By lex, on March 6th, 2010
So, it ’twas to be a CrossFit drill after work yesterday, but Ominous Weather (rain showers) loomed over the weekends threatening the flying fix. CrossFit, it turns out, is perfectly acceptable during rain showers, so long as performed indoors. Flying VFR aircraft, no so much. The choice, she was easy.
If it hadn’t have been for the government time I was on, I’d have slipped away maybe a half an hour early from work to avoid the rush hour traffic on the way to Horrible East County. Had I done so, I’d have made it to Gillespie Airport in remarkably good time, congratulating myself on my wisdom and promising to make up the time at some future date.
It was actually quite a nice day to go after a first solo in the Citabria – not CFI Dave’s loverly machine, but a worn out beater of a rental that nevertheless serves the purpose – with winds 260 at 8 knots serving to keep me honest on Runway 27 without overly taxing my abilities. Stick full aft on start, for to keep the tail planted should you get an RPM surge – the concomitant prop blast across a drooping horizontal stabilizer could cause a nose over, which would make for a very short flight indeed, and these little tail draggers are mere wispy things, with everything trembling in the balance.
Tailwheel instructors place great store on the placement of flight controls while taxiing, for example. Climb into the wind, dive away from it, lest any sudden gust knock you out of kilter. You haul aft on the stick as previously described on start, but if taxiing downwind you push the flight controls towards the tail of the wind sock. That way, should a lively breeze come up behind you just as you’re stroking the brakes, it won’t send you ass over teakettle, prop churning at the pavement.
Speaking of brakes, taxiing out of parking was a bit of a chore, for I am not yet entirely accustomed to the brakes on this machine, which are awkwardly placed on the deck in front of the rudder pedals and designed to be manipulated with your heels, rather than atop the rudder pedals with your toes, as God had intended. If you’re attempting to taxi out of a narrow spot and right rudder is called for – but insufficient at low speeds – you have to abandon the rudder pedal altogether and grope about with your heel for stab of right brake – then back to the rudder pedal again. Still, it’s no hill to a climber, and eventually we were at the hold short ready for engine run-up and departure.
“No delay,” said Tower on the take-off clearance, so no delay it was, apart from just a wee bit of tracking straight ahead for to ensure that the steerable tailwheel was within its center detent and mindful of its duty. A free-castering tailwheel being an ugly thing to deal with just as the power comes up. Stick forward and into the breeze to put an negative angle of attack on the wing until having reached rotation speed.
With just your correspondent in the front and a full bag of gas she climbed merrily away from the turf as the sun cast longing glances towards the western horizon. A downwind departure to the east, and over Lake Jennings we were clear of both Gillespie’s Class D airspace and Lindberg’s more onerous Class B. The San Diego river meanders east of Lake Jennings towards El Capitan, where it makes a sharp left turn, flowing from the El Capitan reservoir. The blanket of tract houses gradually gives way to gated, hilltop enclaves and then finally open country, marked here or there by the hermetical encampments of those who prefer space and solitude to neighbors and fire departments.
The airspace above is a good practice area for student pilots, many of whom, on Friday the 5th of March, 2010 gave routine position reports on the traffic advisory frequency through thick Asian accents that were strong on such numerical qualities as altitudes and headings, but woefully deficient and well-nigh incomprehensible when it came to the article of actual position. “See and avoid” is the mantra for Visual Flight Rules, and if you’re a half mile east of El Capitan at 3000 feet, it’s good to be aware of the fact that there is someone a mile east of El Cap maneuvering at 3500 feet. But without position data, the whole exercise only serves to make you fretful.
Which is not, in the event, such a very bad thing.
The Citabria is an aerobatic aircraft – some marketeer must have congratulated himself on the notion of “airbatic” spelled backwards – and had I been equipped with the parachute mandated by the FAA for aerobatic flight I might have exceeded that 60 degrees of bank and 30 degrees of pitch which define the inner boundaries of non-aerobatic flight. Strapped to a parachute, I might have attempted my first aileron roll in, what: Eight years? I might have pulled the nose up 15 degrees or so and attempted my theoretical aileron roll to the left, only to be surprised at how very much coordinated stick and rudder were required to complete the roll. I might even have been mildly alarmed at how much the nose buried in the dive recovery and had to pull power to prevent from overspeeding the engine while recovering at 4 g’s, something in the stretched fabric that covers the aluminum frame of the aircraft snapping loudly behind me. I might have promised myself to go a good bit higher on the next roll – 30 degrees say – and watch the ball more carefully in the turn and slip indicator.
I might have done credible barrel rolls and hammerhead turns. I might not have attempted such overhead maneuvers as loops, half cuban eights and the split s, however, for I remain sturdily unconvinced of the likelihood of starting a loop, say, at the prescribed 140 mph in a 150 hp machine and not have the whole thing end in tears somewhere at the top. Having become long accustomed, courtesy of the US taxpayers, to starting such maneuvers at between 350-450 kts in full grunt with 32,000 pounds of static thrust pushing at me from the rear.
Not having a parachute of course, I attempted none of these things, but rather promised myself to get an aerobatic check out with a qualified CFI before too very long.
I did tour the remote mountains east of El Capitan reservoir, viewing the unexpected spectacle of waterfalls and tumbling creeks carving through the sere countryside – it has been wet this winter. Working my way back to the west, I climbed another thousand feet or so, mindful of the unpredictable winds tumbling over and around the eastern ridges, and the experience of a certain Decathlon pilot not so very long ago. Above me over the reservoir, someone in a low-wing taildragger – an Extra perhaps, or maybe an RV-8 – flung his powerful craft through high g turns, snap rolls, vertical hesitation rolls and hung there on the prop for a long moment before hammerheading back towards the earth. For the first time in a long while I felt a twinge of envy that was if anything increased rather than otherwise as he raced past me to land at Gillespie.
My first two landings were entirely uneventful stall landings, with just enough crosswind to make me consciously mind the drift. There must be no class of drift whatsoever landing in a tailwheel aircraft, nor any crab neither or you are off to the races and facing the dreaded prospect of a ground loop, the shame and dishonor of it. For my third landing I attempted a wheel landing, carrying a few extra knots and a little more power. But not enough power in the event, and a few too many knots, for I landed firmly, bounced into the air and as I attempted to haul aft on the stick in order to reset to a stall landing the little plane bloomed back into the sky, airspeed decaying for what would have been a very firm landing indeed. I poured on full power nearing the top of the parabola, and the Lycoming IO-320 engine happily roared its agreement. I might need some more work on wheel landings, but it would have to wait for another day.
Somewhat chastened I made my full stop in a three-point attitude and taxied back to parking. The heel brakes didn’t seem so difficult, anymore. Mixture cut off, push her back, wrap her up nice and tidy.
It grows on you, all of it, but I think you could get in trouble when you take any of it for granted.