but a turn brings you down even faster, and the steeper the bank the faster your descent.

This airwork - done at a safe altitude, meaing one that gives you time to correct mistakes - is all about learning to control the airplane, learning what it does and how it handles, especially at low power settings and slow speeds.

We’ve been up for an hour and a half, and by this time I’m starting to have fun. The initial uncertainty about this airplane has worn off. It’s actually easy to handle in the air and I know where everything is with minimal fumbling. Time to head for home.

My first landing.

I’m going to need help.

Taildraggers handle best on turf, not pavement. Homebase has a paved runway. But that’s OK - C will have her hands and feet on the controls, ready to take over if or whenever necessary.

I’ve mentioned the “traffic pattern” before - it’s a standardized way to fly in the vicinity of an airport. Typically, you enter it “on the downwind”, meaning you fly downwind parallel to the runway at a set altitude (known as “pattern altitude”), usually entering this “downwind leg” at a 45 degree angle. It’s a lot like merging onto a freeway. You fly along, adjust your engine settings, judging the effects of wind, and so forth. When you come even with your planned touchdown point you pull back on the power, in this case to 1500-1700 rpms (from a potential maximum of 2500) and slow down to an airspeed of 80. You continue on downwind until you’re ready to turn towards the runway which, in most cases, is a 90 degree left turn. As you turn, you reduce power further and slow down to 70. This is the “base leg”. Another 90 degree left turn brings you to final approach. If you’ve down it correctly, you are lined up with the center of the runway and you can pull the power back entirely to idle, reducing speed to 60-65 (65 being approximately best glide). At this point you “have the runway made” - if your engine quit you just sit tight and slide on down gently to the ground. As you pass over the edge of the runway, as you come down closer, you bring that stick back more and more. Finally, just above the ground, you pull back that one little bit more, the airspeed drops to zero, and all three wheels touch down gently and simultaneously.

(If that sounds a lot like a power-off stall you are correct - a three point landing in a taildragger is a power-off stall just slightly above the ground. You don’t have far to fall, so the touch-down is gentle)

Anyhow - that’s how it is supposed to happen.

What really happened is this: I flew downwind with no problem - in fact, except for the location of the controls, this wasn’t any different than most airplanes I fly. There are no flaps on the Citabria, but I’m equally comfortable using or not using flaps so no big deal. The rpm settings and airspeeds are almost identical to the other airplanes I fly. Traffic patterns are almost always 800-1000 feet above the ground, so that’s famillar. I pulled out onto final just a little to the right of where I wanted to be - no biggie, just a slight misjudging of the wind. I fix that, lining it up with the center line. I’m a tad high and fast - that’s nerves, I tend to fly high and fast if I’m a bit on edge. No problem - power all the way back, a slight slip, and I’m on the right altitude. Got the airspeed under control… we’re over the edge of the airfield… past the end of the runway…

Keep in mind, we’re slowing down which means I must apply more input into the controls to get the same amount of effect. The wings are starting to wobble. The main wheels touch down, but the tail is still flying for a minute. I hold it together briefly. The tail drops. We zigged right, then zagged left, then –

tap-tap-tap went C’s feet “Stay with it.” she said.

I tried, start to lose it again –


Rinse and repeat.

2/3 down the runway we’ve slowed down, the airplane decides to be cooperative again, I resume control, and we returned back to the hangar. Lesson One over. One take off, half a landing, and 1.5 hours in my log book.

Fun read Broomstick…

Slow flight is fun stuff…

Great storytelling, Broomstick, I really enjoyed it. Plus, it reminds me that I, myself, will never be a pilot. I just ain’t got the nerves!!!

Ahhh… don’t spare us the technical details. I don’t fly and chances are I’ll never get motivated enough to do so, but I love reading your posts about it, the more crazy technical the better. You really bring the whole thing to life!


You’ve given me more insight into what piloting actuallly is than anything else I’ve read, and I’ve read a fair bit about aviation. Thanks for taking the time to tell us about it. Feel free to write more.

Ah, then ya’ll probably will love to hear about the crosswind wheellandings and the tuna fish sandwhich.

Later - I got a real work out today and I’m beat. Actually, I’m about three weeks behind in the writing, been too busy flying.

And, oh yeah - let me know what technical questions you want to ask - always willing to explain more. :slight_smile:

You remind me of my most “exciting” landing in a commerical jetliner. It was either Salt Lake or Denver, can’t remember. Anyway, we had such a cross wind the pilot had to do his approach with the nose a good 20-30 degrees off the runway heading. I got the thrilling experience of watching the runway approaching me from a SIDE window, thinking, “*gee, I don’t think the wheels can roll in **that *direction

So at the last half-second, he straightens out, and slams us into the ground, a filling-loosening crunch; I guess he was trying to apply “negative lift” / downforce to keep us from drifting in the wind.

So yeah, please do enlighten us on what you do when your best runway has a major crosswind. and you have a tunafish sandwich,

With or without the tuna (which, yesterday, was not mine but in the possession of the gentleman behind me, who inhaled it in a remarkably short period of time), you do pretty much what you experienced. You fly at the runway sideways and straighten out just above the pavement.

Oh, wait - you probably want to know why you do that. Oh, OK…

Let’s review a couple important concepts about Landing an Airplane:

  1. You want to hit the planet gently, relatively speaking

  2. No matter how big or how small, the wind blows the airplane around.

  3. You want to remain in control at all times.

Number one doesn’t really need explaining - we all figure that out relatively early in life, about the same we start walking and discover what falling down is all about.

Number two… when you’re flying you’re embedded in the air mass. When it moves around it takes you with it. It’s like the current of a river pushing a boat around. The current, the wind can work for you or against you, but it’s always there and you ignore it at your peril.

Number three is the biggie - you want to remain in control. And there’s a tricky bit in every landing (and every take-off, for that matter) when you aren’t entirely in control of the situation. You want to minimize that time period.

Airplanes have two support and steering systems. On the ground, the airplane is supported by the landing gear and steered by doing things with the wheels and brakes. In the air, the airplane is supported by the wings (and to a lesser extent, the tail) and steered by the flight controls - ailerons, rudder, and elevator.

Sitting on the ground, the flight controls are pretty useless. They aren’t much better at the slow speeds of taxi, either - it’s the wind over the wings that makes the airplane fly, and at taxi there just ain’t enough air movement to do much. Yes, I’m beating this to death, but it’s a really, really important concept in the take-off/landing part of flight. And I’m going to explain your landing by talking about take-off. Be patient, all will become clear.

Anyhow, there you are on the ground, flight controls useless, at the end of a runway. Go to full throttle and start rolling. At a certain speed, the airplane “comes alive” or “gets light” - there are numerous ways pilots talk about it. What’s happening is that the airspeed is sufficient that the wings start becoming effective and are beginning to take the load off the wheels. And that’s fine - the wings don’t become fully effective all at once, but it happens pretty quick.

Now, consider how wheels work. They require traction - call that “useful friction”. They need enough friction to “grip” the surface they’re on, without overly restricting movement. This traction is partly a characteristic of the physical properties of the rubber itself, but it’s also related to the amount of weight pushing down on those wheels. Up to a point, the more weight, the better traction, which is why on slippery winter roads you might add weight to the truck of your car.

As the wings become more and more effective, supporting more and more of the weight of the airplane, they’re taking weight off the wheels. That means the faster and further down the runway you go on take-off the less and less traction you have. If you’ve ever skidded out on a slick road you know exactly what this is like - and that happens on every take-off, you lose traction in on the landing gear. It’s not a problem in airplanes, though, because unlike your car, your airplane doesn’t need to be touching a roadway to be steerable.

But on every take-off (or landing) there’s a time period (ideally, very brief) when the weight is neither wholly on the wheels nor wholly on the wings, and neither steering system is 100% effective. It is that point where you are most likely to lose control, and it almost always happens when the wind shoves at you, moving you where you don’t want to go and you don’t have the means to counteract it efficiently. And that’s the chief hazard of crosswinds.

Now, most of the time this really isn’t a huge issue. Keep the airplane pointed down the runway and momentum will tend to carry you safely through the danger point, which is brief in any case.

Now, we’ll get back to landings. On every landing, you go through the exact same danger zone, for the exact same reason, but in reverse order. The weight starts out supported on the wings, but as you land you slow down and the flight controls become less effective. When you first touch down on a gentle landing you have almost no traction, but as you continue to slow down more and more weight is transferred to the wheels.

But let’s get back to that sideways-flying crosswind landing. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the runway runs north-south and the wind is blasting away from due west. If you fly with the nose pointing south, the wind, pushing you from the west, will actually make your course over the ground follow a southeast heading because the airplane moves with the air. You may be flying due south relative to the air but because the air is moving, you’re moving southwest relative to the ground. Since you want to get onto the ground, how you’re moving in relation to it is important. You need to fly due south relative to the ground

You do that by heading upwind. And that’s why the nose is cocked noticably off the centerline of the runway - the pilot is actually flying upwind, he or she is now flying south relative to the ground and south-west relative to the air. Done properly, this gives the proper runway heading, but the nose points off ground course. This is calling “crabbing into the wind” (because crabs move sideways, and at that point, so do you) A 20-30 degree “crab angle” is pretty significant.

Another technique is to delibrately approach the runway from the west and let the wind blow you “downstream” to where you want to be. In a really brisk crosswind you might use both techniques.

And this works as you approach the runway.

There’s just one tiny problem.

Wheels don’t roll sideways.

The airplane has to be straighted out before touchdown. It’s very important. Although the wheels can tolerate a teeny amount of sideways motion, it’s very teeny because the forces generated by a landing passenger jet are massive. Landing sideways will rip the landing gear off the airplane, and that would be just the start of some Bad Things happening in quick succession. So the pilot has to kick it into a straight-down-the-runway course just before the gear meets pavement.

But remember - as soon as you do that, the wind puts you back on that southeast-relative-to-the-ground course, which also induces that nasty side-loading you don’t want. You can use the flight controls and wings to continue to counter act that, but… at this point the wings are losing their effectiveness. And, as of yet, you don’t have a lot of traction.

That nasty, nasty danger zone again!

The only thing you can really do is minimize that danger zone as much as possible. And that means transferring the weight from wings to wheels as quickly and as completely as possible. You want to stop flying immediately, just kill that lift, which drops you onto those wheels with some force. Yes, you really are falling those few remaining inches, and it can rattle your teeth. (And that’s pretty darn amazing, how landing gear stands up to something as massive as a passenger jet falling on top of it) But it’s safer that way - the weight goes onto the wheels immediately and give the pilot a way to control that mass of metal and flesh hurtling down the pavement. The passengers hate it, and it might scare them. Too bad - I mean, I’m really sorry if that sort of thing does scare you, but it’s the safest way to get everyone on the ground and, for better or worse, any competant pilot is going to put safety before comfort. We’d prefer everyone be comfortable, but everyone has to be safe.

Honestly, I don’t like drop-down landings myself, but at least I know why they need to be done that way. Next time you’re in that situation at least you’ll know why that’s happening, and perhaps take some comfort in the thought that the pilot is doing everything possible to maximize your safety.

And, more importantly, his/her safety :smiley:

Hey, good to hear about your first tail-wheel flight!

I’m not going to quote relevant bits because there’s rather a lot of good stuff to delete, and I’m just too lazy basically.

You mentioned being “anal” by checking your instructor’s harness, and I’m sure you know that we’d expect nothing less from a professional pilot such as you (“professional” referring to an attitude rather than a job you know?)

You also talked about the need to hold the stick back in your stomach to hold the tail on the ground. I had that habbit so ingrained in me that my instructor, when I did my twin and IFR rating, had to gently tell me that in slightly larger aircraft with a nose wheel it is not required. I had been taxiing around in a Baron wearing my arms out by holding the yoke right back and holding into wind aileron as well :). Hey! I’d been flying a Tiger Moth for the last 4 or 5 years.

It also reminded me of the starting technique used in a T6 Texan. When starting the Texan you need one arm to continually pump the manual fuel pump, your other arm is used on a switch which first spins up a flywheel and then engages it to the engine to turn it over, then your other arm is supposed to be holding the stick back. Hang on, I don’t have that many arms. So you have to hold the stick back with one of your legs and hope that the park brake holds, or hold the brakes with your feet and hope you haven’t inadvertantly set full power and nose the thing over.

Another reason to hold the stick back is that the elevator surfaces are often fabric covered on a tail-dragger and stones and gravel will damage it if it’s left to hang down.

Anyway, it sounds like you are learning a lot and having a lot of fun as you go. I know that at the time it probably feels less like fun and more like a lot of hard work and concentration. You probably don’t have much time to sit back, relax and just enjoy it yet. But there’s nothing quite like that feeling of satisfaction you get after enduring a tough flying lesson where you are given challanges and maybe you meet them, or maybe you don’t but you learn from them and on the next flight the challange is not so great, and this time you are up to more of them. Some of the most fun I’ve had flying, I didn’t know I was enjoying it until I was back in the hanger drinking a cold beer and reflecting back on the day.

Keep the stories coming Broomstick it’s good to hear about people enjoying flying. Some of the pilots you meet in the commercial side of things have forgotten that flying is fun.

Ponder Stibbons, you can be a pilot if you have the desire (and the money, though desire can make the money to some extent.) Nerves are not required, neither is great skill or brain power. Flying is achievable by the vast majority of people; whenever you are learning something, you have a skilled instructor backing you up in case you need help, and we all need help from time to time. If you can drive a car, and pass a fairly basic medical, then you can most likely fly an aeroplane.

A quick note on landing in a cross-wind:

There are two methods. One is to straighten out at the last minute and rely on good timing. The other is to line the nose of the aircraft up with the runway centreline with the rudder control during the flare (where you level out above the runway just prior to landing) and bank the aircraft into the wind, with the ailerons, enough to negate any drifting sideways across the ground. The second method provides more positive control throughout touchdown but in a low wing aircraft you may find that your wing tip is getting quite close to the ground (or more importantly, you feel like it’s getting close to the ground, chicken out, and don’t lower the wing enough.)

Thanks here, too, Broomstick. Your stories would fit right in with any of several aviation magazines. Have you ever considered submitting some for publication?

Yes, I actually have been published - I paid for part of my private license that way.

I have been thinking about doing so again - just have figure out which one to submit it to (which also involves looking into length limits and possibly negotiating them), polish them up, and do it… in the spare time between earning a living, finding time to fly, and, oh yes, all the other things I do in life.

Um… suggestions welcomed. I don’t read all the aviation mags, after all.

Special incentive here, though, is that the outfit I’m taking taildragging training from has a Stearman available for rent. Quite expensive, of course - I’m getting at least one hour of Stearman time into my logbook before I die, but it would be nice to be able to indulge on a regular basis. If I could earn enough writing that might do the trick… hmm…

And let’s face it, a Stearman is the only thing built by Boeing I have the faintest chance of actually flying.

I know :slight_smile: - that was mainly for the non-flyers. I get a lot of non-pilot passengers commenting on my near-obession with checking things prior to flight. Most other pilots, of course, do the same thing. At least, the crowd I hang out with does.

Ah-yep - they are indeed cloth on the Citabria and you are correct, that is another reason.

I don’t find “hard work” and “fun” mutually exclusive. There was some time given for just relaxing in between manuvers on that lesson, and on subsequent ones. The instructor I finally settled on for a steady teacher (I’ll get to that in another thread) does things like have the student land then he taxis back about half the time, to give the student a break as well as let him/her think about what did and didn’t go right just then. All the instructors seem to have a good way of pacing students (though each does so in a slightly different manner).

I’m getting a workout on each lesson (and I’ve been doing two lessons a day, when weather permits) but I’m really have a great time of it. Simple, seat of the pants flying in summer weather with the windows open, the smell of grass and barbeques and lakes from below… it doesn’t get better than that. Except for maybe open cockpit.

And that is sooooo sad :frowning:

That’s true - I wasn’t nearly as brave when I first started flying. It’s something I developed because I took flight lessons.

I don’t have any great natural talent in flying - if I’m a good pilot it’s because I work at being a good pilot (and a safe one). I certainly don’t learn this stuff quickly - so I concentrate on learning it well.

Don’t forget that you were already or have become willing to take full responsibility while you are PIC ( pilot in command ) and that is a must in being a pilot.

I do enjoy the fact that you are able to convey how much fun the whole process is. Flying needs more who can do that if General Aviation is to remain viable.

Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your story. Hope there will be more in the future.

I imagine I’m speaking for the other pilot dopers when I say… We hope you end up getting your CFI. “Aviation” could use a few more good ones. :slight_smile:

Frankly, I wouldn’t mind at all flying the small planes for the pittance such a CFI gets, if only to pay for the flying. Part of the problem is how do I get there from here.

I’ve certainly thought about it… which isn’t as uncertain sounding as it might seem. Sure, I spent two years dithering about the taildragging lessons, but when I finally jumped it was both feet and into the deep end. If I decide to earn a CFI I expect it will be much the same - a couple years of mumbling under my breath while I research and plan, then full speed ahead.

Or maybe I’ll just become a world-famous author and inspire people to go out and get lessons… GA needs people to get interested more than anything, rather than spending the money on golf memberships and SUV’s.

I’m the same way. Dithered around for years, then jumped in and got commercial and CFI in about 4 months (took the Commercial, CFI-A, and Fundamentals of Instrucition writtens all on the same day).

It’s more of a hobby than a vocation (I have a day job). I barely break even when I factor in charts, currency rides, etc. But at least I don’t have to pay to fly (except when I take the family somewhere). At my flight school, I’m the one who teaches the “forty-something” execs who’ve always wanted to learn, but aren’t interested in the intense fly-every-day push like the younger guys. (We’ve got a 141 school, I take the Part 61 guys).

Good luck on the famous aviation-author path. I know Frank Kingston Smith did just that (along with Bax, Richard Collins, etc).
PS. I used to fill Richard Collins’ plane pretty frequently, back in my line-crew days. :stuck_out_tongue:

I’ll keep that in mind.

And don’t forget to check out the newest, latest installment of the Taildragger’s Saga I posted this morning.