October 18, 1999
28.2 hours

    Takeoff at 1:26pm - the first time ever that I've taken the airplane on my own word, solo from engine-crank to shutdown, and left the traffic pattern.

    Dale (the owner of Astron Enterprises) and I took special notes on fuel in the Citabria, figuring on whether we would fuel it prior to my flight, because Terri plans on an aerobatic flight this evening and wants no more than seven gallons in each wing tank. I dipped the stick, and we agreed that I would fly and then he would fuel it on my return. Otherwise, pre-flight went straight by the checklist, and I was rolling.

    I taxied to Runway 25 for northern departure and was cleared for takeoff after normal run-up, with winds running 270 at 8. Power on at full, and 53883 lunged down the runway with its characteristic edge-seeking behavior held in check with rudder until the tailwheel was off - at the verge of flying: a bit of a roll with airspeed winding-up rapidly, and then mainmounts off after a slight touch of aft-stick and I flew away, CAVU and bright, bright blue, climbing like a bat.

    What a sensational feeling.

    The air was a bit slappy, and I definitely had a bit more swivel in the old neckbones today, very sharply aware of being more alone in the airplane than ever before, given what I was about to do. All engine readouts were solid green and steady in the climb and the Lycoming was jamming like a Marshall amplifier on 11: a full-throat creamy roar. All alone and nearing pattern altitude already, I rolled into my departure turn, watching for the new shopping mall six miles out to slide right-to-left through the windscreen. When it hit the nose centerline, I rolled & ruddered just that crisply and - bang - spiked it right there.

    Feeling like a million bucks, that was exactly the right time to reflect on something Terri and I had talked about, the other day:

    The fun of this stuff is precisely matched by the responsibility to take everything about it seriously in order to stay safe. The thought that emerged went like this:
"Yeah, yeah, okay fine: that was pretty good and it felt great, especially because you're up here by yourself, but don't forget, Kid, that you're only as good as your last move, and your next one could be your last."

    At all times, I try not to fool myself over what's going on here.

    Power and pitch to pattern altitude came together in one move, with a 50-foot anticipation, and I settled at 2100 MSL and 2200 RPM at once. A full panel-scan to ensure all green, a touch of trim, and the next thing; a look down to my left to pick up Ga. Rt. 20 headed northwest. I could see Lake Lanier, my intended practice area, more toward the north, but I stuck with Rt. 20 because it would take me over my neighborhood. You see, before I left home, I'd told the kids on my street that I would circle at about 1:30pm: the first of my ground reference maneuvers.

    At about 1.5 miles from the airport, I pitched up to 70mph and thus climbed to 3500 feet, arriving there just before I spotted the power-line just north of my street. My street intersects the power-line just about at a right-angle, and it was a snap to pick it out, running almost parallel to my course. So, I side-slipped to the right for a moment, putting the street clearly on my left, and flew along until I saw my house. At 1:33pm, I rolled left into a standard rate turn, and went around three times: I saw kids bicycling up the street and gathering in my front yard, while working the turn through the wind-drifts. Then, I rolled out on a heading of 300, and rocked my wings on my way to the lake.

    Lake Lanier is a fairly sizable splash of water. So, as I approached it, the first thing to do amid routine responsibilities like panel scans and rubber-necking was to pick out an area of the lake over which to work. I saw what I wanted, and linked two 90-degree turns for traffic clearing, while climbing to 4000 feet for the stall series.

    My program called for alternating departure and approach stalls in sets of three, beginning at 4000 feet. I started with a power-off set, recording altitudes on my knee-board between every one, and then went through a power-on set, and then back through it again after a 180-degree turn back to the north. In all, I ran a dozen stalls, and averaged about 100 feet of altitude loss in recoveries through the whole lot. (Two came in at 150', several at 75', and the rest at about 100'.) It was a very interesting exercise, and Terri and I talked about it later. It's been a while since I did these, and our conversation helped me to refine my power-on entries with power settings that won't require 60-pitch attitudes in order to get the wing to stop flying. I wasn't doing that today, but the extreme example illustrates the performance of this airplane. (How many other planes can anyone cite with a Vx three miles-per-hour below their Vs?) I was departure-stalling, but I didn't have it exactly right, and I've got good notes for tomorrow's exercise.

    I took a long leisurely turn around through the north to northeast, and eyeballed the straight gray line of I-985 with cars & trucks rolling along, for the S-turn series. Winds aloft weren't terribly challenging to that today, though, so it wasn't very long before I rolled out with another idea I'd been nursing.

    After trimming level at 4500 (with another of many, many looks around me), I took out my Terminal Area Chart to have a look at what I knew anyway: a heading up to Gainesville. On a day like today, it's a fairly goof-free 12 nautical mile run up to Gilmer Memorial Airport (GVL), what with the lake on my left and I-985 on my right (and that crazy 1765-foot radio tower winking at me five miles off my right wing). I kept the chart handy, though, studying runway headings and tuning up GVL UNICOM after I made up my mind to fly up there and feel out the winds with a touch & go. After all: this was the first time I'd ever flown to another airport by myself.

    Along the way, I set up a gentle descent that would see me at 3000 feet over the airport in order to have a good look at it. I called for an airport advisory at about four miles, and got nothin'. "Hmm," sez I. "Nobody home? Really?" At one mile, I called again, and got more nothin'. So, a look at the windvane down there was the best I was evidently going get, and it was a toss-up over Runways 4 and 11. I figured on 4 (wind about 30 degrees off), and turned left, descending, to set up the left downwind pattern entry. I called the plan to nobody, and that's when they woke up: a Piper Saratoga on takeoff after a touch & go on 4.

    I swung my turn more to the west in order eyeball the Saratoga I didn't know had been there, and I finally got the tally-ho on him climbing out and announcing his crosswind turn and intent to touch & go again. Looking around, I thought I had everybody in their place, so I throttled-back nearly to idle and dived through my turns entering the pattern. I approached and put down a neat crosswind landing, rolled a bit, then took off and climbed out while the Saratoga was racing along behind me: he was on final as I was rolling, and that's where this bit got interesting to me.

    I climbed out, and the Saratoga touched-down and rolled out. I swung a turn to the west, with the intent to run back down the eastern edge of Lake Lanier. By the time I was established on my southwest heading at 3000 feet, the Saratoga was off again and announcing his departure to the southwest. I looked back and down, and watched him for a long time. He turned nicely, climbing, around to the southwest. By the time I lost sight of him under my tail, he was on a course very nearly identical to mine and about a thousand feet below, and I started to wonder. So, I called "Saratoga X-X-X, Citabria 53883: I'm at three thousand and headed two-three-zero. I just lost sight of your departure on my six o'clock, and I'll be taking a clearing turn to my left to regain visual contact."

    I didn't hear from him, but ran the turn anyway, through a full 360 degrees. About 50 degrees into it, I made him. He was headed the way he had been, and not climbing anymore, which is what relieved me. I'd had this vision of him climbing into me from behind, and would have really hated that, so I just made myself comfortable. I pulled all the way around the circle: by the time I was through, he was safely on my nose, and he shortly pulled a right turn more westerly and skittered off across the lake at about 1500 AGL.

    Good deal. Have a nice day, mate.

    The run home was uneventful... if we're really going to call the wonder of sailing through bright blue air all alone, "uneventful". After all: every flight really is an "event" all its own.

    Initial contact with LZU airspace was routine, with my request for closed traffic, and their traffic advisories (a King Air and a helicopter in the neighborhood) and order to report at three miles. Done that; right downwind entry to 25; touch & go clearance; approach down final, to...

    ...the single worst landing I was ever involved with. In fact, it was an abort after the second bounce, with side-load garnish, in the winds running 300 at 10. Horrible. It was very depressing, and I briefly thought about just giving it up once I got it on the ground. Then, I started fighting: "No bloody way. I'm going to redeem this."

    Suitably focused and determined, now, I went on to three wheel landings in those winds, which I would grade at 8.5 on average. Pretty good, to me. I thought Terri would have been pleased.

    On the full-stop, I thanked he tower guy for not laughing out loud at that abort. He said, "Well, we don't laugh as long as they end up on all three wheels." We laughed, I thanked him again, and logged 1.2 hours solo with 4 landings.

    A pretty good day.


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