September 9, 1999
Terri and I actually got the Citabria off the ground this evening.
We'd agreed to meet at the Astron hangar at 6:00pm, after her workday at the jet dealership. By the time she arrived, I'd already begun the pre-flight, and that was as much my saying "Hello" to 53883 after almost eight weeks' absence as making sure that the airplane was in shape to fly. The recent fabric work on the right horizontal stabilizer was so perfect that I could not see the patch. I ran my hands over many square feet, though, just admiring those lines and planes: this is a marvelous little ship, with which I am very much in love. I've really missed it.
During my recent tour on the west coast, I would break out my laptop in the aft-lounge of the crew coach, before turning in while rolling to the next show. I would study the digital photograph of the instrument panel, hung as Win95 wallpaper, and wistfully lope through my collection of photographs of Terri's airplane, longing for the next takeoff run and imagining rudder input squaring the left yaw back to the runway centerline. It was awful: almost like missing a woman.
Terri finally got home from jet training last Sunday, and today was our first opportunity to get together since then. The airplane was ready to go (finally), and we decided to scrape off the rust we'd accumulated since July 16. We didn't actually taxi out until almost 7:00pm because we hung around chatting with the A&P who did the work, and it's not difficult to figure out where that sort of thing goes. For instance; Tim owns a Pitts, and we spent a lot of time laughing about the adventure of taildragging and generally enjoying each others' company over something that special.
Someone else casually wandered out from the office and quietly reminded me that it's not June anymore: "Hey, you know that it gets dark about eight o'clock these days, right?"
Yeah. Work to do.
The weather was dodgy as hell, but AWOS said we had the minimums, and it had been steadily clearing from what had looked like a certain scrub in the early afternoon. So, we saddled up and I called LZU tower for a southern departure to the practice area. During the taxi out in calm winds, Terri and I had a great time just chatting by ourselves; her training sessions, my work with a famous British guitar brat, how cool it was to be in the Citabria again, going over the implications of taxiing in front of the Lear-jet behind us. ("No. I don't think I should speed up just because he's back there. I was here first and he gets to deal with it.")
Engine run-up went right by the numbers (a fact of note, because of how things turned out). I rolled us out to the runway - with Terri taking the rudder pedals while I closed the window, as is our custom of keeping it open until the last moment - squared us to centerline, tossed power, and away we went: cheering as the mainmounts broke ground.
"We're flying! Woo-hoo!" Like a couple of kids.
We weren't halfway to Traffic Pattern Altitude, though, before we could see that visibility wasn't going to be all it was cracked up to be. I called LZU: "Gwinnett tower, we're going to stay in the pattern tonight. Advise left or right, please," and took the order for left traffic. That was it: no stalls or steep turns or (sigh) spins; just laps to touch & goes ...which was just fine with me. It was enough to be flying.
Turning to downwind, we observed that visibilty more than a mile was a long-shot, so we resolved to take it one circuit at a time, and fly the pattern tighter than usual. In fact, I spent that first lap weaving between small clouds on downwind.
For a guy who hadn't flown in almost two months, I was generally pretty good. Terri never had to take the airplane away from me, turns were really well coordinated (prompting a brief discussion of the relative merits of flying the ball vs. feeling one's ass in the seat), altitude anticipation with pitch and power were tightly integrated and spot-on, and I shot six landings of surprising quality before the alternator gave up. I hit the pattern numbers consistently, except once when I had to extend downwind for traffic and ended up a tad high on short final (go figure that), but nonetheless delighted with the necessity to slip. ("Aw, jeez, I'm gonna have to slip it. Too bad, huh? Woo-hoo!")
During a panel scan on climbing out the last time, I caught the ammeter showing a 10-amp discharge. "Hey, Terri..."
I got it around to downwind and then Terri started unloading electrics circuit by circuit while I watched the ammeter. In the traffic pattern, it wasn't a really big deal, and we took advantage of the opportunity to feel out the problem, but there was no question that we were done for the evening. We got pretty good notes for the mechanic.
Turning left base to runway 7, I took one last look at the sun burning deep orange and low under the right wing, noting how deliciously beautiful everything was up there, even through the haze, and thought about something a tad scary: how easy it all seemed. "That ain't good," I said to myself. It might seem incongruous: that it ought to be easy; that's the goal. However, it also occurred to me that nobody with my kind of time logged has any business even thinking about flying in those kinds of terms. And; I was about one a minute from incipient disaster: landing a taildragger.
"Stop looking at the scenery, dummy, and watch what you're doing." I kinda heard that in my father's, or grandfather's, voice.
Right, then. I ran base at 80mph, chopping throttle almost to idle and diving through the turn to final at just the right airspeed while burning off a bit of altitude before pitching to 70, and thinking about what The World's Greatest Living Pilot once told me about landings: "The edge of the runway is the edge of the world. Thread the needle every time: you never know when the top of a dam will be the only landing you've got and you'll only have one shot at it." In other words: get your shit together, Beck, and groove that centerline.
Batta-bing, batta-boom. Just like that, my best landing of the session.
We just barely beat the sun to the ground, and taxied home laughing and analyzing the alternator, alternately.
I don't know how anyone could possibly have more fun in the world.
Certified Airframe & Powerplant Mechanic