June 6th, 2012: Wheel Landings at Napa County Airport
So just to throw me for a loop I'm sure, while I was just barely starting to get the hang of 3 wheel "tail" landings and flying around new airspace at Petaluma Municipal Airport, my instructor decided it was time to have me learn wheel landings. Wheel landings are basically the opposite of tail landings, instead of coming in near the ground and flaring up and dropping softly to the ground, the idea is to come in with more speed, fly along the ground and plaster the landing gear onto the ground while keeping the tail high as you roll out at a much higher speed down the runway eventually bringing the tail down as you slow down. At least, that's the theory, and I sound good saying it, but I had a hell of a time doing it. I actually thought I was going to be good at this right off the bat as to me, it just seems like a more reasonable way to land, but no matter how bad I wanted it, I just couldn't pull it off, which was ultimately pretty disappointing. For the most part my glide in was good, as well as my positioning on the runway and my landing point, but it seemed that each time I got just ready to put the wheels down I would pull too far back on the stick and start to flare, coming down with a thud and a bounce in an erratic 3 wheel landing instead which inevitably ended up in a forced takeoff and go around. The good news is, I got really proficient at recovering from my botched landings and getting immediately back in the air, the bad news of course, is that out of 10 attempts, only 2 were successful. As with my 3 wheel landings, I have several things I need to focus on I believe. The first is my glide angle coming down to the runway. In wheel landings you really need to be confident driving the plane right along and into the ground with the nose down and I think I chickened out on almost every approach. The second thing I need to work on is air speed. It's obvious these landings just don't work if you're drifting in at 65 as you would in a 3 wheel landing, you need speed to float along the runway and to get the attitude of the plane positioned correctly and each time I was too slow by the time I touched down. The third thing I need to work on is my height above the ground when I touch the wheels down. In all but 3 instances, I was much farther off the ground than I thought I was, so I need to get a lot closer to the ground. I guess all things considered, it's probably better to be working my way incrementally towards the ground than slamming into it, so I'm going to look at that from a positive point of view moving forward.
I continue to get much more confident with my takeoffs and am at the point where I do them without over thinking them and in fact now enjoy them more than ever. I think if I can learn to land the way I take off, I'll be in pretty good shape. So all in all, the confidence with the take offs and the new confidence with forced take offs and go arounds is a welcome change, now I just really have to stop over thinking my landings in the same manner.
There was something else that made this more difficult for me today, and that was the fact that Napa is a controlled airport, and compared to Sonoma or Petaluma, quite a bit more active. The radio is a constant dialogue between pilots and the controller and I found myself listening, or attempting to listen to every call partially out of sheer interest but also out of necessity, and since I still don't really have a good feeling for how and why everything is being said it can be a bit distracting. We were flying around and around in the pattern while at the same time other pilots, much more experienced that I, were flying into and out of the pattern as well. There were planes and helicopters coming and going from all directions, landing both in front of and behind me…and then of course you have me, bouncing my way off the runway time and time again amidst all this action. Ont thing I have found very comforting is that fellow pilots, unlike golfers, are a patient, considerate lot. They seem to understand exactly what you're going through and give you both the time and space you need to try to accomplish the task at hand. This simple act takes a lot of pressure off of a student like me, knowing that they'll go around, or wait, or come in behind you, and that they let you know is extremely important to me at this stage.
While I realize that learning to fly in all of these conditions is all part of what you have to do, it does seem to me, that given a choice, I would perhaps plan things just a bit differently. For instance, if time permitted, it might be better to fly to a busy controlled airport like Napa and just fly around in the pattern over and over again getting an idea of and feel for the radio calls without the added pressure of having to practice new maneuvers you have never done before. Then perhaps returning the next day, with that knowledge, and a little more comfortable, to actually drop in and practice takeoffs and landings. I think this constant pressure to try to absorb all of the different operations while simultaneously trying to keep the airplane under control and perform specific maneuvers is at times simply too rushed and cacophic. You're also circling right through the pattern over and over again without stopping, up, around back and down, up around back and down concentrating so hard on each piece…speed, turns, climbs, coordination, level-offs, attitude, altitude that you literally only have perhaps seconds to consider what you did right or wrong during the last maneuver before you are doing it again. Baptism by fire I suppose, it certainly does get your attention, but in a perfect world you would probably fly every day slowing the whole process down and spending more time comprehending what was really happening. Of course, that may just be my way of justifying my failures or inadequacies as well. When it comes right down to it, as soon as I botched one I was ready to fly around as fast as I could and try it again.
On the way back to Sonoma I had a little time to talk to my instructor and give a bit more consideration to what had transpired. Just that short few minutes of flight seemed to be enough for me to regain my composure. Approaching Skypark, a far smaller airport with a shorter runway and steep and turbulent descent, I flew right at the runway, kept my speed up, slipped a little into the wind to correct my approach and laid the plane down on 2 wheels, stick forward cruising along without the slightest bounce, my best wheel landing of the day, go figure.