Relearning how to land!

Day Three

Another bank holiday and after a overly convoluted train journey I’m back on the south coast for day three of this Tailwheel venture. I’m early to the airfield and peruse the cute little museum beside the terminal before finding a sheltered spot on the patio of the cafe to look at aeroplanes. There are a lot of families here today, waving at relatives out airside or just eating and drinking and enjoying the view. It’s breezy but warm and the wind is favouring the grass.

I watch a pretty blue Tiger Moth, G-AMNN, approach, thinking absently that he’s surely too high until he performs the neatest of slips and touches down sweetly with hardly any ground roll at all. He’s followed by G-AYCK, a Stampe and later a Chipmunk and I stare avidly at each tailwheel landing, as if I can somehow absorb the skill through eyeballs alone. The passenger from the Moth joins her family who Re waving and whooping. She chatters at them, all grins and glee about the sea and the sky and the grass overhead because of course they had a twirl or two. I watch the pilot refuel. The prop looks oddly small from where I’m sitting, high up on that little engine and I wonder idly if I’d be less tentative if Daphne’s had such ground clearance.

Andy is flying when I wend my way over to the Phoenix Flying hangar but I’m greeted warmly and join the other pilots in drinking coffee, playing with the dog and watching the flying world go. Andy arrives back, it’s time to go and Ye Gods even the harness makes me feel cackhanded in this aeroplane! I’m still slow and muddly in this unfamiliar cockpit and my radio calls in particular are confusion itself so Andy handles the radio for today! The warmish engine starts without excessive fuss but I don’t lean quite hard enough on the ground and by the time I’ve made my cautious way to 13 we’ve a fouled plug making the left mag drop too large. Andy spots it, not me. I still don’t know what ‘normal’ looks like in this aeroplane and it’s a bit of a frustration. In any case he manages to clear it and we line up. It’s still a gallop across the grass, weaving and rattling along but I did at least remember getting the stick forward this time and making some conscious effort to keep us on two wheels and pointing vaguely in the right direction. Lift off comes as a relief, but there still work to do with rudder and power and trim before we reach the coast and turn for Goodwood in true IFRoads style, tracking the A27.

There’s a glider and tug in the circuit as we arrive but they don’t interfere with us too much. I have more trouble with the fact that once established in the circuit, any thought diverted from my furious concentration on the airspeed, e.g. to look for such traffic, leads within seconds to unwanted acceleration. Eventually I come to the conclusion that having found a power combination that Inknow does generate 80mph when I’m not interfering with it I should just stick to getting the pitch attitude right and leave the power alone! Obvious perhaps, but I’m far to given to tinkering, it seems!

A combination of noise abatement and high ground makes Goodwood’s circuits a bit non traditional but Andy points out good landmarks and after a particularly haphazard first attempt where I missed the runway entirely before we even got as far as attempting landing, I start to get the circuit side of things more or less under control. Speed still slips away from me and I’m still not consistently in balance, for some reason constantly rolling slightly left. I wonder if I’d do the opposite on a right hand circuit. Am I edging in because that’s where I’m thinking about going? Leaning a bit to the side to avoid staring at the central windscreen bar and taking my hand with me? Resting my hand on my knee at a funny angle? Not sure, but it’s what in my ICT day job I’d call a ‘reproducible error’ and I am having to actively think about it to constantly check I’m wings level.

The fact half my normal prelanding checks don’t exist in this aeroplane acts, rather oddly, as additional distraction rather than simplifying things – no carb heat, no switching of tanks, no fuel pump (not that’s used when landing anyway), no DI, but the addition of checking prop RPM.

The landings are a bit of a mixed bunch and apart from speed control I’ve only the vaguest inkling of how what I’m doing is making any difference to how high the bounce is… And it pretty much is a case of ‘how high’ a bounce whether than if there is one or not!

“At 100′ progressively close the throttle while maintaining the aiming point” began the brief on the final stages of the approach… Except that at 100′ I’m more often than not still floundering about trying to recapture 80mph, so that’s the rest of it gone to soup straight away! It rapidly becomes clear (and ‘rapid’ is indeed the keyword here’) that absolutely everything must follow from decent speed control.

Speed control is important on any approach, when landing anything of course, but there’s no forgiveness for deviations whatsoever in a tailwheel machine. Even before learning to land the thing I can see why people say tailwheel flying improves your handling skills all round.

“At 30′ round out and fly level along the runway…” Next step once I manage to finally arrive at 100′ at something resembling the right speed is the transition to rounding out. If the previous step was done correctly the fact I’ve been maintaining the aiming point not the airspeed should mean this bit ‘just works’ and be a smooth transition, flying fairly slowly and level, at which point it becomes a game of ‘not yet’ raising the nose a smidge at a time everytime any sink is detected until finally we touch down.

The aim of the exercise, as always is to run out of space under the wheels and flying speed at the same time… Run out of space under the wheels before you run out of flying speed and that sprung steel undercarriage will give a great big Boing and launch you back up again. Run out of flying speed before running out of space under the wheels and it is not exactly pretty either. An additional factor I realise on reading the book back on the ground is that if you fail to arrive in the three point attitude, the actual process of the wheel dropping the rest of the way is going to increase your angle of attack, thus lift, thus the size of the bound back into the air!

There is just no quick and easy way of getting this bit right. I remember the equivalent in my initial training and it taking ages! For the longest time I was simply looking in the wrong place, too close, and I suspect in my overloaded state I was doing the same again. I certainly have no clear recollection of where I was focussing my attention here, too much concentrating on how much pressure I was applying to the stick, was I still on (ish) the centreline? Where were my feet? Was I down yet? Did I need to start doing more with them? And so on and so forth until sometimes I almost didn’t flare at all and threw it all into the lap of the gods (or Andy’s back seat controls to be more accurate!)

And once we actually were on terra firma things got worse! Hopping and skipping and trying to twist and turn into the wind (which I’d forgotten about despite having to think about it all the way down approach), lap of the gods again until we’d slowed down enough I dared move my feet tentatively to the brakes.

Touch and goes are a more broken up affair in a tailwheel, you need to get slowed right down to get used to the low speed handling before accelerating for another takeoff.

Oh yes, takeoffs, another slightly hairy affair! Today until back at debrief I’d forgotten just how much of an impact the gyro effect has, and while I was sort of managing to anticipate the swing when applying power, things started to come unhinged when raising the tail. A number of times I got quite distinctly launched into the air and it’s a mercy that least that Daphne needs really not much runway at all!

We stopped for coffee and cake and icecream once I was suitably frazzled and chatted with another forumite for a spell before heading off to finish the detail.

I felt slightly more on top of the takeoff this time, and remembered the noise abatement and power changes on the climb out. Speed control was starting to come but I’d now discovered a new habit of flaring a good 20′ higher than I had been and should be. Grr and indeed Argh.

Still, I suppose making different mistakes is progress of a sort… 😉

I spend the evening flopped with eyes shut imagining my way around the circuit. After twenty mintues or so I realise I’ve been humming, a nervous, distracted, concentrating sort of hum and upon realising it’s Elen o Elen I can’t stop myself mentally substituting names… (Daphne, o Daphne, o Daphne tyrd yn ôl Paid â bod more ffol â’m adael fi ar ôl) Except of course it’s me being mor ffol and getting left behind!

Day Four

Monday, as forecast, turns out to be the best of the weather, and despite an initially strong crosswind by the time we’ve done a few circuits, both the wind and me have settled down.

The takeoffs are a bit more under control now, bar a new, overconfident tendency to raise the tail too much, the circuit is more the right shape and speed control is better.

The things that are still sticking out as errors are a complete lack of rudder input when reducing throttle, which I usually remember when I feel a prod on the rudder from behind – I grimace and nod, I know I know I know why am I not doing?

The initial few approaches where high which wasn’t helping but once that was sorted (the solution being to give myself a longer downwind and more of a final), there was still the continuing tendency to flare too high and then to overdo the round out with the result that I landed tailwheel first on more than one occasion. With hindsight perhaps I was trying to replicate the picture I normally see landing in something like the Tommy where the pitch angle to achieve main wheels first with nosewheel well clear is higher than to achieve three points in the Super Decathalon, or at least it seemed so to me!

I also completely fail to go around when I should have after a particularly atrocious bounce but redeem myself later, inasmuch as the correct reaction to a stuffup can be called a success…

On the plus side, I’m no longer quite so markedly behind the aeroplane. (Daphne, o Daphne paid adael fi ar ôl!), and feel a bit happier with the directional control on the ground, although finding time to think about braking when I’m focused on rudder is still a challenge. One landing in particular came together with minimal input from Andy but they’re still just not consistent enough and I couldn’t bring exactly to mind what I did differently on that one to make it work.

Eventually the round outs are starting at more or less the right height and the last bit left to work on is the slow slow steady steady easing back to keep flying as long as possible in order to ensure we eventually arrive on all three wheels. I spend the next few landings getting further and further through this stage before each time overdoing it at the end… but the overdoing it is at least getting later in the process…

I’m also compiling a list of things to go away and practise in a familiar aeroplane as the course has flagged up lack of skill and or currency in several areas, slipping and crosswind landings chief among them.

I eat chips by the beach and flick through The Compleat Taildragger Pilot in search of inspiration.

Day Five

And so it goes. Tuesday brings a similar slow improvement but getting any sort of consistency is a slow, frustrating and unpredictable process. I’ll have a few good ones and then be completely unable to repeat it. Slowly the decent ones start to outnumber the rubbish ones and I start to spot the rubbish ones sooner and do something about them.

The wind is from the right which helps, but it’s tending to gust and is, in any case too strong for student solos. We stop briefly to pay for the circuit and clear my head and Andy declares himself cautiously convinced that I’d be okay in the absence of such a wind. If I can present a good landing at Shoreham he’ll sign me off, even without the solo time.

The runway at Shoreham is the short one so this focuses the mind enough that I manage to flare at the right time, hold it off and most important keep the stick hard hard back through the minor bobbing that follows.

We go through the solo brief, discuss the wind, and the different handling issues when one-up (less pendulum effect, tail up quicker so don’t overdo it, the need for even more patience while waiting to touch down!) and go through so issues to consider when transitioning to other tailwheel types. Daphne with her big engine and sprung undercarriage veers to the more challenging end of the spectrum so is a good starting point but everything has its foibles and needs a good thorough checkout and plenty of caution in the familiarisation stages.

We finish with a list of dos and don’ts for this initial sign off (grass, <=5 knots crosswind, three-pointers:Yes, hard surfaces, crosswinds, wheelers:No) and the need to be constantly on top of and Doing Something about any deviations!

I find I've mixed feelings about being scuppered on the solo part. I don't in any way disbelieve Andy that's it's purely the weather, and the distance does mean that simply popping over on a calmer weekend is non-trivial, but there's that gut reaction of utter certainty of proving it to yourself that comes with solo flight and there's an odd sort of mix of not-quite-disappointment and not-quite-relief (fairly nerve wracking prospect as it is!) mixed in with the really rather substantial satisfaction of completing the training.

Nevertheless, I'm grinning as I pat Daphne's nose fondly for a snapshot and no one's heard any sense from me other than tailwheel talk all day back at work as I type this…

And in any case, There's only one thing for it – since the weather also put paid to any twirlybatics – I shall simply have to visit again… annual leave in the summer maybe. Surely August must be sunny…

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