After I flew with instructor D, I had two weeks of bad weather to contend with - stormy, windy, just not suitable to any sort of flying I do. My contact with the flight school consisted mainly of phone calls where either they said not to bother coming, or I did. In fact, one morning I pick up the phone to call C to say I wasn’t coming, and no sooner had I picked it up than it rang - C calling to tell me not to come.
That’s really not such a coincidence - we both have the same sources of weather information, and she knew about when I’d be leaving the house. This sort of simultaneous decision-making is fairly common among pilots.
Somewhere during that two weeks I decided to try J as an instructor - his schedule matched up best with mine. The third week after D was when I met him, which was a good thing. It was also the week that a magneto decided to spontaneously disassemble, which was a bad thing, but not horrible.
Let’s try this again.
I rolled into the airport a few minutes early for my lesson. J was running late. Normally, I don’t have a lot of patience with that, but given the distance I was traveling it would be all too easy for me to arrive late and tolerance works both ways. I’d also been warned before I ever signed up with him that he runs chronically late and I thought, what the heck - I’m not in a hurry, and if he works out otherwise I can live with it. I actually have figured out why he’s always running late - he starts out 10 minutes behind arriving for the first student, then he gives an hour and 5 or 10 minutes for every hour scheduled with someone. So…first student of the day, he’s 10 minutes late. The second, he’s 20. Third, it’s a half an hour… He is consistent, so if I’m third student of the day I expect him to be a half hour late and in that sense he’s “on time”. At least everyone gets a full dose of attention, you don’t get cut short just because the guy ahead of you started late.
Anyhow, I’m there and the airplane was used earlier so it’s sitting out there on the flightline. I went out to pre-flight it. Yeah, I check the mags out extra thoroughly. So does J when he shows up. We’re not paranoid, naw…
Before we start the engines there are a couple things to take care of. We’re back to checking my position in the cockpit, whether or not I can reach everything comfortably and so forth. Also, a review of how we’re going to communicate in the air.
This airplane has tandem seating. That means I’m in front and J is sitting directly behind me. I can’t see him at all, he’s just a voice in my head most of the time (piloting: an occupation where hearing voices in your head and talking to yourself is considered perfectly normal and OK ). Sure, I could turn around and look, but that’s not really advisable when traveling forward at high speed. There’s also that four-point safey harness getting in the way. When you strap in, you’re really strapped in. The feet of the person behind me rest to either side of my hips, if I look down I can see them easily. It’s kind of snug, and I have to make sure the ends of the straps don’t interfere with that second set of pedals.
(This arrangement means that I am more familar with what J’s shoes look like than what his face looks like. I’d describe the guy, but since 99% of the time I spend with him I never actually see him it’s sort of difficult to impossible - I have a general impression of larger than me, Causasian, and middle-aged. That’s about it.)
Although there are some conventions that are near-universal in the US - one of them being “your airplane” to relinquish control and “my airplane” in reply to acknowledge who’s in charge - every instructor I’ve ever worked with has their own favored way of doing things. Good ones will talk about this before you go up rather than expecting you to read minds.
A further factor involved with the Citabria is that while the guy in the back seat has a stick, rudder pedals, throttle, and carb heat he or she doesn’t have a clear view of the instruments (I’m in the way) and he or she has to operate the trim with his or her left foot as there is only one control and it’s placed for my convenience and no one else’s. Fortunately, a Citabria is a sort of airplane that doesn’t require much instrumentation. Throughout the training flights with J, though, he’s occassionally asking me to tell him what various dials are saying because I’m the only one who can see them. Interestingly enough, the electrical switches are really more conviently in his reach, so I’ll be flying along and notice the radio isn’t working, say something to that effect, then hear “Oh, I turned it off so it wouldn’t distract you.”
So, yes, teamwork does come into play, and there’s that whole business of I can’t see what the person behind me doing. J also explained that a tap on the right shoulder means more right rudder, a tap on the left means more left rudder, he might take hold of my left elbow to guide me on throttle settings… In the old days before radios, when open cockpits were the norm and communication nearly impossible between instructor and student that’s pretty much what was done, including a whack on the top of the student’s head to say “Give me the airplane” - J doesn’t do that, just grabs both your upper arms at once then lets go to grab his set of controls. That’s all in addition to lots of talking. Talk, talk, talk. You’d think he was being paid by the word. (That’s a common trait of flight instructors as well.)
By the way - it was beastly hot that weekend, nearly 100 degrees. There’s no air conditioning in these airplanes, just lots and lots of window. It was hot in there. Definitely, the window is going to be open part of the time. J said that if I was feeling brave later we could take the door off. I reminded him that I had started flying with open cockpits, why don’t we just take it off now? So that’s what we did - J got out, I pulled the release pin from inside the cockpit, and he caught the door as it fell off . It’s an airplane authorized for quite a few aerobatic manuvers you see - you need to be able to exist quickly in the event you break your airplane.
We start up and use the checklists. Got to CHECK DOOR and I truthfully reported it as “absent” Unfortunately, with the air circulating inside the cockpit it becomes apparent that the headliner above J was ripped. It’s a cosmetic problem, not structural, but the air currents of absent-door flight would only make it worse.
We had to put the door back on. (Nooooooooooo!)
OK, OK, we’re all set to go now - pre-flight done, door restored, engine run-up complete, and I’m put-putting out to the runway. I am feeling more confident about moving this thing around on the ground, there’s that at least. I’m taxiing at a more normal speed and keeping it on center. J announces that he’ll be doing all the radio work. I’m a little surprised - many instructors insist on students working the radios as much as possible. Nope, J wants me to concentrate on just flying the airplane. That’s what I’m here for - learning to fly a taildragger, not to improve my radio technique. OK, fine with me.
Here we are, looking down the runway. Hey! The engine is still running! That’s a huge improvement over last week! J tells me to start when I’m ready, and to remember to move my feet.
“Move your feet” is this guy’s mantra. By the end of the weekend I’ll be hearing it in my sleep.
I push the throttle forward, along with the right rudder because as soon as the engine revs up the airplane will want to pull to the left.
"Move your feet, move your feet, move your feet … the tail is going to come up on three. One…two…three – " The tail comes up, right on cue. “Move your feet!”
Oh, yeah, we jog left, we swerve right, left, right, bounce ever so slightly as the weight moves onto the wings – a gust of wind from off the right hits the tail, we swing right, weathervaning into the wind, and I’m just not fast enough to compensate . The gust dies, we’re traveling in a straight line again –
– straight off the runway into the grass.
I immediately quash the impulse to pull back the power. We’ve passed the point of commitment. I push even harder on the throttle because the only way to get safer is to get off the ground and it takes power to do that. Behind me J says “KEEP GOING, WE’LL BE OK” - that simultaneous decision making thing again, we’re both drawing the same conclusions from the same information. Thank Og the grass to either side of the runway is level, smooth, and in good enough condition to be able to function as a runway itself. This isn’t just a happy coincidence, either - tailwheel instructors prefer runways with groomed sides like this because beginning tailwheel students fall off the pavement on a semi-regular basis.
I only have to maintain directional control a few more seconds. One more bounce and J says “pull back, fly it off”. Even as I do so I can feel that he’s got the stick, too, keeping me from pulling too far back as a stressed out, slightly freaked, inexperienced-in-taildraggers student might have a tendency to do after falling off a runway. (If you pull back too far on take-off you exceed maximum angle of attack and you stall - and that’s why you drill with those power-on stalls, so you know what “too much” is and don’t do that low to the ground) Oh, yeah, I’m panting and not just from the heat but all I say is “I’ve had better take-offs” as I adjust the airplane for the best rate of climb.
Climbing is slow today. Not only is it hot and humid, which markedly reduces airplane performance, but I’m back to a regular-sized instructor sitting in the back seat. As the Citabria ambles upward J tells me we’re going to Cushing. I’ve been there before, but it’s such a hazy, scuzzy-looking day that I can’t see it from Morris. It’s hazy because there’s no wind to blow away air pollution and dust and it’s been that way for 8 or 9 days. The lack of wind is good for training, it just feels like we’re the fish in a dirty goldfish bowl, that’s all. J gives me a compass heading and off we go.
On the way there he asks me if I know why we ran off the pavement and discusses the matter. I am feeling not so good about it - it’s been nine years since I last ran myself off a runway like that (after which it took about two hours to clean all the soybeans out of the nooks and crannies of the airplane). J reassures me that it’s not unusual for someone making the transition from tricyle gear to tailwheels. It was largely inexperience with this style of airplane, he says, and he apologizes for not getting on the controls faster to prevent that. However, we’re both very awake now and that shouldn’t happen again.
It’s also sobering to be back in the position of depending on someone else for a safe landing. These past 6-7 years I’ve been the one in charge, utterly confident I could make the landing. Now I can’t anymore. I really can not safely land this airplane unassisted. I am back to trusting someone I barely know to keep me safe. This is not an easy thing for me to do. Oddly enough, I do have trust in this guy - he oozes confidence. Other people I’ve talked to have said wonderful things about him as a pilot and instructor. Every time doubt raises its evil little head I beat it back down.
On the way to Cushing, in addition to maintaining altitude-airspeed-heading and navigating J says how he’s going to first show me what normal landing and take off looks like, then he’ll have me do it. He also warns me that we’ll be landing from the north and the trees and powerlines just off that end of the field will bother me. Not to worry, he says, we’ll clear them with room to spare but we’ll get a lot closer to them than I’ll like the first few times.
I find Cushing and J has me bring the airplane onto the pattern downwind, at which point he says “my plane” and I say “your plane”. I don’t take my hands and feet off the controls, however - I rest lightly on them so I can feel what J is doing without exerting any force on them myself. It’s the only way to tell what he’s doing since I obviously can’t see what he’s doing behind me. He reassures me one more time he’s in full control. As he pulls the power back and bring the airplane down and around he’s also describing what he’s doing.
We pull out on to final. Yes, I see the trees. And the powerlines with those red-orange rubber ball things they put on them to make them more visible to pilots (not that it helps much - it doesn’t). I see where the powerlines have been lowered to allow airplanes to pass over them on their way to the runway. I see where we’re going. We’re going really close to branches and wires.
In the back of my brain there’s a primative little bit running around activating the alarms, the red alert, and in general screaming in protest.
Out in the real world I don’t say a word. I do, however, do one of those marvelous all-over-body-tense-ups while still managing not to mess with the controls.
J says “We’re not going to hit anything. I promise. I want to live, too. If you want, look out the side, you’ll see we clear them with plenty of room.”
So I did - yeah, we cleared the obstacles. Yes, there was lots of room. Oh, you betcha I wanted more!
Just past the trees J says “Look at the runway.” So I did. That view looked normal. Why I find heading toward flat ground rather than trees reassuring I don’t know - the ground would probably hurt more than the trees if we smacked into it in an uncontrolled manner. Maybe I’m just more used to pointing the nose toward dirt rather than leaves.
We’re over the runway now, J is working the rudders saying “move your feet, move your feet - feel that? That much - move your feet” as we float over the ground, slowly settling. “Be patient… it will touch on three. One… two… two and half… three…”
Well, yeah, it sure did - nice and gentle, too. J is still working the rudders to keep us on course as we rumble along over the grass. Makes it look easy.
J does the take-off and two more landings to demonstrate what should be done, with me following along on the controls and him continuing his lecture. Then it’s my turn.
First the take-off. This is a really wide field so directional control is not as critical though I still try for as straight a line as possible. It really is easier to keep this airplane under control on turf. The tail comes up, I swerve a little but not as badly as before, we bounce a couple times then we’re off the ground… although not going quite as fast as we should.
“Lower the nose” says J. So I do, in order to gain airspeed. If you take off a little too soon you won’t have enough airspeed to generate enough lift to climb. Pulling back more will only hurt you - your speed will just drop and eventually you’ll stall. The only way to get more speed is to lower the nose to a lower angle of attack, then wait, then pull back when you reach the speed that gives you the best rate of climb. After that, you raise/lower the nose as necessary to maintain that speed. It’s awkward at first, but once you get the hang of it, it becomes a smooth and almost automatic motion. Since this part of flying is something I’ve been doing a long time the climb-out to pattern altitude is the easy part of flying today. We skim the ground until we hit 70, then up we go.
Turning back onto the downwind we hit a thermal, which actually pushes us up above pattern altitude, which is a little annoying but hardly the first time. I do the usual power adjustments, slip a little to get back on proper altitude, turn base, turn final…
I don’t think J is actually holding onto the controls back there - he’s blocking them so when I’m in the correct zone there’s free movement but he won’t let me push them too far in any one direction. If I make a mistake I can feel it, but the airplane isn’t allowed to get into a dangerous position. Lots of help getting over the powerlines and trees, which are still making me nervous. Various taps on the shoulders indicating more of this rudder or that. As we come over the runway edge he starts up again with “move your feet, move your feet, move your feet --”
We touch down. I’m moving my feet but evidently not enough - I can feel that there’s someone else helping me with the stick or the rudder every so often. Tap on the left shoulder, left shoulder, tap on the right, the left, the right - rapid tapping on the right “More right!” then left… The tail comes down and J calls for the stick to be all the way back. As we slow down the controls are all mine. I turn the airplane around and go back to the take-off end of the runway.
We do it again.
This is, after all, how you learn to take-off and land - by taking off and landing.
After the first trip around the pattern J starts adding to the exercise. On downwind he has me move just the rudders, but hard, swinging the airplane back and forth. Then roll the wings up and down with the stick. Point the nose of the airplane here. Point it there. Feel the wind and how it affects our course over the ground, and just as important, feel how much force is required to move the airplane at different speeds.
Then it’s back to Morris. On the way back there’s more with using just the feet to control the airplane, then just the hands. “Give me a turn with just your feet - hold your hands up, up over your head where I can see them. Yes, like that. Feel that difference? OK, now just the stick. Now together, coordinate that turn.”
Then we’re coming in for a landing again, this time on pavement, and strictly a demo. I taxi the airplane over to the parking area by the restaurant, J tells me good job, and take a break, maybe get something to eat. I nod, note how long the flight was on the clipboard (just over an hour), then unpeel myself from the front seat.
It’s hot, remember? I have sweat rolling into my eyes and down my legs. My clothes are…um… not so fresh as when I put them on this morning. And damp. No, worse than damp. Ick.
I staggered into the restaurant, and for the life of me, I don’t remember what I ate for lunch that day. I do remember two mugs of ice tea, water, and a lot of ice but remarkably little urge to pee.
And that was just the warm up for the afternoon.
A little over an hour later we do a quick preflight and climb into the airplane again. (Sweaty seats… ewwwwwww!..) Start-up, run-up - this is all getting more efficient - and out to the runway again.
This time, I stay on the runway. Yay! Progress.
It’s even hotter, though… airplanes do not like to climb in hot weather, and even with less fuel on board we ooze upward at the same anemic rate as before. Finally, we get up to the proper altitude and head off towards Cushing again.
No more easy going flight instructor - J decides to start the work out on the way over. It’s a little more airwork for yours truly.