Einstein would find airfields extremely intriguing. Not because he ever (as far as I know) had any hankering to learn to fly, simply because time seems to pass at a different rate on an airfield compared to the rest of the world. I’d left the house at 11:00am for my lesson at midday and found to my dismay that there was a huge queue at the petrol station. I eventually got away and onto the A27, only to find the road seemingly filled with Land Rovers pootling along at 40 miles per hour. I normally aim to be there 30 minutes before the allotted lesson start time, to allow for briefing, coffee and any cleaning/refuelling of the aircraft that may be required. Today, it was 12:01 according to my watch when I got out of the car. I’d got distracted by the lovely weather, which had been in direct contrast to the fog and showers which were threatened on the mornings F215 from the Met Office, and missed the turnoff to the airfield. Because Deanland is on a little country lane, I had to drive another couple of miles up the road before I found somewhere safe to turn round and come back.
Having finally got there, I grabbed my stuff out of the car, wound the windows up as quickly as I could, locked the doors and jogged across the car park. Sprinting up the steps and round the corner to Keiths portakabin, I flew through the door and said, “Hi, sorry I’m la…”. I stopped. The office was empty. The C42 was parked up outside with the doors open, rocking ever so slightly in the light breeze. The radio in the corner was switched off. Keiths logbook was sitting on the desk with his kneeboard on top of it. Everything was silent, apart from the occasional call of birdsong from outside. Not even an aeroplane engine being run up. I put my things down and stepped back outside into the sunshine. There wasn’t a soul about that I could see. I walked over to the hangar and pulled back the canvas flap that passes for a door. Keiths Thruster was parked there, so he obviously wasn’t off flying. Somewhat baffled, I walked back to the portakabin and filled up the water filter jug to put the kettle on. I switched the radio on, but nobody was making circuit calls so I switched it off again after a few seconds.
I began to wonder if Keith had got sick of waiting for me and gone home. I went back outside and stood there looking at the clouds out to the west of the field. Keith chose that moment to come strolling round the other corner of the portakabin. He didn’t mention the time, just said hello, asked how I was and we started chatting about the usual aviation-related stuff. We made coffee, talked about one of the other Deanland based pilots who had had to leave his aircraft at Damyns Hall due to an engine problem and moved on to discussing how aeroplane wings produce lift, what sorts of things can make them stop producing said lift, drawing diagrams on the whiteboard showing imaginary streams of air flowing over and under a typical airfoil, rough and ready graphs of power versus drag at different speeds and various little cartoon style illustrations of different aircraft attitudes at different speeds. I was struck how flying and everything to do with it seems to want to move only at its own pace, no faster and no slower. You can’t rush into flying, the preparation must be thorough and accurate, the objectives clear. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I like it so much. It’s almost the opposite of my ‘normal’ life, where deadlines, urgencies, budgets and resource availability dictate the order in which and speed at which things happen.
Enough wibbling, however, on with the lesson. We were to learn today about flying more slowly than normal, stalling the aircraft and recovering from the stall both with and without applying power. My confusion about how the rudder pedals work has now been cleared up, so I did a much better job of controlling the aeroplane on the ground today, although I did almost end up taxying up the runway rather than the narrow grass taxiway that runs parallel to it. The bales of hay were in different places to last time, that’s what confused me…ahem….
We took off on runway 24 as usual and climbed up to around 1800 feet, heading for the South Downs. As we gained altitude, the bank of low cloud and sea mist that had been threatening to scupper my lesson earlier could be seen in all it”s glory, a wall of fluffy cumulus curving gently off to the north western horizon and reflecting the sunlight from its upper surface like the light bouncing off a snowdrift on a clear winters day. The clouds continued out over the English Channel to the southern horizon, while we were beneath gin clear blue sky with the sun shining in through the roof window.
Keith and I sat and stared for a good 30 seconds, mesmerised by the spectacle in front of us. He suggested doing a bit of cloud chasing, which I was definitely up for. I levelled the aircraft and banked us over gently towards the nearest cloud. Keith introduced me to a method of turning which he referred to as the ‘giving it some welly’ method. Steeper than usual bank angles, with a squirt of extra power to keep the speed up in the turn. The G-forces push you into your seat due to the back pressure required on the stick to keep the nose up. Great fun! Level the wings, fly between 2 pillars of cloud then tip the wings back over in the opposite direction to take us all the way around another cloud in a large snaking ‘S’ shape. Back into clear air, I gave it an appropriate amount of ‘welly’ to take us through 180 degrees and back over the edge of the cloud bank again, pulled back the power and put the nose down slightly to keep the speed at 60 knots, then trailed the wheels through the cloud tops, alternating between left and right turns as we descended to 1000 feet down the edge of the bank of cloud like sledging on a tea tray, then open the throttle to cruise climb power and back up to 1700 feet for some more. Keith and I couldn”t help shouting ‘wheeeeee’ every time we went through the top of a cloud and after 15 minutes of playing, we both had huge grins on our faces.
Although I didn”t have a camera with me, I was lucky enough to blag copies of some cloud pictures taken by Ridders on the Flyer forums, who was apparently bimbling along about 2000 feet above us while we were playing and has kindly given his permission for me to reproduce his pictures here. Click on the thumbnails for a larger view.
Thanks to finding these pictures on the forums, I”ve also learnt a new word, hooning, which apparently is the appropriate verb for the type of aviating I have described in the paragraph above. If you still can”t imagine what it”s like, click on this link for a YouTube video which gives a fine example!
As a bit of flying calisthenics, the fun in the clouds was just the ticket. It helped me get into the rhythm of flying the aeroplane, using each of the controls in different ways and just generally get the feel of things. Since I”d had a bit of trouble reaching a couple of the switches in the cockpit on my last lesson, I”d stuck a cushion on the seat before we took off, so the extra playing around time was ideal for getting used to the altered view out of the front caused by the slight change in seating position.
As per usual, I was being lazy with the rudder, and as a result we ended up slightly out of balance on several occasions. Keith told me to take my feet off the pedals, ignore the balance ball on the panel and just look out the front. He kicked the poor aeroplane this way and that with the rudder, while I watched the difference it made to the view and was able to concentrate on what my inner ear was trying to tell me about what the aircraft was doing. As we debriefed the lesson later, Keith said that from the expression on my face he could almost hear the metallic ”clink” as the penny dropped. Suddenly I knew what it felt like to be flying out of balance without having to look at the panel. Amazing!
We turned reluctantly away from the clouds and back towards the general direction of Pevensey/Eastbourne to learn about stalls. As we flew along, I spotted a flexwing buzzing along about 500 feet below us heading west, clearly aiming to get to somewhere that was under the bank of cloud. Hope you had a safe journey, whoever you were.
We”d had a look at how the aeroplane flies when it”s close to the stall last lesson, but we”d not actually gone all the way to a fully developed, nose down, windshield full of green and cows getting bigger, proper stall. We started off by reviewing what we”d done last time and built on that by deliberately flying the aeroplane more and more slowly. First 60 knots clean, then with 1 stage of flap, then aiming for 50 knots, then 45, etc, etc. Finally, Keith demonstrated how slowly the C42 would fly – with full flap deployed, the nose pointing up at a slightly disturbing angle and 80hp of Rotax engine shouting at us from the front, we were crawling along at about 35 knots, nice and level, with just a barely perceptible tremble in the stick to tell me we were close to a stall. We put the nose down, the flaps away and the throttle back to a slightly saner setting and climbed back up for another go. This time at 45 knots, Keith said, “How does the rudder feel at this speed?”. I prodded the pedals a bit by way of an experiment. They felt loose and floppy and the aeroplane didn”t yaw one way or the other. A slightly more determined push – still nothing. Finally, I wedged my heels on the floor of the cockpit and pushed the pedals as far as I could in either direction a few times. This time I got a sluggish and reluctant shake of the nose for my efforts. Lesson learnt – with the nose high attitude blanking the airflow over the tail and the low speed reducing the airflow even more, the rudder response was only very slight. An experimental waggle of the stick demonstrated that the ailerons, although not as badly afflicted as the rudder, were also nowhere near as effective as normal. Which explains why the final approach sometimes feels like I”m needing to make ridiculously large control inputs to stay on track.
The stalls were great fun. Throttle right back, pitch up to the climb attitude and let the speed fall of. As the airspeed dropped below 45 knots, the nose started to want to drop back down. I pulled back on the stick to keep the nose up and the speed kept on dropping. As the speed dropped further, the stick needed to go further and further back until it was fully back. Wiggling the rudder to keep the aeroplane balanced, the tremble came up through the stick again, only this time the nose fell away completely and we were suddenly pointing downwards at the green fields below. Power back on, pitch up at 60 knots and then power back to a cruise climb setting to regain height. I was a bit slow in getting the power on for the first couple of attempts, but got better after that. With a bit of practice, I could recover from a fully developed stall with less than 100 feet of height loss.
We finished off with a bit more of the ”giving it some welly” method of turning an aircraft. As I wheeled the C42 around this way and that, I began to finally feel as though I was actually controlling it, rather than just following it around the sky.
As Keith announced that it was time to go back, I interrupted him at the point where he normally has to tell me which direction to go to get back to the field. I could see Arlington reservoir off to our right and slightly ahead, so I knew that the point where we wanted to join the downwind leg was off to the north west slightly. I”m getting to know the local area at last! It”s only taken 3 hours of flying…
My approach was about the same as last time, which is to say a bit of a mess. I kept getting blown off track towards the airfield by the slight crosswind on the downwind leg and I”d spent so long keeping us going in the right direction that we were still at 900 feet by the time the base leg turn came up. I got us turned, slowed down and reduced height so that we were at a more reasonable 500 feet on final. The wind got me again though, pushing me to the left of the centre line. Keith had to pull the stick to the right quite a bit to get us back in the middle. We crossed the fence and yet again I instinctively started to try and flare about 20 feet above the ground. Keith made me put the nose down and fly level along the ground for a couple of seconds before pulling back the power so we could settle onto the grass. The only positive thing I can say about this weeks landing attempt is that I got further along the final approach before it all felt like it was turning to crap. I mentioned this to Keith during our de-brief and he said to me with a grin, “Do you really want to know why it all goes to ratshit for the last 50 feet? I mean the honest reason?”. I nodded. “Because it was ratshit to begin with. Right from the start of the downwind leg, you had the speed wrong, ground track wrong and height wrong. It will all get better with practice though, so don”t beat yourself up about it”.
It”s the old adage about a good landing always following a good approach. Due to work commitments and the way payday works out this month, I probably won”t be able to have another lesson for the next 2 weekends. Keith has said that next time if the weather is good, we”ll plot a trip over to Headcorn, have a coffee and burger then do some circuits before flying back. Headcorn is only about a 20 minute trip away from Deanland, but it will be good to get a chance to do some cross country nav again.