Discretion v. Valor

By lex, on February 21st, 2010

So, today was the day I had chosen to attempt my first tailwheel solo in a club Citabria **, the like of which I was first checked out in on Tuesday after work. It was with some degree of trepidation that I made the trek down to Gillespie Field, for a ground loop with a CFI in the back seat is regrettable, but balling one up all by yourself is a disgrace.

Still, you’ve either got to light that candle eventually or else dwell in the darkness of paid instruction, so it was down to the airport that I putted.

It could not escape my notice that the weather was not quite the thing for initiations, for there were low, scudding clouds beneath a slightly higher broken deck. The winds were gusty, but – according to the iPhones AeroWeather app, straight down the pipe.

Upon arriving at the airfield I stood in the parking lot staring at the windsock a goodly while, while glancing both out to the horizon and overhead to get some sense of what was going on from a meteorological perspective. The windsock agreed that the wind was more or less straight down the runway, but fairly high 15-20 knots with higher gusts that changed directions randomly.

‘Tis a non-trivial thing to catch a gust in a tailwheel aircraft, especially if one sideswipes you at an inopportune moment. Like when you’re performing a wheel landing and you’ve just about run out of elevator authority. There’s a moment there where you’re lowering the tail to the ground that you’re very much between things, and getting knocked cock-a-hoop could rapidly result in a 360° tour of the aerodrome, if it doesn’t send you off into the brambles.

I walked into the office with the intent of canceling the flight, only to walk back out again and stare for a few more moments at the windsock. It’s no little drive from home to Gillespie, and I’d never – in my entire life – canceled a hop out of mere nausea. In the Navy, the weather limits are fairly straightforward: So long as the weather is above minimums and a plausible alternate available, you go. If the weather is out of minimums, you can’t.

I actually walked out to the airplane to begin my pre-flight inspection before deciding that, no: It simply wouldn’t do. There would be other days, and the weather pattern indicated to me the kind of “unsettled dynamics” that would cause an LSO to wave you off on short final. I figured I’d save myself the ignominy.

I was already Down East, so on a whim I phoned CFI Dave, who having quickly ascertained the nature of my misgivings asked me to jump in his beautiful Citabria – newly empaneled – and go for a joy ride. Dave was, he explained, like the dope dealer grown accustomed to sampling his own wares. I tried to beg off and offered to at least pay for his time, but he was having none of it. Off we went.

Our first intent had been to stay in the pattern, but there was a gap in the cumulo granitus out to the east of El Capitan, so we flew up the reservoir looking for some sign of the waterfalls visible after a rain. The way ahead was enshrouded with clouds, and we both concurred that waterfalls too might wait for a better day. Back to Gillespie for a pair of landings, one a not entirely discreditable three point, the other a somewhat agitated wheel landing that nevertheless worked out for the best.

Feeling our sauce, we decided to transition to the intersecting Runway 17 for a bit of crosswind practice. It was all that I could handle, in the event. We made a right turn to downwind for a short approach, even as the crosswind blew us down upon the runway. With no real room left for a base turn, my turn to the runway ended up being a continuous sideslip that left me fast all the way down on final.

It’s a “two point” landing in a crosswind rather than a three point, the upwind main mount and tail wheel touching down more or less simultaneously, with the downwind main mount held off by aileron. If you let the upwind wing rise into the wind, it’s a short trip to the brambles after the breeze catches the wetted surface of the underwing. As we touched down I brought the stick firmly back into my lap, and perhaps a little too quickly into the wind – the downwind wing actually started to rise as hangars momentarily blanked the wing, which is not a sin, but neither is it the desired sight picture. You end up doing a fair amount of wrestling with the machine, and the cockpit grew suddenly warmer with my exertions. Despite the cool breezes blowing outside.

The winds picked up and the rains lowered the visibility on my second attempt, what was to have been a wheel landing. I was still exploring pretty much the corners of all flight control axes as we started to transition to landing, which was just a little too exciting. “We’re going around,” I told Dave.

“Good,” he replied.

Back to Runway 27R for an uneventful three point landing into the wind, and I taxied back to his hangar cum “crew quarters” with the sweat beading on my forehead. We shut her down, pushed her back into the hangar and chatted congenially about what we’d just learned

There’s a difference between being qualified for a task and proficient at it. Recognizing that difference is perhaps the better part of valor.

There’s always next weekend.

** 09-25-2018 Original link gone; replacement found – Ed.

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

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