Straight out to Petaluma today, out, up and over the Petaluma Gap, along the hills on the east side at 1700 feet it was clear and beautiful. Before reaching the Petaluma Gap I had tuned the radio into Petaluma weather where I discovered there was a 6 knot crosswind, ok, well, that should make it interesting. I'm comfortable flying into and around the Petaluma airport at this point. I have all my visual references and the timing of the pattern down, so it was easy to integrate the radio calls back into the lesson, starting with the first call, that I was setting up for a 45 degree entry into the right downwind pattern for runway 29.
There are a number of indications that I'm getting more comfortable in the air, for one thing, I find myself spending a lot more time looking out the windows, for planes, weather and ground references, and less time staring at instruments, not that I don't look at them, I just no longer focus my gaze on them, I check, adjust if necessary, and glance back to monitor the adjustment. The second indication is that I have relaxed my grip and pressure on the controls, both stick and rudder, to the point where I let the craft do the flying. The stick is loose in my hands and my toes are light on the pedals, and at times, even on the floor in a conscious effort to trust the plane to fly. I've found that this particular thing has helped my flying considerably. It is that death grip on the stick, the tremendous pressure one can put on the pedals without conscious awareness that makes flying seem so strenuous, when in fact, it is often quite easy and relaxing.
Relaxing the force on the controls and getting a solid understanding of trim, and how and when to adjust it, has helped considerably with my turns, attitude, coordination, speed and ascent and descent rates. It's a beautiful thing when you find that you are no longer thinking about "if" or "what" you should be adjusting, you are simply "doing". The third indication of comfort in the air is the general conversation, or even lack of conversation in the cockpit. Much of the initial conversation, i.e., what are you looking at, check your altitude, attitude, how's your coordination, how's that speed? has been replaced with either casual conversation about such things as the amount of fuel it takes to fly to Salt Lake City, the cost of ownership of a small plane or in most cases simply silence. When you reach the point where your instructor is not talking at all, it probably means you're flying reasonably well.
Descending to 1100 feet into the downwind leg of the pattern I relaxed and flew through each leg making my calls as I started my turns rather than waiting until they were completed. I've found this takes some of the pressure off of each leg as, with the call quickly out of the way you can concentrate on flying the leg instead. Coming into final I gently eased the plane down at 70 knots and drifted lightly down touching down softly dead center on the runway and rolled out getting the stick firmly back with a slight adjustment for the crosswind. I still have what seems like a subconscious tendency to add just a touch of throttle during the rollout which my instructor wisely makes me aware of on each landing. I think because of the position, my hand moves ever so slightly at soon as the wheels touch the ground, but I'm confident I will be able to correct this error with a few more landings. I don't recall any conversation in the cockpit during the landing, just silence and the wind over the wings so to speak. I make slight adjustments along the way for the crosswind, just a touch of throttle when we hit the usual downdraft at 100 feet or so and put the plane on the runway, a process which I repeated with equal success 3 more times.
Looking back at the GPS, and one of the reasons I very much like tracking, I can see that my flying in the pattern has also become much more consistent, each pattern nicely overlaid upon the last. Today was an important day for me as I wanted to be confident that my successful landings yesterday weren't just a fluke, that I had actually broken through some barrier that had made them intermittently good. The changes I had been making were paying off, lightening my touch, changing my gaze further down the runway on both the approach and touchdown, holding off just a bit longer for the flare and immediately getting that stick all the way back during the roll out had all made a huge difference.
The last landing at Petaluma resulted in a go around, just for practice, and right before touchdown my instructor said "uh oh, deer on the runway" which of course there could have been in Petaluma, but wasn't, and was simply my clue to adjust accordingly and get the plane back up and flying. We took the usual route back to Skypark and came in for a landing on 26. On the approach everything seemed to be going pretty well, except that I didn't check my speed after abeaming the numbers and because of this I was both a little fast and a little high turning onto the base leg. I attempted to drop some speed on base, but the 9 knot or so crosswind had now become a tail wind. By the time I made my turn onto final I was a good 100 feet to high and 10 knots too fast. I attempted again to steepen my descent and slow my speed my entering a slip which I maintained as long as I could hold it, but as the numbers on the runway started to disappear under me I had to make the decision to go around. I headed back out, after exiting straight out of the patter made a 180 degree turn, then a subsequent 90 degree turn to enter a right downwind patter for runway 8 rather than 26. Coming around base and final onto 8 I held what I thought was good speed and altitude, although this approach requires just a bit steeper descent right before touchdown. While my instructor thought I might have been a little low coming in over the trees, I managed to put the plane down reasonably well into a 3 point landing, roll out and bring the plane back home.
All in all, a very satisfying day of flying...and landing.