By lex, on October 9th, 2010
I get paid pretty well doing a job that’s hard to explain to your kids, and I’m happy to have a job in this economy. That said, my eye was on the clock yesterday, for the days grow perceptibly shorter and I had an airplane waiting for me over at Gillespie Field.
We’ve had some mucky weather recently, and even when I’ve been ready Citabria 8643 has been going out with another man on Friday afternoons. I don’t know him, we’ve never met, but I do know his name from the Schedule Master online tool: His name is “Cook”, and Mr. Cook is my rival in the pursuit of what I suspect is an end-of-week cleansing session. Yesterday I beat him to the machine.
Fair amount of traffic on the eastbound 8, there always is. Cruising towards Main Street I find my eyes search the treetops and flagpoles for wind strength, consistency and direction. It’s been a while since I’ve paid my dues to the little wheel in the back, but I’ve done enough now only to be really concerned in gusty crosswinds, the like of which can take a difficult but executable thing into some new, and potentially far more exciting territory.
And ritual it is. I get to the machine, pop open the starboard side cover flap, unlock the door and peek inside to the spot where the high wing meets the cabin to check fuel levels. Sigh. Call Golden Wings and ask them to top off the white and red Citabria at the base of the tower. Seems like no one stands around waiting to fill the airplane after the flight is over. I know I don’t.
Citabria 8643 is not my airplane, which allows me to be honest and tell you that she ain’t much to look at. We’re not in love. Her fabric paint is worn and faded, and has been over-sprayed in places by some I-don’t-know-what that was probably regretted instantly afterward. Her interior is 1960′s error vinyl, the carpet worn and stained, the panel basic VFR with not even a directional gyro to back up the wet compass.
So while we’re not in love, we do have this sort of business arrangement: I promise to keep the center of gravity between the main mounts on take-off, compensating for torque, p-factor and gyroscopic precession as the air mass moves over the rudder with increasing effectiveness, and I promise to land her with the fuselage pointed straight down the runway and zero drift. In return, she promises to behave herself and keep the front wheels in front, allowing the therapy to work its purpose. So far she hasn’t let me down, nor I her. But I get the sense that she’s keeping her eye on me, and I know I’m keeping mine on her.
And the windsock.
It’s gotten to where getting her fired up and moving has become straightforward, although I still use the checklist. Fuel selector valve on, master on, mags on. Mixture rich, throttle cracked a quarter inch, boost pump on until I see fuel pressure, then back off again. Mixture back to cut-off. Stick pulled back between my knees at engine start to keep a sudden gust from causing a nose over with the elevator drooped: One hand on the start switch, one hand on the mixture knob, a third hand on the throttle. “Clear prop”, crank, and when the engine catches mixture full rich, then back a half inch, right hand to the stick, left to the throttle to set 1000 RPM, a quick glance at the oil pressure gauge to ensure her innards are getting what they need to keep purring. After that, it’s radio power on, transponder to stand-by, and listen to the Automatic Terminal Information Service recording before calling Ground to taxi.
There is no INS to align, no radar system to time-out, no weapons system to set up. No flight control computer Built In Test, and for damned sure no helpful plane captain to walk me through my post start checks, give the bird a once over and salute me as I taxi out. I’m on my own, and that’s just the way I like it these days.
It wasn’t so very long ago that the heel brakes gave me fits when clearing the parking ramp, but we’ve come to terms in the interim. Pull forward, and a stab at the right brake to get the tailwheel trailed and then back to the rudder pedal to get the big rudder pushing the tail around and we’re pretty much on our merry. I always ask for the right runway, because even in an airplane that takes off in maybe 500 feet or so with just me in it, the right runway is longer and some habits are hard to break. The main concern for pretty much any piston single, or twin for that matter, is an engine failure shortly after take-off. There’d be a lot to do, and not much time to do it in, and while it’s not worth dwelling on all the things that can go wrong, you’re taught to formulate a strategy to minimize risks as best you can.
At the hold short I cycle the flight controls to ensure continuity, run-up the engine to 1800 RPM, alternate the magneto switches off and on, watch the associated RPM drops to ensure that both sets of plugs are clean, sober and attentive to their duty. Cycle the carb heat on and then off, which again will cause the RPM gauge to drop a bit, signifying that the engine is in fact getting warmer, less dense air. The odds of getting carburetor icing on a clear VFR day in Sandy Eggo in October are trivially small, but some habits you don’t want to break. Run-up checks are now complete, but I always leave the throttle up a moment longer, using every neural fiber to try and sense the engine’s health, ears, eyes, hand on the stick and throttle, even my heels on the deck: No barks or knocks, gauges in the green, no unbalanced tremors. Citabria 8643 and I have our areas of agreement, but she’s never promised me a good engine. Still, I’m satisfied.
It turns out that everyone prefers the right runway, so I am delayed at the hold short for the length of a book, running the numbers through my head: A point-three since engine start on the Hobbs gauge means that I have spent $27 of my hard earned just sitting there, waiting for release. While I neither fume nor seethe, yet am I sensible of the loss: That was money I could have spent flying, and if you want to get stuck in traffic in Sandy Eggo, there are numerous and cheaper ways to do so.
Once finally cleared for take-off, I lock the port side window, turn the transponder to “RPT” and toggle the fuel boost switch to “ON.” Taxi forward just a bit when aligned with the centerline to ensure that the tailwheel is trailing within its steerable detent, then throttle gradually to the firewall. At first the stick is planted full aft to pin the tail down, but shortly after getting to full RPM it goes full forward, and slightly into the wind. Right rudder as the throttle comes up of course to fight the left yawing tendency of torque and p-factor, less as the airspeed builds and the rudder becomes more effective, more again when the tail comes up and gyroscopic precession kicks transiently in, all of that happening in less time than it took you to read these words. Like a lot of things in flying, these are actions that at first you have to think about, but in time become things that you merely do, although they are utterly consuming.
At 65 MPH I ease the stick to neutral and then slightly aft, and we the both of us spring into the air with joy as though that very act for which we were made, a thing I know to be true for the Citabria and have come to believe is true about myself. When there’s not enough runway in front of me to land, I cast an cold eye on the parallel runway as I accelerate to 80 MPH, thinking about what I’d have to do to get her wrapped around in the opposite direction and stopped before the pavement gave out. In the right cross wind turn my mind’s eye shifts to the intersecting runway, Runway 17, which I’ll be able to make if I necessary until almost Rattlesnake Hill on the downwind leg. From there I can make Runway 27R, which is well within gliding range from 2000 feet or more of altitude. As I climb to 3000 feet, the calculation shifts from stretching a glide to burning off excess altitude with a forward slip. With the throttle firewalled, my left hand is free to fine tune the elevator trim knob aft of the throttle/carb heat quadrant. This it does seemingly of its own will.
It’s not until I turn north, towards Ramona, that I leave the comfort zone of a paved strip within gliding range, and so the risk management software changes to a different rule set, one that seeks not to eliminate damage and injury, but at least to minimize it. At three thousand feet we have the luxury of time should some untoward thing arise, and so this is a process that runs more in the background than the one it just replaced. The Lycoming purrs happily under the cowl, consuming the processed by-product of an ancient biomass that was cooked over a geologic time scale at eight to ten gallons per hour. The sky is mostly clear, but bronze colored by the slanting rays of the sun shafting down as it races towards the sea. The east county suburbs and exurbs pass below me in perfect, prosperous tranquility, and I am momentarily left to ponder what a fragile moment this is, all of it. In a hundred thousand years of human evolution and endeavor, practically nothing I see below me or around me was possible a hundred years ago. I’m left to wonder whether it will still be possible a hundred years hence. I feel a moment’s regret for those who never have, or never will, had the chance to experience it. I spare no thought for Mr. Cook.
Landings are what I came to practice, but I shan’t much bore you with them. The first stall landing is perfectly acceptable, the second only slightly less so. I’ve flown a tight pattern, hoping to not touch the throttle from my turn from base to final, but even though I’m impossibly high on base, the Citrabria comes down briskly with the power all the way off. The only way to make this work, I have come to believe, is by using a continuous turn to final rather than a square approach. Don’t know that I could fly it any tighter.
I’m forced to convert my first wheel landing to a stall landing after I bounced the touch down. Citabria 8643 protests a little, and we wrestle over it until she finally gives in. Two perfectly adequate wheel landings follow, which – given the relatively calm winds – make me inordinately proud, not least because CFI Dave has shown up in his gorgeous Stearman to share the pattern with me. Although I know he cannot tell much about the quality of my performance in the pattern, yet do I want to make the gentleman proud, for it was he who signed me off for this adventure.
Uneventfully back to Gillespie, staying clear of the Class B airspace. A lovely landing on Runway 27L once home, taxi back, put her to bed.
It had been a while, and I’m glad we could both make time for it. I almost felt sorry for Mr. Cook.