Nice sunny day, light winds, standard summer weather. Today we decided to do pattern work, which is basically practicing landings and working close to the airport in the standard traffic pattern. I hoped that by doing the pattern work on a week night we would mostly have the airport to ourselves – how wrong that turned out to be. We started with some time on the white board while Grainne explained what had to get done as we flew the pattern. There is a lot to do in a short time while handling the close proximity of other planes, relatively close to the ground in bumpy air while talking to the control tower. It was nice to go over it before getting into the plane.
The airport traffic pattern is a rectangular course around the airport, with one of the long sides of the rectangle being the runway you are using. If you go around the rectangle making left turns its called left traffic and right turns are right traffic. Left traffic patterns are more common, mainly because the pilot has more visibility from the left seat, its also easier to turn the plane left as it wants to go that way anyway (at least for me). The basic sequence around the patterns after take-off is as follows. Climb to above 500’ on the outbound leg, make a turn to the crosswind leg. Then make another turn to the downwind leg about which time you will be reaching pattern altitude of 1000’ above the ground (AGL) which is the pattern altitude in RHV. Level off and complete the pre-landing checklist as you fly parallel to the runway about 0.5~1 mile away. This is where the plane starts to get ahead of you, at the start your still trying to remember everything on the checklist as you reach the end of the run-way, otherwise known as abeam the numbers (meaning the big white numbers painted on the end of the runway). At this point hopefully the checklist is complete and you start descending by putting on carburetor heat, bringing the engine back to 1500 RPM and putting in 10 degrees of flaps. You should get a descent rate of about 500 FPM and you can trim the airplane for this rate. As the end of the runway passes about 45 degrees over your shoulder you start the turn onto the base leg. You have to be watching your airspeed and descent rate to make sure your not going too fast or descending too fast or too slow. You can see the end of the runway out the left window, its hard to describe when you start the turn onto the final leg, but you basically want to make a 90 degree turn and end up pointed down the runway your going to land on. At this point your putting in more flaps, and reducing the power to slow the plane down. You need to be at 65 knots before your wheels touch the ground. With engine power, pitch and flaps you control speed and descent rate and rudder to keep the planes nose pointing down the centerline to get the plane about 20’ off the ground moving in the right direction. Then gently (no really I mean gently) you level the plane out and then even more gently keep pulling back to make the flare. If you do it right the plane just decides to stop flying a few inches above the ground and you touch down like a feather. Well enough of the theory, it was out to N5766J to see if I could do it for real.
I did a standard pre-flight, run-up and take-off. This is all becoming routine by now. We had requested runway 31L so we could use left-traffic. We were cleared to cross 31R and takeoff on 31L. My takeoffs are fairly smooth and down the center line of the runway, I just need to be carefully about drifting left during the initial climb. Drifting like this is a bad thing because with two parallel runways someone else can be taking off beside you, thought a left drift not really bad if your already on the left runway.
Now I’d like to give my usual detailed account of the next hour of flying time, but frankly its just a blur of landings, take-offs and trying to remember everything at the right time. I didn’t even know how many landings we did until I counted them on the GPS track. My theory that we would have the airport to ourselves turned out to be totally wrong. More and more planes just started to appear in the pattern. There was always one to three planes in the pattern with us, and there were always another couple of planes in right-traffic as well. Even Grainne commented that this was about as busy as it gets. At one point a Citabria (according to Grainne a very slow type of tail dragger plane) just appeared to want to use our runway to land even though it was on right base (we were on left base). It just totally overshot its turn to right final. We got out of the way and did a go around, that is the GPS track the turns to the left in the middle of the runway. We saw the same plane a few minutes later screwing up its turn from outbound to crosswind. It was following a Cessna that was only just beginning its turn onto crosswind, when it also started to turn. This is pretty bad because it sets up the planes to collide. We heard the tower warning the Cessna what had happened. We did a bunch of landings and touch and goes. The landings to a full stop give you a chance to catch your breath and catch up with the plane. The last take-off was on 31R to try the right traffic pattern. We did a practice emergency landing when Grainne pulled out the throttle just as we were abeam the numbers. That landing was actually pretty good, probably because I didn’t have to worry about engine power (it was supposed to be broken).
Mostly, I think I did OK. I kept forgetting to turn on carb heat before reducing engine power, forgetting to turn on my landing light and transponder before takeoff and generally not being in full control on the final leg. Just way to many things to handle in a short space of time. We had no really bad landings that I remember in particular. But I never felt like I got the feel of exactly how I should do the landing flare. I strongly suspect that my definition of a good landing (plane and people on the ground undamaged) will change and I will become a landing snob, it won’t be good unless its so gentle that you have to get out of the plane to convince yourself your actually on the ground. For now I’m happy and I’m sure I’ll improve with practice, practice and then some more practice. I was pretty tired and ready for a cigarette by the time we parked the plane.