Turning and Turning in the Widening Gyre

By lex, on August 29th, 2009

Found myself regularly checking the oil temps on the moto, on account of the furnace-like blasts coming up. It’s a good bike, but it is air cooled. Temps were in limits though. Just a hot day for two wheels. A hot day down at the aerodrome too. We’ve four wee circular vents in our greenhouse canopies and when the sun is beating down they’re nothing like enough.

TurninkgAndTurninkgInTheWideningGyre

We had an empty back seat for the first go ’round, and there’s a retired USAF type that works with me looking to get back into the flying gig for pay. Flew F-16s, lots of previous civil time, a commercial rating and a recent Biennial Flight Review. He went along for the ride and demonstrated that some things – formation flying, to name just one – stick with you.

There’s a lot of learning going on when you first take on formation. The way radii of turn change from turns into and away. The correct power compensations to stay just there. The way you keep the lead’s belly on the horizon in turns away, and how you keep the picture constant on turns into by stepping down. Saves a lot of bother, looking over the canopy rail. In instrument conditions you maintain the same sight picture no matter what, since your lead becomes your attitude reference.

We don’t fly instrument formation anymore, or instrument flight for that matter. This is a part-time job.

It takes a fair amount of coaching when you first start flying form. After a while it’s the most natural thing in the world, you don’t even think about it. Sort of like shifting gears on your manual transmission in traffic. You just do it. Tiny, continuous throttle movements that occur before a deviation can even be observed. Seemingly random stick movements in a semi-circular pattern. Gentle rudder squeezes to keep her tracking. When it’s done properly, there’s no sensation of relative movement at all between the two aircraft. Yet everything is in a constant state of adjustment.

It’s not exactly zen. But it’s not so very far away from it either.

The second hack was with young Tyler and his Big Brother Peter, a Marine recently returned from Iraq. Tyler’s wide-eyed, fetching mother watching the brief expectantly, seeking reassurances. His young sister squirming, evidently jealous of the opportunity. Himself all moppet haired and brown eyes, and a smile that went from ear to ear.

A hot day, as I’ve mentioned, and the paying customer went ill on the first bout. It was if anything hotter on the second go. Tyler didn’t seem to mind.

He wasn’t exactly a talkative lad, although polite when spoken to. I was a little concerned about his reaction once we’d broken the flight up over Black’s Beach. Gave him the airplane, taught him straight an level, asked him for a turn or two. Some folks are very happy straight and level, but get a little quilty when the world goes aslant.

He took to it like a fish returning to the ocean. Like he’d been made for it. “This is so cool,” he said. Being only 13, not realizing yet that it wasn’t cool to acknowledge something cool. I could tell we’d have a great time.

He was if anything a little too happy to bend her over in a turn, exceeding our bank angle limits of sixty degrees and two g’s. Thought nothing of the kind of negative g push-overs that cause old carburetors to cough, and ancient hearts to flutter. Not that there’s anything that can really go wrong, so long as the airspeed is up. The engine will push the prop, or the prop will pull the engine. Still, hearing your only motor give out gives a jet guy pause.

Our first fight was fairly epic. We got a good bite at the merge and were pushing the fight fairly, when I noticed that our adversary was working well above us. It won’t do to let a man get much more than a couple of hundred feet above you in a 150 horsepower aircraft, you’ll never make it good without going past the aerodynamic limits of the airframe. And while you’re climbing to meet him, and then ruddering her over, he’ll make good time on you. It takes patience and willpower to let the airspeed build up again. Because g turns the airplane, and airspeed provides the g.

We were between a rock and a hard place when our adversary started to trade his altitude advantage for airspeed. His nose was fairly on when I coached young Tyler to forestall the threat by easing out his bank angle and gradually climbing back above Pete. It’d be fish heads and pumpkin soup if Pete didn’t get greedy and try to square the corner for the kill.

But of course he did. He’s a Marine infantryman, and they tend to go for the throat. When I saw the stall break I knew we had him. As he leveled his wings and lowered his nose to get the wind moving over his wings again we swooped down for the kill. It had gone on and one for the span of a book, but Tyler’s smile was like a second sunshine.

We lost the middle hack – you can’t win them all – and won the third in short order. My only real work was to keep Tyler from overbanking the airplane and going directly for the shot rather than patiently tracing his adversary’s flight path with an unload for airspeed. There’s a zen-like element to closing the deal too, one that takes time to envision. More time than Tyler had, although his aggressiveness at age 13 made me smile right back at him.

He was pretty quiet on the way back home, and after receiving a few monosyllabic answers to the usual questions I let him be. When we’d shut her down and climbed out he shook my hand firmly while smiling all throughout. His lovely mom was happy to have him back, his sister begging for her own chance to tear the sky asunder.

A hot day to fly. But a good one.

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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Carroll LeFon, Flying, Lex, Navy, Neptunus Lex

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