Sunday, October 07, 2007

The ends of the spectrum

There are, of course, as many types of flying as there are fish in the sea. It's neat sometimes to break from your norm and dip your tows in a different pool now and then. Through the miracle of modern communications, I've given rides to people that only live a few miles away, but found me through the videos I put up on YouTube. In a similar situation, I met a guy that is a flight instructor at one of my previous places of employment, NetJets, Inc. He has been building a Wheeler for the last two decades with his father, and as the project nears completion he is look for a follow on project. Having had his fill of working with fiberglass composites, he is strongly considering an RV. Of course, a decision of that import should be well researched, and part of that research should always include flying in one.

That's where I come in. I was in the same boat not too long ago, albeit as I was considering buying one already built and forgoing the pleasure of constructing it myself. I found RVers to be very generous with rides, and swore that I would be as well. So, after a few delays, Mike was able to join me for a ride this evening. As mentioned, he is a flight instructor for the employee flight school over at NetJets, and periodically has to fly a few hours on his own to maintain currency. Nothing says that the takeoff following a practice landing has to occur immediately apparently, so he arrived in high style flying one of the company trainers:

This is a pretty cool benefit of working at The Jet - the employees can take lessons in this plane for around $150/hr. I didn't ask if that includes the CFI or not, but either, way that's a very generous rate.

We hopped into PapaGolf after a quick walk around to familiarize him with the workings of the plane, and headed out west to the practice area. I gave him some stick time so he could get the feel of the controls, and as with most people (including me!) that first fly an RV came away impressed with the light forces and the overall balance of the controls. I have never met anyone that didn't really like the way RVs fly.

I took the opportunity offered by the time flying back to Bolton to make my pre-excuses for what I knew would be a bounced landing. The winds was dead calm, and those are usually greasers, but there's something about the extra weight of a passenger that virtually guarantees a bounce. Part of it is certainly the extra 5 mph that I carry into the flare, and part of it is probably to do with the extra weight. None of that matters, of course, because I wasn't wearing my flying shoes and that is a built in excuse in and of itself. Good thing, too, because I did in fact bounce the landing. Not horribly, but still. You always hope to grease it in when you have a witness along for the ride.

Having enjoyed the ride, Mike offered to reciprocate with a quick ride in the big Cessna. I pretended to ponder the offer for a few moments, but of course there was only one possible answer. I ran back to the hangar to get me camera (don't leave home without it!) while he did a preflight. As an instructor, he's in the habit of flying in the right seat, I suppose, because for some reason he offered the left to me. Again, who am I to turn down an offer like that?

I settled in while Mike pulled out a checklist that appeared to be only a few tenths of an inch thinner that the New York phone book. I was able to squeeze in a few seconds to get a picture of the 2 acre panel arrayed before me in a panorama of stunning complexity. I know what all of those things do, of course, but it was still a lot like snorkeling in a Caribbean ocean: I've seen all of the fish in aquariums before, but never in such large quantities. There were only a few switches he couldn't reach from the south 40, so I flipped them up, down, or sideways on demand.

The honor of starting the big 350 hp Continentals fell to me, and I botched it in my own inimitable style. They'd kick and sputter, and I'd let off the starter button only to watch them sigh to a stop. This went one for as long as Mike was willing to politely watch me struggle, but he eventually had to take over. Stubborn bastards to get going, but once up and running they purred like contented lions.

I reminded myself that I was not flying as "Experimental 466 Papa Golf," and keyed the mike to contact Bolton ground for taxi clearance. That done, I moved the throttles a wee bit forward and was surprised at how easy it was to get the big crate moving. I was equally surprised at how much pedal travel it took to get the nosewheel to turn to follow the yellow taxi line. The RV is very sensitive to the slightest press on the pedals, while the big Cessna apparently had its doubts as to whether or not I really wanted to turn. It took quite a bit on convincing on the matter. The brakes were nice and light, though, and as with most nosewheel planes it turned very easily if differential braking was used.

We finally lumbered out to the end of 22, with the time involved in the slow taxi spent moving Mike's pre-takeoff briefing expeditiously into my right ear and directly out of my left. There was a lot of stuff about directional problems on takeoff being handled my stopping on the runway, unless we were already in the air but with gear still down in which case we'd land back on whatever runway was left, but if the gear was up we'd climb out on one engine.

Or something like that. Frankly, I was so overwhelmed at the idea of taxiing that huge airplane that I finally responded with a briefing of my own: "If anything like that happens, you deal with it." To be honest, I suspect that was his plan all along. It certainly would have been mine had the roles been reversed. Well, now that I reflect on it, they recently had been, hadn't they?

At the end of the runway, we took care of the mag checks and the cycling of the props. These were exactly like I had always done back in my Mooney days, except multiplied by two. I called the tower for takeoff clearance and received same. Lined up on the runway, I started feeding in power. And feeding. And feeding. And feeding. Those throttles seem to go forever! With each inch I added, the pressure of the acceleration increased. RVs get off the runway quickly, but at least in the case of my 150 hp plane, they don't do it with quiet the fury. Nor do they eat up anywhere near as much concrete.

At 85 knots, (it may have been mph, and I probably knew at the time, but I'm not clear on that anymore) I was supposed to gently rotate into the climb attitude. I suppose a 20 pound pull on the yoke can be done gently, but it seemed like a lot of tug to me. In any event, rotate we did and left the runway. Similar to the way I do takeoffs in Papa, I kept the nose down to let the speed build up to the 130 (I'm not providing units - it was either knots or mph) for a cruise climb. We climbed to about 500 feet, and pulled the power back to the top of the green arc on the manifold pressure gauge. Well, actually I just pulled back until Mike told me to stop. With the sun out of the west, I couldn't actually see the green because of the glare.

Lots of switches and stuff got moved around, and at some point I'm pretty sure the wheels got sucked into the wells, but sensory overload was becoming a serious factor for me. I was still flying the plane, but when you consider that my normal post-takeoff clean up requires one switch and one knob be moved, all of this system management was more than I could keep up with. The flying part wasn't much of a challenge, either, so that really isn't much of a crutch to fall back on. With the calm winds and the weight and inherent stability of the airplane, 'flying' it was pretty much a matter of not somehow finding a way to fall out of it.

As we got away from the airport, I tried a few steep turns. There is a whole lot of weight to get moving to roll this airplane, and an equally large amount to get stopped when you want to stop the roll. It also takes a lot more muscle to do it. This trait is exactly what you want in an airplane like this, so I mention it merely as an observation. I think that once you can get your head around all of the cockpit management chores, this would actually be a great airplane to fly in instrument conditions. Assuming you were cool with the 30+ gallons of gas it burns every hour, that is.

That burn rate being what it is, I didn't want to dally around too long and wear out my welcome, so I suggested a return to the airport. Now you'd think a guy that flies in this area all the time, and does it at 150 knots, and makes a lot of turns and such when he does it, would be able to find his way back to his home airport after only a few minutes of flying. You'd be wrong. I was totally disoriented and had only a general idea of where the airport was. Nice big highway under me, but was it 70 or 71? Argh. Do I really want to admit that I'm lost?? Ah, he has the GPS on, and there's TZR right there off to the right. My goodness, how did it get so far away?? I guess that's the difference between 150 knots and 180 knots!

Mike called the tower (because he knew where we were - otherwise I would have) and got approach instructions. I flew a much, much wider pattern than usual. In fact, I flew the 747 pattern that student pilots fly, which normally drives me bonkers when I'm stuck behind them. There was no one else around, though, so I didn't feel too bad about it.

It takes awhile to slow the big plane down, and I re-learned something that I had forgotten: with the constant speed props, you can't sense engine power from the sound. I felt conflicted on when to come down and how far. I didn't want to end up too high, but for some reason I was extremely ground shy. Something about the size of the plane made me reluctant to get it down close to the ground. Once we got aligned with the runway and could see the VASI lights, it became much easier to determine the right glideslope. With the landing gear and flaps down, controlling the speed was pretty easy too.

As we continued down a long final at 120, I asked what we would slow down to for the short approach. What? We keep 120 the whole way? Eeek! The runway was coming at me at a terrifying clip at this point, and Mike's admonition to more or less fly the plane onto the runway sans flare followed the pre-takeoff briefing's path: in one ear, out the other. I heard him, I understood him, my brain agreed with him, but my hands refused to listen. I couldn't not flare. It's just not in my DNA. So, as much as I'd like to say I landed that plane, I think I only accounted for about 30% of the total effort. That said, of the entire experience, I think the landing is the one thing I could adjust too pretty quickly. I'd be nailing it after three or four, I'm sure. Getting used to getting all of that weight slowed down on the runway might take a little longer, though. Wow, does that thing want to keep going!

The taxi back to the ramp was easy. I pulled back into the parking spot like a pro, and Mike undid all of the work of getting the pistons moving with a few deft movements of levers and switches. Everything went quiet except for the residual spinning of the gyros, as we dismounted to the ramp.

At this point, there were only two remaining tasks: having dinner at JPs, and arguing about which of us got more out of our respective dips in each others pool. We agreed to disagree on that, and frankly, what difference does it make? It was a way cool evening.

Update: Feedback on the article from Oshkosh-Buddy Lisa, who spent quite a few hours in this plane:


You can't believe how misty I got reading that. I LOVED that plane. And I flew mostly with Dan who's about the nicest guy you could ever meet. All in all... some of the happiest flying I've ever done. And that thing was so easy to land! Set the power and leave it. Props full forward on short final and when over the numbers chop the power and muscle back the yoke. Always followed by a solid "thunk". Not a bone jarring "uh-oh did I break something?" thunk, but a nice satisfying "here we are" thunk.

Yep, I think that captures the landing behavior pretty nicely.

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