Flight Hours: 1.3
Hours to Date: 7.3
October 14, 2011
You’re too low Cougar! More power! MORE POWER!
That carrier scene from Top Gun flashes in my mind as view of the runway 36’s threshold quickly fills my airplane’s windshield. I’m too low, way too far to the right of the center line, and I’m coming in way too hot. I need to make a quick decision; do I try to make a series of quick adjustments and hold out hope that I can bring Austin and myself down safely, or do I decide that it’s a risk not worth taking and just firewall the throttle so I can get out of there and try again. So begins my seventh flight lesson.
Sitting in Austin’s office at 0800 on this clear blue Friday morning, we decide that maximizing the opportunity to land will be the most beneficial follow-up to my last lesson, so today
I’ll just stay in the traffic pattern at OJC and hammer out all that I can within my allotted flight time, hopefully gaining more landing proficiency in the process.
The runway at OJC is 4,098 feet long which means I’ll have to do full-stop taxi-backs instead of the stop and go’s that I’ve enjoyed on the longer runways of New Century Airport (IXD) and Wheeler Downtown Airport (MKC). It wouldn’t be impossible to do a stop and go at OJC, but doing so would involve me executing a relatively decent short field landing and takeoff, neither of which I’ve had any training in yet. So instead of landing, stopping, and then taking off in one fell swoop, I’ll land my plane, exit the runway as soon as I can safely manage, taxi back to the end of the runway, call the tower for clearance to takeoff, then depart and re-enter the traffic pattern so I can do it all over again. Should be fun!
Flying in the Pattern
The airspace surrounding an airport is typically where aircraft traffic is the most concentrated, so safety mechanisms need to be in place to reduce the risk of collision and to help create a standard by which pilots enter and leave the airport. This is accomplished through the use of an airport traffic pattern and learning how to properly fly in it is probably one of the most important lessons of flight training.
You can think of the traffic pattern as a big rectangular road that surrounds the active runway 1,000-feet above the ground consisting of five different legs: Departure, crosswind, downwind, base, and final approach.
Departure – Describes the period from which your airplane rotates until the time you either turn to the crosswind leg of the pattern or you depart from the airport.
Crosswind – Since the goal is to land and take off into the wind, the first turn in the pattern after departure will put the wind at your side, hence the term crosswind leg. Of course the wind rarely seems to cooperate by hitting you head-on when taking off or landing which means that every leg of the pattern will have a crosswind component, but it should be the strongest during the crosswind leg as well as the base leg. It’s important to make sure to compensate for the crosswind on this leg since it’ll be trying to drift you to the left. To compensate for this, you have to add right rudder to “crab” into the wind and keep your track straight until you make your turn to the…
Downwind – Your turn from the crosswind leg should put you at about 1/2 to 1 mile out from the runway and you should now be at your pattern altitude of 1,000 feet above the ground. (The runway elevation at OJC is 1,100-feet ASL which means that pattern altitude should be 2,100-feet ASL) This leg will parallel the runway and will mark the point where you’ll need to showcase your multi-tasking skills as you’ll have to balance radio calls, throttle control, flaps, attitude, altitude, rudders, as well as to look out the window to maintain your separation from the runway and determine the point of your next turn. Two main goals will be to start bleeding airspeed and altitude and to establish the appropriate glide path that will bring you down right on target. Somewhere around midfield you’ll need to start the landing process by contacting the tower to request clearance to land. “Executive tower, this is Cessna 227 Tango-Whiskey, Left Downwind Runway 36” . If you hear “Cessna 227 Tango-Whiskey (or whatever your tail number is), cleared to land runway 36”, then you’ll repeat that command to the tower so they can verify you received the instruction and then you can continue with your landing preparations, making the final turns to land. If you don’t hear anything back, you need to continue flying in that downwind leg until you do get clearance. Never turn for landing without clearance, otherwise you’ll likely have some angry individuals to deal with back on the ground. Assuming you’ve gotten your clearance to land, you’ll start to slow your airspeed and start your descent once you are abeam your intended landing spot, say, the 1,000-foot mark in this case. As soon as you reach the marker, you’ll reduce your throttle to 1,500-RPM and dial in your first notch of flaps. In the Cessna 172, the goal is to reduce airspeed to 85-knots and begin a slight descent as you establish your glide path to land. Once you’re at a 45-degree angle to your intended landing spot, you’ll start another 90-degree turn to…
Base – This is the intermediate leg between the downwind and final approach and your primary goal will be to reduce your speed to 75-knots while maintaining your perfect glide path. On this leg you can dial-in more flaps if needed, you just need to make sure your airspeed is less than 85-knots before you do so you don’t stress them too much. If there is any wind outside, you’ll also be experiencing a crosswind on this leg so you’ll need to make sure you’ve got enough rudder in to compensate for the drift. Your next turn needs to be timed just right so that you’re lined up with the runway as you enter the…
Final Approach – In addition to the name of my photography site, www.FinalApproachPhotography.com (shameless plug, I know), it’s also the final leg of the traffic pattern. Assuming your turn from base to final was a good one, you should now be lined up with the runway centerline for landing at a speed of 65-knots, the landing speed of the Cessna 172. This will typically be the hairiest of the legs since it brings you in for the thing that really counts…the landing. As you draw nearer the runway, you’ll start feeling some bumps and jolts as the winds swirl up from the ground and from the surrounding buildings. A big part of the learning curve here is to avoid the temptation to try and correct for every little bump. Rather, you should fly through these minor bumps by keeping a firm left hand on the control yoke. Your right hand should be constantly on the throttle on this leg so you can make small, frequent adjustments as needed and so you can go to 100% throttle right away if you need to go around. As you cross the runway threshold and are at an altitude roughly equivalent to the length of your wingspan you’ll enter into ground effect, a phenomenon wherein there is a decrease in induced drag that makes it feel like you’re floating on a cushion of air. As you move through this, you’ll smoothly pitch-up in a flare to bleed airspeed and altitude and, if things go to plan, you’ll smoothly set your main wheels down straddling the centerline and then slowly set the nose gear down, pull the throttle to idle, smoothly apply brakes, and then exit the runway as soon as you’re at a speed that’s safe to turn off. When you’re on final approach, if anything doesn’t feel right and you’re not absolutely sure you can safely set the plane down, you should abort the landing and execute a go-around so you can try again.
Go-Around – There’s absolutely nothing wrong with going around for another attempt at landing. Re-flying the landing pattern is an infinitely better option than risking a crash by landing in an unsafe configuration or attitude. It can be said that a good pilot will acknowledge their limitations and not place themselves in a situation where ego exceeds skill, so this maneuver should be at the ready for every single landing. One way to to make it mentally easier is to just assume that you’re going to go-around on each landing attempt. If you’re in a good position to land and can safely do so it’s just a bonus! A couple of very important things to remember about the go-around: 1) Smoothly add full power. You are going to want to have enough speed to safely climb out from the runway so 100% power is an absolute must. 2) Try to fly in ground effect until you’ve got enough speed to actually fly. The natural tendency is to want to pull back on the yoke to build altitude and get out of there, but if you do that your airspeed will quickly dissipate and you can suddenly find yourself in a stall without adequate altitude to recover. 3) Don’t fully retract your flaps right away. The flaps are providing extra lift at low speed and bringing them up suddenly will decrease lift, causing you to sink and smack the ground. You can bring them up one notch, but avoid bringing them up fully until you are at a safe departure speed. So the three most important things are power, attitude, and configuration. Keep these in mind and you’re golden.
Back to the lesson now. Austin and I are sitting at the threshold of runway 36 ready for departure. I look over at him and ask, “you ready to roll”. He replies, “let’s do it”. So I move the throttle to 100%, add a little right rudder to counter the P-factor, and we’re off. From the moment we rotate, however, I’m behind the game. Working in the Emergency Department, I usually pride myself on being able to think a couple of steps ahead so I’m ready to deal with situations before they arise rather than having to react to something after it’s already happened. On this first pattern, however, I feel like my mind is a step and a half behind the game. I’ve only just transitioned to wheels up and I’m already starting to second guess myself. I know that pattern altitude is 2,100-feet ASL but for reasons unknown at the time, my mind convinces me that I need to be at 1,600-feet ASL, (500-feet AGL), 500-feet lower than where I need to be. This was mistake #1. I turn on the crosswind leg without too much of an issue, other than the fact that I stopped my ascent at 1,600-feet. I fly this leg for a few seconds and then turn left to the downwind leg. Unfortunately, I turn in a bit too early putting me at about 1/2 mile out from the runway instead of 1 mile out like I should be. It’s not necessarily bad to be 1/2 mile out, but for a student pilot, having that extra 1/2 mile of buffer room sure makes it a lot more comfortable. Shortly after I cross midfield, I call up the tower and request clearance for landing which I’m immediately granted. I’m at about 110-knots as I parallel my intended landing spot, but instead of backing out of the throttle right away I find myself thinking about the radio call I just made, thinking I had forgotten to give the tower a piece of information. I quickly realize that it doesn’t necessarily matter at this point because I was cleared in to land, so I go back to flying the plane (something I should never, ever quit doing. Rule number 1..fly the plane). This was mistake #2. I pull the throttle to 1,500-RPM and lower the flaps one notch, but it’s already time to turn to base. I make the turn and I’m still doing 95-knots which is too fast to lower the flaps any more so I pull the throttle back even more to try and slow myself. The turn to final comes very quickly since I was 1/2 mile closer to the runway than I should have been. I turn in a little late which puts me too far to the right of the runway. This is mistake #3. I look at the visual slope indicator (VASI) to the left of the runway and it’s showing me red on red, meaning I’m too low. Great. I’m too low, I’m too fast, and I’m too far to the right. In my mind I’m still thinking I can make it as I turn a little to the left, pull the throttle to idle, and pitch up to try and bleed some speed. Now, however, my sink rate is increasing and it’s becoming apparent that if I do land it won’t be a good one. I tell myself it’s not worth it to try and push something that’s obviously not going to happen, so I add full throttle for a go-around which is the first thing I did right on this attempt. The next mistake, number 4 if you’re keeping track, is that as I’m in ground effect trying to build airspeed to so I can safely climb out, I’m worrying myself with calling the tower to announce I’m performing a go-around. Had I quickly learned from my earlier mistake, I would have realized that my first priority is to fly the plane and that I could call the tower once I was in a safer position to do so. I’m mentally smacking myself upside the head right now, but I keep flying and I build my airspeed, slowly pitch up, retract my flaps, and fly the departure leg towards the crosswind to try it again.
With all things considered, that first pattern actually worked out alright. I got experience in executing a go-around and I learned a lot in a very short time from my stupid mistakes, all of which stemmed from my first failure to climb out to the proper pattern altitude. Thinking back on it, I figure I had confused OJC’s noise abatement altitude of 1,600-feet with the pattern altitude. The good thing is that I’ll never make that mistake again.
In all, I ended up doing 6 landings for this morning lesson (in addition to the go-around), and each one got progressively better. Austin said that after that first attempt, the remainder of my pattern flying was perfect, primarily because I flew proactively instead of reactively and I think I learned from my mistakes. I’ll just need to make sure that from here on out I take my time during pre-flight to mentally fly my maneuvers before I get in the plane and do it for real. You really can’t underestimate the importance of good planning.
As I was walking out to my car after the lesson, even though I was mad at myself for jacking up that first pattern, all I wanted to do was climb back into the cockpit and go up again. For me, there’s really nothing that beats the feeling of flying (besides seeing the smiles on my kiddos’ faces at home of course). Flying has to be one of the most cathartic, rewarding, and enjoyable thing that a person can do and the “bad” flights just make the good ones all the more fulfilling. I was trying to think of a reason why it’s just do dang awesome and I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that it’s a 3-dimensional activity. You’ve got full 360-degrees of control in an airplane (pitch, roll, and yaw) rather than the 2-dimensional, 180-degree control in a car (turn left or right) which, to me, just makes flying that much more rewarding. You can basically go anywhere and do anything in an airplane, especially if you’ve got a powerful beast like a P-51D or a sweet Griffon-powered Spitfire Mk.XIX.
As a side note, I’d like to send a huge THANK YOU to WordPress and to all who have read, followed, liked, and commented on my blog over the past few days after one of my posts became Freshly Pressed. It’s been an amazing motivational boost knowing that there are people who are actually reading this! I would of course be remiss if I didn’t extend another enormous word of thanks to Breitling for making all of this possible for me! I think I’ll be indebted for a lifetime, a lifetime that I’ll be able to spend in the air!
Next up: More maneuvers and the big S-word gets mentioned