Stage Check.

by Berck

First a note about names… I’ve decided not to post first and last names of instructors, so they can’t Google their names and get upset about something I did or didn’t say. So now there exist abbreviations. My instructor from the beginning has been Mike D., and I’ve generally referred to him by his last name. Since his first name is Mike and that’s generic enough, I’ll just call him Mike now.

I was awakened early Thursday morning by my telephone. B. wanted to know if I could fly at 2pm on Thursday instead of 8am Friday. Okay. “But it won’t be with me, it’ll be with the Chief Flight Instructor, Will D.” Right. “And I’ve got your sectional and flight plan in my office…. you left them in the plane yesterday.” “Oh. Thanks.”

Winds aloft were predicted to be light and variable. Which meant the alterations to my flight plan shouldn’t be too hard. I did that after arriving. I didn’t adjust the fuel burn for today’s winds. It seemed silly.

Mike seemed surprised to see me there. “I thought your stage check was tomorrow.”

“Turns out I’m flying with Will today.”

“Will D.?” (There’s also a Will L. just to make it all more confusing…)

“Yeah.”

“Oh.”

He looked a little worried.

Mike warned me that Will tends to use fear and intimidation, and that I would likely leave the airplane with my head hanging.

It turns out that the airplane I was scheduled in was down for maintenance, but fortunately the plane I’d sent to maintenance yesterday was back.

Will asked me some questions before I went to preflight. About weather briefing, aircraft performance, and so on. I knew the answers to everything. “What factors might affect takeoff performance?” I talked about temperature, humidity, altitude, atmospheric pressure, even the condition of the aircraft. “Give me a few more.” That got me. I’d exhausted everything I knew about takeoff performance. There was nothing else. “That’s all I can come up with,” I told him. “What about the field?” “Oh, right. An unimproved airfield will definitely affect takeoff performance.” “What else? What about slope?” “Slope? I dunno. Most airports are more or less flat,” I said thinking that this was definitely the wrong thing to say. “Have you got an AFD?” “Yes.” “Open it to a random page and hand it to me.” I did. And he proceeded to read out slopes of various fields. Right. He then pointed out that there wasn’t so much as a hill between Westheimer and Will Rogers, but Will Rogers is a couple hundred feet higher. “There’s a slope there somewhere, right?”

After that, he asked me about my flight plan. He didn’t want to see it, but did ask me about. “How long will it take to get there?” “61 minutes.” “How much fuel are we going to burn?” “9.5 gallons.” “What’s the minimum amount of fuel we’re allowed to land with?” “4 gallons.”

After this mild probe into the depths (or shallows) of my aeronautical knowledge, he seemed to have all the information he needed, and told me to go preflight. I did.

After I finished, we climbed into the plane and I went through my before start checklist. I was nervous. It seemed like I was missing something. I looked over it again. The engine turned over but it wouldn’t start. I tried again, same thing. And that’s when I realized that it’s never going to do anything with the mixture control set at CUTOFF. Right. I already felt stupid and hadn’t even gotten the airplane started.

I taxied out and did a run up and called ground. They told me to taxi to runway 3. I did. I called tower. They told me to hold for landing traffic. I did. After a half dozen planes landed there was a gap big enough for me to takeoff in, and he cleared me for immediate takeoff. I acknowledged as I put in a good bit of power, which I steadily increased as I straightened out on the runway.

Takeoff was uneventful. Since Will didn’t close his window, I didn’t close mine. Will had gotten on the plane with an enormous paper cup full of coffee. He then lit up a cigarette.

Several of the instructors smoke. I doubt any of them smoke in the plane. He didn’t ask me if I minded. I don’t suppose I’d tell him if it did. Since the airplane is pretty small (our legs touch), it could have been problematic. But with the windows open, there was plenty of airflow, and I didn’t really mind. D. later told me the only thing he remembers about his flight instructor checkride was the ash floating around the cockpit.

He didn’t really say much until we’d been flying for a good ten minutes. “Is that the correct mixture setting?” It wasn’t. I hadn’t leaned it out again after levelling off.

He didn’t say anything for a long time, just looked out of the window. After awhile he said, “Take me to Anadarko.”

First a note about my navigation methods. I usually make fun of people who feel the need to turn a map upside down if they’re headed South. When driving or walking, I really don’t have any problem with a map oriented in any direction. But when I’m flying, it’s an entirely different scenario. Things have shapes and those shapes are oriented a specific way and are roughly reproduced on my sectional. Having done it both ways, I’ve found that turning the sectional such that the world I look out at looks like my map helps.

I was flying South, and had the sectional upside down, checking and double checking features, landmarks, roads, powerlines with their counterparts on the map. When Will told me to take him to Anadarko, I had no idea where that was.

“It’s west of Chickasha.”

So I turned the map right side up so I could read it. I found Anadarko. We were almost over the town of Maysville. I roughly plotted the course and got a heading of 300 degrees. More importantly, there was a road, railroad and powerline leading out of Maysville in the general direction of Anadarko, though our courses would veer apart after awhile. As I flew over Maysville, I turned left over what looked like the road, but things weren’t matching up so well. I couldn’t find a powerline that was supposed to be there, and it just didn’t look right. Will looked out the window, puffing away on his cigarette. He looked like he was enjoying being in the air. After a few minutes he pointed out some traffic.

“Right there, heading northbound,” he said pointing. I couldn’t see it. And when I finally did, it wasn’t heading Northbound it was heading… southbound? I looked down at my DG. I wasn’t heading at 300 at all. I’d noticed it looked off earlier, and figured I’d just done something silly with my plotter. But no, 300 was right, but I was heading off into wild blue East. Anadarko was northwest. Right.

“Uhm. I’m going to fly to Anadarko now. It’s uhh.. This way,” I said, making a rather steep turn.

Will didn’t say anything.

Anadarko wasn’t exactly close. I didn’t think we’d actually fly there either. After about 20 minutes, it seemed that he really did want me to fly to Anadarko. I began to wonder if I could actually find it, this airport I’d never heard of, west of anywhere I’ve flown.

“Do you want me to land at Anadarko?” I asked

“Yes.”

Anadarko was uncontrolled and didn’t even offer automated weather. I looked up the field elevation and the common traffic frequency. I was at 3500 feet and stayed there. Mind you, 3500ft is not the correct altitude for a flight on a heading of 300, but this didn’t occur to me until it was way too late to do anything about it.

I didn’t see the field. I found the town of Anadarko, but couldn’t make out the field where I thought it should be, a little to the right of my course. And then I saw it. Right in front of me. I’d flown right to it. Just like I knew what I was doing. Or would have looked like I’d known what I was doing if I hadn’t flown the wrong way first.

I made the appropriate radio calls badly, but no one else seemed to be on the same frequency so it probably didn’t matter. I overflew the field looking for a windsock. I found no windsock. How could it NOT have a windsock?? No windsock, no automated weather. But it’s not like there was more than one runway, so I only had two choices. I dialed up the weather in Chickasha, and winds were from 160. Deciding that winds were not going to be significantly different at Anadarko, I made left traffic for runway 17. “Do you want me to make a full stop or touch and go?”

“Let’s see how it goes.”

I made a pretty rough landing, but he never told me. So I stopped. There weren’t any taxiways. So I taxied back on the runway. “Show me a soft field takeoff,” Will said.

It was at this point it occurred to me that I’d maybe done two soft field takeoffs. But there didn’t seem to be much to them. I applied full back elevator, ten degrees of flaps, and gave it full power as I lined up with the centerline. I kept the nose wheel in the air for the whole takeoff run, and the plane took off nicely. I lowered the nose a little bit, but apparently not enough.

“Push the nose over,” Will said. I did a little more. Apparently not enough. I glanced at my airspeed, which was hovering rather dangerously at 45 knots when Will casually shoved the yoke forward and I picked up speed. I pitched for Vx.

Then I noticed the trees past the end of the runway. They hadn’t seemed significant before. I cleared them by about 50 feet, which is, well, closer than one hopes to get to such obstacles. I flew the pattern, and tried to make a soft field landing.

It was pretty bad. I floated pretty far down the runway, and I wasn’t sure if I had enough room to takeoff and clear the trees. Were I by myself, I assuredly would have simply stopped and taxied back. But I wasn’t. Here was a guy with tens of thousands of hours sitting next to me. I reasoned that he wouldn’t let me kill him. So I decided to see if I had enough space or not.

I left in ten degrees of flaps and gave it full throttle.

Will stared at the flap handle, at me, at the flap handle and said, “No. Just kill it.”

So I stopped, and taxied back.

“You’d never make that with ten degrees of flaps.”

“Well, I knew it was close, so that’s why I left the flaps in.”

“You had ten degrees of flaps LAST time and barely made it!”

Then came a short lesson on the aerodynamics of takeoffs, climbs and flaps. I’d always thought I’d understood such things fine, but after Will explained it, it made perfect sense.

“Climb performance is based on the relationship between what two forces?” he asked.

I really wasn’t sure.

“Power and… lift?” I said, knowing that lift wasn’t right.

“No, lift’s got nothing to do with it.”

“Power and drag,” I said.

He went on to explain that while flaps increase lift at slower speeds which helps an airplane get off the runway in a shorter distance, they also increase drag. I knew all this. What never clicked before is that the result of both lift and drag being increased is that climb performance with flaps down sucks. It’s not exactly intuitive, since if you have a short runway, you’re supposed to use 10 degrees of flaps. What’s even more confusing, is on a short field takeoff, you’re not supposed to retract flaps until AFTER you’ve cleared a 50 foot obstacle.

Will demonstrated a beautiful short field takeoff, but used no flaps. He cleared the trees about about 200 feet.

On the way back to Westheimer, he had me do an approach to landing stall. I pulled power, dropped flaps, established a descent, and pulled back until it stalled. I waited for a nice clean break, which I got and the nose dropped to about 20 degrees below the horizon. I added full power and recovered.

“Is that how Mike’s teaching you to do these?”

“Uhm. Yes?”

“Well, that’s fine, but really. If you’re pitched up 15 degrees with no power, you KNOW you’re going to stall. The whole point behind an approach to landing stall is that you simulate a stall you might get into on approach.”

I didn’t really think about it before.

Then he had me do a steep turn to the left. I did okay. I lost about 75 feet. Then I did one to the right. And, it was pretty bad. I didn’t get enough right rudder in there, steep turns are a lost cause if you don’t enter them just right. Maintaining them isn’t hard. But you have to enter with enough elevator pressure and right rudder to sustain the turn. If you don’t, increased back pressure in the turn merely steepens the turn and increased rudder makes you dive just as much as it helps you turn. My steep turns are usually quite nice. I don’t think I’d ever done one that badly before– not even my first try. I think I was mostly just frustrated that I’d made so many mistakes in one check ride. It seemed unbelievable.

“Let’s do something you’ve never done before,” he said. He called up OKC approach and asked for vectors to a localizer approach. “You’ll see how easy instrument flying is,” he said.

“I’m not so worried about instrument flying as I am finding my way with a map.”

“Ehh… you showed me could do that…. As long as you turn the right way.”

At least under VFR conditions, being vectored to the localizer was so very much easier than following along on a map. With some coaching, I managed to intercept the localizer. Definitely the way to fly.

He told me to try a short field landing, and put it down on the numbers.

I floated right by the numbers, probably 2000 feet past them. Considering I should be able to land on a 1000ft runway with good short field technique, that was pretty pathetic. I did however, have a rather nice soft field touch down.

All Will told Mike was, “Everything’s fine except his landings. Take him up for anywhere between 0.1 and infinite hours until he can land, then send him back up with me.”

Will told me that all in all I didn’t do anywhere near as bad as I thought I did. He said that if landings didn’t seem to be going too well with Mike, that he would take me up.

That was on Thursday. I was scheduled to fly on Friday, but Mike forgot he was supposed to be in dispatch, so I didn’t fly. The weather was bad on Saturday. Sunday is the only off day for Airman.

I went flying with Mike yesterday. All my landings were good, and some of them were beautiful. Short field, soft field, I did it all. So, I don’t know if I was just nervous or what. I didn’t do anything different. I just got in the plane yesterday, and I did wonderfully. After 1.3 hours and a dozen good landings, Mike was like, “Well, I don’t know what to tell you. Ready to go back up with Will?”

I’m not sure. I’ll always need more practice. But if I fly just like I did yesterday, I’ll do wonderfully. On the other hand, why couldn’t do fly like I did yesterday on Thursday?

I was hoping to fly today, but I haven’t heard from anyone and the weather doesn’t look too good. In fact, it looks pretty bad for the rest of the week.

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