May 11th, 2012: Flying the "Box"
Just an amazing day flying today. Preflight check was smooth, pulling the plane out for the run-up area and the taxi down the runway all went very well. Still didn't get to "take-off" but that's coming after a little high speed taxi practice on Monday, hoo-ha, can't wait. In the air today I was very comfortable; still a little heavy on the controls but definitely getting better, much more coordinated flight all around.
Leveled off at 3,500 feet today after heading south out towards San Francisco, practiced a few turns at altitude and then "flying the box", that's where you point the nose of the plane in different directions, up, left, down left, down right, up right, all the while maintaining a constant flight path, i.e., forward while also maintaining speed and altitude. Amazing what you can do in a plane. Flying the box was great practice for flying in a "slip" since that's essentially what you're doing…I think. All of this is done at idle or near idle speed to mimic the approach for a landing. In fact, that's "why" you practice it, because these are the skills you need when bringing the plane into a landing under various wind conditions, at least, that's what I've read, and been told, although I haven't actually experienced it yet.
The Citabria is a stick and rudder plane, which means you fly with, well, a stick that comes up from the floor between your legs, as opposed to a yoke, which is more like a steering wheel mounted on the dash board, and you control the rudder with your feet. Now, I've been driving on the ground for more than 35 years, but piloting a plane, in 3 dimensions with a stick is a totally new sensation and there's an entirely new coordination that I have to develop between my hands and my feet. Fortunately, it's more intuitive than I imagined, the brain has a remarkable way of figuring these things out. My understanding is that at many flight schools, students learn to fly a "yoked" plane like a Cessna first, and then perhaps transition to some stick and rudder training later, but since this is the only plane I've flown, I have no idea what it's like to fly with a yoke, but I can tell you that controlling this plane with the stick allows me to feel every adjustment I make and every subsequent movement the plane is making. Next my instructor demonstrated a full power stall, that's when you bring the nose to what appears to be straight up (it's actually only about 18 degrees) until the plane literally stops (stalls) and then starts to basically drop. While a stall can apparently happen under many conditions, one aspect of this training of course is to mimic what can happen under slow flight conditions, when taking off and landing for example. I performed 3 consecutive full power stalls today, stalling the plane, pointing the nose down as it drops and recovering back out of the drop and into climb recovery. After a few full power stalls, he had me do several power-off stalls. Power off stalls are the same basic concept although they happen, well, with little or no power. Flying along at idle speed you again point the nose of the plane up until it stops flying and starts falling, and then you point the nose down and hit the throttle, hard and fast to recover. Once you get the plane at a safe "attitude" through the ensuing climb, you adjust your trim and level it back off. While it may seem like a frightening idea, being with a qualified instructor, there's nothing particularly dangerous about stalling the plane. You practice these at a high enough altitude that recovery is easily made, and performing them gives you an immediate sense of confidence. Honestly, I could have done these for another hour, what an amazing feeling to have that control over such a machine.
The last stall was done in the approach pattern so as to mimic a stall and pull out from an actual balked landing attempt. Of course, we were 3500 feet in the air, so it felt a little safer and still very cool.
Next he had me fly by instruments-only under something they call the "hood". This basically consists of putting a visor above your field of vision so you can't see out the windows, and then you fly by the controls and instrument guages only. While I was a little nervous about this when discussing it on the ground, it makes perfect sense in the air. Looking out the window can actually distract you to the point where you are not flying the plane with a good attitude, looking at the controls keeps you only thinking about keeping the plane true and smooth without influence of your surroundings. I found it was almost easier to perform coordinated flying this way, at least, it is very good practice for getting a feel for what the plane is doing just based on the instruments. This will be part of each flight moving forward, I think, as I need 3 hours of instrument flying alone for my certificate requirements.
Once done with the high altitude maneuvers, he had me take the plane down to 1000 feet and then circle around for the approach, flying the pattern through the base leg and into final, and actually down to about 500 feet before taking over the controls for the landing.
Another superb day in the air. Can't wait to practice more stalls, slips, slides, and crabs. Monday seems so far away.