Flight School Update: Taildragger Flying

I got to do my first Citabria solo flight on my birthday, August second. The wind was a good strong headwind, gusting up to fifteen knots, but it was mostly straight down the runway, and it was pretty much my sweet spot for wind conditions. Sandra and I went up together first, for a quick checkout, and it seemed like everything was just coming together that day. I did a few landings for her, and they were the best, most consistent landings I’ve done in the Citabria so far. She was happy with four, and sent me back up alone.

Harv’s Air linked an article today on twitter that was quite good, titled Why You Must Fly A Taildragger. It’s a rundown explaining the challenges of flying (mainly landing) a conventional gear aircraft (plane with a wheel on the tail instead of on the nose.) The point it makes it that planes with nose wheels, particularly Cessna 150’s  (and I imagine the 152 I learned on, since it’s nearly the same airframe) and 172’s, and Cherokees, are rather forgiving, and don’t force student pilots to develop piloting skills to the degree that a plane with conventional landing gear does. The precise attitude you get a Cessna 152 in at it lands – doesn’t really matter, as long as the main wheels touch first. They’re not a sensitive to a crosswind pushing the plane across the runway – what pilots call “drift”.

The taildraggers, like the Citabria, they just demand you be a lot more precise in learning to control how fast you’re going, power settings, attitude, controlling yaw – and how each of those elements interacts with the others. And then there’s knowing what to do, and being able to do it in time, without having to think about it, which are two different things. That point where it starts to come without thinking, where you start to react unconsciously, that’s what you need to be able to do. Like when you’re learning to drive, you have to pay so much more attention to everything you’re doing. But once you’ve been doing it for a while, you find yourself pulling into the driveway after daydreaming the entire trip, with no memory of how you got there. And studies have shown that drivers who are driving unconsciously like that, have fewer accidents.

I think I have more trouble with getting my skills to shift from conscious to that unconscious point than some people. I have other strengths, like being able to remember a lot of things, and good recall for remembering things when I need them, and being sensitive to noticing small things. But that getting everything together in the moment and reacting without thinking, I think it takes me a bit more practice to get that down than for others. Luckily, though, once I get it down I have it as well as anyone else.

I wonder if that might be something typical of people with Aspergers, and maybe that’s why clumsiness is one of the diagnostic criteria for Aspergers. It was never one of the criteria that I was diagnosed on – I was never clumsy enough for it to be noticeable, but then I also tend to be very careful, and tend to steady myself against things when I’m doing something. I climbed trees a lot, and was never afraid to crawl on top of something, but at the same time, I had a healthy fear of falling and always kept a good hold on what I was climbing on, didn’t go on anything that I thought had any chance of not holding my weight, and never relied entirely on my sense of balance to keep me from falling, with nothing to hold onto.

Which makes me wonder again, why flying doesn’t terrify me. It must be because I still have the plane to hold on to. Even when we had the door off the Citabria, which everyone else was horrified at, I was fine as long as I knew I was strapped in. I dunno. It seems to be a thing common to pilots.

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2 responses to “Flight School Update: Taildragger Flying

  1. I wonder whether pilots have to develop a kind of inner calmness, a rational focus as the default mode, otherwise you’d panic every time one of potentially three million things goes wrong.

    I mean, with flying you and others get inside a piece of equipment which is, let’s face it, a metal cyclinder with an explosive device strapped to it, and then once it’s rushed through the air at a speed that would crush the life out of anything on board, you point it at the ground, and hope it lands on its belly and not its nose or its arse.

    And then it’s all good 😉 – because as you say, you have the plane to hold on to.

    The pilot leads everyone on board her plane in a life or death act of faith, which is crazy – but it turns out that really, most of us are okay with that.

    A

    • Heh – there’s a line in one of the Harry Dresden Novels about aeroplanes being just really well made tin cans.

      Sandra was telling me one day about a psychologist doing a study on the mentality of pilots, and the fact that any day, something could go wrong, and they could have an engine failure. Apparently, every single pilot had the same script running through their heads – that it won’t be me, it won’t be today. And she came to the conclusion that that was just natural, and we couldn’t keep going out there if we always thought it would be today.

      I think being a pilot takes a certain kind of person, not just someone who’s fearless, but someone who can look at the risks and manage them, be meticulous in their safety consciousness, but still not let that attention to safety turn them into a nervous wreck.

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