July 16, 1999
(Note: the title and opening paragraphs refer to an old tradition in which the student's shirt-tails gets cut off on the day he solos.)
It's been over two weeks now since I stacked up a bunch of shirts for this. One day, knowing what's been coming, I pulled a dozen of them out of the collection, blew 'em through the laundry, folded and piled them at random, old & new: Huey Lewis & The News ('83), Triangle Theater/Peter Tosh ('82), L.D. Systems (Houston - Stevie Ray Vaughn, '84), Bolshoi Ballet American Tour '89, Club MTV/Vari*Lites ('90), Sturgis, S.D. ("Loud Pipes Save Lives"/Kentucky Headhunters, '91), Ted Nugent & Toyota product roll-out golf shirts from more recent times. It's a span of over fifteen years' work chronicled in 100% cotton, lined up for the scissors put to one of them on a day like today.
Today, it was Maceo Parker '99 at the top of the stack: vibrant purple with the electric green breast logo, and it's going back into rotation, although I really like to think that this particular stack won't see it again. Not after today. I'll put it this way: if I was flying with Terri again tomorrow instead of the big bus in the sky off to Fairfax, Va. in order to work, nothing on earth would keep me from soloing that Citabria. That's because of the 1.5 hour day I had today.
As we debriefed, her husband, Cal, walked in with a big grin on and shook my hand as he asked, "Did you do it?" I had to tell him, "Nope. Didn't happen today."
That's it. It just didn't happen.
Driving to the airport, I was interested to observe that Runway 07 was active this morning; unusual around LZU where - in my experience - 25 is most often the active runway. I thought about my experience in the approach down to 07; recalling the factory tin-roofs on short final and the squirrelly air at that point. ("Hmm. Yeah. I'll be enjoying that at about noon or so when they're just starting to really cook up.")
Pre-flight and taxi-out went straight by the numbers, and my radio work was, yes, stellar today. The pattern was very busy, with LZU tower turning away touch-&-go business between 3 & 4 airplanes in the pattern and various IFR approaches and departures. (Those people earned their money today.) What it added up to was very serious attention to the radio to keep painting that picture in my head, and, even at that, it got away from me once or twice, but I never stuttered once and often had a lot to say about acknowledgements.
During climb-out immediately after one take-off, an airplane landing behind me elected to go around. He powered-up and began to climb out - but went left of the runway instead of right. I didn't realize what was happening until LZU called him; "Do you have that Citabria ahead of you high and to your right?" "Yeah, I see him." By now, that airplane was at our 7 o'clock low on a parallel course just left of the runway, and maybe 250 feet away on the slant. LZU: "Citabria 53883 make a right turn, right traffic." Thirty seconds later: "Citabria 53883 number 4 following Cessna traffic just past the end left downwind runway 7." (Yup, that's what he said, hot off the audio tape.) Me: "53883 number 4, will report traffic in sight."
LZU: "Citabria 53883 your Cessna now on a left base at this time approaching final, your traffic's full stop, cleared touch & go number 3, after touch & go, resume left traffic."
(Get it? I'm looking to the opposite corner of the pattern for my traffic - I've got the one on short final - and there's a bit to say at this point.)
Me: "Very well, 53883 cleared 3 touch & go, has traffic in sight, will resume left traffic." Boom: spit it out and carry on. Terri was happy: "Very good. That was a lot to say wasn't it?" "Yeah."
No kiddin': I'm dancing almost every variable in the book to manage this pattern descent and merge my right traffic back into the left swing of things without cramping everyone else around the field with sheer newby clumsiness - at which I succeeded - all the while keeping the tally-ho peeled and somehow speaking in order to let them know that I really am in the game. It worked, but it was pretty busy.
What got me today wasn't the early flare to landing. What got me was the lapse of pattern fundamentals. I suppose I could snivel and say that it was actually the interval since my last flight and that I wasn't warmed up today, but that simply doesn't flush once one is up there flying, and that's why I cannot complain that Terri didn't let me go by myself.
On eight out of eleven landings today, I was too fast over the end of the runway. Almost uniformly, my response was an early flare. Terri watched this a couple of times in silence (which is remarkable, and there was a moment later, which I'll describe, in which that silence of hers was almost unbelievable), before she spoke about it: "I want you to stop worrying about your airspeed once you're over the runway. It's too late to do anything about it then. Get it down to the runway first, hold it off a bit and then bleed that speed."
"Well, 'duh'!" I thought, irritated that I'd gotten myself in a rut in which she had to say something like that. I mean, this is old material, even to me, and I simply should not have been in that place.
Still, though, she sat there quietly and watched me squash a stall onto the runway from about five feet altitude. The airplane sat down almost perfectly on three points, but I could feel the gear legs spreading to absorb the shock. I almost couldn't believe she'd just watched it happen. What I know, however, is that she's so good that she probably knew exactly how much G-load the gear were about to take, and figured they could stand the lesson.
Superb cool from the back seat on climb-out: "Okay, what do you think happened on that one?"
<sigh> "The same thing you've been pointing out all day long."
"That's right," and that's when we backed up a few lessons. "Okay," she said in a voice about as stern as I've ever heard from her, "Show me the numbers. I want 2000 RPM downwind, reduced on time, pitched for 90, 80, 70 between the turns."
It was like a slap in the head, which she could have physically delivered because I deserved it. In any case, I started doing it from the bottom, up: crafting the pattern as the foundation of the final approach, and that's when I wasn't fooling around with shaping airspeed on short final anymore because I was already naturally in the groove.
I can't even say, as is often said, that "It all just fell together," because I've had it all together before. I simply misplaced it today. I often hear other students in their various fits of frustration, which is described to them by others as natural at a certain point along the student way. I've thought that I was over that: it wouldn't get me because my landings had progressed pretty smoothly to the point of acceptable aptitude if not mastery (certainly). What I hadn't counted on was losing my grip on everything that piles up from 60-90 seconds prior to touchdown, all of which is essential to the success of that last ten seconds. In this airplane, 80 or 85mph over the end of the runway makes life hard. It doesn't have to be that way, and, today, there wasn't anyone to blame for the way it was, except me.
Dammit: the three landings that I brought in on-speed were really nice. At the end of a session like today, though, they just weren't enough to convince Terri.
I think she really wanted to have two of her students solo today. The guy immediately before me did it, and the mood was celebratory when I walked into the office this morning. She wanted it, but she just couldn't see it today, and I can't blame her. It's offbeat to think about; there were a couple of times up there when we were at odds, more than ever before. Mostly I just rolled with it, knowing that she knows what she's doing even if I have questions about a particular point. Once, though, I flatly ignored her advice just before touchdown, and it worked out exactly right: I did just what I had in mind at that moment, completely contradictory to what she was telling me ("Get the nose down a bit..."), and put down a perfect three-pointer. She later told me that I'd done the right thing.
What that means, to both of us, is that my judgment is growing into the right places at the right pace, even if she couldn't let me go with the airplane today because I wasn't thinking my way through bits of my patterns. Essentially, it was a chronic brain-fade day - nothing terribly serious headed toward immediate catastrophe or anything - but persistent enough about a particular set of items to mystify both of us a bit. I've been better than this, and there wasn't any good reason for it.
And so, again, she did the right thing. Her husband seemed disappointed and also mystified that I hadn't soloed today. (That was a clue: he knew it was coming, too, which means that she's been talking about it. I could be wrong, but I don't think so, because Terri thinks a lot about her students, and I'd bet a lot that she does it away from the airport.) However, there was nothing to say to him except that it didn't happen, and that's because Terri's the boss. She didn't feel good about it, and that's that.
I think I could have gotten around the pattern three times on my own. And, quite, frankly, I am looking forward to a bit of quiet concentration on my own in the cockpit. However, I'd far rather she didn't have to pace around watching me with frayed nerves, wondering whether she'd done the right thing in letting me go. We should both feel really good about it, knowing, as much as possible, that everything will be okay, so we can both enjoy it.
So, the Maceo '99 shirt goes to the bottom of the solo rotation pile. The challenge at the moment is that my next booked session is two weeks away. (Terri & Cal will be off to Oshkosh, 53883 goes down for a bit of fabric maintenance, etc.) As I was leaving, I could see that she was really concerned over finding a way to keep me flying without that long a delay. "Look," I told her, "don't break your neck over this schedule. It didn't happen today, but I learned a lot, and that's the real point. I really appreciate what you're doing for me, and we'll just carry on."
That's exactly what we're going to do.
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