Wheel Landings

By lex, on November 13th, 2009

During last week’s “test drive” with CFI Dave, he demonstrated – and then had me fly – a take-off procedure in his Citabria with the control stick thrust fully forward. It was about as unnatural an act as your correspondent has been asked to perform since he was in a beer bar in Pataya Beach, Thailand back in the late 80′s, about which that’s quite enough for now.

For you see, in any aircraft of my previous acquaintance, placing the control stick full forward at full power on a take-off roll would induce overload conditions on the nose landing gear, the like of which might cause the thing to buckle with all sorts of unfortunate circumstances and no end of answering “what were ye a’thinking of, anyway?” questions at the wrong end of a long green table.

The end with no ashtray, nor water glass neither.

But the Citabria, being a tailwheeled aircraft, is wholly innocent of nose landing gear and their associated failure modes. What with all the emphasis the tailwheel folks spend on placing the control first here and then there while at taxi speeds – climb into the wind, dive away – and especially about hauling aft when you’re into the wind, it did seem to be a little strange to thrust first the throttle forward, and then the stick. Placing the wing at a negative angle of attack did have the effect of putting weight down on to the main landing gear until we were at safe flying speed however, and it was a good lead-in to today’s flight. Wheel landings.

I was half convinced that Dave would call the whole thing off, and the other half hoping, for there were gusty winds today down at Gillespie Field, and right around 80 degrees off the runway heading to boot. The Citabria is a heavier airplane than that old Champ, but it’s nothing like a fighter when it comes to loaded weight and I’m cautiously prepared to believe it will lift and swoop on the proverbial beat of an African butterfly’s wings, not bothering to wait for the associated hurricane.

But no, it was “we’ll earn our beans today!” with a wide grin, and after a brief discussion and even briefer walk-around, hizzoner jumped in the back with a gracious gesture to me to bundle myself in up front and in two shakes of a lamb’s tail we were on our merry.

Took the runway and executed the stick forward take-off, something of the engine noise as it wound up interfering with the automatic noise reducing headsets such that if Dave was speaking to me about technique I was hearing him not. Did two stall landings that went fairly well considering us being tossed hither and yon on final approach, but truth be told my hands and feet were as busy as a helicopter pilot preparing to die executing an auto-rotation.

The tailwheel aircraft objects strenuously to any class of sideload on landing, so drift must be carefully compensated for even before you settle to earth. I don’t know the aircraft quite well enough yet to know when I’m within a few inches of landing, so I’ve a tendency to grope for the runway just a bit, a little nose low, a little more flare, repeat until we’re on deck and then it’s “stick aft, stick aft!”until you slow to a stop, and mind the rudders all the way – ground loops tend to happen not when you’re speeding along just after touch down, but as you’re almost to taxi speed. Almost.

(I’m not a huge fan of personal computer flight simulators for basic airwork, but they are good for procedural training, and the stick aft thing – at least – is something I’ve been practicing.)

Showing every affectation of being impressed with my abilities thus far – Dave’s nothing, if not confidence inspiring – my instructor launched us into the wheel landing phase of the flight, commencing with a demonstration from the back seat. On final we were coming downhill like a son-of-a-gun, the winds were buffeting us and Dave’s visibility over the nose could not have been improved by the Impenetrable Mass What Is Lex blocking a good 30 degrees of his field of view right forward.

Just when I thought we must necessarily dash the machine to bits, along with the hopes and dreams of those that love us, Dave twitched the tail up a bit to break the rate of descent, goosed the throttle, settled her down on the mains and shoved the stick right forward and into the crosswind.

Well, thought I, that isn’t so hard.

Except when you get a bit impatient when your own turn comes.

I flew a passable approach, kept my feet happy on the rudders after having taken the crosswind crab out on short final and then decided that we’d all be better off if the airplane landed now. Which, to my dismay, it wasn’t anywhere near being ready for. We bounced into the air even as I placed the stick forward, and as the nose started coming down from the combined efforts of my forward stick, gravity and our diminishing airspeed, Dave – who in the pre-flight brief had expressly forbad me from trying to salvage a wheel landing after a bounce, in only for the prop strike that’s in it  – uttered a resigned, “Squark!” which I took as my signal to run the throttle up to the firewall and give ‘er another look.

All’s well that ends with all the big pieces still attached, and humbled in pride but determined to win through I flew another three wheel landings of an increasingly satisfactory nature, the last one being – if not quite a squeaker – not awful considering the circumstances.

It was a workout right enough, none of your contented plopping down of the tricycle design and the flight not over until we were chocked and chained. Still, Dave said gratifying things and promised that we weren’t so far away from that coveted endorsement.

Which sounds good to me, the Citabria renting out at $114 to the hour and hizzoner’s rates – though fair – non-trivial. Still, there’s much to learn, and a time yet before I make it mine.

But I’m starting to think that this will happen.

 

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

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