We paused at the entrance to the runway to have another look for local traffic and take a last glance at the windsock. The air was dead calm, hot, and getting hotter. J says “No… we’re not going to Cushing today - you’ll learn more by staying here.”
“Learn more”. Interesting term.
We start, of course, with take-off. J explains what he wants me to do, and why. Basically, he wants me to do the take-off using just my feet, just the rudders for directional control. This is an excercise that improves footwork technique, which is vital in taildraggers. Still air is necessary for this, as any form of crosswind will require inputs from the stick.
As we’re reviewing the safety considerations I mention that I had been based at Palwaukee when, in 1996 a corporation-owned Gulfstream IV had failed to compensate adequately for a crosswind on take-off. The NSTB was unable to determine just how hard the wind was blowing at Palwaukee, as the instrumentation had been blown entirely off the roof of the tower prior to the attempted take-off that ended in disaster, which even in Chicago is a bit stronger than usual. To my mind, the weather measuring equipment going airborne without benefit of aircraft is a sign that perhaps one should not be flying at all that day, but not to the pilot in question.
Despite warnings from the tower regarding the absence of part of the roof of the tower, mention that O’Hare was talking of shutting down, and one of more dire admonishments you can ever get from ATC - “Take-off is not recommended, Please, we strongly recommend you not do this” - the pilot insists that he can handle it. He starts down runway 34 with the crosswind almost perpendicular to his route of travel (he has no choice if he’s taking off - runway 34 is the only one long enough for his airplane).
A gust of wind gets under his left wing and flips the whole airplane over as easily as if it was a autumn leaf. The Gulfstream cartwheeled, shedding parts as it went skidding and bouncing down the runway, blasted through the runway end indictor lighting, through the airport fence, through several earthen berms, through trees, through powerlines, up one side of a freeway embankment, briefly through the air (this is the only point at which they were airborne at all, visible the next several months as a green interruption in a very long, black scorchmark), back down to the ground, through more trees and fences, and finally the remains came to rest in the parking lot of an apartment complex on top of several cars and trucks, all of which burned merrily for a couple hours. Fortunately, no one outside the airplane was hurt although it very nearly crashed into the apartments. (The developer HAD been warned that was a bad spot to build housing).
The accident left chunks of airplane embedded in the runway, the above-ground portions of which were taller than the average person. Not to mention the lovely scorchmark. Or rather, scorched gouge. It was like someone had taken a giant-sized ice-cream scoop to the landscape.
J said "Yeah, I remember hearing about that… "
If you want more detail it’s in the NSTB databank - search under “1996”, “Illinois” and “Gulfstream” (for airplane make) with the category set to fatal accident.
Mind you, neither of us went over the story in that much detail out there on the taxiway - that’s for your benefit. In general, pilots don’t delve too deeply into discussions of fatalities while actually flying. It’s a distraction at best. Anyhow, crosswind control is yet another one of those incredibly routine things in aviation that are nonetheless vitally important.
Anyhow - this day was a rare day that didn’t require crosswind inputs. So, the plan was that I wouldn’t hold the stick so much as circle it with my fingers, but not quite touching (so if a gust did start up the stick could be grabbed instantly). I was to let the stick “float”, use the rudders to keep us on track, and let the airplane fly itself off the ground.
OK, I took it out to the end of the runway and lined it up, nose down the runway (it makes these excercises a lot easier if you start with a good set up).
“Just circle the stick, don’t hang onto it.”
“Anytime you’re ready.”
“Any time now.”
“I’m back here if you need me.”
I applied full power. Even as J went into his “Move your feet” chanting my feet were pushing. We accelerated. I pushed harder, starting to shove.
“Tail comes up on three… one…two… thr–”
Have I mentioned yet why the tail coming up is so significant? Several reasons, actually. First, you’re going from a tripod support to a bipod support. Bipods are inherently less stable - when you walk or run (being a bipedal bipod) you are actually continunally falling and catching yourself. When a taildragger tail leaves the ground, it’s in a constant state of wanting to swap ends with itself and you are in a continual state of putting it back on course. It’s sort of a cross between pedaling a bicycle and dancing. The other thing throwing you off course is something called gyroscopic precession.
I hope I don’t mangle the explanation - truthfully, I don’t have a complete grasp of the physics but I do have considerable practical experience in the phenomena. When you have a gryroscopic whatsit - either a spinning toy top or a spinning prop and you exert a force on that spinning device the resulting motion is not in a direct line with the force imposed but rather offset 90 degrees. If you don’t believe this, get a top, spin it, and poke at it with your finger (this is not an uncommon exercerise in flight schools).
A spinning prop has definite gyroscopic properties. When the tail lifts up, it imparts a downward force on that gyro which, due to the direction of the spin, results in a very distinct and strong pull to the left as well as down. At least in North America. In Europe, particularly Eastern Europe, props often spin the other direction, which imposes a strong force pulling to the right and up. J has mentioned that when training people in things like YAKs (a Soviet design) he has to remind himself the airplane will want to veer right instead of left.
Anyhow, were in Bipod Mode now, I’m dancing on the rudders (yes, we do use that phrase) and getting stabilzed directionly … and my hand is still floating around rather than on the stick, which is starting to come back towards me of its own accord. I can feel the airplane getting light, the weight moving from wheel support to wing support. The faster we go the more effective the rudder so the motion is PUSH-PUSH-PUSH-PUSH-push-push…
We lift off - look ma, no hands!
Well, actually at that point we both took hold of the stick, at just about the same time. In theory you can set the trim so the airplane would take off and continue to fly at the proper airspeed but you have to have an awful lot of faith in your ability to set that control properly (keeping in mind that setting will vary depending on who and how many are in the airplane). Adjust for best rate of climb (pretty crappy on a day that hot and humid), up to pattern height, and around.
All of which, once again, demonstrates a very important principal about the sort of small airplanes I fly: they are DESIGNED to fly. I sometimes talk about the “magic” but it’s not magic, it’s simple physics. When the airflow over the wing reaches a certain speed, provided it is within a certain range of angles as it meets the wing, it generates enough lift to pull the aircraft off the ground and into the sky. If you do not have sufficient airspeed you can not fly - although you can hurt yourself badly attempting to force the issue. If you have enough airspeed you can’t avoid flying, the airplane will lift off without needing your input. Even if you held it down on the ground, you’re still using the flight controls to do so, and you will have to control the airplane just as if you were 1,000 feet off the ground. You’re flying at a really low altitude, that’s the only difference.
We did that a couple more times, which definitely improved my take offs. Helped my landings, too.
The first couple landings were straightforward three-point landings - you know, the ones where you bring the airplane in, slow it down, and touch all three wheels at once just as you reach the point of stalling. Directional control in the air wasn’t bad (I thought), but once the wheels hit pavement the airplane wanted to careen all over the runway. J kept on me to start moving my feet before we touched down. Let’s be honest here - he started to nag me to move my feet on downwind. Just for the sake of practice.
Then on the next landing he started with “I know I told you never to do this, but…” Which is always a sign things are about to get interesting.
What he told me never to do was to push forward on the stick while up on the wheels. There’s a certain logic to that - push too far forward you’ll (eventually) bang the prop on the ground. This would be a Bad Thing. Among other exciting phenomena, like shattering prop blades and the bending of your engine’s crankshaft, all that force and energy that lifts a ton or more of stuff in the air in defiance of gravity is going to escape captivity in a big and energetic manner. As soon as that prop hits, you’ll flip. But remember - there’s gyroscopic precession to take into account. You won’t do a nice, forward somesault. You’ll be flung into a cartwheel and totally out of control. This will certainly ruin your day.
J asked me to move the stick forward on the next landing, so we wouldn’t touch down on three points but rather just two. Obviously, this did not mean push the stick all the way forward, just somewhat forward. Just enough to keep the tail up. This is called a Wheel Landing. Although, in many ways, the full-stall three-point landing is the ideal, there are also reasons for performing wheel landings. For example, you do wheel landings when landing in brisk crosswinds. There’s a certain irony in that when you’re first learning to perform wheel landings you need perfectly calm conditions, but if you can’t control your airplane in calm in you’re screwed when it comes to windy conditions.
Which is why we have instructors, lessons, and I’m sitting here in this sweltering contraption of wood, metal, and cloth learning the rudder dance two-step.
Actually, J went first on this little exercise. He took the controls and told me to watch and follow-through (that means my hands lightly on the controls - not enough to interfere, but enough to know what was happening with them). He wanted me to see what it was supposed to look like before I attempted it myself. So, on the next take-off, we start down the runway (and yes, we’re a lot more on center than last time when I was doing it) and J forces the stick forward, forcing the tail up, all the while keeping up a running patter of “Mover your feet, move your feet, tail comes up on one” (push stick) “ONE. Move your feet, move your feet, see how how the view down the runway is different? Mover your feeet, we fly on three. One…two…three… And it’s your plane. Take us around”
OK, down to the runway. J says “my plane” and I yield control. The patter starts up again and he talks about moving your feet, coming in on one wheel as if compensating for wind, move your feet, how to line it up properly in reference to the nose, move your feet, and so on. A thought occurs to me and I ask if it’s alright if I just watch the landing gear on this touch-down and he says, sure, probably a good idea. So I give up all pretense of following through on the controls. We come over the fence canted about twenty degrees to the right, which gives me an excellent view of both the ground and the right main wheel. The only way to get better is if the door was off. I get to watch the wheel meet the pavement at 60 mph from just about three feet/one meter away. Pretty cool! One of the best views I’ve ever had of what the rubber meeting the road actually looks like.
Then it’s “OK, now look at the far end of the runway” and I snap back to attention. Lots more “move your feet” commentary, the plane slows down, the tail drops, and then J goes to full power and we’re up and climbing again.
We do two more with him demonstrating, then it’s my turn. He makes a full-stop landing and I taxi back to the start of the runway. As we went down the runway again I pushed the stick forward, the nose down (Right rudder! Right rudder! Move your feet!), and forced the tail up sooner than it wanted to rise on its own. This made the two-wheel segment of take-off feel even more unstable than before (well, it was) and had me swerving back and forth across the centerline once again. Funny, it doesn’t do that when J is flying…
Off the ground, up, around, and down again. J is still running the radios.
A couple more of those, and it was time to take a break. That meant J was off to fly the Stearman (lucky dog!) with someone else and I was off to get some food and drink, under orders to rest up a bit and take it easy before round two. Also, fill just the right side fuel tank (full fuel would really screw up our rate of climb, but we needed to make sure we had adequate gas) which meant chasing down the line guy to drive the fuel truck over, supervise the fueling, sign for the fuel, check fuel caps are secure (that means climb up on the airplane), fill out the paperwork for time used in the morning, doublecheck the airplane is completely turned off and secure - THEN go relax, eat, pee, etc. But leave some time to pre-flight the airplane before going up again.
The ice tea was still cold, ice water freely available, the food in the restaurant was decent although the heat had largely killed my appetite and I didn’t eat anything more than an order of toast The air conditioning wasn’t perfect but it was dark and cool and restful in the place. I chilled out and relaxed until I saw the Stearman coming back in to land, then went out to the airplane and get ready for round two.
J comes scooting by about ten minutes later, running behind as usual (I’ve just gotten used to this - hence I timed lunch by when the airplane arrived rather than by the clock). He takes a quick look, sees I’ve got things well in hand, then says he’s going to run into the restaurant for a sandwhich. Hey, that’s cool. No, I don’t mind him eating in the airplane. Some people I do - first time passengers, for instance, largely because I really don’t want to be cleaning vomit out of a cockpit if I can possibly avoid it - but J’s been flying a long time, he’s used to much more extreme manuvers than I am, and I expect him to not upset his own stomach.
Everything is checked and I’m strapped in ready to go when J jogs out of the restaurant with a styrofoam box and a large cup in hand. Now, you have to understand that getting in and out of small airplanes usually involves some minor gymnastics. Space is tight. Folks usually need both hands to pull/push themselves while getting their feet inside. But J somehow manages to just step into the back of this thing while juggling his lunch. I hear the click of the safety harness as he straps in, then he says “Let’s go.”
I hit the master and magneto switches (inconviently placed behind my left shoulder and above my head), prime, full mix, cold carb, yell “CLEAR PROP!” and hit the starter. Take a moment to listen to the engine - sounds good - and then flip on the intercom and radios.
Sounds something like this come over the intercom “Just taxi over to the mbpffff usual area and do the run-up then wmmfph head on out to the runway.”
“OK. Hey, what’s that sandwhich, anyway? Smells good.”
“That smells really good, got any leftovers?”
I stop the plane, turn around and look back at him, smiling there. He says “Oh, it’s all gone now.”
I’m thinking two bites??? :eek:
We’re not even halfway to the runway and I’m starting to regret my decision to eat light. My stomach, which in the restaurant wasn’t interested in anything, has now woken up, started rumbling, and is insisting that a nice, tuna salad sandwhich would just hit the spot. Mmmmm… goooooooood… mmmm… TUNA…
((shut up shut up SHUT UP!!!))
OK, focus on flying. That is why I drove two hours to get here, have sweated like a pig, worked my butt off, and spent a bunch o’ money - to fly. One last look for traffic before pulling onto the runway - look left, right, and up - then line up on center. Full power.
Hey! I’m actually keeping this on a straight line this time! Whoo-hoo! And UP goes the tail and I JAM my right foot and the rudder pedal hard and the nose barely twitches left. Yeee-ha! Up, up and away!!! I do a three-point landing, then a wheel landing…well, not quite so good…
At the end of that roll-out J took over the taxi duties so I could listen with undivided attention to my next assignment. He cautioned me not to do this on my own, and told me he didn’t think a lot of instructors were up to spotting a student on the next thing. He explained why he thought conditions were suitable for the task, and what conditions would not be. J gave me detailed instructions and had me repeat them back to him. He taxied back rather slowly, in fact, to give himself time to cover everything he thought necessary, and even then we paused briefly at the end of the runway so he could finish.
But I won’t bore you with the lecture. I’ll just tell you how it happened.
J asked one more time if I was comfortable with what we were going to do and told me I could back out if it got too intense. What we were about to do did carry more risk than the rest of our training flights, but if successful the payoff would be a lot more skill and control on my part.