Ab Initio 06 “Power, Attitude, Trim”

In which I have fun in the snow, babble like a fool on the radio and have my brain turned to mush by the intricacies of going up and down.

It had been cold all week and when the first snow of the year descended on South Wales I was starting to wonder whether the weather was going to win again

After stomping to work in the freezing slush two days in a row and garnering from the reports that it got even worse further west, I was not holding out a great deal of hope.

Nevertheless, on Saturday morning when I twitched the curtains aside and peered, bleary eyed out of the window there was blue sky and glorious sunshine. It was cold but the only snow was lurking unmelted in corners from the previous days.

Happily, I telephoned the flying club to confirm I’d be arriving on the usual train.

“Looking okay?” I checked, still suspicious of the weather.

“Yes, really good,” came the desired reply.

I grinned then frowned as he went on, “Someone flew yesterday so the runway’s clear.”

I looked out of the window and the definite lack of visible snow. Clear? I wondered.Why shouldn’t it be?

That comment about the snowfall having been worse in the west came back to me as I sat on the train and watched the grass verge turned slowly from green to white. I got off the train at Kidwelly and was again stamping through snow.

Blanketed in white, the airfield looked very scenic and very improbable as a place from which to actually get off the ground. The runway threshold was covered in snow and the remainder was patched with slush. I still had clear images of the cars on the way to work slithering their way along the road and the idea of that happening in an aeroplane was just horrible. No one else seemed unduly concerned though and Laurie blithely assured me it was fine.

Having coaxed the gas fire into life in the portacabin and settled in with cups of coffee we went over the day’s ground briefing.

Climbing and Descending was on the syllabus for today and descents in particular were to prove unexpectedly complicated. I had dutifully read the relevant section in my Thom manual the night before and been slightly taken aback by the amount of pages devoted to descending–glides, powered descents, cruise descents, flaps, sideslipping… It seemed to go on forever and was accompanied by disturbingly mathematical looking graphs.

I was hoping that all would become clear once it was demonstrated so was eager to get out and off the ground.

We drove over to the hangar, after waiting for a green light from the tower to give us permission to cross the runway. Laurie pointed out a red and yellow checkered board hanging on the side of the building. “We’ve got full air traffic control today.”

While battle was joined once more with the hangar doors, which were thoroughly iced up along the runners and difficult to get open even by their usual standards, Laurie asked me to do the walkaround checks.

Clutching my checklist and trying to look at least semi-competent I carefully made my way around the Tomahawk, taking several surreptitious looks over my shoulder to see if Laurie was watching. He wouldn’t let me miss anything obvious… I hoped.

In spite of the nagging, back of the mind, “What if I miss something terrible and something drops off in mid-air because of me?” it was a satisfying feeling.

Eventually the doors were opened and it was time to take the aeroplane outside. One of the blokes who’d been helping with the doors fitted a sort of portable tow bar to the nose leg and started pulling.

Nothing happened.

In my careful run down of my checklist I had conscientiously put the parking brake on while I did the walkaround. Laurie stepped up on the wing and leaned inside the cockpit to release it.

First hitch of the day over with we carefully rolled the Tomahawk outside. In the sparkling snow and clear sunshine she was a very pretty sight. I was grinning like an idiot just looking at her.

“Done the checks?”

“Yep,” I said. “Except for the tailplane, I’m too scrawny to dangle off it.” The Tomahawk has a high set “T” tail and in order to properly check the elevator it requires someone larger than me to haul on the fin to lower the tail enough for it to be visible. I suspect when I eventually get to the day I’m doing this on my own I’m going to have to acquire a kickstep…

All looked well so we both climbed inside and went through the internal checks with no problems.

Laurie decided to start the engine himself as it was cold and he was concerned about over-revving it. His caution was justified as it did in fact take two attempts and I would have been utterly flustered.

I continued down my list with the after-start checks and on reaching the “Radio for taxy clearance,” stopped and looked expectantly at Laurie. He looked back at me, still waiting and then said very slowly and carefully, “Pembrey Tower. Golf Bravo November Hotel Golf, over at the hangar. Requesting radio check and taxy clearance for departure to the local area VFR” (Or words to that effect)

I blinked. He repeated it. Eventually it penetrated my brain that he wanted me to make the radio call.

Now I’ve spent a good twenty-plus years of my life speaking perfectly intelligible English. But could I manage to get this one sentence out coherently? I could not.

“So what are you going to say?”

“Pembrey Tower. Golf uhh…” Take breath try again. “Golf Bravo November Hotel Golf, Requesting uuhh”.

Apparently I had lost the ability to hold more than one word in my head at a time.

Laurie wrote it down on the edge of a clipboard for me and I repeated it back. Right.

I clicked the radio mike button and promptly managed to get the radio check and the taxy clearance the wrong way round. Still, I imagine most air traffic types get used to confused students babbling and the voice that came back sounded completely unfazed by the error.

We got clearance and Laurie did the readback then had a little chat with the controller about the best place to do our power checks without losing the brakes on the ice.

I did some of the simpler radio calls, basically just announcing our arrival at the hold point, then again as we lined up on the runway.

We were duly warned that the runway threshold was badly “contaminated” which I took to mean “a nasty slushy mess” and Laurie decided we would do a short field takeoff to get up off of the slush as soon as possible. Clearly this was well beyond me–I had visions of us skidding off into the sheep field next door, so Laurie handled the controls while I just followed through what he was doing and worked the flaps.

Generally up until now, we’d been taking off with no flap and using little over half the runway. It was immediately clear why Laurie decided that wasn’t for today, as even with flaps and lifting off as soon as we were at rotation speed we’d used an awful lot more than that due to the snow slowing us down.

As soon as we were established in the climb and had “cleaned up” the flaps, Laurie handed the controls over with the customary, “You have control”, which I still couldn’t help thinking of as a rather over-optimistic statement.

Climbing out was fine and we levelled off and picked a heading t take up northwest of the airfield. To my dismay all the landmarks I’d been so carefully trying to learn had vanished utterly in the snow.

“Okay, climb us up to 3500,”

It was not a graceful ascent. I delayed too long between increasing power and raising the nose with the result that the engine was getting far too close to over-revving. I was to make this mistake several more times over the course of the lesson culminating in the very calm and polite request from Laurie that I kindly stop red-lining the engine as it was, “the only one we’ve got and if you break it we’ll be stuck up here all night.”

The easy to remember “Power Attitude Trim” had not really mentioned quite how quickly the one needed to follow the other!

Laurie advised that I listen to the engine note more, rather than gazing at the engine instruments for the RPM. The idea was to get it roughly right then glance at the instruments to check all was proceeding correctly and make any smaller adjustments needed.

In fact, gazing at all the flight instruments had become a preoccupation again, despite having spent the previous lesson telling myself “eyes outside, eyes outside”.

Laurie’s solution was a typically graphic demonstration–he simply reached across the cockpit with his clipboard and hid the lot of them.

“Now keep us at this level.”

I transferred my gaze outside and we proceeded for several minutes.

“How do you think you’re doing?”

“Uh.” I really need to work on my ability to speak while in an aeroplane…

“Actually this is pretty good.” Laurie peered behind the clipboard, then removed it. “There, see?”

I was convinced. My eyes did drift back inside often enough for the clipboard to appear over the instruments a few more times, but I began to realise when I was doing it and remind myself to look back outside.

After a few more climbs bringing us up to around 4500′ it was time to do some descending. First the glide.

Carb heat to hot as we’d be reducing power right back to idle, remember to use some power to warm the engine every so often on the way, and down we go.

As soon as the power was reduced the nose wanted to drop and the airspeed started to ebb away. I was advised to hold 70knots, lowering the nose as needed to maintain it.

In the absence of power our airspeed was being controlled purely by the attitude of the aeroplane and it became apparent why the glide was the first form of descent practised–everything become a whole lot more complicated when we added power!

When we came to do powered descents I found myself struggling to manage everything at once. Power, attitude, airspeed, rate of descent–everything affected everything else and it took huge amounts of concentration to get it all to come together.

“Power to control rate of descent. Attitude to control airspeed,” sounds simple enough in theory, and makes perfect sense on paper. Getting it to work in practice was a whole lot harder! In addition to that, while I was concentrating so hard on the descent, some of the bad habits of earlier had crept back–mainly hanging onto the control column too tightly and gazing too long at the instruments. Clearly learning how to relax and concentrate at the same time is going to be an important part of learning to fly.

Laurie gave the controls a waggle when he thought I was hanging on too hard and suggested that when moving the throttle I rest a finger on the panel itself to steady my hand, making small adjustments easier.

I think (hope) I was starting to get the hang of descending in some sort of controlled fashion by the end of the lesson but it was certainly the busiest my brain has been in some time! I am assured that the mechanics of controlling power and attitude will become automatic with time and won’t require so much conscious thought. Here’s hoping.

We climbed back up again and I briefly had time to notice how pretty the countryside looked in snow, and how from up here you could see exactly where the snow had fallen and where it petered out.

Flapped descents were next. I remembered from my previous lessons having some amount of trouble using the flaps and had spent several minutes while doing the checks on the ground moving them up and down to get a feel for where the lever ‘clicked’ for the various settings. The theory being when I was hauling on them I at least knew how far to haul.

The effect of flaps on the descent was pretty much what was demonstrated in the effects of controls session and the manoeuvring of them was slightly easier this time, though I still found it a struggle to lower the second stage, close to Vfe, presumably because of the increased force of the airflow over them at the higher speeds.

Laurie took the controls to demonstrate the sideslip and I had time to look around again, and relax and admire the much crisper performance of the aeroplane in more expert hands than mine!

The effect of the sideslip was dramatic. The rate of descent leapt up to something over 1200 feet per minute. I glanced from the VSI to the window, amazed we could be descending that fast without feeling it.

By now we were almost back at the airfield, and Laurie handed the controls back and directed me towards the downwind leg to rejoin the circuit. Again I made the simpler of the radio calls, informing them of our arrival and requesting landing clearance.

Laurie continued to talk me through the circuit, pointing out landmarks and telling me when to turn and descend. During the landing itself he took the control column and rudder but instructed me to control the power. The runway was still a bit of a slushy mess so we aimed for a touchdown point just after the worst of it. It was the first time I’ve assisted in the approach and even though I’d had very little to do with the actual landing I felt rather pleased with it. Laurie handed control back to me for taxying and we backtracked up the runway and turned off to our usual parking spot beside the portacabin.

After shutting down the engine and gathered up checklists and other paraphernalia I carefully tidied away the harnesses and coiled up the headset cable and put it onto of the instrument panel before climbing out. I still had clear memories of the previous lesson when I’d hopped out onto the wing with one foot still tethered inside the cockpit by the headset cable tangled around an ankle, and I had no desire to repeat the performance.

Back on the ground I realised how tired I was and how cold it had got. A hot coffee proffered the moment I stepped inside the portacabin soon fixed that though and I immediately wanted to back up there. The weather for once was far too nice to be on the ground!

Still, I’d have to wait for the next lesson which was to be was to be Turns.

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