October 14, 1999
24.4 hours

    Yesterday, I'd been slated for a 7:30am takeoff in the Citabria in which I've been training.  This fine little taildragger is the only airplane I've ever logged hours in; a wonderful friend of mine, now.  I know it so well.

    I was going to fly it 55 miles cross-country with J.W., the new taildragger instructor who the plane's owner, Terri Andrews, has checked-out and authorized to instruct with it.  The idea was that we would fly it down to Griffin, Ga., where a mechanic would install some minor bits (like a cigarette lighter to provide power for a GPS unit), and then fly it home.  I would log my first serious cross-country flight, and wouldn't have to pay for it because the airplane needed the work, and J.W. and I would be doing Terri a favor.  (She can't get away from her work at a jet charter/dealership during weekdays.)

    I arrived at the airport to find fog all the way down to ground level: no hope of a flight.  So, J.W. and I sat around and went over flight planning techniques.  We figured out the route on a sectional chart, and then went at the flight plan seriously: marking landmark waypoints on the route, and figuring times between them based on winds aloft and cruising speeds, as well as fuel-burns between waypoints (to fractions of a gallon) and emergency divert landing fields.

    This is very involved stuff.  I learned a lot.

    We never got off the ground on that flight.  At 1:00pm, J.W. had an instrument student to fly with.  The weather was perfect for that - completely blind almost from takeoff.

    I took my laptop and headed south to Buckhead to draw for a new AutoCAD client, who I wasn't really interested to work with, but who I couldn't just blow-off, for market-politics reasons.  You see, he knows lots of people who know me.

    By the time I was halfway down there, the weather was starting to burn off, and all I could think about was that Citabria.

    I spent two hours in a Buckhead high-rise, getting this dinky little 2-D drawing squared away.  When I emerged, there wasn't a single cloud in the sky.

    I stopped at a phone booth and called the airport to see if the Citabria was booked for the afternoon.  It wasn't.  Wide open.  So, I called Terri to see if she'd let me fly it.

    Although I've soloed the airplane, it's not (yet) as if I can just book it, and go jump in and fly away.  As things are now, Terri wants me to taxi the airplane over to her office at Atlanta Jet, across the airport, so that I can brief her on what I have in mind for any given flight.  She'll then account for weather conditions before deciding whether she thinks the flight is within my ability.  The main concern is wind conditions: winds over pilot capability account for a great number of accidents in tail-wheeled airplanes, and it's a very insidious thing.  Pilots get into a "Yeah, I can handle this" mindset whether they really can or not, and end up over their heads.

    It's a good way to get killed, not to mention piling up a perfectly innocent airplane.

    Well, she wasn't at Atlanta Jet.  She was on a sales call, having flown a Cessna Citation jet down to Peachtree-DeKalb airport.

    I reached her on a cell-phone, and we talked about it.  The winds at PDK were a tad stiff for her peace of mind, and she wanted to speak to J.W. about conditions at Gwinnett.  I told her that I wasn't up there yet, and decided that we shouldn't push it, and told her so.  I would just book the airplane for Monday.

    I drove all the way north, hating every asshole on the road along the way.  Honestly: the traffic in this town is starting to get to me.  I despise all these morons who don't know what they're doing, in their endless numbers.

    By the time I got to Gwinnett County, I was staring at the sky.

    I dropped in at the flight school, hoping, and sure enough: J.W. was outside smoking a cigarette.  I waved at him as I pulled in at about 5:00pm.  Jumping out of the Chevelle I yelled, "Hey, you!  Look at this air!"

    He grinned really big, but then clouded over when I asked him what he was doing.  I had in mind a dual flight, with him in the back seat.  He wanted to do it, but had another student arriving, so couldn't.

    I thought about it, and asked if he would speak to Terri about letting me go by myself.  We called her at PDK, and described local conditions at Gwinnett: winds at 3-5 knots, directly across the runway.

    It was just about perfect.  You see, a crosswind - running across the runway - is the single most important challenge to flying a tail-wheeled airplane.  It seriously compounds the inherent problem of directional control that's built into them.  (Here's an experiment: the next time you're at a grocery store, take a shopping cart, push it backwards, and let it roll.  Watch what happens.  That's what a taildragger wants to do when it's rolling down a runway at 70 miles an hour.)

    These winds were just enough to challenge my control skills, but not enough to overwhelm me unless I simply wasn't paying attention, which is no way to learn how to fly.

    Terri said yes.  J.W. and I ducked into a briefing room, and he asked me questions about how to deal with conditions.  I gave him the right answers, and he said, "I don't see a problem.  You can handle it."

    He then took his other student and flew away.

    I went out to the hangar and told Marcus, the mechanic, that I was taking the Citabria, and something wonderful happened: for the first time ever on my own word, people started moving airplanes out of my way.

    The Citabria was blocked from the hangar door by a twin-engine Beechcraft Baron.  Marcus hooked up the little motorized taxi tug and pulled it out onto the parking apron, while I checked the fuel levels in, uhm, "my airplane".  He came back, and he and I pushed it out the door and turned it into initial taxi position.

    And he walked away and left me there alone.

    I stood still for a moment, and looked around the evening sky, and then put my pilot's head on and walked around the airplane in my pre-flight drill: pulling and pushing on control surfaces & propellor; rolling the airplane on its wheel checking tire tread; examining the brakes for hydraulic leaks; stressing wing ribs to check for damage during aerobatics; draining fuel from tanks to check for water condensation.

    It's a solemn ritual, devoted to life in the air.

    In the evening quiet, I climbed into the airplane all alone and strapped in.  I wondered if anyone was watching me, and I watched myself, now solely responsible for every tiny detail of the impending adventure.  It was really pressing to me: the fact that nobody in the world was there to catch a mistake.  It was just me.

    I read through the engine-start checklist once before going back to the begining and hitting every item in turn before calling "Clear!", pressing the engine-start button and catching the 150hp Lycoming engine's life in my hand with the fuel-mixture control and throttle.  I switched on the radio gear, tested the brakes with a short roll, and then called my initial contact:

    "Gwinnett Ground: Citabria 53883 rolling at Astron to taxi for closed traffic."

    The tower came right back with a splash of data: altimeter setting (a barometric calibration ensuring that my altimeter isn't lying to me), wind speed and direction, and assigned taxiway, with instructions to await clearance before crossing the active runway.

    I remember the first time I ever heard that rapid-fire reply (April 21 of this year) and wondering whether I would ever learn to grasp it without a completely lame, "Huh??"  Yesterday, it was nothing but a routine part of the drill.

    "Roger: hold short of Two-Five at Echo.  53883."

    It was about quarter of six by the time I'd completed my final pre-flight checklist and taxied into position at the end of Runway Two-Five: looking directly into a brilliant amber setting sun.  I applied full power to the Lycoming, and the Citabria responded with its characteristic lunge down the runway, looking for either side of the runway like a wild horse desperate to throw its rider.  At 45mph, I pushed the stick slightly forward to get the tailwheel off, and the beast submitted to its role: taking my orders from the rudder pedals and holding the runway centerline under strict direction, until...

    ...stick back at 65mph, and the mainmounts broke ground.


    Directly into the sun, now, and climbing like a bat.

    At 1500 feet MSL ("Mean Sea Level") I kicked the right rudder pedal and banked into a right turn with a feeling like I knew I could pass yet another in an endless series of tests: "Did the nose skid off-heading in that turn?"  No.  Perfectly coordinated through 90 degrees as I looked down the right wing pointed at the end of the runway below me and I kicked out of the turn.  Not a single burble in airflow along the airplane's lines, and I didn't need to look at the turn coordinator: my ass was planted solidly in the seat, knowing from the G-force that I had it just right.

    In the past, Terri would have said on the intercom, "That was a nice turn, Billy."

    I flew around the landing pattern for an hour: over and over, practicing the most crucial phase of flight.  Managing airspeed and controls in order to place the airplane perfectly at the end of a five minute-long sequence of events intended to kiss the wheels - all three at once - lightly on the concrete of the runway.  Over and over: nothing but landings, but with new things in the mix now.  The wind - without Terri in the airplane and the two of us chatting on the intercom, the silence was such that I could hear the wind moving over its surfaces as I flew down final approach with power off.  I'd never really heard that before.

    I landed one last time just after 7:00pm, as the guy in the tower joked about whether they might have to shoot me down in order to get me to stop.  I thanked him for his traffic-control assistance and bid him a good evening as we laughed, and taxied to put the airplane to bed.

    Brakes to stop; electrics off; fuel mixture control to idle/cutoff; mags & master switch off: the propellor spun to a halt...

    ...and I stepped out of the chapel, into ordinary life, but refreshed enough to deal with it.


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