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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Flight School Update

Still working on the Citabria checkout – flying a little less this last month, now that I have my license. I’m taking a bit of a break, and I’m trying to pick up a few more shifts at work while I’m doing that now that I have a more definite time that commercial ground school is going to start. That’s going to be in September.

The Citabria has very small air vents though, and it’s been a very hot July. So rather than pass out from heat stroke, they took the door off for us. It was kind of cool. Like the open cockpit plane I got to fly in. Kind of like riding around in a jeep that the doors have been removed. The funnest part though, is watching the look on people’s faces when I tell them we were out flying the plane with no door.

My instructor was on vacation for a week though, and I did a couple flights with another one. He said I was getting some good progress, and when my instructor came back she said he’d figured I was pretty close to being able to take the Citabria solo. Of course then I had an off day – more flights than I was used to, and I was working late the night before. My landings were kind of pathetic, to the point that when the winds picked up two days later for my next lesson on Friday, she said maybe we should wait for a day with calmer winds. Normally I go with whatever she says, but I knew I could do better than what I’d shown her Wednesday, so we went out anyway. It was wavering between 15 gusting 21 and 18 gusting 26 knots, and compared to Wednesday, I rocked it.

That’s what they’re talking about though, when they say “pilot fatigue.” It can make a huge difference in performance. I like to think it’ll make less difference when I’m more of an old hat at it, but still, even then, there’s good reasons to be careful, and good reasons for the regulations there are about commercial pilots and how much rest they’re required to be given between flights.

Citabria

Finally got some weather nice enough to take the Citabria out. Sandra wasn’t in, but I went out with another instructor. Definitely a challenge taxiing. The angle of the wings makes the plane weathercock much worse than a tricycle gear plane. On top of that, the wheel that turns to control turning is at the back of the plane, so it doesn’t help it turn as sharply. 

We went out to the practice area to do airwork. We did slow flight, then stalls. Stalls in this plane are a bit more challenging because it’s so much less stable than a Cessna. You get a wing drop really easily if you’re even a little bit uneven. The fact that the throttle is on the left, and the control stick is in the middle didn’t help with that – I’m used to controlling the throttle and control surfaces with opposite hands. After that we did a spin. I’d done spins only a week and a half ago, in the 172, and I’d seen a spin in the Citabria the time Tyler took me up to do aerobatics, so Matt didn’t bother demonstrating one, just had me go straight ahead into it. The Citabria spins beautifully, like Sandra promised, and stops spinning just as abruptly when you pull out. The controls are more sensitive – makes the Cessna seem a little dopey.

On the way back, just for the hell of it, Matt asked if I knew how to do a roll, and I kind of remembered, so he refreshed me and demonstrated one. Then I did one, and it was so much better than the couple I did with Tyler – I figured out why I was going into a corkscrewy barrel roll coming out of it before. Now that I’ve had more time in the plane, I know how much pressure it really takes to work the rudder – I wasn’t giving it full rudder input. I’ll get this aerobatics thing yet.

I can flip the plane upside down and back up again, but I can’t land the damn thing. *g* I only did two landings today, neither completely by myself, but getting there – just need more practice. It’s a pretty big transition, and this thing doesn’t have flaps. For the pilots reading this who understand what that means, I’ll say it again – this thing doesn’t have flaps. It’s kind of like being used to having three tools to help you do something, but they took away one. You can use one other tool, but it doesn’t work the same way. It just means you have to be a bit more precise in where you’re turning final, to give yourself the right amount of distance to slow down and drop altitude.

I’ll get there. Tailwheel checkout is apparently around ten hours, and most of that’s circuit practice. Then I can start aerobatics training. It’s possible I might end up having to go out to Steinbach to do that, but if I do, it’s not a long course. I’d love to learn the Pitts too – if you look up youtube videos of the Pitts, you’ll see what that sucker’s capable of.

But there’s one more thing about today worth mentioning, and that was out in the practice area. There are some sights that are once in a lifetime things. Today the cloud ceiling was broken around 9000 feet or so, depending on which METAR you were looking at, and it might have been different out at St. Andrews. But there was another layer of clouds at 30000 feet that was just patchy, not enough to constitute a ceiling, so we were allowed to fly between and above them. So there we were up there, rolling and spinning through gaps in the clouds the shone white with the sun. It’s one of those once in a lifetime moments, where I just thought, I can’t believe this is real.

Only it’s not going to be a once in a lifetime moment. I may not know what the weather will be like from one day to the next, but one day in the future, it’ll be like this again, and one of those days it’s like this I’ll be flying in it and loving every minute.