Some Time Alone

"How was that?"

"Beautiful."

"So... whadduhya think?"

"I'd almost rather you have a bad landing."

"You want me to make a bad landing?"

"Yes - because then I'd know the next few would be excellent."

Laugh. "Sorry to disappoint you by being so good, but I'm not botching a landing just to make you happy."

"Don't expect you to - how do you feel about going it alone?"

"Don't take this the wrong way, J... but get out of my airplane." Said with a smile, of course.

"OK. Drop me off over there" and J pointed towards a picnic table by a hangar. Of course, his arm wasn't long enough for him to sit in the back of the Citabria, point somewhere, and have me see it from up front, it was the fuel dipstick in his hand I was seeing.

I ambled the airplane over to the side of the grass runway and held the brakes while J got out. He then spent a couple minutes making sure anything loose was secured, included the now-empty safety harness and the back seat. J yelled "Give me three good landings" over the engine noise and walked over to the table.

You only get one Very First Solo, but flying any particular aircraft alone for the first time is a milestone.

Even on the ground I could tell the Citabria was lighter, the back end being a little more bouncy which definitely reminded me to hold the stick back for better steering. There were other, subtle difference that told me the back seat was empty without needing to look. When J turns to look out a window or shifts his weight back there I can feel it through the frame of the airplane, and while he's not a fidget he is alive and he does move occassionally. None of that this time. I could also hear the control cables sliding much better when I worked the controls. I wasn't sure if that was because I have fewer distractions when alone, or if a body in the back seat is actually significant sound proofing.

I swung the airplane around - locked right brake, upped the throttle until the tail started to swing left, then cut power and used left rudder to halt the turn - lined it up on center, took a deep breath, and double checked to make sure everything was set for take-off. Reminded myself that the machine was about 200 lbs lighter and would therefore accelerate faster, take off faster, and climb faster. Checked for other traffic. Checked again - because there's only one pair of eyes in here now. Oh, look - it's a trike, one of those hang-glider type wings with a seat and engine underneath. Very pretty. And very much on final. What's in the air has right of way over what's on the ground, so I sat tight while he landed. Huh... you know, those things frequently travel in groups around here - is there another one? I did a 360 at the end of the runway, just to be sure, and sure enough, on a high final there was another one. Well, glad I looked - if I hadn't either either he'd have had to make a go-around, or maybe I would have had someone else's landing gear come through the roof of my airplane. That would have been a Bad Thing.

While I was waiting I kept an eye out for a third trike (didn't find one) and checked everything again. Carb heat off, engine instruments in the green. No more trikes, so I arranged the airplane on the end of the runway, lining it up on center. Took a deep breath and pushed the throttle forward.

My, it did scoot down the runway - I was dancing on the rudders and up on the mains quicker than usual, then up and off the ground. I was expecting it, but it was still a little startling because I had become used to a somewhat slower chain of events. The rate of climb was doubled with just me in the plane, so the ride up to pattern altitude was a lot quicker, too. I waggled the wings at J as I flew by his post and saw he was looking up at the airplane. Other than the faster rate of climb, though, it flew the same. Routine-routine-routine. Routine is good in aviation, everything normal, everything under control.

Halfway along the downwind leg I put the carb heat on and glanced at the runway. Distance to runway: good. Direction of travel: good. Abeam the touchdown point I looked down and reduced power until the engine sounded about where I wanted it to be, then glanced over at the tachometer to confirm the rpm setting was where it should be. OK. Check path ahead of the airplane - no one in the way, good... Two trikes off to my right, but not a factor for the landing. They'll land after me.

Hey, I'm not losing altitude!

Oh, right - couple hundred pounds lighter. I knocked another couple hundred rpm off the engine setting. Well, OK, going down now, but not like I want to... Oh, heck with it, power back to idle. That's better. Gravity has now resumed normal operation.

Left turn to base, left turn to final - I am still too high! Can't pull back the power, it's already at minimum... so time to spoil the lift. Full right rudder, left stick, and with the wing less efficient in that configuration there is less lift generated and thus less holding me up so the rate of descent increases. I hold the controls in the slip until the airplane is where I want it to be, then return the rudders and stick to more neutral positions for the rest of the landing.

Over the fence, here comes the ground, right on schedule. Work the feet, keep it lined up. Pull back, pull back, just a small squeeze on the stick. B-b-bump - I'm down, feet pumping to keep the airplane centered. Whoo-hoo!

Quick decision - full stop or keep going? Hmm - full stop means waiting for the ultralights to clear the runway. OK - go around.

Carb heat off, full throttle, and almost instantly the tail is up and the Citabria charging across the grass like an overeager puppy - including the desire for the tail to wag but hey, I've got that under control, too. Then it's up and away, back into the air.

Now, when I'm practicing my take offs and landings alone I normally do make full stops with a taxi back to the starting line because it gives me a few minutes to analyse what I just did, and it also paces me so I don't overload or wear myself out. So it's a little unusual for me to touch and go without prompting. On the other hand, there was no reason not to go back up immediately, either. The only downside was that I have to reflect on my actions and fly at the same time.

Going up just as fast the second time, I turned left for the crosswind leg and looked back towards the runway. Two trikes on approach to land.

Hmm... that landing wasn't bad, if I say so myself. Two more like that and everybody will be happy. This time, though, be more aggressive pulling back on the power. The airplane is lighter so it floats more. Is the engine making more noise than usual? No - it's just that you're alone up here, with fewer distractions and no human voices so you're noticing the background noises more. Might as well worry about the creak and slide of the control cables and every little vibration, every flex of the wing and the airframe. Look outside, pay attention to the beautiful clear morning and the blue sky, the half-harvested farm fields rolling like a patchwork out to the horizon. See, all is right with the world, nothing to worry about

Halfway downwind, carb heat on. Look down at the field. Yep, one trike on the ground, looks like he's still rolling. The other is just touching down. Assuming both keep flying, I'll have company in the pattern but I'm faster so I won't have to worry about getting run over or running over them on this circuit. Keep an open mind, though - if they decide to park on the runway I may need to go around.

Reduce power, pitch for desired airspeed, then check both rpm's and the rate of descent. Looking good... Be patient, fly a nice, normal pattern. Everything is routine...routine...routine... You Are In Control. Left turn to base leg, over the road I've been using as a marker for the turn for weeks now. Raise the left wing and look at the runway. Seems clear, but one of the downsides of a high wing aircraft is that the wing blocks a significant chunk of your view while in a turn. Leveling off to fly straight on base leg restores your view of where you intend to go - until the next turn. Look early and look often.

Left turn to final approach. Level the wings, look forward in a sweep from near the airplane out to the end of the runway. Still a fraction high, but not to worry - better a little high than too low. Nobody on the grass. Good. Nudge in a small slip, then nudge it out to put the airplane exactly where I want it. Airspeed: good. Check power to idle. Over the fence, over the grass, easing down, pull back... pull back...

B-b-bump

Keep the stick back, work the rudders, look ahead. Oh - look, a trike just ambled onto the far end of the runway. Now what?

I have only a second or two - if that much - to make one of two decisions. 1) I have enough speed I can go to full throttle and be off the ground quickly, or 2) I can stop. Seems straightforward, but there's another aircraft on the runway and I don't know for sure what he's going to do. Nor does he have a radio - I can't ask him (or, to be fair, her - hard to tell pilot gender as we move into fall and winter and everyone is wearing more clothes). Thing is, a trike doesn't move as fast horizontally, but they need very little space to get off the ground and they are certainly capable of climbing just as fast as the Citabria. He shouldn't be taking off contrary to traffic flow, but the winds are light enough he could do so and stranger things have happened. If we both make bad decisions here things could get ugly fifty feet above the middle of the runway.

I opt to keep the power off and apply brakes. Probably not necessary, but no reason not to be cautious. I'm not in a hurry, there's no place I have to be in the next five minutes. When the airplane slowed down to a reasonable taxi speed I swung into a right turn and the edge of the runway, then ambled back to the take-off point.

When I turned to line up on the runway centerline again I note there are two trikes (they're traveling in pairs today, I guess) lined up behind me, one after the other. Well and good. Everybody out of everyone else's way? Yes. Good. Let's keep it that way.

Full speed ahead! The Citabria pulled away from the starting line, gathering speed. Up went the tail, then a microbounce just above the grass as I go over a rough spot. Pull back, and up it goes. Amazing how the magic works every time, isn't it? Just keep it routine and let your good habits work for you.

Third time around was a charm. I made another good landing then guided the airplane over to the edge of the runway near where J was still sitting on the picnic table, still watching. He saw me coming, of course, and got up and came over. I leaned over and opened the door for him "Hey, mister, want a ride in my airplane?"

He smiled at that and said. "Good work - let's go back to Morris." as he undid all the seat belt securing he'd done just a little while before, then climbed into the back seat. Yep, the familar vibrations of someone shifting around in the rear seat were back. I waited to hear the click of the safety harness latch, then confirmed that he was, indeed, strapped in and ready to go before taking my feet off the brakes and starting to roll again.

On take off I was a bit puzzled at why I was having to exert pressure on the stick, usually I have the trim set so it climbs almost hands-off for minimal effort on my part. Then I realized I had the trim set where it had been for just me. Oh, silly! Were you planning to make J walk back to Morris? Getting just a little cocky there, aren't we? J's a nice guy, not a bad passenger at all, you can put up with him a little bit longer, surely...

It was fairly quiet on the way back. We talked briefly about the landings I'd been doing and about needing to demonstrate my abilities on pavement. I mentioned how I could get used to a 1200 foot per minute climb, oh yes. Then we flew along in silence -- well, not silence, there's this big old noisy engine in front and the sound of air going past the fuselage and the occassional creak from the airplane... We flew along without talking for a bit, then J said I was to do the radio calls.

Oh, OK - no problem. Remember what airport I'm at, and what airplane I'm in (this can be more difficult than it sounds - the Citabria was the third airplane I'd been in during the week, and I'd been to at least as many airports. Add in the distraction of having to fly an airplane at the same time and you won't be surprised at all when folks fumble at times). Where am I, where am I going, what do I want to do...?

"Morris traffic, Citabria 8503, 5 miles northwest of the field inbound for landing on 36 at Morris"

"Nice"

"Thank you. I spent two years at Palwaukee - I better have good radio skills."

I did fly out of Palwaukee for two years - not my best aviation experience, but not because of the air traffic control situation. Palwaukee has over 300,000 "operations" - that is, takeoffs and landings - per year. In truth, there are days and hours when no one is flying due to weather, so when folks are flying it's pretty darn busy. I tried to keep to the slower times of day when I was there, but "slow" was a relative term. Learning to use the radio was a necessity there, not to mention proper technique and keeping it clean and quick.

I did the remainder of the calls while flying the pattern. Routine, again. We landed and J suggested I take a 15 minute break. I was nearly giddy at the time, and wrapped up in what I was doing, so it did not sink in at the time that he also mentioned something about another student. I suspect someone else got their lesson time moved on my account, but I'm not sure. Not that I hadn't been on the other end of that sort of thing from time to time, and most days I'm willing to give because sooner or later I'll get. In any case, I wasn't consulted in that decision.

I got out, walked around, stretched my legs, went to the Little Pilot's Room - all the things I usually do when offered a break between flights. I found J again, talking with some of the fly-in-for-breakfast crowd. He asked me if I still felt like doing some solo landings on pavement. He did point out that the airport traffic was picking up. I thought about it - one reason I'm no longer at a place like Palwaukee is because I'm not that fond of heavy traffic - and said I thought I could handle it.

So J said OK, go for it.

So I did.

Well, first J made sure loose stuff was stowed and showed me how he liked to cinch up the seatbelts on the back seat to keep everything secure. He also told me that he had had a word with the guys who were about to leave - there were quite a few of them - and told them this would be my first time alone in a taildragger on pavement, so don't crowd the student too much and give me a chance to take off and land.

I got in, got settled, and for the first time really did everything from the get go all by myself. Down the checklist I went - check fuel on, master, prime, full mix, carb heat, throttle... and start. No problem. Check to make sure my way was clear, then taxi out to the run up area. Routine, routine, routine. Everything was still OK for that check, so then it was out to the runway.

To wait.

Because it was crowded up in the air and I counted at least four inbound with lots of chatter on the radio. The plane ahead of me took off, then more landed. I re-checked everthing. Announced over the radio that I was ready for take-off "when you gentlemen give me an opportunity". (Noooo.... I wasn't impatient!). Then another airplane landed. And another. And another...

Finally, there was a break in traffic. I announced my imminent departure, scooted out onto the runway, and went to full throttle. As the wheels lifted off a voice over the radio said "I knew you'd get your chance, Citabria."

Sure... you just have to be patient.

Well, gee, you've heard it all before - go around the pattern, line up, and all that good stuff. So I did, just as I've done before. But whether it was nerves or something else I'm not sure - my first landing wasn't that wonderful. Nothing bad, mind you, just barely a squeak of the tires on the pavement then I was up again, somewhat concerned about control issues and whether there was traffic behind me. Just barely a touch and go, almost a tease and go.

Well, OK, first one didn't need to be perfect, and going around the pattern again you'll get another opportunity soon enough. No problem. Keep it routine. Line it up, here I come over the fence, coming down --

- bounce -

Oops!

- bounce - BOUNCE -

Whoa, girl, this is getting bad... don't panic, KEEP FLYING

- BOUNCE -

!!!FULL POWER!!! The prop clawed at the air, the wings grabbed for lift -- FLY BABY, FLY! Move the feet - low, slow, and not much control you gotta keep it together -- c'mon, c'mon - FLY!

(I just hate the feeling I'm not in control here, just softly drifting downward no matter what I do. Then there's that whole time-moves-a-lot-slower thing...)

- !BOUNCE! -

Oooo! Never bounced after full throttle before! But now I was moving forward and flying again, albeit very slowly. Keep on top of it, keep it low, in ground effect where it flies with least effort while the airspeed builds to a safe number. Focus, focus, under control again now, going forward, there's my climb airspeed, now UP.

Straighten up and fly right, girl, you got yourself into a bad spot there. You fixed the immediate problem, you're safe now, but you still need to land sometime. How's your climb? Good. Airspeed? Good. Traffic? Not a factor. Altitude? Time to turn crosswind. OK, turn crosswind.

Don't worry about your pride, girl. Sure, you're alone in here, maybe no one saw that (HA!), it's done, now deal with your current situation. You're flying solo, that means the only one who is going to fix your problems is YOU. C'mon, you know how to fly. How's your climb? Good. Airspeed? Good. Traffic? Looks like one on final, one on base, one entering downwind at midfield, ahead of me. Busy. Altitude? Turn downwind and announce that action on the radio. That's it, keep the voice nice and calm. Level off, reduce power.

You've just a few minutes to make this circuit and try that landing again or come up with a Plan B. While we relax (ha!) on the downwind here, let's look at the worst case scenario - you can't land this thing on pavement under current conditions. Nevermind why, let's say you can't. What are you going to do with your approximately 1 hour and some minutes of gas in the tanks? By the way - how's the airspeed? Good. Altitude? Holding steady. Traffic? One on the ground (did he land or is he taking off?), one on final, one on base, one on downwind ahead of me, but no one behind me. Distance from runway? Good. Take a deep breath, stay clam.

Plan B - if I can't land on the pavement, I'll land on the grass. I know I can do that - but which swathe of green around here? It's not all level. Huh. Next to the runway? Don't spend too much time on the details just yet, we're going for the hard surface this attempt, just file away the possibility. Very worst case - go to Cushing, you know you can land there. Sure, everyone will be angry at you, but at least you and the airplane will both be intact. Alright, got a back up plan and a back up back up plan. Now put them both away and concentrate on the here and now - time for carb heat and another traffic check.

Abeam the touchdown point I could see one taking off, one lining up to take off, three behind that plane - and that's just on the ground. One on the turn from downwind to base. I decide to extend my downwind leg slightly, that will give me a longer than usual final and a little more time to get everything lined up perfectly and a little more time to watch for traffic conflicts. Still no one behind me. That's a lucky break.

Reduce power, reduce airspeed... set up a nice, steady rate of descent and keep going just past the race track off the south end of the airport. Hey, look! They have a race going on! OK, now pay attention to what you're doing - flying an airplane. Turn to base leg, make steady-voice announcement on the radio - not an Oscar-level performance but a reasonable vocal delivery. Pretend everything is alright hard enough and maybe it will be. RELAX!!! RELAX, DAMMIT!!!

Turn base to final. There's the runway ahead of me. One plane halfway down the runway on take-off, a couple waiting for their turn. They'll wait until I'm done (or I'm going to do a heck of a right turn if the first one in line doesn't wait). OK, I'm on final, let's make this a good one....

What was missing last time? Trying too hard? Oh, wait... no little voice in the head! Activate on-board CFI program, and sure enough... I can hear J saying move your feet...

This is much easier with the instrutor voice program running: Play with the controls - move the stick from side to side, move the rudders... How does that feel, how does the plane react? Are you lined up on center? You want the painted line actually just a little left of center, where the cowling over the engine changes its curve... Upwind wing low - not too low - you'll touch first on the right gear. We're over the fence... look at the FAR end of the runway... nudge the throttle up just a bit - that's it, right there. Pull back GENTLY, pull back, it's a game you play, don't let the airplane touch the ground. Don't touch, don't touch, just let it settle, that's it, don't touch....

Bump ~roll~ bump-bump.

I'M ON THE GROUND! Wait - not done yet! Suppress that urge to leap out and hug the dirt - you're still moving! Hold that stick back, slightly right for the crosswind, WORK those rudders, girl, you're still flying even with three wheels down solid. Here comes the turn off, and I'm now going slow enough to make a controlled turn onto it. Oh, look - there's J! Standing right next to the runway, just short of the turn off, with a front row seat for everything!... Oh, I am so embarassed, the second to last landing(s) just completely sucked --

FOCUS! Make a perfect turn, there ya go. Taxi past the double yellow bars so you are officially off the active runway. Actually state you are off the active over the radio. You know how to do this right, so do it right.

J comes up from behind the airplane. I open the door, lean out, offer him a ride back up to the office. He declines, saying he'll walk, and I should put the airplane away. I immediately begin babbling something about a bad landing and he says don't worry about it, we'll talk about it later.

So, shut the door and solo taxi the baby home. Getting it there, parked, and shut down wasn't a problem. Getting the hangar door open was no problem. Getting the airplane in the hangar... that was shaping up into a puzzle. The Citabria weighs nine or ten times what I do, and it's about as heavy an object as I can move on my own. Problem is, that landing gear is uncooperative at the best of times and the back end keeps wanting to go its own way. Normally you solve this by hitching a tow bar to the back wheel, which makes the airplane as docile as a bull pulled by the ring in its nose. They had a new towbar, though, some fan-dangled contraption that was supposed to be better but I couldn't figure out how to latch it on securely. I quickly discovered that trying to moving the Citabra by pushing on the front end wasn't very effective. It went everywhere but where I wanted it to go.

The gentleman across the row of hangars - owner of Cessna highwing, a 172 or 182, I didn't look too closely - noticed I was having some difficulty and came over to help. Well, he did help, but I figured out quickly that he wasn't a tailwheel pilot. Also a little overeager. I kept having to tell him not to push as hard and as fast because he was making the airplane swing to one side and risk confrontation with the side of the hangar. There were expressions of bafflement at how the tail had a mind of its own, finishing up with a declaration to stick with tricycle gear airplanes. Apparently he had tried tailwheels in the past and found them too frustrating. No kidding?

Got the airplane sorted out - a little crooked but with safe clearances on all sides and out of the way of the door. Thanked the gentleman, then shooed him out so I could finish securing the airplane and locking up. Double checked my stuff was out of the airplane and the airplane power was fully switched off. Got the big door lowered and locked from the inside, then went out the people door and made sure it was locked.

Back at the office we did the ritual calculation of cost and the filling out of the logbook. J said he couldn't turn me loose on my own in tailwheels.

"It was that quintuple bounce on the second to last landing, wasn't it?"

"Yes - you do that, you'll scare your passengers."

"Scare the passengers? That scared me!"

"Glad to hear that. But we know you'll be giving rides, and the weather won't always be this nice, and conditions won't always be this good... Part of it today was you were getting tired, but you still need some more work on pavement and with a little more wind. Don't be afraid to use the whole runway, don't be in such a hurry to get down. I'll see you again. At least one more time. But most of your landings were good, you're almost there." We talked just a bit more about what went right and what went wrong, then we were finished with the day.

No arguing with the truth, although I was pretty frustrated. Mostly irritated with myself. Almost there, but I flubbed that one landing...! Not disasterously, no, nothing broke and nobody hurt, I dealt with the problem and at the end of the day that does count for something. But I shouldn't have gotten that deep into potential trouble in the first place. The only thing to do was to keep working at my technique and get better.

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