Playing Hooky

By lex, on March 13th, 2010

It’s been a very busy couple of weeks at work, as I’ve been assigned a new position while still keeping the plates spinning on the old one and trying to find a replacement that can plausibly step in, get the work done and guard the company’s equities. Things were much easier back in the day, when an enormous bureaucracy existed for just such a purpose. In a lean, entrepreneurial company, a lot of that falls on the incumbents.

But by 1500 Friday afternoon, I’d pretty much had it, so it was off to the aerodrome to polish crosswind landing skills in tailwheel aircraft with CFI Glenn.

Glenn is a bluff, hearty man, whose characteristic Irish humor is only partly offset by his New Yawk provenance. Damned good instructor though, technically astute in the nature of aviation and gifted with a calming pedagogical style. Flies the Travelairs for the weekend company and actually makes an honest living as a CFI, which is nothing if not remarkable.

Shortly before I arrived at Gillespie, an F4U Corsair had landed, escorted by divers and sundry manners of gaily festooned YAKs flown by members of the RedStar Pilots Association, a group about which I hope to some day learn more.

Over 12,000 Corsairs were built between 1942 and 1952, and some dozens are thought to have survived. It was the first model aircraft I made as a boy, Glenn’s too. I still remember running my fingers across the gull wing design with a kind of joy and wonder. The 2000 horses under the cowl seemed to call for 60 degrees (!) of flaps to get the beast back on deck. Carrier suitability issues meant that the Marines flew the vast majority of F4U missions in the Pacific War, but at age 9 I neither knew nor cared. She was – and is – a beauty. Lethal too, racking up an impressive 11:1 kill ratio. Nor to be trifled with: Only 189 were lost in aerial combat, while nearly 700 were lost in non-combat operations.

Ground operations in the 7KCAB Citabria have become unremarkable, and I am even getting accustomed to the heel brakes. Stayed in the pattern and flew a nice 3-pointer, followed up by a tolerable wheel landing. Which was when things got kind of interesting.

Glenn negotiated the use of Runway 35/17 at Gillespie for crosswind use – the winds were 260/10. Aircraft were still taking off and landing on the parallel runways 27, so traffic pattern scan was heterodox: Instead of scanning ahead for traffic, we were required to watch for folks landing 90 degrees across our flight path.

Lifting off Runway 27R we made a ninety degree turn to crosswind and stayed on that course until Sarah the Tower Controller (who did a marvelous job) cleared us for a touch and go on RW17. There are two methods to land a tricycle gear aircraft; crabbing into the wing, or using the wing-down, top rudder method. In most light aircraft the wing-down/top rudder method is preferred since it avoids sidestressing the landing gear on touch down. (In the FA-18, and I believe in large body aircraft, the crab is preferred. In the Hornet you were advised to take half the crab out with a stab of rudder on touchdown.)

In a conventional tailwheel aircraft you must never land in a crab, not unless your intention is to ball the thing up. But, as CFI Dave pointed out to me a few weeks back, an initial crab into the wind on final is useful to determine what you’re dealing with. Yesterday it required about a ten degree crab angle to track down the centerline, before easing the aircraft into the wing down/top rudder attitude.

If you’ve read about or personally flown tailwheel landings, than nothing I’m about to say will surprise you: It’s not that they are inherently harder to fly, but they are terribly unforgiving of inattention, and you’ve got to fly the aircraft about all three axes until you’ve got her shut down. Land with a drift – any drift at all – or land in a crab, and it’s off to the races.

Without my being aware of it somehow, Glenn had negotiated a 180 pattern to come back and land on the runway we’d just departed going the opposite direction. It felt more like a strafing pattern than a landing pattern, and I noticed that both the my seat back and control stick were starting to sweat a bit. Had to be, because otherwise it would have been hard to explain the moisture in my palm and shirt. Runway 35 has some hangers to the west that make for turbulent airflow approaching ground effect, so even more attention than usual had to be applied. We did the same 180 degree turn coming back around to land towards the south, but my attempted wheel landing ended up in a bounce. I wrestled with the Citabria for a moment before deciding that there were very few problems that can’t be solved by the application of full power. Yanked her off the deck, accelerated in ground effect and noticed that the cabin heater seemed to have gotten stuck on full hot. Glenn was chortling merrily in the trunk, seeming perfectly at ease.

More traffic arrived than could safely be dealt with, so we flew two more landings on Runway 27L that seemed trivial by comparison to the crosswind work. Converted the last lift off to a left 270 to land crosswind again on Runway 35. Good, clean fun and an excellent workout.

After shutting down and parking the plane, the F4U took off, both preceded and followed by a swarm of YAKs. Her pilot accelerated her gradually at first before cobbing on full power and lifting gracefully into the sky. An arcing right hand turn to the north showed the Corsair in planform – the last sight that many a Zero pilot would ever see.

It was a pretty good day.

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

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