Ab Initio 05 “Wind is a Four Letter Word”

In which I discover more Things Wot The Aeroplane Does, attempt to fly in a straight line and discover several difficulties of navigation.

The day of my next lesson arrived with a howling gale straight down the runway. Short of attempting the unlikely feat of imitating a Harrier in our little Tomahawk, there was no way we were getting off the ground, much less back on to it in one piece. I rescheduled for next week.

Next week turned into the week after and the week after that as the weather cycled through rain and fog, fog and wind, wind and rain, and rain and fog. In fact I developed my very own version of weather forecasting which consisted of looking out of the window at the hill across the river and asking myself two questions:

1) Could I see the top of it?
2) Could I see or hear any seagulls in the immediate vicinity?

If the answer to 1 was yes and 2 was no then the odds were good that the weather would be fit for flying. If the answer to both was no, then it was too foggy. If the answer to both was yes, then it was too windy. If the answer to 1 was no and 2 was yes, then it was too foggy and too windy.

Eventually a Saturday arrived when the sun woke me before the alarm clock and I couldn’t actually hear the wind whistling through the keyhole, although a peer through the window revealed a disturbing level of thrashing about of the treetops which didn’t bode well.

Nevertheless it was down to the train station, remind the conductor that I would like to get off without the need for a flying leap from the train at the correct request stop station, and meet Derek for my lift to the airfield.

Further secondary effects of controls–power, the use of flaps and trim was on the menu for today and we went through the ground briefing which was comfortingly familiar from what I’d read up on.

We were also to do some straight and level practice although the enormous cumulus skudding across the otherwise blue sky promised to make it a bit on the bouncy side.

The wind was even stronger here and as Sod’s Law would have it was also blowing almost directly across the runway. My second takeoff was to be crosswind.

Before that challenge however lay another–that of getting the hangar door open. The weather had not been kind to the runners and this proved to be a two man job. Eventually however we were set and to catch up on the creeping away time, Laurie whizzed through the pre-flight checks himself to save us the slow process of me stepping through the list and peering around the cockpit for the right switch/lever/button.

We discussed some of the techniques for taxying in a crosswind and then headed out.

In my concern about keeping us from being blown completely off the runway by the strong crosswind I was halfway down the field before I had got around to opening the throttle fully and my subsequent scrabble for altitude was not a pretty sight.

“Let her come around into the wind,” Laurie advised, though I don’t think I could effectively had done otherwise, the aeroplane being determined to imitate a weathercock.

Once we had some height in hand we turned out to follow much the same route as the previous lesson.

We found a clear area and began with flaps. In the Tomahawk, these are operated by a mechanical lever sitting more or less where the handbrake on a car lives. I was somewhat fazed by the amount of hauling and shoving needed and as a result handled them rather clumsily. I am definitely am going to need more practise to get comfortable with their operation.

Next was a demonstration of what not to do, as Laurie retracted them all in one go and we dropped about 20 feet before I could blink. 20 feet doesn’t seem like a great deal when you’re 2000 feet up but, as he pointed out, during a low level go around it could result in a very nasty bump indeed.

Power was next on the list and the main point was that it is not like the accelerator on a car. Being a non-driver I had no particular existing instincts to overcome and was unbothered by this. Opening the throttle does not simply make the aeroplane go faster. If everything else is left untouched it actually causes a pitch up and a yaw to the left. If you actually want to go faster you have to hold the nose down and right with elevator and rudder to keep flying level. Contrariwise for reducing power–the nose drops and yaws right.

This led into the use of trim. Obviously if you’ve increased power and are now holding the nose down to keep level you have to keep applying that pressure which gets tiring after a while and so you employ “trim” to remove the pressure.

Trim works in different ways on different aeroplanes. Some have trim tabs on the elevator to alter the airflow and deflect it up or down. On the Tomahawk however, the other method is used, that of spring-loading the control column to relieve the pressure.

I’d already been introduced to the trim wheel, down between the seats, during the cockpit checks and it was simple enough to use–if you’re holding the control column forward then move the trim wheel forward, holding it back then trim wheel back.

Laurie employed a very graphic demonstration to show these effects. He took the controls from me and while keeping the nose so steady on the horizon I didn’t realise what he was doing, put the trim wheel all the way back/up. He then handed the controls back to me without mentioning this little detail. The aeroplane promptly tried to stand on its tail, or at least it felt like it. I shoved the control column forward as my eyes bugged out of my head again.

“Oh dear,” said Laurie, straight faced. “What’s happening? You’ve gained 100 feet already.”

“Uh,” I said intelligently, losing the ability to both speak and maintain the battle to keep us on anything approaching straight and level.

“You’ve done something to the trim?” I eventually managed.

“Well sort it out then.”

It was rather tentatively I removed one hand from the control column while still trying to keep it held forward, I spun the trim wheel forward a few times and the effect was immediate, I relaxed my deathgrip on the yoke and fiddled around a bit getting the trim just right to keep us from drifting up or down.

Next we did the same thing the other way–Laurie trimmed all the way down and handed it back to me to sort out the Stuka impersonation that resulted.

It took a while to get the ‘feel’ of correct trim. I found trimming until it was more or less right then using small adjustments and seeing what happened when I let go worked best.

Having got the trim more or less under control, some straight and level flight was next up.

Now it may seem strange to get halfway through the second lesson without ‘officially’ covering flying in a straight line, but without knowing what all the controls do and how they affect everything else, it was a bit like trying juggling without knowing how to catch.

So we picked a landmark and set off. My first mistake (again) was hanging onto the controls too tightly, resulting in me overcompensating with every slight adjustment. This was at least the third time I’d noticed or been told this, and was rather irritated at myself.

“Fingertips,” Laurie advised. “I want to see space between the palms of your hands and the controls.”

Eureka. That did the trick. Holding the controls that lightly, I physically couldn’t make the same mistake of overcontrolling and the flight proceeded far more smoothly.

Or at least, it did until we came to turns, at which point I lost it completely. I rolled out too early, or too late, or stared too long at the DI instead of where I was going, or lost track entirely of which way we needed to turn to go west.

After what seemed like a hundred turns back and forth and round and around I did start to get the hang of it, and was at least able to more or less keep to the same altitude during the turns even if I still over or undershot the target heading.

Getting towards the end of the lesson now and Laurie looked out of the window at the town below and asked, “So where are we?”

“Uh.” Rabbit in headlights again. I stared out at the ground looking for anything recognisable. River, bridge, railwayline, a large red “Do It All” superstore. “Carmarthen.”

“Well done.”

I felt like I’d just discovered the New World.

“So which way is the airfield?”


I wouldn’t have known the answer to that even on the ground. Laurie fished out the chart and I searched for our location and that of the airfield. Finding them I promptly lost any ability to estimate angles and thus work out our course back. Navigating is going to prove harder than actual flying I fear.

We did however make our way back and Laurie demonstrated a textbook crosswind landing. I was fascinated by the crabbed approach and hugely impressed with the gentle touchdown.

The three weeks ’till payday and my next lesson were going to seem like forever.


2 thoughts on “Ab Initio 05 “Wind is a Four Letter Word”

  1. LJ

    Leia this is such a great blog I so pleased to have found. I had a trial flight few years ago and have now had three lessons. I can totally relate to all the ‘uh..’ and hear the instructor tones such as ‘sort it out then’ and ‘the what?’. Although in my case it’s been ‘WHAT are you doing’ ‘what ARE you doing’. I clearly haven’t grasped as much as you had by your entry for your second lesson and am currently trying to figure out which instructor I’m going to be most comfortable constantly feeling a complete idiot with! But also how much feeling a complete idiot I can take.
    Did you ever feel like that and ever think you’d better stop??
    I knew it would be hard I wanted a challenge and I need them to get that I’m not being a pathetic self-deprecating woman when I say that flying is a combination of all the things I’m most useless at, but to accept I am and see if I can improve. I was so pleased to read you couldn’t pass your cycling proficiency, well not pleased for you that sounds mean, it’s just that after my lesson the instructor said about balancing and things becoming more automatic and like riding a bike. But it didn’t feel the right moment to tell him I can’t ride a bike!! I said right from the start that I’m not sure I do the navigating. Again lots of reassurance but I’ve not told them yet that despite driving to the airfield at least 4 times now I’m still using a sat nav!!! I think I need to tell them very bluntly tomorrow that however well they normally do with pupils they are at most dealing with the ann widdicome or john sergeant of strictly come dancing and are they really up for that 🙂

  2. Leia Post author

    Often felt like an idiot, never wanted to stop! Partly because I work in education and know from both sides that learning ANYTHING is a series of fits and starts, being awesome and being rubbish and “learning curve” is an utter misnomer – in real life it’s a “Learning really weird squiggle with almost no pattern to it!”


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