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Up To the Present

I’ve been taking lessons for about three months and have yet to do my first solo. The big hurdle to getting ready for a solo is (among other things) landing the plane, clearly a useful skill. In order to land you have to do what’s called “traffic pattern practice.” this is the flying equivalent of driving around in a circle, except you’re flying around the airport. Sounds simple, it isn’t! It turns out that you have to fly along specific “legs” trying to make a big rectangular path around the airport (or runway to be specific it’s not like I’m flying around Dulles Airport). Each of the legs around the runway has a name and you are supposed to radio to other traffic when you are turning to a new leg.

So let’s go through the exciting actions of one loop around the runway. We will start with the take off, although to get to the start of takeoff we’ve been in the plane for about 10 minutes doing the plane checkout via a bunch of stuff in checklist based procedures. So here we are about to take off, were actually stopped just next to the runway on the holding (we are holding short) area just before we taxi onto the runway itself. We check that the doors and windows are closed (I always remember this since once in an earlier lesson I almost started the takeoff with the window open…not an actual disaster but embarrissing if you didn’t mean to) turn the strobe and landing lights on and set the transponder to ALT.

Flying the Pattern

A note about the transponder: I fly out of Montgomery County Airpark (KGAI) in Gaithersburg MD. It turns out that we are too close to Washington DC and are under something called the SFRA (Special Flight Rules Area) imposed since 9/11 and you have to get a special transponder code number and “squawk” the code. Squawking a code does not involve any strange sounds but is simply the code you enter into a transponder which identifies your altitude to air traffic control (ATC). Placing the transponder to ALT, means that is is transmitting your code.

So now, finally we inform other potential traffic around the airport that we want to take off. The airport is “uncontrolled” which means that there is no control tower and pilots are responsible for themselves and to inform the vicinity of their intentions and where they are, at least they are supposed to. I call out on the radio “Montgomery traffic, nine one one alpha tango departing on runway one four Montgomery”. Translated this means hey listen up you people in the Airpark I’m going to take off so look out! My tail number (all airplanes have a unique tail number is N911AT but we usually leave of saying “November” for N.

Ok we’re on the runway and trying to line up with the center line. You steer the plane on the ground via the rudder foot peddles so that always more of a challenge then it should be on top of which 911AT has a very ineffective left rudder and is difficult to steer (at least that’s my excuse). So now the fun starts! We’re lined up good and push in the throttle (it’s a very unsatisfying little stick that sticks out of the dashboard not the large lever for adding thrust that you see on tv for large planes). The plane is actually a fairly powerful Cessna 172 sky hawk with a big engine. She starts to roll down the runway and with the throttle now fully pressed in (and you must always keep your hand on the throttle). I keep the plane on the center line, or try to, and when we reach about 65 knots (yes speed is measured in knots not mph) I pull the yoke (the steering wheel type thing in front of the pilot) back and the plane lifts off the ground…cool! Much better then a car!

So now I’m on the upwind leg of the pattern and you don’t need to tell anyone about that leg. I push the right rudder on the climb cause the plane has a tendency to turn a little right due to the “p” force of the propellor which is apparently due to the direction in which the prop turns…yeah yeah who cares. Anyway we climb to about 900 ft and it’s time to turn left to the “crosswind” leg of the pattern. I say on the radio (pressing the transmit button on the yoke) “montgomery traffic nine one one alpha tango crosswind runway one four Montgomery”.

I learned that it’s important to say Montgomery traffic first because all the pilots are talking on the same frequency and it also turns out that the frequency is share by several airports! So you might hear on the radio “xxxjdjd unintelligible turning to final xx brandywine” some little airport far away that I don’t give a crap about but is taking up noise in my head…very annoying! However when you’re listening to the radio you try to pay attention only when someone addresses you directly via your tail number (a relatively rare event when just doing pattern work) or more importantly whenever anyone is talking to “Montgomery Traffic”. The whole radio thing is like some old fashioned CB radio event. Everyone talks on a common frequency (called the CTAF…common traffic advisory frequency). So if one person is talking NO ONE ELSE can talk (that’s called blocking).

But back to the patter, I call on the radio turning to crosswind and am still climbing. The crosswind leg is a very short leg and often I manage to just turn and when I’m finished it’s already time to turn again to the “downwind” leg, hopefully not too late. So I finish the crosswind leg and radio out “montgomery traffic one alpha tango downwind runway one four Montgomery”. It’s kosher at this point to abbreviate the call sign to just the last three digits and letters. By the time I’m on the downwind leg I’m usually already at the desired altitute which is 1500 ft MSL (Mean Sea Level) or 1000 ft AGL (Actual Ground Level). When I reach 1500 ft I push the yoke forward to stop the climb and reduce the throttle (which all this time has been full in) to 2300 RPM. The altimiter reads 1500 because the airport is approximately 500 ft above sea level, so we’re really flying only 1000 ft above the ground.

The downwind leg of the patter is the longest leg and you have time to rest, for like FIVE SECONDS! During the downwind you can trim the airplane, thats a little adjustment wheel that make the plane fly level without you pulling or pushing the yoke and makes flying lots easier. You only need to do that once usually when flying around the patter a bunch of times. Also during the downwind you go though the “pre-landing” checklist. This means checking that the right switches are still turned on and that the gas tank is still selected correctly and that the doors and seatbelts are secure. It’s not too difficult but early on in the training all these little things add up!

So the pre-check list is complete and we wait to “abend the number!” This means that the number on the runway (this is runway one four) is just directly perpendicular to your plane. Basically the plane is just passing the end of the runway (almost) when it’s now time to start the landing proceedures. This consists of turning on the carbeurator heat, reducing the throttle to 1700 RPM and adding 10 degrees of flaps. This should happen almost simultaneously but with enoough time to keep the plane sort of level and not diving and rising up (porpoising) in the air something I am expert in. We also start what is called “slow flight”. This is a technique of flying where you use the throttle to control altitude and the angle of flying to control speed. Exactly backwards of normal flying. It took me quite a few trips around the runway to finally get a feel for how the throttle lifts you up or causes you to lose altitude. It’s actually lots of fun!

After we’ve started the “procedure” to begin descent you want to hit a speed of 80 knots. If you keep that speed and 1700RPM you will find yourself in a gradual descent. Not too steep, not too shallow, this happens maybe 10% of my patterns, most times I find myself too high at the end of the downwind leg or too damn low, even worse and more dangerous. Although the percentage of better patterns is finally getting much higher. So we’re at the end of downwind which you judge by having the end of the runway about 45 degrees to the direction of travel. I usually mange to make a “747” approach as my instructor loves to say and turn a bit too late which results in a much longer final approach. However it’s now time to turn to the “base” leg of the pattern. I call out “montgomery traffic one alpha tango turning to base runway one four Montgomery.”

The base leg is also pretty short and we are descending and trying to maintain 70 knots with 20 degrees of flaps. The most important judgement here is when to turn to the “final” leg. So we’re about there I call out “montgomery traffic one alpha tango turning to final runway one four Montgomery.” The long final’s I tend to do are definitly something to start to change since it is inviting someone to cut in front. Hasn’t happened yet but I’ve heard stories of that happening. Anyway I’m on final approach and now put the flaps down full, which in this plane is 30 degrees and try to keep the speed to 65 knots, BUT no less. This is the most dangerous (yet fun) part of the whole pattern. You have the runway right in front hopefully at a decent altitude and glide path. There are some lights called VASI lights on runway one four that change colors between red and white depending on your altitude. It’s a pair of lights, on top of another pair of lights (four lights). If the top two are white and the bottom two are white it means your too high. If the top and bottom two are red it means your too low. If the top two are red and the bottom two are white it’s just right. I actually don’t like the VASI and prefer to use my eyes to judge the glide path.

So we’re almost there and we are almost at the threshold of the runway the speed is 65 to 70 usually and the throttle is usually almost on idle at this point. As you cross the threshold I pull the throttle all the way to idle and “break the glide” pulling back the yoke so that you don’t touch the runway but fly very very close to the ground. I’m actually pretty good at the breaking the glide part. Next as you see the plane settle a bit you pull back the yoke more to “flair” which slows the plane more pitching up the nose a bit, but at this point your going so slow sometimes the stall horn sounds, sometimes not and you gently touch down…OR NOT. I manage usually after breaking the glide to think that the plane is going to settle gently by itself, sure seems like it should, and not do much if any of a flair…BUMP BUMP a bit bouncy of a landing. Usually not horrible but not I don’t often “grease” the landing, the term for a smooooooooth landing.

Actually I’m finally starting (after a hundred or more landings so far!) to flair more and get the hang of it, but hey I’m an old fart for this stuff. Anyway if we come to a full stop you just stop pulling on the yoke as the plane slows down and touch the brakes, turn off to the first taxi way and voila we’ve successfully landed. I have to say landing a plane is totally freaking awesome!

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