Monday, August 01, 2011

I Keep Trying

Here's a rather long and self-critical note on my recent landing practice. It's all part of the (re)learning process and I'm lucky to have an instructor who is incredibly patient and skilled at keeping us safe even when I make some pretty dumb mistakes. I know that's what CFI's do, among other things, but I'm still grateful for it. One of these days I'll remember my real camera on a morning lesson and take a decent picture of Ed landing the Citabria (camera was in my car this morning but I didn't realize it until after our flight). Wednesday maybe...

I had two sessions of pattern work with Ed in the Citabria, one at 10 am Saturday (1.1 hrs) and one this morning (1.3 hrs). Aside from continuing good luck with weather, the good news is that I’ve got takeoffs pretty well in hand. I can keep it rolling pretty straight down the runway on 3 wheels, get the tail up when I feel the stick response “stiffen” (so to speak!), keep it rolling straight on 2 wheels, pull back a bit to lift off at about 60 mph, and lower the nose a bit to avoid a possible stall while accelerating to 70-75 mph, then establish positive rate of climb. I still drift off the runway heading more than I would like on climb-out (I pick out one horizon reference point, then another, then another). I hold right rudder to keep the ball centered while I’m thinking of it, but then I check traffic or something and partly release it until I notice the ball isn't centered. But I’m aware of all this and I’m gradually getting better.

The bad news is the landings. Ed had been coaching and helping me quite a bit on landings, advising when I’m high or need to add power or whatever. But I’m a big boy with about 9 hours in this airplane. Time to step up to the plate. On these two lessons, he mostly left the approach and landing decisions up to me until I screwed something up and he either added a control input or comment or both. Ed is very good at not panicking. :)

My patterns are generally OK now (I realize this is just basic air work and shouldn’t be tough) – 75-80 mph on the climb out, turning crosswind at about 1100’ while continuing the climb to 1500’ TPA, and turning downwind (and usually making a "Sterling traffic" call there). Trying to keep my turns something like 90 degrees with good coordination. Good offset from the runway (about mid-wing-strut). Once established at 1500 feet, pitch-power-trim for straight and level at about 2300 RPM. Carb heat at mid-field downwind, throttle back to 1500 RPM when abeam the numbers and establish a glide at about 80 mph (pitch-power-trim, but I get a little fixated on this sometimes and the wings wobble a bit – that’s my lazy feet as usual). 

This is where the trouble starts. Maybe 1500 RPM is too much power on the glide, and if I start my turn to base where I THINK I should (with runway numbers about 45 degrees behind me), I end up too high and too close to the runway. So sometimes I extend the downwind a bit to give myself more room to get down. Of course getting farther from the airport than you need to be isn’t a good idea – what if the engine quits? You want to be able to glide to a safe landing. I recall doing a number of simulated engine failure landings with Mario in the C152 at ORH. I got to be OK on judging those (in 2000-2001!). You don’t fly an extended downwind or a squared-off turn to base in that case!  Today I was so high on two approaches that I had to go around.
Hypothesis 1: Try bringing it down to idle or a bit higher (but less than 1500 RPM) to get that descent going on the end of downwind and turn to base.
OK, now I’m on base, and my next trouble is judging the turn to final in order to be lined up with the runway. Ed says it’s OK to adjust whatever you need, but obviously it’s better to roll out lined up with the center line and not be banking and swerving on final. Barely any wind today so it’s just my mind (and hands and feet). Thinking about this distracts me just a bit, and there goes the airspeed on final to 80 or even 85 or 90 mph! It’s supposed to be 65-70 mph on final, but I’m practically diving for the runway! OK, I’m fast, but don’t try to YANK it back to 70 mph, use the nose position to judge it and not chase the airspeed needle, and work it back to 65-70.
Hypothesis 2: Try REALLY hard to have 70 mph before I get anywhere near the runway. Whatever Ed says, it’s easier to fix it earlier than later.
Of course if you’re too fast and/or too high on short final (and you have no flaps), you can do a slip. I know how to do that, but I still have to think about this simple cross-control maneuver (let’s see, balance left stick and right rudder to keep the ground track along the runway). Usually I don’t (think about it) so I sometimes arrive low over the runway at 80 mph – too much energy to get rid of easily! Level off, keep the stick coming back but not ALL the way back until we are just a foot or so above the runway and ready to stop flying and stall right on the runway.

Now here’s where I sometimes seem really clueless, right at touchdown (or “bounce-down” in some cases). I know I have power I can use to soften the landing if I’m going to hit too hard, but I don’t really know how to judge the timing for that. I also know that the stick has to come all the way back on touchdown, except what if I’m too fast? With a nose-high attitude and 80 mph, I’m ready to fly again, right? Before Wednesday morning, I need to review "Compleat Taildragger and/or "Stick & Rudder" on handling bounced landings. I know it's not literally a bounce - you are flying and have to land again! Here's a pretty good article on landing a Citabria.

In a couple of cases I seemed to push forward on the stick right at touchdown - Ed is like, what was that??? Is this a nose wheel habit? Maybe, but I haven’t flown a nose wheel airplane since maybe 2003! In another case I seemed to let the stick flop around right at touchdown. BAD MOVE! The airplane is not a horse who knows his way back to the barn. You have to exert positive control all the way through the landing roll (and taxi back for that matter).

Ed’s general comments fall in three areas, all true I am sure, and somewhat overlapping:
  1. I’m “behind the airplane” – this means reacting too slowly to events, or more likely, failing to anticipate events so I can react quickly. Or both.
  2. I’m “too gentle” with the airplane – this doesn’t mean he wants me jerking the stick around like a yank-and-bank flight simmer, but more decisive and “just enough” inputs are needed – more range of control travel is needed when the airplane is slow, especially. Not rough, but assertive. For example, when the airplane starts to drift off center on approach, I give it a little rudder and maybe stick but not really enough to stop the drift, so then I end up having to bank to get lined up again. I think part of it is worry about doing the wrong thing, but remember, “not to decide is to decide.” You can’t be tentative. You can’t let the airplane decide!
  3. My feet are too slow. True. I think this is also due to fear of doing the wrong thing with my feet. I am getting better on the ground with them (takeoff roll and landing roll once we are on the three wheels). But in the air, especially when slow, I’m not quick enough and/or “deep” enough with my rudder pedal inputs.
Can I get better? Yes I can. I’ve seen it with air work and takeoffs in this airplane, and in my earlier flight training in Cessna’s. I think I must have had some of this hesitancy thing in the past, because I remember one of Mario’s favorite phrases of encouragement, “pilot in command!” With a CFI in the back seat, he who hesitates is not necessarily lost, but if I intend to solo this airplane (and I do), I have to start making better and more timely evaluations and decisions myself. I am not the quickest person when it comes to body learning, which is why I’m not farther along at 9.1 hours in this airplane. But like I told Ed at the start, whatever it takes is what it takes.

Supplement on Saturday lesson: Gusty wind, mostly down the runway, but some cross wind and wind shear. I dropped it in from a few feet up on one landing when I (or Ed) should have added a quick bit of power. No damage. Lots of gliders and my squirrely approaches/landings raised at least one comment on the radio. I also had to watch out for no-radio gliders (one landing as I was about to take the paved runway, but he was on the grass and I wasn’t so even if I had missed him it would have been OK this time. But it shows how important it is to look for traffic. I was also reminded that I need to not feel rushed when I have the active runway just because someone is waiting or is turning base (except of course landing gliders have the right of way - they can't do a go-around). Feeling rushed can lead to mistakes.

1.1 hours dual in Citabria (7/30/11)
1.3 hours dual in Citabria (8/01/11)