May 30, 1999
10.6 hours

    I don't really know: I've reviewed the tape, and I don't know whether it was just an impulse-call based on the quality of the approach, or what, but precisely four minutes into today's flight, and about fifteen seconds from the end of the runway, Terri told me, "Okay, we're actually going to let it touch down."

    My first landing.

    It definitely caught me by surprise, but I was too busy to reflect on it that way.  I just flew the airplane the way it seemed to want to fly at the current power setting and angle of attack, until it got to within a few feet.  All the way, Terri spoke to me the way she does: quietly and calmly, no more than necessary; watching at least as much as speaking.

I'd been prepared for a series of centerline low-passes, and figured that would just about be all today.  Visibility was miserable: 4 mile haze and a 3,000-foot ceiling.  My first landing pattern was kinda okay, I guess, especially compared to some of the nonsense I've seen some people flying around Briscoe Field, but I'm really jealous of every 50-foot deviation in altitude and +/-5 mph of airspeed.  The Landing Pattern is a very important thing: if it's not flown correctly for the last five minutes of the flight, any part of it can get positively and suddenly dangerous.  Of course, any pilot who is paying attention also knows that things are always changing - every second - and so the game becomes one of extreme sensitivity to every play: wind, thermals, other traffic, aircraft mechanics (sometimes - better be ready for it), birds, alignment of the stars, fate, you name it: every bit of everything in life in the air conspires against the constancy of The Landing Pattern.  Today, Terri said, "It's the kind of thing that drives engineers crazy, because it is never really the same any two times."

    So, when I say my first pattern was "okay", it means that I'm picking at every little thing about it.  It doesn't mean that it wasn't an acceptable pattern, but simply that I can do better.

    However, I'd had in mind the rudder-battle: keeping the airplane running straight down the runway - but not touching, because sideways contact can wreck the landing gear, not to mention the whole day.  Taildraggers are very touchy animals.  They must be firmly reigned in a straight line, or they will whip their tails around, first chance they get.  So, I thought I'd be fighting the rudder-battle, like I did last Wednesday in 15-knot crosswinds on low centerline passes. That was a battle.  The thing is, in today's 4-6 knot winds, what I'd learned to feel last Wednesday was immensely valuable: a lot less fight to keep straight, and Terri knew I had the goods today.

    We were in the air for 1.4 hours, and never more than a half-mile from the runway.  It's all we did: climb out, turn right at 1500 feet MSL ("mean sea level"), turn right after a half-mile, level-off and reduce power at 2100 feet, fly downwind (parallel to the runway a half-mile on our right), reduce power to 1400 RPM abeam the numbers at the end of the runway and pitch the nose for 90mph, turn right on the base leg of the pattern when the touchdown point is 45 degrees aft of the wing and pitch for 80mph, turn right on final and pitch for 70mph (about a minute from touchdown), dance the delicate 3-axis-control ballet down over the approach lights to the flare: bring the stick back gently in time to the airplane's final struggle for flight at too slow a speed, and gingerly walk the rudder pedals as if either side of the airplane is the very edge of the world.

    Over and over.  Ten times.  That's all we did.

    I was a tired kid when I stepped out of Citabria 53883, but I'd gotten a hell of a lot of work done.  I answered radio calls from the tower; watched an amazing riot of traffic entering the pattern from every direction (it was a weekend, after all); and most interesting of all to me: I nailed the forward slip today.  That's a big deal.

    Imagine being in an airplane at 350 feet AGL ("above ground level") and noting (briefly!) the vertical speed indicator showing a descent at a rate of something like 1000 feet per minute.  Or more.  That's right.  That's what the forward slip is all about: dumping altitude.

    Last Wednesday, I tried to roll-in a forward slip on one of my approaches and got so out of shape that I figured Terri might be thinking about jumping out the window.  It was really embarrasing: my brain simply would not feed my limbs with the correct control-inputs, and the Citabria very sweetly and obediently bucked all over the final approach, looking like a loose bag of nuts & bolts rolling down stairs.

    Today, it happened perfectly the first time, and every time thereafter.

    (Hmm.  There's a philosophical note on "autotelic activity", here.)

    It was wonderful: being able to precisely cross-control the airplane in such a demanding regime as final approach.  Later, in de-brief, Terri and I were discussing power applications in the pattern (which is always changing due to wind, celestial alignments, you name it, etc.), and how proper attention to power settings can get altitudes squared-away in order that one doesn't have to slip the airplane to dump excess altitude on final approach.

    But I confessed: "I really enjoyed slipping the airplane today, Terri.  That's because it's the first time I ever felt in control of the maneuver in a place where I could put it to practical use."

    She smiled and said, "I know that.  I saw it."

    It was great; the best part of the day.  On about half of those approaches, I was too high and had to slip it in.  So, I would get to about a half or quarter-mile, depending on the way coffee-grounds were settling somewhere in the airfield restaurant or whatever, observe that I was too high, roll the left wing down and kick right rudder just right.  The airplane would cant to the right in a perfectly uncomfortable un-coordinated attitude exposing the whole left side to the relative wind and killing lift mercilessly.  When I thought it was about right (like, when I thought I would properly intercept the glide slope), I'd let out the controls and fly straight on down... or, kick the slip just a tad, or maybe two tads, more, exactly when and how much I wanted.

    Terri was quiet and observant.  A couple of times, she called for a hundred more RPM's just as my hand was finishing the throttle application: I saw things before she had to announce them, and she says that nobody with a mere ten hours in a taildragger should be able to do that.

    Working with Terri (and that's what we're doing - working) is something perfectly tailored to my character: she knows just how and when to let me do what I do best, and when to point-up what I'm not very good at - yet.  The Citabria is an extraordinary learning experience for a brand-new pilot, and I can sometimes barely believe how well this plan, plotted a year ago now, is coming together.

    Years from now, I expect to look back at this with a very special satisfaction: that I chose, uncommonly, to learn in a tail-wheeled airplane from the very start, and did just exactly that, better than most.

LZU - Gwinnett County/Briscoe Field  ( outlink)


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