October 21, 1999
J.W. and I lifted off Runway 7 in the Citabria at 10:12am, following Keith in Cessna 737ZU, bound for Griffin. This was the maintenance flight: about 60 miles to deliver 883 to an FBO down there in order to have some work done on it. We all flew home in 7ZU.
This flight was originally set up for J.W. and I alone: him in the 172, and me in the Citabria. However, this morning Keith was present in the Astron office and noted that he was due for an instrument landing approach in order to stay current for IFR. Also: J.W. had some question about the regulations and letting me go solo in the Citabria all the way to Griffin. He paged through the FAR's for a bit and found what he thought was the pertinent section prohibiting the flight.
Now, personally, I think I could have come up with a reg that would have permitted it. Also: I don't believe Terri would have authorized this flight (which she explicitly did) against the regs. I could be wrong about this part of the whole thing, but that's my view.
However, Keith is a cool guy, the opportunity to help him stay current was at hand, and I saw no reason to wreck the party, so I agreed to saddle up with J.W. in the back seat of 883, and off we went.
We climbed out to the south, with Keith leading the way about a half-mile out. Sky conditions included broken cloud at about 3000', so we were barely VFR legal at our preferred altitude, but it really wasn't a problem. Within about 20 miles of departure from Gwinnett, we were ducking under at an average 2000', but we were VFR all the way.
Shortly after clearing Class Delta airspace, we switched COM radios to 122.7, our in-flight frequency. Keith came right up on cue, and it was just the two of us, now, cruising southeast to Covington for the turn southwest to Griffin.
As soon as we knew we were hearing each other, J.W. asked me to close on Keith, and I was happy to oblige.
This was a rare opportunity: formation flying isn't something most private pilots see very often, and I can't imagine that very many 30-hour students get to do it at all.
I wound 883 up to about 2400 RPM, indicating about 130mph, and pulled power back out of it as I drew up on Keith's left wing: at about his 8 o'clock, and 150 feet away. For the next 40 miles or so, he was about the only thing I watched. I definitely saw the flight of hawks that we blew through (I think there were five of them) so fast that they didn't have time to dive. (That's what birds do when they know an airplane is around.) And I kept up my regular panel scans. However, all the time I had my head out of the cockpit, most of which would normally be devoted to stuff like pilotage and traffic lookouts, I devoted to Keith, instead.
There wasn't very much maneuvering in this, of course. It's not as if we were doing Blue Angels-type dances all over the sky, so it wasn't terribly difficult at all. Keith was managing all the ordinary control inputs to account for turbulence (not a lot, but bits here & there), and I was close enough to him that I felt them at about the same time, with the result that we took them all together. I didn't have to navigate the flight. I had planned on doing that with the 1:250000 scale Terminal Area Chart (one of my checkpoints along the way was a golf course), but Keith navigated with his NAV radios. When he modified his heading, he did it with proper radio calls to his wingie, and he never surprised me.
At one point, he asked me to pull ahead a bit so he could shoot a photograph. We'll see what he got. (I'd loaned my Sony to Michael yesterday so he could shoot the recording session with Gabe Jerome, so I didn't get shots of this.)
At its best, I was able to stay on Keith with about 75' between our wingtips.
This was a really cool thing to do.
After the flight, of course, we sat down and talked about it, and J.W. emphasized that this really was a rarity: it should never be attempted with someone I don't know very well (as he and Keith know each other), and the conditions need to be just right for it, which we had this morning: fairly calm air and good visibility. Both pilots need to be very cool heads, with no traces of adolescent foolishness, because that sort of thing can very quickly result in two holes in the ground.
However, if the opportunity is present, it's just another way to hone all kinds of skills, and should be exploited for that.
The approach to Griffin was uneventful, really, although I'll say this: on my own, I would have done it differently. Keith called up Griffin UNICOM for the active runway. There wasn't any traffic present, and somebody in an office told him 32. By now, I'd dropped back to three-quarters of a mile in trail, and we flew west of the airport to set up the left downwind pattern entry.
I would have flown over the airport for a look at the windsock.
I followed Keith on his approach to 32. When he turned base, it looked like about the right place. My first clue to what was happening was about 20 seconds later: as I was drawing near my own turn to base, I looked for Keith, and his course was headed toward the runway, and the only way that could happen would be if he was blowing downwind.
Looking back, I see this pretty clearly: we were landing downwind.
Down short final, I was high and fast, and started slipping the altitude dump down to about 250 feet, at which point J.W. said "Okay, that's enough."
(Personally, I'm inclined to slip a bit lower to the ground than either J.W. or Terri like to see. I'm going to have to discuss this with them to see if there's anything I'm missing. It could just be that they're concerned about a habit. After all: not every airplane in the world has the rudder authority that the Citabria does.)
Anyway, I still had about 80mph on the clock over the threshold, and that's a lot in the Citabria. The upshot: one bounce - two bounce - and J.W. heard me thinking about the go-around. I was just about to call it when he said, "No, no, hang with this. You're in."
I hung with it, and he was right. We finally settled on all three wheels and I rolled all the way to the end of the runway. Griffin is 3700 feet long (contrasted to Gwinnett at 6000), but I didn't really have things settled in until about a third of the way along. By the time I was comfortable, I'd missed the last available turn-off before the end.
We taxied over to the FBO, dropped off the Citabria, and then the three of us piled into 7ZU, with me in the left front seat: my first Cessna 172.
Almost immediately after strapping and plugging, I looked back at J.W. - slated to take me through the instrument phase in one of these things - and said out-loud: "You know, we need to get this out of the way, mate, because I hate this already."
Keith flies the 172's a lot, and he's not a stick & rudder taildragger maniac like J.W. and me, so I caught him a bit off balance with my rather trenchant remark. It hadn't occurred to me that I would offend anyone's sensibilities. Keith is a well-adjusted guy, though, and he took it well as I explained it to him after he asked, "Why?"
About the only thing I can say in favor of the 172 after .9 hours logged is that the seat is more comfortable than the Citabria's. The visibility out of those things is awful by comparison. The rudder pedals are too close together and I hate the angle that my legs take down to them: there's too much brake pedal stacked on top. The instrument panel is huge (why the hell can't they ditch some of those circuit breakers someplace a little more, uhm, discreet?), and I felt like a little kid trying to look over the top of it. (...at the same time, I had to duck to look out the side window, under the wing.)
What the hell is that yoke thing all about? Jeez. That was weird as hell. (When I get done with this note, I'm going to go out to the garage and sit in the Fly Baby just to touch a proper joystick again.)
In the air, the thing actually flies sort of well-enough, I suppose. The climbout after takeoff wasn't anything to jump up & down about, but I gave it the benefit of having three people aboard. Rudder authority isn't anything like the Citabria, of course (what is?), but I didn't have trouble coordinating turns after the first one. Here's a lasting impression, though: the control touch is too soft for me. The Citabria feels like a grown-up handful. (The difference actually reminded me of one reason why I prefer the Beretta 9mm pistol over the Browning 1911-type .45's: it feels like a man-sized grip.)
All in all, the Cessna 172 strikes me as a sort-of air-conditioned-comfort SUV kinda thing, when I'd far rather drive a real driving machine.
After Keith shot his IFR approach at Covington, though, I managed to haul it back to Gwinnett, with him talking me through the landing approach. ("Flaps?? What the hell are 'flaps'??") J.W. was very quiet all the way along, until we pulled up at Astron and shut down.
"Handles like a dream, huh?" he asked with a sardonic grin.
"Oh, yeah," I told him. "What more could a guy want?"
We're planning a real checkout in the damned thing, and pressing on with the IFR hours when I get home from a week on the Peter Frampton tour. Meanwhile, I'm gonna fly the Citabria again tomorrow, just to get the taste out of my head.
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