October 6, 2011
Flight Hours: 1.1
Hours to Date: 6
It’s a nice Thursday morning, perfect for getting a little flight time in. Today we’ll be heading to the Downtown Kansas City Airport (MKC) to work on landings. Lots and lots of landings.
I’m excited to fly into MKC for this lesson because it’s such a cool airport. It’s nestled in the heart of downtown Kansas City, between a series of bends in the Missouri river. It’s a multiple-runway airport and while not as busy as a major commercial airport, it can still see a significant amount of traffic moving in and out throughout the day.
Up to this point, I’ve been practicing landings at relatively low-traffic airports which has made communications with the tower and navigating the traffic pattern a fairly straight forward task. Flying into MKC, however, should prove to be a bit more difficult as I’ll have to deal with a) busier air-traffic controllers who will be speaking a lot more quickly they may give me instructions that I haven’t encountered yet, b) more traffic in the pattern at the same time, and c) a more difficult visual reference set to deal with in regards to making 90-degree pattern turns.
The first thing you notice when flying into MKC, other than the downtown KC skyline, is the fact that the runways are offset. Rather than the straight north-south (360 – 180, or runway 36/18) I’m used to, MKC’s are on a heading of 010-190 (runway 1/19) and 030-210 (runway 3/21), meaning they’re angled slightly to the northeast (or southwest depending upon which way you’re coming from). When approaching the airport for a straight-in landing, this isn’t really that much of a big deal since you’ll be lined up with the runway all the way in. What does make it tricky, however, is that your visual reference points have to be realigned. Typically when you’re turning on the various legs of the traffic pattern (departure leg to crosswind leg, crosswind to downwind, downwind to base, and base to final approach) you can use roads around the airport to help serve as visual reference points to make sure you’re squared up with the runway. Roads are great visual markers since the vast majority of the time they run straight north, south, east, and west, and the consistent spacing between city blocks makes them great references for judging your distance from the runway while in the pattern. When the runways are offset from the roads, you’ve got to deal with the resulting optical illusion while avoiding the temptation to look straight ahead and follow the road, rather than look out your window at the runway the whole time. If you rely on the roads you’ll end up with the problem of either drifting away from or moving in closer to the runway itself, making your next turn(s) a bit trickier. As an example, if you’re following a road that runs due north while flying left traffic (making left turns on each of the pattern legs) to land on runway 21 (southeast), you’re going to end up moving progressively closer to the runway and your turns from downwind to base and from base to final will end up being tighter than you would otherwise want. Making sharp turns while flying in the pattern is especially dangerous because it puts you at greater risk of stalling and maybe even spinning. When flying in a steep bank, you have to keep your plane flying faster to maintain enough lift to keep from stalling. If you were on your base leg and you happened to already be at your final approach speed of 65 kts and then had to enter into a steep banking turn in order to get aligned with the runway, you’re suddenly teetering on the verge of a stall at only ~500 feet above the ground. It’s a recoverable situation, but definitely not one you’d like to find yourself in.
We go wheels up from OJC at around 0830 and, just as with my first lesson, directed my flight path towards downtown KC’s MKC airport. The air is pretty unstable today so the ride is pretty bumpy and I’m already starting to think about how tricky things are going to be trying to bring my Cessna down into a busy airport while trying to contend with turbulence.
As we hit the border of OJC’s airspace we call the tower and request a frequency change. This will effectively sign us off of the OJC controller’s screen and allow us to contact MKC’s tower for clearance into land. It’s a pretty short trip between OJC and MKC, only about 20 miles, so the transition between control towers is a pretty quick one. At about 10 miles I call up the controller to let him know that we’re 10 miles to the south, inbound for stop and go’s. He tells me to enter a right pattern for runway 19 and to call when entering the downwind. We bounce along at 3,500 feet and start a slow descent towards 1,800 feet which will be our pattern altitude. Crossing the Missouri river, we’re now on the downwind portion of the traffic pattern so I call the tower and am cleared for the option on runway 19 which means I can do a stop and go, touch and go, or make a full landing and taxi to the ramp. Austin and I decide to make this one a stop and go so I can practice setting the plane down and then run through the flow check (check fuel selector, fuel shutoff, flaps, and gauges) without being too rushed prior to setting off again. I make the turn to base and then to final and am on a decent glide path to land. As I get closer to the runway the turbulence really starts picking up, likely from the wind swirling up and around the buildings of downtown. It’s really bumpy, especially for a newby like me, but I plod on down towards the ground anyway. It’s at this point I experience two problems: 1) I’m trying to correct for every single bump along the way. If a wind gust kicks me to the left, I try to yaw us to the right and correct with ailerons. Wind to the right, I kick rudder and aileron to try and get us back to the left. It’s basically the equivalent of someone ratcheting the steering wheel hard to the right or left to correct for a small drift while driving on the freeway. One thing’s for sure, doing this too much won’t make anyone happy; not me, and especially not someone prone to airsickness. Austin tells me to just keep a grip on the controls and to fly through the bumps and to not try and over correct for every little jolt along the way. Problem number 2 is the fact that it can be kind of tough to accurately judge your forward momentum versus your rate of descent as you approach the runway. It really looks like I have us lined up to touch down just past the numbers, but Austin is chattering in my ear that I’m on a path to put us down closer to the edge of the runway, well in front of the numbers. I swear (in my mind, not out loud) that my eyes are telling me that we’re headed just past the numbers, but sure enough, we start drifting down at the edge of the runway so I make the instinctive move and try to pull up ever so slightly. This, however, is a mistake. We’re already slightly below our normal touchdown speed and pulling the yoke back is only going to bleed even more airspeed, meaning we’ll sink even faster and touch down even sooner. I add a bit of power and Austin gives me an assist by easing the yoke forward and sure enough, we glide forward and touch down just past the numbers. This instinctive pulling-up move is going to be somewhat difficult to break, I’ll just have to make sure I coach myself to be more disciplined and think about the laws of physics instead of the laws of Playstation (or X-Box or Wii). With that assist from Austin, we touch down and slowly roll to a stop about 1/3 of the way down the 6,827-foot runway. Bring the flaps up and then a quick check of the relevant gauges and control’s, followed by application of full throttle and we’re on our way again.
The airplane rotates at 55 kts and then we make our Vy departure at 74 kts, making a right turn to re-enter the traffic pattern once again. This is where is gets a bit tricky. The Cessna 172 is a high-wing plane which also means that as I make my right turn into the crosswind leg I can’t see the runway because my wing is in the way, making it difficult to figure out if I’m squared up or not. Normally this isn’t too much of an issue because at the airports I’m used to I’ve got some good visual cues (roads, squared off acres of farmland, etc.) to tell me if I’m turning at a 90-degree angle to the runway or not. Departing to the south from MKC, all I’ve got is a bendy river and a smattering of industrial buildings which means that I’ll have to go more by feel than by visual cues for now. Anyway, I make the crosswind turn and then the turn to the downwind leg. I’m a bit off kilter from the runway, flying at a bit of an obtuse angle as I try to follow a straight line road when I should be flying parallel to the offset runway instead. I make a quick adjustment and correct my heading as best as I can before calling to the tower for clearance to land once again. Heading corrected, I put my thumb over the microphone button on the control yoke and get ready to make the call. The problem is that the controller is busy talking to another airplane on approach. By this time I’m well past the center point of the runway on the downwind and I still don’t have any kind of clearance. I wait a few more seconds. Controller is vectoring another plane now. Dang. I’m at the hash marks of the runway and still nothing. Finally, the controller jumps in and tells me to extend. In my mind I know what this should mean, but in the midst of my anxiety about not having clearance and my perceived rush to make the turn to base I draw a blank. It doesn’t help that I haven’t heard this ATC command yet in my short time flying, so I give Austin a deer in the headlights look and he tells me to just stay on the downwind leg and that we’ll just make the turn to base as soon as the controller says its okay. I look down at the runway and see another small plane taxiing onto the end of the runway for departure. Ahhh, it makes sense now. I’m glad I didn’t panic and stupidly make my base turn before being cleared. I fly in this downwind leg for what seems like an eternity and the controller finally comes on and says I’m cleared in for the option on runway 19 again. I acknowledge this command and start my base turn. The problem now is that the runway is so far behind me I can’t see it out of my window and since I don’t have enough experience with ground markers at MKC I can’t accurately use ground references to make sure I’m making that nice, square turn I need to get set up for final approach. So I make that right turn as quickly as I can in order to see where the runway is. I do this and realize that I ended up squaring us off at some kind of funky angle which means I’ll have to make course corrections as I turn to final. The good part is that I’m so far out from the runway at this point, I’ll have plenty of time to make those corrections. The bad part is that I’m so far out from the runway at this point, I’ll have to think for a longer time on approach and I’ll have to deal with more bumps and jolts on the way down.
I make the turn for final approach and get us relatively lined up, but now I’m falling victim to an optical illusion. When you’re in your car on the highway, you’re trained to drive squarely within your lane and to not straddle the dividing line or the lane markers. If you’re driving on the left side of the road in the fast lane, you’ve got the visual marker of the solid line to your left to help guide your path. But when landing an airplane you need to try and put your nose wheel down on the center line. It doesn’t seem like that big of a difference in principle, but when you’re on approach to the runway there’s a small piece of your subconscious that tries to guide you over to the left (or right) so that you’ll be in your “lane” instead of straddling the line. Looking at the runway, I feel like I’m lined up for the center line, but in all actuality I’m lined up to the left of center. I guide us to the right just a bit, but now it feels like I’m sitting right on top of that line and my mind wants to take us back to the left again and we start drifting without me realizing it. The good thing is that Austin realized it and he gently reminds me that I need to correct the flight path to get us lined up again, which I do, and it feels weird yet again. I figure out that my visual marker on approach will be such that it feels like the center line is running right underneath me. I get that squared away and continue my glide path to runway 19 and yet again it’s bumpy and, yet again, I’m trying to correct for every one of those bumps along the way. I yell at myself in my head to knock it off and to fly the plane instead of trying to fly the turbulence. The runway gets closer and it looks to me like we’ll be touching down on the numbers. Then Austin tells me it looks like I’m getting a little runway shy and, sure enough, our glide path starts to bring us down well before the numbers. This is going to be a tough thing to get used to. Maybe I should act like I’m aiming further down the runway instead, maybe that’ll help make it so I actually land where I want to land. I add a bit of power to help stretch the approach, but this time I end up floating us long and I end up awkwardly putting us down almost halfway down the runway. It’s a good thing this is a nice and long runway so I’ll still have room to take off without having to taxi off and then get reestablished.
We come to a stop on the runway, finish the flow check, and then head back up for another go. I run into the same problems of finding turning references and busy controllers, and this pattern sequence sets me up almost exactly the same as the previous landing. It really seems like the air traffic is picking up, so Austin says we should work in a couple of touch and go’s before heading on home. So we do, and then we do. One quick thought about touch and go’s though, they’re a little trickier than I thought they’d be since you have to continue rolling along the runway at a relatively high rate of speed while simultaneously checking your gauges and bringing the flaps up before applying full throttle and taking off again (60-65 kts feels fast if you’re new to the game and trying to fine-tune rudder coordination). Since you have to lean well over to the right to bring the flaps up, you really have to focus on keeping your feet on the rudder pedals with the right amount of force to keep you tracking straight, instead of letting your left foot relax and slip off, shooting you to the right as a result.
All in all, this was a pretty decent flight. I landed feeling pretty frustrated that I kept jacking up the glide path and overcompensating for the turbulence, but at the same time I was happy that it was somewhat of a stress inducing series of landings. It seems like I learn better under pressure and in higher stress situations, so I think the lessons of the day will stick with me…I hope.
Next up: Learning from a bad pattern and approach.