More stalls, steep turns and hooning

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.

Stalls and PFLs

I took some milk with me when I went flying today. Well, I didn’t actually take the milk flying with me, but rather took a pint of the stuff to the airfield. You see, there is this thing about airfields – none of them have any proper milk. The problem is, when you take milk to the airfield and it doesn’t all get used up, the only option is to put it in the fridge. Which (obviously, doh!) means switching the fridge in in the first place. Then the weather turns and you dont get back to the airfield for 10 days, by which time the milk has gone more off than a very off thing and the fridge has been declared an area of special scientific interest. Not to mention the fact that you’ve now got to pay the electric bill for running the fridge for 10 days to keep a quarter of a pint of mouldy milk cold. All that money could be better spent on actual aviating, so the fridge stays switched off and the coffee gets made with powdered whitener instead. Coffee made with whitener is bad enough, I dread to think what it does to the taste of a cup of tea…

Anyway, enough with the milk rant. Keith decided that the thing to do today would be slow flight, approach to and recovery from the stall and practice forced landings. We got the books out and talked through how a forced landing actually works, the high key point, low key point, the constant aspect relative to the aiming point, etc. We walked 50 yards across the airfield to where there was a concrete tie-down embedded in the grass and spent a few minutes walking around it in ever decreasing circles, crouching down to simulate descending flight and looking at how we could make our perspective view of the concrete block stay the same by turning at a greater or lesser rate. Most amusing for the onlookers, I’m sure, but it was a good way of bringing the text book pictures and white board diagrams to life.

We went out to get the aeroplane checked over and pre-flighted. I was keen to get the checks done and crack on, which was a bad idea. Keith suggested that I think of the pre-flight checks as a list of reasons why we should not go flying, rather than a list of things to do once you’d already decided to fly. Which made sense in an odd way, so instead of saying to ourselves (for example) “do we have enough fuel to go flying?”, we say to ourselves “we can’t go flying because we have no fuel” and then prove to ourselves, by looking at the tank, that we, in fact, do have fuel and it is enough to go flying. We then say “okay, we have enough fuel, but I bet the engine won’t start” – but oh look, we switched both mags on and pressed the red button and it started, etc, etc.

We finally got going, although I seemed to be having trouble remembering which way the rudder pedals worked, the aircraft would swing slightly left and I’d press on the right pedal, making it go further left before pushing (more urgently this time) on the left pedal, over correcting and causing a swing to the right instead, and the cycle repeated.

Edit 06/07: The previous paragraph just serves to demonstrate exactly how confused I got! For the aircraft to turn further to the left, I must have been pressing on the left pedal, instead of the right. The C42 steers the same as any other aeroplane, i.e. press the left pedal to turn left…

It was much choppier on the climb out today as well. The aircraft seemed to want to shimmy this way and that, yawing right and left, pitching slightly up, then down, as we passed through pockets of air that were doing different things. It actually felt as though we were struggling to gain height, but in fact we were just having a slightly bumpier ride than normal – the climb rate, engine note and airspeed were all exactly the same as normal. Ho hum.

We scooted off to Pevensey marshes to try and put into practice what we’d been talking about earlier. It didn’t go too well…after Keith pulled the throttle back to idle, I settled the speed at 60kts and lowered 1 stage of flaps. I then had to keep the aiming point (about a quarter of the way down the field we were going to ‘land’ in) off to my left and below, at my best guess at a 30 degree angle. I then had to use ailerons to initiate a descending turn which would ultimately take us through 270 degrees and onto a final approach into the field. The trick is to keep the aiming point in view at all times, which can get tricky in a high wing aircraft which is banked to the left. If the aiming point is moving down the window, you’re too high, so compensate by decreasing the bank angle until the aiming point comes back to the right place. Similarly, if it goes up the window, youre too low and need to increase the bank angle to get it back in place. All well and good in theory, but when it’s choppy and thermic over the fields, you keep pressing the wrong rudder pedal in the turn, the nose keeps dropping because youre spending too much time looking at the ground, then you sort the attitude and speed out, only to look out the window again and realize you can no longer see or find the field you’re supposed to be aiming for, the workload starts to feel like it’s all getting too much very quickly.
After 3 goes at the field we’d picked, we decided to head off and find another one, this time higher up the South Downs about 600 feet above our nominal ‘ground’ level relative to the 60 feet AMSL that is Deanland. The Ikarus seemed to be having trouble keeping her nose up, needing a considerable amount of back pressure on the stick just to maintain straight and level. I spent a minute on a futile search round the cockpit for the possible source of the problem, without success. I said to Keith that she felt very nose heavy all of a sudden. He pointed at the ceiling of the cockpit, where the flap lever is, and the cause of the problem became immediately clear. After our last PFL, I’d forgotten to put the flaps back to neutral before commencing the climb back up to 1700 feet. As soon as I corrected that, performance returned to normal. Meh…

On the way to the next field, we did some slow speed flight and I had a go at flying the aircraft on the very edge of the stall, just as you would be during the last 2 or 3 seconds before landing. I still kept getting the controls crossed when trying not to let either wing drop in the choppy air closer to the ground. The nose high attitude of the aircraft at that speed felt extremely odd – Keith was paddling on the rudder to demonstrate how ineffective it becomes at slow speed, which in turn made the aircraft twitch and roll slightly and start to feel a bit like a car that’s about to lose its grip on an icy road.

The next couple of PFL went a bit better, although I was still apprehensive about banking the aircraft too much so close to the ground. I have to remember that we’re still at a good 60 kts at that point and the C42 doesn’t even get close to the stall until you get to 40kts.

We headed back towards the airfield, trying desperately to spot a couple of Jabirus that were allegedly joining the circuit downwind at the same time as we were, but failing miserably. I spotted the lake in front of the copse of trees at the start of the downwind leg without any problem this time, which in turn made it easier to track accurately to the base leg turn. The PFLs we’d been doing suddenly started to take on a new relevance as we turned final for Deanlands runway 24, applying exactly the same principles to keep the runway threshold (i.e your aiming point) in sight and at the right angle.

The approach got sloppy again as I tried in vain to juggle airspeed, power and attitude to get us down safely. I seem to be okay up to the point where we’re crossing the fence just before touch down – at that point, I can’t seem to find any useful visual reference against which to judge when to begin the flare. Keith definitely landed the aircraft today, although he gamely tried to tell me I’d done okay!

So, sat in the garden with a cold beer typing this, it’s pretty obvious just how much I still have to learn. Next lesson booked for mid-day next Saturday and Keith tells me he thinks I’m just about ready to start on circuit bashing over at Headcorn. Hmmmm….

Notes to self for next lesson:

  • Try and remember which way the rudder pedals work – left pedal turns you to the left when taxying
  • When it’s time to head back, remind Keith to ask me if I know where we are in relation to the field and see if I can find my own way back without help
  • Try and concentrate a bit more on the landing – ignore the fence, it’s not about to leap up and snatch you out of the air