Airport Stories: Here We Go Again...

C’s schedule was full, so for my second lesson in the taildragger I had a new instructor, D.

It’s sort of curious how things work sometimes - in 10 years of flying I’d never had a female instructor. In fact, I’d never even shared a cockpit with another woman pilot. It just happened that way - women are still a minority in flight, and since gender doesn’t even appear on my list of required attributes of an instructor it’s not that surprising that I’d never had one. Now I was flying with my third female instructor within a month. Funny how things work out.

The only difference was the voice on the intercom was at a higher pitch.

Anyhow, D is about 14 years younger than me, which isn’t that unusual either, with a sort of red hair just a little too magenta to be natural and ambitions of being an airshow pilot. I had to smile at that and asked her what her day job was that paid for all the flying. Real estate. Hm… I’m sure for that job she didn’t wear teeny t-shirts.

That’s another thing about general aviation - folks wander about the airport in a variety of attire, most of it very casual and tending towards t-shirts and sweat shirts. Lots of blue jeans and sneakers. Much of the clothing tends to be grease-stained or otherwise showing a great deal of wear. We don’t look particularly affluent but it’s guaranteed that everyone has decent wages (except maybe the flight instructors and line guys) and maybe even some genuine wealth. You can’t tell by looking at the person - it’s more accurate to look at the airplanes, but even that isn’t certain.

Before we went out to the airplane D spent about a half an hour with me. The school’s tailwheel syllabus was divided into three units and I wasn’t quite through the first one. The weather had been such last time that C had cut short some of the ground school so we could get some work done before the bad weather moved in, so D and I finished off what hadn’t been done. We also discussed briefly what was going to be done when we went up.

I noticed D watched me pre-flight, which is a sign of a good instructor. Then downside to going with yet another new CFI was that I was going to have to re-do some of what I had done with C. That’s a little annoying in some respects, on the other hand, review was positive in many ways as well.

We both climbed in and got settled. Well, that was another difference between male and female instructors - the airplane shook and shifted a lot less with D, who soaking wet probably weighed half of what many of my past instructors did. When you consider that I fly airplanes where 1/4 to 1/3 of the total weight at take-off might be human beings, even 10 or 20 pounds difference in the other person sharing the cabin can make a noticeable difference. With C and D, that could have been 30 to 50 pounds difference from many of my other instructors.

We strapped in, I fished out the checklist, and started the routine. It went a little faster than before, much less fumbling to find things. I got it started and rolling then taxied over to the ramp and run-up area and did that part of the pre-flight. Everything checked out, so we went over to the runway.

The wind looked like it was favoring 36. Runway numbers are based on magnetic headings. If , for example, when using the runway you’re facing south that’s a compass heading of 180 and the runway will be 18. A runway number of 36 means your heading is 360, or north. If you stop and think about it, you’ll realize that 18 and 36 are the same piece of pavement, the respective numbers at opposite ends. Likewise, 9 and 27 (east and west) are always paired as well.

Umm… wait, everyone is using the other runway. That’s because there’s very little wind at all, and it’s almost a direct crosswind so there’s little difference between using 36 or 18. This is… annoying. It would be great if we could just take off from 18, since that end is so handy, but apparently those currently flying feel differently. OK, if everyone wants to use the other runway we’ll do that. And more practice in ground handling won’t hurt. So here we go, back to the other end of the airport.

We got there, and apparently everyone had taken another vote and decided the wind was slightly more out of the south than the north (really, it was pretty solidly at right angles) and switched runways again. Back to the other end, again.

Morris airport’s runway is essentially level (a typical runway being about a mile in length, some small variation is common), but the taxiway involves noticable slopes. So not only am I working to keep this machine on the centerline with constant nudging, I’m also going up and down hill, too. High-wing airplanes like the Citabria are top heavy at the best of times, there are only three wheels, and the brakes are, um, less than spectacular in effectiveness. Turning around at the big 36 painted on the end of the runway and going back involved turning a corner and going downhill at the same time. Gravity, as always, was ready to assist our downward path. D assures me that no, we are not actually tipping over, nowhere near it, it just feels like it. I’m sure everyone aloft who’s looking down is going “Ah! A new taildragger student.” as I methodically creep around the corner. At least no one from the office/restaurant area can see this.

(Actually, those aloft are not watching - they take note of airplanes on the field, but usually you’re busy enough with your own airplane you don’t spend time on analysing what’s going on beyond “That one is no threat… that one might pull out in front of me… Hey! A biplane! Hmm… no, the biplane is no threat…”)

I get onto the straightaway and put-put along at about half the normal speed I taxi. On the rudders, I’m going nudge-nudge-nudge-SHOVE-nudge-SHOVE-SHOVE-SHOVE-nudge-stop-start-over. Yeah, I probably do need the practice. Even with the engine at idle we keep speeding up. D says, yeah, everyone knows you’re not supposed to ride the brakes 'cause it wears them out faster, but sometimes you have to in order to keep things under control. I’m doing fine, take my time, yes, I’m moving slowly but that’s better than too fast. As I get more skilled and comfortable I’ll speed up - whooops!

The whoops was me about to slide off the pavement - keeping this thing on track is taking a little more of my attention than usual, so any distraction has a major impact on my driving skills. If D needs to say something that requires my full attention I almost have to stop. I can’t really carry on a conversation or look around as much for hazards as I usually do without losing directional control. So D watches for hazards, keeps her questions simple, and I go back to creeping along.

We get back to the 18 end of the runway. Really, there’s almost no wind, which is good, but when it does make an appearance it’s perpendicular to our direction. Oh, well - line it up on the runway and go to full throttle…

Take off wasn’t too bad. With the tail down I’m weaving back and forth a little over the centerline, but at least the average of all those little excursions is straight forward. Then the tail comes up and we’re going left-right-left-RIGHT

I feel D’s feet on the rudders getting us straighted out again, and her reassuring “We’re OK! Keep going!”

Yeah, now we’re OK, with her helping. Then the wheels lift off and we’re up. Now I’m back in familar territory. Once off the ground the Citabria is much like any other airplane in its weight range than I’ve flown.

D wants to see more airwork. I spend a little time with accuracy on climb out and level-off, a few turns, climbing and descending turns, then it’s on to stalls.

Now, last time I talked about how stalls are no big deal in competant hands, and really they’re not. On the other hand, mishandled stalls are quite dangerous, they can kill you if you’re low enough to the ground to hit dirt before you recover. At altitude, a mishandled stall can turn into a spin or other undesired situation. Stalls have had a significant impact on aviation history, in fact - Otto Lillenthal, who more or less invented the hang glider, made many, many flights in Germany in the 1890’s and had been working on a design for powered flight well in advance of the Wright brothers. He was killed when he stalled at low altitude and didn’t recover. In truth, not only didn’t he know how to recover, no one at the time really knew anything about stalls anyhow. The point here is that if Herr Lillienthal had had even as much knowledge as one acquires in ground school (or by reading some of these stories) he might have survived that stall, or perhaps avoided it entirely, and sustained powered flight would be credited to Germany in the 1890’s instead of the two boys from Dayton, Ohio in 1903

In flight training these days, you start learning about stalls and how to recover from them in your first or second hour of flying. You never stop practicing them.

I actually found stalls to be a difficult part of learning to fly. Not everyone does, but it’s nothing usual, either. Since low-level slow-speed flying and stalls are important to landing, and even more so in the taildraggers, it’s vital that you be able to deal with them in your chosen airplane.

So, yeah - more stall practice. We started off again with power-off stalls. That means slow the airplane down, pull back on the stick, work the rudders to keep it balanced, feel the “buffet”, feel the drop as the nose comes down (remember, though - this is a gentle thing in this airplane), lower the nose, full power, climb back up, resume normal cruise. Do it again. And again.

Then it’s power-on stalls. Those are a little harder. Since they’re done with full power the engine torque and p-factor are at maximum and they both want to pull you over to the left and rotate the airplane along its nose-to-tail axis. You counteract this with the flight controls, of course, but even more than in the power-off stalls you get the sense you’re balanced on the tail of the airplane. Lots of rudder work, but this is no different than in any other airplane, I’ve done this before hundreds of times.

By the way, if you’re wondering what can happen if a stall is not properly recovered… several things. As I already mentioned, if you’re low to the ground you can hit before you are able to recover, which is one reason stalls are practiced well above the ground. Mistakes can happen. If you don’t handle the controls properly, when you lose lift you can have one wing stop flying before the other does. In a mild case, the airplane simply tips to one side or the other, which can be alarming, but you simply kick in opposite rudder to level the wings and continue with your recovery procedure. If you really screw up not only does the nose fall down - and in this case, it will be more of a “fall” than a “drop” or a “lower” - but you start to corkscrew around the long axis of the airplane. This is called a spin, and it WILL get your attention in a hurry. Might also generate yelps, screams, and, in my case, a lot of profanity. You aren’t quite pointed straight down, but it sure looks like you are. Film and video doesn’t do this justice, it’s so much more immediate when you’re really there in the airplane. The landscape is spinning around (gee, maybe that’s how it got named…) and the ground is rushing to meet you at several hundred miles an hour. In the Cessna 150’s I’ve spun, it works out to a vertical speed component of around 273 mph hour. That’s not forward speed, that’s straight down, with a rotation of about 30 rpm. By the way - there are airplanes that, in a spin, will rotate and plunge downward much faster than that.

So, uh, yeah, proper stall recovery, although routine, is pretty important.

There I am, bopping along, stall-recover-stall-recover and it’s all ho-hum and routine and no big deal. We’re still a minimum of 2000-2500 feet above the ground, though, because the minium altitude required to recover from a spin is 1200-1500 feet in an airplane like that. You don’t practice stalls at minimum stall recovery altitude + safety margin, you practice them at minimum spin recovery + safety margin. Just in case. Because stuff happens.

But stuff did not happen that day.

D doesn’t want to wear me out - my days at Morris are scheduled with a break in between two lessons. I’ve gotten a good grasp of handling this airplane, so I fly us back to the airport, enter the traffic pattern, and begin a landing. D helps out a lot on the rudders. There’s that crosswind, which has strengthened, plus my directional control is still not ideal. We touch down, everything is fine at first, I start to lose it, D gets on the rudders, reminds me to keep the wing properly oriented to the crosswind, the tail comes down, we slow down, and I’m able to resume full control.

I taxi back to the parking area near the restaurant, park, and shut the airplane down. We both get out. D has her lesson in aerobatics at that time, so she hurries off to the Decathalon (much like the Citabria, but with a bigger engine and, if I recall correctly, able to withstand a little more g-force). Me, I’m looking for lunch.

Ah, there’s a restaurant!

In general aviation you hear references to the $100 hamburger. That’s not the price of the hamburger, that’s now much money you spend getting to the hamburger. Even so, food prices at restaurants located at airports tend to be a little higher than greasy fast-food joints along the interstate. I’ve actually been to the restaurant at Morris several times before. Indeed, it was on one such fly-to-food trip that I saw the flyer that told me taildragger training was available here. The flight school advertises on the back of the menus, too.

I walk right in, sit right down, and order a burger. Turns out the waitress is a student pilot heading rapidly towards her first solo. Cool. She asks me how much time before I go up again so she knows whether to nudge the cook over time or not.

The food is good, the only problem is that there is too much. You don’t want to fly on either an over-full stomach or one that’s empty. Most of us learn pretty quickly what our tolerances are. Even if you aren’t prone to airsickness, too much in the belly isn’t good, nor do you want to be so full as to be drowsy when hurtling through the air or, worse yet, hurtling near the ground. I eat half the burger, suck down a mug of ice tea (pilots are almost all caffeine junkies), and relax for a few more minutes.

I walk back out. The wind is stronger, and it’s still crosswise to the field. The high overcast we’ve had all morning is unchanged, though, so I don’t think rain is threatening. I am concerned about the wind. At this point I need calm air to learn how to take off and land this thing.

I express my concerns to D and we talk about it a bit, then decide to go forward. So we get in the airplane and get it started. (Although I’m taking less time talking about it, remember that we go through the pre-flight and start up routine every time we do this). Taxi is a little bit better, although I’m having to pay more attention to the wings due to the wind. Take off is a little skittery - that crosswind again, but D is on the pedals no more than before, so maybe that’s a slight improvement on my part overall. We take off and circle around to set up to land - airwork is largely over now, it’s time to learn what I came for.

Of course, that’s when four other airplanes decide to show up to use the airport, all traveling at different speeds. Three want to use 36, one wants to use 18. Another guy just took off after us, but he’s in a faster airplane. Aw, crap. I’m having a hard enough time concentrating, now this…

D and I confer briefly. While I might have landed under such circumstances in an airplane I was familar with and comfortable with, it’s too much distraction for me in this one, where landing still requires considerably more focus than usual. D suggests we go to Cushing, a nearby grass strip, in order to practice. It’s about 10 minutes flight time away, and it’s easier to handle a taildragger on grass in any case.

So that’s what we do - I annouce on the radio we’re leaving the airport and in which direction, then off we go. D directs me to Cushing, and there we go.

Cushing is a wide field, very wide, but it’s relatively short. Shorter than the runway at Morris. Wide enough that two Citrabrias traveling in opposite directions on the runway can pass by each other with room to spare, if they’re careful. Which is, in fact, how taxi is handled at this airport - you creep alongside one edge of the field while the take-offs and landings happen on the other side of the grass. Another advantage for the taildragger student is that if you start veering left or right you have a lot of runway in which to do your veering before running into something.

Grass runways are softer and a little rougher than pavement, of course, but this one is in good condition. It’s the difference between driving your car on pavement versus a well-maintained dirt road. Not too bad. Cushing’s field looks in decent condition - there are a few spots where the grass is worn away from wheels, but frankly, I’ve seen paved runways in far worse shape. D already knows I have experience with turf runways.

Cushing is using 36. That’s fine. Except for the trees and powerlines close to the north end of the field. That’s not so fine. D warns me about them, but reassures me she’ll tell me when to apply full power if necessary so we clear them adequately.

I enter the pattern and set up for a landing. It’s no differnent at this point than at any other airport. One thing we do have to consider is that ultralights, hang gliders, trikes, and powered parachutes operate out of Cushing. We may have been the slowest airplane at Morris, but here we’re probably the fastest, and the gliders always have right of way over powered aircraft. Not many people are actually using Cushing today, though.

I come in a little high and fast the first time. It’s probably a little bit nerves. It might also be because I’m used to airplanes that move faster and descend more quickly. In any case, we never did touch down, just skimmed the field, then D says “Full power!” I’d been thinking the same thing myself, what with the trees and powerlines approaching at close to 75 mph. I adjusted for best rate of climb and up we went, easily clearing the obstacles.

OK, round two. Better control on height and speed this time. We’re coming down to touch when a gust hits us. I try to keep us oriented but, again, those obstacles are looming and I’m struggling so D calls for full power and up we go again.

Number three. Altitude - check. Airspeed - check. Rate of descent - check. This is looking… OK. We’re on final. We’re coming down, down… one wheel bumps, we’re still airborne, bump-bump-bump…

“Full power!”

Uh, yeah - running out of runway again. Up we go.

One more time. I wipe my hands on my jeans - when did they start sweating? I line it up on final, compensating for the wind, but there’s another gust and we’re sliding sideways just above the ground. Full power again, rather than trying to salvage this.

D says that four go-arounds and no landings is not a productive use of my time or money. Even though in the planes I normally fly I can easily handle these conditions, in this airplane my skills are not yet sufficent. There will be a day I can do this, but it’s not today. I’m just wearing myself out to no purpose.

Me, I’m aghast - I have never needed four tries at a runway before, and here I just did four go-arounds and not one proper landing.

So we go back to Morris. As we fly back I realize I really am tired. It’s not helping that the winds are starting to gust and we’re being tossed around some on the way. I ask D to take over so I can rest up a bit. I also want to see how she handles the airplane compared to what I’ve been doing - after all, she knows how to fly this thing.

Well, here we are at Morris again. D’s set up for landing is not significantly different than what I’ve been doing. On final she is working the rudders more than I did - well, yeah, I kind of guessed I needed more of that. We come in one wing low to compensate for crosswind, so that wheel touches first, then the other main. We bounce and judder a bit, there’s a slight left-right skitter, then the tail comes down and we’re on the ground. Ah, so it’s not just me - the expert is getting nudged around, too!

I have a go at taxiing back to the hangar. This I can do, even with the gusty winds. Some progress has been made. We shut down the machine, roll it back into the hangar, and lock up.

We go back to the office and discuss the flight. D doesn’t want me to get discouraged - it’s just that the weather picked up in the afternoon and wasn’t suited to the sort of learning I needed to do. Although a little frustrated, I did feel like I made some progress, and hey, weather happens. One day I’ll be able to fly the Citabria competently under these conditions, just not this day. Flight training is like this sometimes.

We looked over the schedule for the following week. It is becoming apparent that D, C, and I do not really have compatible schedules. D suggests that perhaps I should fly with J. I really don’t want to have to go through more time reviewing what I’ve already done with yet another person, and I don’t want to be hopping between three - or even two - different instructors. I know I’ll make more progress more quickly if I have just one consistent teacher. I said I’d think about it and decide tomorrow, since the school has on-line scheduling and I can sign up for time from my home computer. I’m tired, and I’ve got a long drive home ahead of me, and I’ve had enough aviation thoughts for the day.

And thus ended my second day of flying taildraggers.

I hope you get the instructor thing sorted out. It can be frustrating if you are changing CFI every lesson.

Keep waggling that rudder!

Yes, I did get the instructor situation worked out. Number three was the charm. You’ll hear more about him in the next installment. I’m about five lessons behind, though I think that part of the sage will be compressed into less than five threads. Maybe I’ll be caught up by the time I get my sign-off (Maybe that will be as soon as next time I go out to Morris. Maybe)

Yes, I did get the instructor situation worked out. Number three was the charm, that is, I did wind up flying with “J”. You’ll hear more about him in the next installment. I’m about five lessons behind, though I think that part of the saga will be compressed into less than five threads. Maybe I’ll be caught up by the time I get my sign-off (Maybe that will be as soon as next time I go out to Morris. Maybe)