November 15, 1999
As if it wasn't enough that I hadn't flown since Oct. 25, bouncing to & fro through ten time-zones (from Paris, France to San Diego, California and several points between) in the past ten days wasn't really helpful in keeping my feet under me as I pre-flighted 53883 this afternoon. The next two days will be the first that I've spent without setting my watch: I arrived at ATL on an American Airlines flight from Miami, this morning. I watched closely the 727's landing on Runway 27L, having noted the windsock at MIA's 27R showing a straight crosswind on take-off, and wondering what it would be like near the homedrome. The captain had his crosswind correction in when we touched down. Deplaning, I asked him what the winds were. "310 at 13, gusting to 23."
"Rats," I said, and then explained my 10-knot crosswind sign-off in the Citabria, coupled with the itch I wanted to scratch today.
"Well," he said, "A northwest runway is the ticket, if you can get one."
"That won't work."
That was about 10:00am. By 2:00pm, things were calming, and I called Astron to reserve the airplane. It was open, and I set it up for 4:00pm.
Physiology was on my mind, all day. Where are the limits?
I was tired. No doubt about it. The thing is, I'm accustomed to living that way, and making crucial decisions in that sort of chronic state. Nearly a quarter-century of rock touring rather brings one into tune with the effects of the grind, and people who do this learn how to compensate for it in lots of ways. Granted: slugging through the fifth sixteen or eighteen-hour day in a row on a stage has very real fundamental differences from managing an airplane... and, certainly, vice-versa. At least one of them is obvious: piling-up an airplane is impossible in an arena. On the other hand, though, people have fallen off lights trusses when they were tired, and a thirty-foot drop to a stage is just about as un-healthy.
That's never happened to me, though, even on my worst day out there, and the point is that I know, pretty well, where my edges are. That intimate knowledge, together with a serious itch to fly, tipped the balance, and I headed off to the airport at 3:30pm to feel it out.
The first person I saw was Terri, and that made me smile broadly. "She's back." The short story is that, at the moment and for a variety of reasons, she's interested in spending a lot more time at instructing than waiting around for time in jets. She'd rather fly, and this fact has important implications down the home-stretch of my training.
So, I was really happy to see her again. However, she was headed right out the door to fly with a local pilot in his Su-26. After a brief discussion, she urged me to go have fun if I felt like it. As it happened, J.W. was waiting around for his student at 5:00, so I asked him if he wanted to hop in back and go for a ride, and I didn't have to ask him twice. Very good: I now had a CFI safety-pilot, and I was feeling better all the time.
The pre-flight was like a breathing exercise; deep, calm, collected, and deliberate. It was as much about checking my own condition - mentally - as that of the airplane, and I think that's the way it should be all the time. No routines around this: everything about it has a purpose, and that purpose is also a test of pilot conditioning. "How squared-away are you? What, exactly, are you doing, even if you know why you're doing it?" The idea was to see just how wobbly I was, by running the pre-flight on the airplane, item by singular item; every nut, bolt, and cotter-pin. J.W. watched me from a discreet distance, and he said I looked like I still knew what I was doing. And so, we agreed to go flyin'.
I didn't have anything special in mind, except to get off the ground for a while, and that's part of what made it very good to have another pilot aboard. At take-off, the winds were 260 at 12: only ten degrees off the runway. I could have gone solo, and I only had it in mind to head out to the southern practice area and wring out the wrinkles. The way it worked out was a lot better than that.
Terri and her friend took off three ahead of us, as we were taxiing out to the run-up pad. By the time we were airborne, they were long gone. That Su-26 strictly hauls right along. I'd heard them cleared VFR to the south, though, and didn't want to get in the way in case they wanted to work the area over the gravel quarry. So, J.W. and I had four sharp eyes peeled, all the way outbound. We got out there and didn't see them anywhere around. With one last clearing turn, I started work with a stall series.
J.W. insisted that he was just along for the ride, but, later, I made sure that the invoice included his instruction, because that's what he was worth out there. He critiqued what I was doing with a focus on grooming for the checkride at every turn, and we discussed possible differences between how we handle the Citabria and what a Designated Examiner is going to want to see; degrees of precision, etc. (For one example: this airplane is relatively difficult to stall, particularly with power-on - it just doesn't want to stop flying - and so we really tweak throttle settings to pitch control in order to get it to break through the nose. That, in itself, is a bit of work, all while observing data like altitude and heading precision in order to grade the maneuver.)
The whole session worked out a lot better having him aboard: an object lesson in two heads being better than one. He took me through Dutch rolls, and challenged me to linked steep-turns to heading in ways that I'd never thought of before. In all, we covered stuff that I wouldn't have if I'd gone solo.
Meanwhile, Terri and the Su-Guy were tearing it up, about five miles to the northwest. The way the late afternoon light was falling, we often saw glints off that airplane, reflected back at us, as it blasted straight vertical - rolling at 360 degrees per-second - or ripped through the top of a loop with a snap-roll. They were the only other traffic out there, and J.W. and I paused now & then to watch, between maneuvers. "Wow. That looks like a hell of a lot of fun." Later, Terri told me, with a brilliant smile, that they'd peaked 7g positive and 4 negative in that flight.
Five o'clock was creeping up, so we turned back to LZU in order that J.W. could meet his student. We had time for one touch & go before the full-stop, and I positively discovered something that I hadn't clearly recorded before: I forward-slip much better to the right than to the left. The problem today was that, on my first approach, the winds wanted me to slip to the left (because I was high on final - again). Noted and resolved: that's an exercise for my next flight. Two landings weren't anything to jump up & down about, and that's how I get to the subject of this article.
It's so important to me to fly as often as possible. Working as I do makes it really hard sometimes. Between that and other stuff (like weather and airplane maintenance), I lost eight weeks of this program through July and August of this year. That was hard to take, but I surprised myself when I finally got going again: I was better than I thought I'd be.
What seems to be happening now is that I've come so far since then that there is a lot more to lose when I don't fly... and I'm not experienced enough to retain it all for three weeks out of the cockpit. It's not discouraging. After all; it is what it is - I must slave-away in order to fly (as if I don't love my work or anything). But it is a challenge, and a couple of landings graded no better than about 6.5 really weren't attributable to the fact that I was a bit crispy around the edges today. It was about not doing it for so long. Completely apart from a passion for being in the air, it's a very serious matter, to me, having to do with every little thing pertinent to flying a taildragger, and keeping it all in one bag.
I got out of the airplane with .9 hours bagged today, which was just enough. I'll sleep well tonight (in my own bed - yay!), looking forward to Thursday and Friday cross-country sessions with Terri. (Two, together, she said, and then I'm off on my own.) I think she's got an angle on a DE who'll check me in the Citabria, and that's our current heading.
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