Thursday, May 24, 2007

Playing on the grass.

1.6 hrs – “short cross country to Greenbank and back”. Simple number and a one-liner in the logbook hide so many experiences and emotions. Joys of grass landings as they supposed to be done (in the tail dragger!), flying low and seeing the earth come alive with flowers, grasses and leaves in the late spring and my first ever tail dragger passenger.

It was a gorgeous day at the end of a long weekend, the one we all wished for with all the wind, clouds, hail, storms that Mother Nature unleashed on us in the days before. Winds calm, visibility unlimited, temperature just right for inside the plane in the sun – it was a perfect flying day.

I had my dual acro lesson that morning, and seeing the glorious forecast, made an afternoon booking as well. Did not want to push my body too much, so decided against second acro that day and instead invited a best friend (who is also a great photographer) to come along as I flew to a local grass field to practice my grass landings.
As I was checking out the plane, my passenger occupied himself by taking some interesting pictures of my rental Citabria. Check ups done, we got inside were soon rolling to the run up bay.

I was concentrating on getting all my check lists items done and did not even notice the camera clicking behind me as I was flipping the switches.

Take off was uneventful and soon we were floating in the sea of green as various fields, farms and ravines passed under our wings. The warm air radiating from the ground was starting to cause a few bumps here and there, but seeing that we were both quite comfortable to ride those out, I decided to stay at 2,000 ft, not climb any higher.

Citabria does not have the Heading Indicator or any navigation instruments save for the compass, and with the bumps, holding the compass course would be difficult, so I pulled the maps, figured out which roads would end near the airport and just followed the roads.

Greenbank, so appropriately named, has 2 grass runways and is surrounded by farm fields and ravines, so it was quite difficult to spot. I made my calls to Unicom, but the radio in the Citabria was unusually squeaky, so I did not expect any answer (Greenbank is advisory frequency).

We flew over the field looking at the sock, which indicated Rwy 34 would be appropriate. I then turned around, descended to circuit attitude and joined the downwind for Rwy 34, making the calls. With the day being that beautiful, I asked my passenger to keep an eye for other planes as well, expecting lots, but we have seen none and had the little airport all to ourselves.
As I lined up with the Rwy, I realized that I was coming too low and was slowing down. Something in all that greenery disturbed my visual references a bit. I made the power and pitch adjustments and soon landed just fine with a bit of a bounce. Rolling to a full stop, I let my passenger and his cameras out to set up for shooting my touch and goes.

Made a few touch and goes trying to perfect the glide to the field w/o needing much power adjustments and had one of the very beautiful landings and couple of small bounces. And lots of great shots were taken as well.
Having had enough of touch and goes, I picked up my passenger and we flew a bit of a sight seeing tour over Lake Scugog and then made our way to the home field talking about how nice it was and how we wanted to do that again.
It was amazing to be able to share the plane that I normally have all to myself with a close friend and have some great pictures to prove it too.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


The week before the flight, I went through a high stress period combined with some stomach illness that left me out of energy. That all ended around Thursday and my flight was not until Sunday morning, by which point, I ran through my IMSAFE and considered myself in great shape. I had a good night’s sleep, felt great, ate just right – everything checked out.

Check ups, take off and climb into the acro zone went w/o mishaps. I planned to work on aileron rolls that day, but decided to start with a loop to warm up the internal G-meter. Plus, the loop is the easiest figure for me to do and aileron roll is the hardest.

HASEL done, set up for the dive and tightened my muscles as I pulled on a stick. As I turned my head to the side, I noticed something was wrong.

Going through the items mechanically, I continued to pull on the stick while adding power as my vision became tunneled, then grey and then left me altogether. When the vision turned grey, I think I was approaching the top of the loop. At that point I was very disoriented not having a clue where I was, but the good thing about the loop is that at that point, I did not need to do anything – the plane must have just floated over the top with me completely out of it.

I am not sure if I lost my consciousness at all, if I did, I would have been for milliseconds because my vision and brain power came back almost at the same time just as I was starting to speed up towards the ground. I quickly killed all power and pulled out very gentry trying not to have another gray out.

Leveling the plane, I was very shaken and scared. I had not clue where that came from but read enough descriptions of grey and blackout to recognize the symptoms. A thought crossed my mind that may be I was not tightening my muscles enough in a pull out. I decided to try a hammerhead, but aborted it in a 45% angle and tunnel vision made its presence again. I realized then that despite feeling OK, by body just was not up to any G’s that day and just flew straight and level for a bit before calling it a day.

Later that day, as I started thinking about it, I realized that the outcome would have been much worse had I decided to try the roll as my first figure as I would have likely lost it inverted and ended up doing split S from a high speed inverted position.

I learned numerous things from that experience.

- I will be always starting the acro sequence with a gentle figure. May be even some steep turns to make sure the body can handle it on that particular day.

- I will try to break the maneuver early (assuming it is safer) at the first sign of tunnel vision. First time was a complete surprise, but now I know what to watch for.

- If I had some sickness to stress during the week, do not assume that the body recovered by weekend even if it appears to be doing great. Postpone the acro for next week, there is lots more things to do, such as landing or forced approaches practice. Or just flying straight and level with the camera.

- Had I ended up unconscious, inverted in a roll, I had a good chance of in-flight breakup. Parachute is an essential piece of equipment for acro and I am glad to have one.

- Altitude is my friend. If anything happens, being at 5,000 to 6,000 ft gives me lots more options that 3,500 ft.

Killing Zone

One book stands out among my numerous aviation books in my bookcase. It’s not the cover or the size. It’s the title - “Killing Zone”. The author did a statistical review of all the fatal accidents in general aviation and correlated those to the total time that the accident pilots had, splitting then in 50 hr increments.

If I had to guess which time group had the most number of incidents, I’d probably pick 50 to 100 hr group as those would be just out of school with freshly minted licenses. But that would be a wrong guess.

The group that had a massive number of accidents compared to all other groups was the 100 to 150 hrs group. The accidents then dropped off really sharply until the second spike for 1,000+ pilots.

At just over 130 hrs, according to the book, I am smack in the middle of that killing zone. And I noticed it too. No, I have not bent an airplane or injured myself, but I had a few mishaps that could have turned bad had I not reacted properly or tuned lucky (like flying the plane instead of fiddling with the radio at my first night solo or getting airborne on a bad landing before the plane had a chance to make it for the ditch).

I am actually glad to have found and read that book, as I believe it made me aware of the statistics and forced me to be even more cautious than I already am. I have called more flights that I can count, because it just did not feel right that day. But sometimes, everything is right and mishaps still happen. The last mishap came somewhat close to making me another killing zone statistic. And it was an invaluable learning experience, so I decided to share it. In the next post.