Sunday, October 31, 2010

It's a Blustery Year

Yep, it's that time of year again. Late fall is when the bluster is at its worst, although there are some years that are certainly worse than others. 2008 was horrible and 2012 will likely be far worse, but the campaign season of 2008 has been plenty bad enough. Oh, you thought I meant blustery weather? Well, we've had that too. I had hoped to give a ride to a co-worker last week but the 23G30 winds were clearly too much; we had to postpone. That's the kind of wind that I only land in if I'm returning from a trip and I'm met with conditions far worse than forecast. I can do it if I have to, but if I have a choice? Nope, I stay home.

Today was better, but not entirely perfect. We had a reported steady 9 knots from the northwest, but one look at the sky was enough to tell that there was probably more than that going on at altitude. It was clearly blowing pretty hard up in the flight levels where the jets ply their trade; you can always tell it's windy when the clouds look like they've been applied to the sky with a brush.  There's nothing wrong with a local hop with 9 knot winds, though. No reason to postpone this time, but I did suggest dressing warmly. It can be pretty chilly between the hangars when the wind forces its way between them and I knew we'd have to spend some time talking before getting into the plane.

The passenger, a future winner of the Caldecott Medal for her as-yet-unwritten children's book Everyone Knows a Dog Named Molly, asked if she could bring her family along with her in order to take some pictures of her daughter in the airplane. I could hardly refuse, what with some of my absolutely favorite pictures of Co-pilot Egg being those taken in one airplane or another. Egg, herself always eager to befriend younger kids, volunteered to brave the chill and go to the airport with us to help with the logistics of the photo taking.

She was quite happy in the plane until Egg tried putting headsets on her. That wasn't very popular at all!

To be fair, those ear cups are mighty cold when there's a chill in the air. I don't much like putting them on either!

While Egg was entertaining her guest, I did the preflight and explained a few of the things that I've learned to point out to passengers. Chief amongst those are things like:

1) The engine vibrates a lot more than what you're used to in a car and is quite loud. It also sometimes burbles when I throttle back to land.

2) I'm going to be pretty active on the rudder pedals during takeoff and landing. It's best if they're not being used as foot rests. This is especially important when it's windy.

3) And most importantly when flying with females: I will be reaching for the trim knob now and then, and any contact with your leg is purely incidental. In fact, I was thinking that one nice thing about the RV-12 will be that the trim is electric and actuated by a switch on the control panel, thus alleviating me of the concern that something might be misconstrued. My relief was short-lived, however, as I soon remembered that I'm going to have to brief the use of the crotch strap in the RV-12, something I don't have to do in the -6. That's going to require a level of delicacy that, simply put, I'm not exactly known for.

Not that it was an issue with Molly, but one of the benefits of explaining these kinds of things as we go through the process is to alleviate some of the nervousness someone might have when flying in a small plane for the first time. Confidence and competence, even if feigned, go along way towards calming jangled nerves. I remember one of my earliest flights in a small plane when I grew increasingly trepid as the pilot struggled to get the engine started. That's no problem with Papa, of course, since he always starts after pulling just one or two blades through. Such was the case today, although I just couldn't seem to keep the engine running after its normally easy start. I think it was the third or fourth time I had tried before I realized that I still had the mixture in idle cut-off. Oops! But, as I've always said, there are two people you never want to hear say "Oops!": pilots and brain surgeons. I put on my best meant-to-do-that voice and said, "Ah, I had it set a little lean."

Technically true, that, albeit in a somewhat Clintonian sense. It all depends on what the meaning of "a little lean" is.

Being early yet, we woke up the tower controller with our request to taxi but eventually managed to wrangle a clearance to runway 4 out of him. On the way out I explained that we'd have a left crosswind on takeoff which, combined with the normal right turning tendency from the torque of the engine, would ensure that there would be at least a few swerves as we accelerated down the runway. I also briefed my normal runway 4 takeoff method of accelerating to 120 knots over the runway before making a climbing turn-out towards the wide open farm fields just west of the airport. Doing it that way results in us being at 500' above the ground with best glide speed already showing on the airspeed indicator should anything happen that would require an un-powered, off-airport landing, but it's not the type of takeoff one would expect after hundreds of hours flying in airliners.

All went as planned and we were soon climbing towards the west. I had debated on the question of making my normal takeoff or foregoing that and climbing out straight ahead, the two choices pretty much differing mostly by how they would affect the passenger, but in the event my final decision to go with the more abrupt and potentially scary method was proven satisfactory by the gleeful laughing bubbling out from the right seat. That was a relief! If she enjoyed the takeoff, chances were that I wouldn't have to be ultra careful about banks and turns.

Once we got up to a safe altitude, I let her take the controls. My early impression proved correct. After just a few mild exploratory turns, she loosened up and rolled us into 30- to 40 degree banks quite readily. We were lucky to have a few scattered target clouds to play around with too. It's somewhat rare to have those bite-sized clouds lounging around at a convenient altitude, and when I do find them I like to play around with them a bit. As there was one just below and to the left of us and Molly was obviously getting more comfortable with controlling the plane, I had her put us in a descending left turn straight towards it. We brushed across the top of it at a good 175 mph. That's a great way for someone new to flying to see just how fast it is that we're going. It's hard to tell when you're a few thousand feet above the ground, but the close-up reference to a stationary cloud shows it very well.

She then flew us over another little cloud just behind the first and I took over as we zoomed on past it. I pulled us up into a left wing-over and dove back down towards the cloud we had just brushed over. After three or four of those, we had both had enough fun to last us the day. Which is to say, well, there was a little queasiness afoot. Pulling G's like that is an acquired taste and something you have to do pretty routinely to stay acclimated to it. She'd never done it, and I hadn't done it for a long time. It was time to move on to something more sedate.

I headed us back towards the east, the plan being to fly over The Ohio $tate University campus and downtown Columbus. Unfortunately we were over a pretty thick haze layer. While the sky was beautiful at 5,500', the view of campus and the downtown waterfront wasn't that great. I turned us back to the west and we descended back down towards Bolton. I called the tower as we crossed over Darby Dan and got the expected "report mid-field left downwind runway 4" in response.

As we crossed over my neighborhood, I made a continuous curving approach from downwind to final. We still had quite a bit of altitude, but with the throttle to idle and a good headwind component we had no problem losing the excess height by the time we reached the runway. I had covered my bases in preparation for a bad landing during the briefing, but it proved unnecessary. The touch down was smooth, and had it not been for a gust of wind that caused a little swerving and bouncing on the roll-out, it would have been a very good landing for a blustery 9 knot day.

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