Arriving at the airport today it was pretty hard not to notice that the wind was blowing 13 - 15 mph right across the runway. It was enough to make the Cessna rock and roll in it's parking spot. I was ok with whatever happened today, I needed practice doing the preflight check, and getting familiar with the Cessna, so if that's all that happened today I'll still be ahead of the game. The one thing you can count on every day is that weather happens and if you want to learn how to fly, you need to be ok with it, and as far as I can tell, when it comes to pilots and flight, it is the great equalizer. We watched the weather as I carefully performed my preflight on the Cessna, trying to commit each new aspect to memory just as I had done with the Citabria, going through each step on the checklist careful to look, touch and do each item in the list. While there are more steps and things are in different places, the basic principals apply, check every item, ask if you don't understand what or where something is, and don't fly the plane until you're sure you've completed every step on the list. The preflight is no time to pretend you know things you don't, or to skip things because you might be embarrassed to ask. The only dumb questions I can think of when it comes to flying are the one's you don't ask. So ask I did, there were 2 items on the list that I couldn't find, which I marked and asked JP about and he happily pointed out to me, and then I started with more, "what do you think about this wind?", "is it safe to go up?", "how much of a crosswind is too much?", "how will it affect our high speed taxi's?", "what's the procedure for taking off in this crosswind?". After answering each question in detail, JP looked at me and said "are you up for this?". I want to learn to fly, and I want to practice flying under every possible condition, so for me there was only one answer, "I'm always up for this". There's nothing about flying that I don't love.
We prepped the plane, I started her up, and we proceeded out for our runup. Again, if this was as far as we got I'd be fine with it, number one, because I can use all and any of the practice I can get, including the run up, and number 2, if we decided not to fly it would be the right decision, as every correct decision when it comes to flying, is the right thing to do.
I performed the run up and then proceeded to taxi down to the end of runway 26, taking as much time as I needed to maneuver the plane back and forth getting more comfortable with the controls, and of course, asking questions along the way. "How should the pedals feel?", "should I be light on my feet?", "should me feet be on the floor?", "should I be touching the brakes with my toe tips?", "how much brake is too much brake?", "is it better to work the pedals with the palm or balls of your feet?", "am I making you crazy yet with all of my questions?"…""no he assured me, ask as many as you like". Good, I will.
JP took control of the throttle and walked me through a high speed taxi. Keeping my feet light on the pedals and off the brakes I managed to steer the plane pretty much straight down the runway, although as we approached the end, I got a little heavy on the brakes as they are quite a bit more sensitive than the Citabria, something I'll easily adjust to with a little more practice I'm sure. I taxied to the end of the runway, turned the plane around and headed back for a second high speed taxi run, only this time, upon entering the runway, JP had me take all of the controls, including the throttle. I can tell you, the psychological difference of using the yoke instead of the stick still has me wanting to turn and steer it like a car, which of course it doesn't do, but I quickly corrected my behavior and kept the yoke positioned with the left ailerons full up to compensate for the crosswind. Again, something that is just going to take practice, and being very consciously aware of in order to commit it to memory. This practice taxi went much better than the last and I was feeling even more comfortable with the rudder pedals.
As they say, the third time is a charm. I fully intended to do one more practice run but JP wasn't having it, when we got to the end of the runway he simply said, "make your radio call, you're ready to go". "Skypark traffic, Cessna 530 Echo Romeo taking off on 26, staying in the pattern, Skypark"
I did, and off we went, down the runway, throttle in hand, flaps extended, wheels straight, full control, yoke steadily back, up and off the ground. At 200 feet I retracted the flaps and continued my climb to 800 feet where I made my turn onto left crosswind and at 1000 feet where I turned to the left again and entered left downwind for 26. The wind was just as choppy in the air as it was on the ground, and there was some fairly significant bumping around in the gusts but by now, I was used to this, especially flying out of Skypark where there are consistently gusting crosswinds at 1000 feet or so. JP walked me through the pattern again, abeam the numbers, reduce speed to idle, speed at 65 - 70, flaps at 10 degrees, turn to base, flaps to 20 degrees, turn to final, flaps fully extended to 30 degrees, speed to 65, full idle, get the nose pointed down and fly towards the runway. It seems like a lot to remember, and it is the first few times you do it for sure, but that's why you're not doing it alone, that's why there's an experienced pilot sitting next to you who doesn't mind if you say, "what's next, walk me through it again, what am I forgetting?".
As we approached the runway I was more than tempted to bring the nose up, but JP insisted that I keep the nose down, that the approach in the Cessna was much more nose down than in the Citabria, and that I just needed to stay with it, almost all of the way down no matter how wrong it felt. Just as we approached the ground I instinctively started my flare, perhaps a tad early, pulling the nose up just above the ground. To my surprise my flare did indeed push the wind out of the wings and we dropped to the ground with a bit of a thud, and a bounce, but the Cessna is far more forgiving than the Citabria and almost immediately began to stabilize despite my desire to over control the rudders and despite the now nearly 15 mph quartering headwind. I proceeded to roll out down the runway keeping the plane as steady as possible and resisting the temptation to lay on the brakes. "Not bad" I heard through the headphones, "started your flare a little early, but recovered nicely". I had to wonder, was he talking to me? It all seemed so foreign to me coming from the Citabria that I wasn't sure what I had done. "Ready to go again" I heard through the headphones. "absolutely". We taxied around and repeated the exercise 2 more times, the second of which was a little better than the first. On the 3rd pass through the pattern everything felt great, altitude in the pattern was right, turns were correct and timely, I remembered all of the various stages of reducing speed and initiating flaps, my approach on final was dead on, and then 20 feet off the ground, we were hit with an unanticipated, although should have been expected, crosswind. Reacting as I might have in the Citabria I was a little over zealous on the rudder pedals over-correcting for the sudden drift I soon found myself coming down to the left of the center line with what looked to be one wheel in the grass. I made a quick adjustment to the rudder, positioned the yoke full left for the crosswind, pulled back on the yoke for the flare, and to my surprise, at the very last second, set the plane down in the center of the runway and rolled out smoothly.
"That was interesting" was what I heard next through my headset. I wondered, interesting…what was?, my choice of actions on final?, the decisions I made as we touched down?
"What was interesting" I asked. "That crosswind" said JP. "A bit of a surprise but you handled it nicely". Really? I thought I was all over the map for that very long second and a half. Referring to him perhaps making some adjustments at that last second that got us back on course I said, "I don't know how much of it I was responsible for". "Well, actually, all of it" was his reply. "Wow, really, me, just me?", "just you". I was shocked, truly shocked. Had I actually made the right decision in that moment of uncertainty, did I really recover my landing in this crazy wind and put the plane on the ground? It's moments like these when you sit back and think, I can do this, I really can do this.