Saturday, March 06, 2010


Let's face it. As it stands today, February is the worst month of my life. Not just this past February, mind you, although this one has to be near the top of the list with its "most single month snow in the last century" record (for which it seems to feel an inexplicable pride), but every February.

As far as months go, February just plain sucks.

It's March now, though, and the difference is already apparent. Today we had temps hovering around the mid-40s, light winds out of the northwest at eight knots (belying the "In Like a Lion" reputation of March, at least temporarily) and clear azure skies. "Carpe diem" being the order of the day, I hoped to get a little time in the air before having to tear down the plane for the annual inspection. My only concern was that the battery might not be up to the task of awakening the cold metal engine which, having lain dormant for yet another full, bitterly cold month, might be somewhat reluctant to start. The battery has been showing its age of late and will probably be due for replacement soon.

It's actually a bit of an untruth to say that the battery was my only concern, at least with regards to not being up to strength. To be honest, I had a different battery related concern, which was that it might actually be strong enough to wake the slumbering beast. If it was, I'd be hard pressed to find an excuse not to fly. And therein lies the rub: after a month since my last flight, which itself was the first in an equally long period and was merely a short series of touch & goes anyway, well... I suffer a large degree of trepidation when it comes time to bet the farm on whether or not I really remember how to fly.

"Nothing ventured, nothing gained" goes hand-in-hand with "carpe diem" when you think about it, so once I had finished a goodly number of weekend chores, it was off to the airport. As has become the norm, the first time I tried to crank the engine the battery only had enough gumption to get the first blade to the top of the compression stroke. With an odd mixture of relief and dread, I tried again. Three blades passed by and the engine rumbled to life. Not keen on appearing overly eager, only three of the four cylinders joined in at first, but peer pressure finally persuaded the fourth to get with the program.

My fears about flying after an extended lay-off are not limited to concern over my personal capabilities; I also tend to lose some degree of faith in the airplane itself. At the end of the runway, I held the brakes firmly while I let the engine run at 1,700 RPM longer than I usually do. The eager straining of the airplane evidenced by its nervous bouncing around, much like a thoroughbred race horse straining at the bit in the starting gate, usually alleviates some of my doubt and today was no different. When it's that eager to go, things are probably all right. That speaks only to the airplane, however, not to my personal readiness. Which, as it turns out in the event, was somewhat wanting.

The winds, as moderate as they were, had the discourtesy to be coming directly from the left. That means that the pressure they applied to the vertical stabilizer would exacerbate the left turning tendency that is normal on takeoff. I was fine right up until the tail wheel lifted from the runway, but was not prepared for the sharp lurch to the left when the rudder became the primary directional control. My right foot was late to apply a corrective force, and by the time it did it required quite a bit more force that one would like. The weight was starting to come off of the tires by that time since the wing is not at all affected by the pilot's shenanigans and starts to generate lift right on schedule. That caused quite a bit of chatter from the tires as they struggled to get a grip on the runway with so little weight left to help them force the issue. That invariably ends up scuffing off some of the rubber on the tires, leading to undue wear.

I'm replacing them during the annual anyway. So there.

Heading west, I realized that I really didn't have anywhere to go. It really wasn't about having a destination today, of course, but still... how does one know when to quit if there's no goal? I decided to just keep climbing and see if I could get to 10,000', a rarefied altitude that I've only reached on a handful of occasions. Just fifteen miles west of the airport, I reached it 10,500. From that high, it's way more than legal to fly over downtown Columbus. That required a turn back to the east and an incumbent climb or descent of 1,000' to comply with VFR altitude requirements. Having gone as far as I had, it seemed a waste to give 1,000' back so I chose to climb to 11,500'.

From my perch more than two miles over the city, I could see the entire area within the I-270 outer belt. The surrounding countryside was still white with snow, but the city snow had all melted leaving an ugly dark gray in its place. Still, the sun was shining, the sky was blue, and cruising along more than two miles above all of the day-to-day pressures gave me time to reflect on just how good I have it. I have an interesting and challenging job that provides a nice income, I'm not quite fifty years old and I'm on my third airplane (with another gestating in the hangar), my family and I are healthy, and, well, February is another eleven months away!

Thus relaxed and feeling ever more comfortable in the plane as the minutes passed, I made a slow turn back towards Bolton. I started a gentle 500 feet per minute descent as I worked my way out of the Columbus Class C airspace and over the top of Bolton's Class D and held it until I was seven miles southwest of the airport. I was still over 7,000' high at that point and needed to come down a bit faster, so I rolled into a 60 degree bank and made a pair of 360 degree turns, falling from the sky at over 3,000 feet per minute. It turns out that it is every bit as nice as having an airplane that can climb quickly to have an airplane that can come down even faster.

Bolton tower gave me a straight in approach and I was soon flaring over the runway.

And flaring. And flaring. And flaring. One of the things that's easily lost when I'm not flying is the memory picture of what the runway looks like when I'm landing. Bolton's runway is relatively wide, so when I've lost the sense of being close to the ground I tend to flare high. I just keep sinking, sinking, sinking until I start to wonder whether the landing gear had fallen off while I was flying around or if some miscreant had dug a canal down the middle of the runway while no one was looking. When it seems that I can't possibly get any lower, I get a little concerned that I'm really going to smack down hard, so I use some of the luxuriously long runway by adding a touch of power to reduce my descent rate. Just as I fed in a couple of extra RPMs today, the wheels lightly brushed the runway. A greaser!

Better than I deserved, but just what I needed.

The plane is torn down for annual now so I'm grounded again, but thankfully I was able to get a nice flight in today. That ought to hold me for awhile.

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