So… Want to fly new things. Tailwheel differences training is an obvious candidate. But geography’s a hurdle. Gloucester’s the closest but whereever I go it’s going to be a few days stay to be practical so I plump for a trusted quantity in another Flyer forumite, Andy R, who’d instructing on the super-pretty, Super Decathalon, G-IZZZ at Shoreham, with Phoenix Flying.
And there’s a bank holiday weekend. Perfect (or not given the weather’s predilection, but more on that later!)
Before we get into any of that tail-draggy stuff though, Andy has spotted what I, in blissful ignorance, missed. That G-IZZZ, (or “Daphne”!) has, in addition to the third wheel at the other end, a variable pitch propellor. Something I’ve not flown with and have no differences sign off for. This becomes the first task and we kick off a corner-of-the-hangar classroom session on the Why and How of variable pitch props, and constant speed units and what it all means in terms of operation. I click away with the smartphone, blessing Evernote and Skitch as I snapshot the whiteboard and scribble my own reminders.
I forget to ask from which Daphne this delightful looking machine takes her name, but I find can only think of the Scooby Doo one – perky and cartoonishly pretty and bursting to be where the action is! In any case both the daughter and wife of the owner/CFI claim credit for it, and the new registration plate bears the name along the reg and serial.
After a coffee the tail-wheel specific brief focusses on the physics of the situation. Dimly I remember some of these from initial training. Positioning the controls to minimise the effects or wind during taxying, torque and slipstream needing rudder on takeoff – but Andy’s right when he says you can get lazy in a nosewheel. You can get away with forgetting the fine detail.
Not so with this tailwheel business. Not when accentuated by a CoG rear of the wheels, the mysteries of asymmetric blade effect, and in this particular aircraft a considerably more powerful engine.
Out we go, and strap in (along with the cushion I need to reach the rudder pedals with enough leg left to actually push them!), we head out, creeping cautiously along as I dab slightly haphazardly at the rudder.
The takeoff is, to be frank, a blur! As is much of the next 50 minutes or so, and I find myself not even sure how much of my general bafflement and cackhandedness is purely that I’m more rusty than I’ve ever been since starting flying, how much is the complications of trying to get my head around a new knob and dial, how much is down to this faster, slipperier, more powerful machine, and how much is left to lay at the actual tailwheel config!
At some point I add an unasked for jolt of adrenaline to the proceedings by making a right mess of a stall recovery and I’m entirely at a loss to find the right about of rudder pressure for any particular stage of flight to keep us in balance with the result I make myself feel distinctly unwell, slithering about the sky!
I talk to myself firmly about learning curves and to my immense relief by the end of the second flight (delayed by weather to a day later), things feel a bit more achievable.
The takeoff is a muddle but at least the elements of the muddle aren’t one big mystery. It still takes me some toe-prodding weaving about before I find the rudder input that will keep us in balance and the pitch angle which will keep us climbing at 80, but I find it before belatedly I remember that we were going to reduce power at some point.
The aircraft can climb quite happily at 80mph without the need to be at full chat the whole time so no need to make more racket than strictly necessary. I think it through, carefully talking my thought process aloud as I reduce first the throttle to find 25″ on the manifold pressure gauge. Not for the first time since losing poor G-TOMS I miss, just for a moment, the comfortable familiarity with one aircraft, the reassuring ease of picking out a power setting by ear and fingertips and knowing even before flicking a glance at the dials that it would be right.
But this is all change and a new challenge because the prop is next and needs edging back, just a tad to 2500 on the RPM. They don’t flow yet these changes, each step is done slowly, separately. I catch the swing of the nose to the left with the rudder but I should have known it would come unless I acted and my feet should have moved as my hands did on those levers. I know it is needed. I understand why and I recited it as I lay in bed the previous night, feet wagging under the duvet as I flew imaginary aircraft round imaginary flights. In the air though recall comes more sporadically, in fits and starts, and I’m sometimes on top of it and sometimes not so much, and sometimes not at all until a “what have you forgotten” comes mildly through my headset and gives memory a poke. leaning the mixture, or lack thereof, is my usual failing on those occasions that it’s not lack of rudder input.
Sometimes in my frantic concentration on the New Knob and the fact I have some things called Feet at the ends of my legs, I forget instead things which I learned my second or third time in an aircraft. I overshoot the target altitude or I’m too hasty reducing power and RPM at the top of the climb before the airspeed has built up.
Daphne grumbles at me over the extra work I’m putting her to when I do this, as she does when I mistakenly let the pitch increase and the speed scrub off in the turns. The additional load is audible in the sound of the engine and prop, a reminder this isn’t just textbook stuff about efficiency.
We climb again and again until it start to come together, stepping our way up to as high as the cloudbase and airspace will let us, until I’m doing everything I need to, albeit with a certain amount of what, if this was a game instead of the real sky and flying machine would be called lagginess!
Descents and decelerations are up next and these I find more challenging. In spite of all those struts and stays, G-IZZZ is a slippery enough machine that it’s easy to let the speed get away from you, as I’d already discovered earlier in the weekend with my G-laden muddle of a stall recovery! She speeds up pretty flipping quick going downhill! All to the good in an aerobatic machine but presents food for thought when descending and slowing into the circuit. Behind an imaginary C150 for the purposes of demonstration. The technique (and again I’d learned this once for slow flight but let the knowledge rust and fray), is to take off a fairly large whack of power to start with to get the slowing down / going down and then bring it back to about 20″ manifold pressure once you’ve got something sensible. Not forgetting (of course I did) that changing power means changing rudder input, calling for a bit more left rudder.
In fact even level cruise flight in this machine calls for a certain amount of rudder input because the fin has an offset which puts it in balance with neutral rudder at aerobatic power settings of 25″/2500RPM. The upshot of which is that you need just the faintest of pressures on the left rudder for straight and level at a more sedate 23″/2300RPM.
Again we repeat it until it was flowing a bit more. Speed control is still something I’ll need to work on more next time.
With the weather closing in as midday passed, it’s time to head back. Shoreham are after something complicated which I don’t entirely register so Andy gives me lefts and rights until we’re downwind, for the shorter of the grass runways.
I overshoot the turn to final – my ‘favourite’ rusty mistake, and faffing with the power and speed and trim, get too low on the approach for quite a spell before recovering a more reasonable approach.
Landing, singular, is not quite the right term for the bounding along and across the runway that ensues, and I start to suspect that the elements of the brief that had begun “if you bounce …” were really a tactful way of saying “when you bounce…”
Going to take some practice this! Overall though I’m fairly happy. Lots to learn, but I remember when it was all lots to learn. Lots of things have been ‘lots to learn and look impossible’ to start with. Most of them aren’t impossible at all.
Back in the hangar I mop the drizzle from Daphne’s wings and tail and rub away the oil from behind the exhaust. Students clean their own aeroplanes here and it’s a strangely soothing process, my brain slowing from frantic concentration to a more thoughtful reflection on what I’d taken in and what I needed to check or improve.
Andy goes through a debrief over coffee which flags up the bits I missed (there’s a back end to think about when taxying near edges of taxiways!) and confirms the bits I’d realised myself (speed control, and thinking about where the wind is). And I get a sticker in my logbook for the VP prop sign off.
Only trouble now is I’m frantic to fly all over again – I’d almost got used to missing it…