Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Taming the Taildragger

Taming the Taildragger
Part 1.

Playing on a grass.

When I first signed up for the flying lessons, I had zero knowledge of small general aviation airplanes. I have never seen one up close and personal, let alone fly in one. The closest I came was AN-2 few lifetimes back in Russia. This one is even from my home city. http://www1.airliners.net/open.file/1131702/M
As I was signing up, the person at the counter asked me whether I wanted to learn in the high wing or low wing and, in case of high wing, 152 or 172. Seeing the blank expression on my face, she gave up asking and just put me down for a Cessna saying I could always switch to a Piper later. One glance inside one of the numerous 152s on the field convinced me that I wanted a "bigger Cessna". That's how I ended up learning in a 172M.

In time, that proved to be a great selection as the fleet of rental 172’s is now the largest at my school (i.e. more choices for a weekend pilot) and high wings proved popular with my main passenger interested in aerial photography.
I discovered various aviation boards even before starting ground school, and shortly thereafter my internet education was notably enhanced by familiarity with such topics as high wing Vs low wing, flaps in the x-wind, slip Vs crab, etc. It soon became apparent that there were as many opinions about flying as there were pilots. Some topics, however, seemed to have everyone agreeing. One of them was that flying tail dragger would improve one's skill as a pilot. Another was that aerobatics was a great way to build skills and confidence.
After some research, I found a little paved airstrip 5 minutes drive from where I lived that had a Citabria 7CAB (150 HP and inverted fuel) and offered both tail wheel and aerobatics. I did an into to aerobatics half way through my private license and knew I would be coming back for a formal course. That meant getting a tail wheel endorsement first.

By the time I finished my PPL and signed up for the tail wheel training, I was feeling reasonably confident in my ability to fly and (more importantly) land a 172. My PPL instructor liked taking me up in gusty x-winds, so I thought I got my x-wind inputs down solid. I have also been exposed to shorter and grass strips and was comfortable with those as well.

The comfort went right out of the window as soon as I started the engine in a Citabria and tried to taxi in a straight line. I realized instantly that that plane did not do straight lines. At least not with me in control. By the time we made it to the little run up area on the paved taxiway, the plane tried to make a run for the grass twice, both to the right and left of that paved taxiway. I could swear that the plane just liked grass better than asphalt.

I got lucky that day and the plane got its wish. The wind was strong and directly perpendicular to the only paved runway, so we ended up taking off and landing on a short grass runway that was directly into the wind. With no markings on that runway, other than a general direction, “straight” was a relative term, so I was able to taxi in general direction of the beginning and even turn it around w/o running into the trees.

Takeoff directly into the wind was relatively short as the plane did not really get any chances to do something bad. Once in the air, that plane turned from an uncontrolled wild creature into a precise flying machine. At least it was precise when I remembered my rudders. It let me know instantly when I did not – such a chance from Cessna!

Landings were relatively easy ( and I am pretty sure that having an instructor in the back seat that did not want to crash that day helped too). The easiest part of the PPL training for me was always arriving at the numbers at a precise speed – I can’t do the math or what I need to add or deduct in terms of pitch and power, but I somehow intuitively know when to make these corrections. Citabria was the same once I adjusted to the sight picture (it flies much more nose down compared to Cessna) and required speeds.
Having arrived over the trees at required speed, it was just a matter of flaring in a timely fashion, pulling the stick back and remembering to pull it all the way back, once the plane made contact with the grass. Sure we bounced a bit a few times, but grass, being such a forgiving surface, made me feel like I was making progress that day. Little did I know of what future would hold.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Sparkling City

I had one of those experiences of a lifetime last night. The ones that make you smile for days afterwards no matter what else happens, the ones that make you realize why you love flying so much. The ones that make you want to try to write about them and then almost give up in frustration since it is impossible to put the silly smiles and feelings down on paper and make others feel the same way. The experience was my first night flight over downtown Toronto.

It was the first class of my night rating and we were supposed to stay in the circuit doing endless touch and goes, but it was my last flight together with my instructor (he is leaving to a new job) and even though the ceilings were low (OVC025), the visibility under the clouds was unlimited and the downtown looked bright and inviting, so we asked YKZ Tower to permission to leave the circuit, got transponder code and took off towards the lights in the south.

Normally, a student training out of YKZ does a downtown tour by the time he or she is finished, or flies it immediately after, but I just never got around to it, so it was my first ever downtown tour and it spoiled me forever.

The low ceilings were reflecting the bright lights of the downtown, the sea of sparkles below and the sea of fire above with dark outlines of downtown skyscrapers in between. I never knew that the night downtown sparkled so much as viewed from 2,000 ft – the light level was not constant, always changing in intensity and color. I could just sit there and watch that light show for hours. Alas, I also had to fly the airplane, too, for the first time at night, so that took some concentration.

Island Tower cleared us for the tour and frequency grew silent. We were the only plane in the area and had the whole downtown to ourselves. YYZ traffic was reduced to bright dots way on the horizon and we were free to go anywhere we wanted. Surreal does not begin to describe that experience…

I flew over downtown TO more than a few times in the commercial flights when they turn over the city before landing on Rwy 24, however this experience was entirely different. Firstly, we were much lower. The clearance from City Tower was to stay at 2,000 ft, which put us 1,000 ft lower than commercial airliners and below the very tip of the CN Tower (it extends to over 2,000 ft). And secondly, I was the pilot, not the passenger, deciding where to go and what to see. My first circle was wide, all the way to Humber Bay and then on the outside of Toronto Islands getting a wide view of the downtown with its very recognizable outline silhouetted against the sea of light behind. The contrast between the dark water and the city light was striking. The visibility was so good, I could easily see the lights of St. Catherines in the distance, miles across the lake.

My second circle was tighter, it was actually a square pattern as I wanted to keep wings level as much as possible so that they won’t be blocking the view. I flew a bit further North to Manulife building and then took Spadina to the south passing as close to CN Tower as regulations would allow. I was a bit tense (that being my first night flight ever) and exhilarated at the same time, flying next to one of the world’s most famous landmark. Looking down on the tallest buildings was neat too – especially given that I look up to most of them out of my 6th floor office window that is facing Bay St.

And then it was all over and time to go back to YKZ. We picked up the DVP North, checked out of City Tower frequency, checked in with Buttonville and were cleared for a straight in approach to Rwy 33. I came in a bit high and had to slip almost to the flare to loose height. Landing was not my smoothest, but that was to be expected given I had been learning how to land the taildragger and have not not flown a 172 Cessna i 3 months prior to that flight.