Wednesday, April 06, 2011

It's all about the wind

The annual is finally done, and after an epic struggle, the engine cowls are back on the airplane. What with the shiny, tight new hinges, it was a bit of a chore to get the pins to go in. It had to be done, though: I had a flight scheduled that I didn't want to miss. We're going through an ISO certification at the paying job and the corporate office experts are in town to help me muddle my way through the explanations of the somewhat quirky processes that result from the small size of our business unit and the heavy dependence we have on IT in-house services (i.e. me).

One of the corporate specialists is Jen, who just had her first flying lesson this past weekend. She's flying out of Oakland, and if nothing else, the scenery is spectacular.

As spectacular as her training environment will/would be, there will be costs above and beyond the rental charges to consider, though. It's a forty-five minute trip to the airport, and the Bay Area is notorious for winds and fog. She's still on the fence about whether she will continue with the lessons or not, but one way or the other she has developed a taste for flight.

Me? As you've seen in these pages before, I've developed a taste for flying with pretty women.

We scheduled our flight for Wednesday night as that night offered the best opportunity to break away from the group. Unfortunately, the winds did not want to cooperate. As Jen will eventually learn in her training, the wind is always, always, always a consideration in flying. High winds need to be considered in all aspects of any given flight. With a light plane, the pilot has to be aware of the direction of the wind even when taxiing out to the runway. A strong enough wind from the side could, for example, lift a wing or even flip over the airplane. The same strong wind will affect the directional control on takeoff, ground speed (and thus projected fuel requirements) while enroute, and all manner of things while approaching to land. A crosswind will factor in the pilot's approach and landing pattern as it attempts to move the plane closer to or further from the optimum downwind and base leg paths. It will certainly have an affect on the final approach and landing, even if it is right down the runway.

Even light winds need to be considered, albeit not quite as heavily. A light wind on takeoff will require more runway to reach a flyable airspeed. The landing roll out will be longer as well without a good headwind to slow the airplane. Light winds also have an affect at uncontrolled airports where each individual pilot gets to determine which runway direction is "active" and the wind isn't providing a clear choice.

The forecast for our flight was winds out of the southwest at 18 knots, gusting to the high 20's. That's too much wind for my comfort. Later in the day, the forecast showed the winds tapering off to 10 knots at or around 7:00 pm. That's more like it! At the end of the workday, the winds were still too high but we decided to make the trip across town anyway in the hopes that the forecast for lower winds would come true and we'd be able to fly.

By the time we got there, the forecast had been amended: 25 knots gusting to 37.


Not today, then.

Having made the trip, though, we decided we might as well go over to the hangar for a tour. I got to show off my half-completed RV-12, up to and including a quick demonstration of the always impressive pneumatic rivet puller and the often intriguing concept of clecos. After about a half hour of expostulating on the benefits of the RV-12, I figured it was about time we give up and go get some dinner instead. But... it seemed less windy. I called the AWOS phone number and sure enough, the winds has dropped to 17 gusting 22. Right down the runway.

That was more like it! Just another couple of knots...

By the time we got into the plane, the tower was reporting 15 gusting 20-ish. It's a go!

The takeoff was a breeze (so to speak) and we were soon climbing towards the setting sun. At 3,000' I let Jen take the controls. Her first lesson having been primarily on the topics of straight & level flight and sightseeing, she demonstrated her acquired skills in each. After a few minutes of that, I showed her how to determine our compass direction (well, ground track to be perfectly precise) from the GPS and how to turn to a given heading. North being my first choice, my aging eyes having quickly tired of squinting into the later afternoon sun.

After a series of gentle turns, I took over and demonstrated some of the more aggressive maneuvers available in the repertoire of an RV-6 pilot. I think above all of the great things about flying with neophytes is the kick I get from spontaneous delighted laughs. Or squeals, as the case may be.

I can only do so much of that without risking the onset of nausea in both pilot and passenger, so we then climbed up to sufficient altitude to overfly Columbus without invoking the dreadful ire of Columbus Approach, and by extension, should my luck run that way, the FAA.

By the time we got back to Bolton, the winds were down to 13 gusting 21, still right down the runway. We were well positioned for an entry to right base, although with the twenty degrees of crab I needed to hold us close to the runway, it was a very ill-defined base leg. Crawling down final gave me plenty of time to assess the slight crosswind component and set up for a flare right over the numbers. The touchdown wasn't bad at all, but the roll out had my feet moving fast enough to qualify for a spot on Dancing with the Stars. With the extra wind over the nose, the tail stayed up longer than normal which meant that most of my steering was with the rudder rather than the tailwheel. That can be tricky as the airflow across the rudder decreases and I have to start stabbing at the brakes. By the time the tail finally dropped, we were almost at a crawl.

We turned off at Alpha 3 and I congratulated myself on a "good enough" landing.

We ran into a little problem while heading back to the hangar. A pair of geese have built a nest by one of the hangars and one of them was standing right in the middle of the taxiway. You don't dare hit one of them; that would qualify as a prop strike and required a federally-mandated tear down of the engine to check for damage to the crankshaft. In other words, thousands of dollars. I finally encouraged the goose to move out of the way, but he wasn't at all happy about it. As with any entitlement-minded member of a government-protected identity class, he got very vocal about any perceived encroachment on his rights. As we went by, he was at full neck extension, honking his fool head off. I expect he and the missus will be camping in a capital rotunda somewhere soon.