Today was one of those learning experiences - the kind where no matter how embarrassed you are about it, you can always tell yourself 'yes, but you learned, and nothing bad actually happened.'
Got to the airport in advance of my CFI to find the wind 'a-blowin. There was perhaps 10-15 knots of wind, varying through maybe sixty degrees of arc. That arc was, however, centered along runway Three Two, so I figured we'd probably go. With that in mind, I did preflight and then went inside to find my CFI waiting. We talked for a few minutes about what I needed to work on - he reminded me to go over FAR § 61.109 with my logbook to tally up all the various requirements for the checkride, to make sure I either had everything or knew what I needed. I mentioned the wind, and he nodded. "Yep, that's good, we'll work on maneuvers then - if you can do 'em in this, you shouldn't have a problem, and some of the ground reference maneuvers are best done in wind."
We headed out and got in the airplane. It hadn't been flown since we'd flown it two days before; there was 16 gallons in it, which was certainly enough for an hour's practice. As I started it up and run checklists, my CFI pointed out things that I had missed - things which we didn't usually do, but which the check ride examiner would really want to see. For example, I'd put the flaps down before the walkaround as normal, but I hadn't put them back up when I started to taxi. Usually I make sure they're up during the runup and double-check them during the pre-takeoff check, but he pointed out that some examiners (and him, to be honest) don't like to see flaps down while taxiing. Point taken. Also, I hadn't done a brake check right after I started taxiing - sometimes I just brake a bit hard to stop for the runup and treat that as the brake check, but examiners will want to see it as a separate checklist item done.
Before taxiing I tried to do a radio check, but he pointed out that I'd put the freq into the standby and hadn't flipped it to active. I grinned sheepishly and fixed that. The next time, I didn't get a response, and he said "Try again."
I did, and this time the desk clerk came back with an affirmative. "What happened?"
He pointed at the freq display. "Watch there and transmit."
I clicked the mic. A tiny 'T' popped up between the active and standby freqs, and vanished when I released the mic switch. "Oh, I hadn't seen that."
"Yeah, it didn't come up last time you tried. I think the pilot's switch in here is going bad, that's why you get all that static when it works."
So I taxied out and did my runup, setting my flight instruments and testing the engine before back-taxiing on Three Two. As I was doing my runup, I noticed a Beechcraft take off from Three Two (the far end of that runway is obscured by trees from the taxiway entrance). "DId you hear him announce?"
"Nope, and that's his second circuit. He's NORDO."
I waited until he'd lifted off, and then checked the circuit - nobody on the downwind side - and announced that I was backtaxiing for Three Two. That must have reminded the Beechcraft, as he announced a crosswind for the same runway immediately after as I swung onto the runway and tootled down the centerline. When I reached the pocket, he announced that he was on downwind for Three Two and had 'Cessna traffic on runway in sight' so I announced departure (he wasn't on base yet) and my intention to depart the pattern to the east. With that done, I swung on to the runway and added power to take off.
It was, indeed, windy. We got off the ground in good order, having a decent headwind, but it was gusty - the airplane kept bouncing five or ten feet up and down, swiveling around five or ten degrees, or nosing up and down as the wind buffeted us. The stall horn squawked a couple of times despite my holding the airspeed at 85 MPH for climb - 5 extra MPH for wind - as the airspeed across the wing (or, at least, the stall warning intake) dropped down near 55 or 60 MPH. When I reached 800 feet, where I normally begin my crosswind turn, I looked out to the right for traffic and turned right, eastwards, towards the practice area.
"Hey, so, what do you think would happen if somebody was joining a crosswind for Three Two and you made that turn?"
"Uh...well, I checked, but...yeah, that'd be an increased risk of collision."
"Yep. I'd either fly a left pattern and depart off the base leg, or just fly a runway heading until you're five hundred feet above pattern altitude before turning to the east, that way you'll avoid any inbound traffic."
We made it to the practice area. There were some clouds at around five thousand feet, so we settled in at 3,200. "Okay, let's do slow flight." I nodded, pulled power and added carb heat and waited as the airspeed bled off, holding at around 3,200 feet. As the airplane started to sink, I added some power back in, and trimmed the nose up to take off some of the pressure on the yoke. At that point, the stall horn started to sound its mournful squawk and moan, so I lowered the nose a bit to hold the airspeed at around 55-60 knots. "Great. Give me a left turn to three zero zero."
"Left to three zero zero." I banked left, watching the turn coordinator, making sure to lean forward to scan both left and right for traffic.
"Good. Remember to tell the examiner you're scanning for traffic; he'll want to hear that so he knows you're doing it."
"Righto. Three zero zero."
"Okay, let's go right to zero five zero."
So we dragged around the airspace over Amherst, me trying to maintain a constant altitude and to successfully roll out on his assigned headings. "Use more rudder - this slow, ailerons will give you all kinds of adverse yaw."
"Oh is that what it is. Right, slow, less effective horizontal stabilizer..." I mumbled to myself, trying to remember all of it. It was still pretty bouncy - I was having to pay a lot of attention to the airplane, keeping the altitude and bank angles constant. They weren't staying perfect, of course, but I was generally finishing maneuvers within a hundred feet of my start altitude, and maintaining the banks well enough I wasn't having to make any large corrections mid-way.
From slow flight, he had me go right into a power-off stall. I added flaps to get to Vso - stall speed in landing configuration - and as the horn got more strident, I kept the yoke firmly back. The nose rose up, there was a second of buffeting, and then the airplane swung nose down to point at the ground, which filled the windscreen with trees. I added full power and after a second started bringing the nose up, taking the flaps and carb heat out as I did so. After a few seconds, I was back at cruise speed with the flaps up, having lost perhaps three hundred feet.
"Okay, not bad. Let's do it again. Remember, push the throttle and carb heat in immediately, not slowly - you need power. As soon as the nose starts coming up, start taking the flaps out, and end up at cruise."
Did it again, the way he specified. "Right, yep, like that. Okay, let's do power on. Wait, clouds - " we looked around at the clouds which were maybe five hundred feet above us at this point. "Okay, there's a hole over there, go up through that for the power-on stall."
I turned us to align with the hole, and as we came up under it I added full power, and pulled the nose up high towards the blue sky. After a few seconds, the speed dropped, and the plane slowed and began to shake slightly. As it stalled, it swung towards the left; I caught it with right yoke and some right rudder, avoiding the spin, and let speed build a bit before pulling the nose back to the horizon and accelerating to cruise speed. Looked at the altimeter; one hundred feet lost, because we'd been going up when we stalled. My CFI nodded and gave me a thumbs-up.
Next: S-Turns along a road. We were headed east towards I-91 when my CFI pulled the engine. "Heh. Okay, trimming for 80..." I pulled the nose up and steadied the airspeed at 80 for best glide. "Okay...hm...I might be able to make the airport from here, and there are fields between here and the airport in case I'm wrong."
"What's wrong with the fields right underneath us?"
"Ha, nothing, but I'm used to getting dinged for not using airports. Okay, right underneath us...there's a big one there, but the furrows are the wrong way. Okay, I'm going to set up for that one just to the right, along the river."
"Yeah, that looks long enough."
"Okay, I'll do a left turn 270 because I'm a bit high, and come out set up for that field. Meantime, I'm going to communicate on the CTAF or to ATC if I'm talking to them."
"Now, since I know where I'm going, I'm going to try a restart. Fuel selector valve is on both, fuel indicators show gas, mixture is rich, carb heat is on, ignition is on both, master on, I'd try to start."
"Okay. At this point, actually, is probably when I should have talked to ground. Okay, um...oh yeah, transponder to 7500..."
"DERP no, we're not hijacked, 7700."
At this point I started making my left circle. I came out of it a bit high, but with the field in question directly in front. "I can make this."
"Yeah, I think we'd make that. Okay, you can have the engine back."
We were down to around eleven hundred feet MSL (maybe 900 AGL) when I put the throttle back in and took out carb heat and climbed back to around 1500. At that point, we went on to actually do S-turns across a road, and as we did so I learned that I wasn't familiar with doing them to take wind into account properly. So we kept going until I was getting it mostly right. Turns out the corrections for a decent wind are way bigger than I'd thought they'd be! Following that, we did turns around a point - picking a spot halfway up the strut, basically where the runway numbers would be on a downwind, and turning in a circle around it. The trick there is, again, to adjust bank angle in the various quadrants of the circle to account for the wind; when you're abeam the point with the wind behind you you start to increase the bank angle, because you have to turn faster to avoid being blown downwind. The bank angle should be at maximum as you are downwind of the point, and should shallow out as you come up abeam of it on your upwind track, to let you gain ground again.
Afterwards, we headed back to the airport. I was mistaken as to where it was, thinking I was in position to join a downwind; he noted that I was in fact east of the airport, so I should join a crosswind. I did so, turning to the east early and letting the wind blow me south towards the airport. Announced I was entering the crosswind, and when I'd gotten out past the fairgrounds I announced downwind and turned left, adding carb heat and bringing the power down to lose the last hundred feet or so of height I needed to drop. I did a GUMPS check, but my CFI shook his head and nodded pointedly at the side pocket; twigging it, I pulled the checklist and ran through the 'before landing' checklist. "Yeah, the examiner will want to see you use a checklist, remember that."
Since the wind was fairly strong, I turned base early (announcing, careful to make all calls since we were obviously still in Checkride Prep Mode). "Hm, I think I'm high, but I've got a headwind, so I think that's correct." Since he didn't answer, I kept flying, calling the turn to final and rolling out. I was still high, and fast, so I added in the rest of the flaps and started sliding downwards towards the runway numbers. I was at a relatively high stress level - tired from the hour of bouncing around and doing maneuvers, and a bit worried because I'm not used to strong headwind landings, so I wasn't sure if my position was where it should be. Intellectually, I knew it should be high, but I still felt like I was way too high, so I was just starting to consider a forward slip when the turbulence kicked back in and we started bouncing.
I took that, not a real problem, but back-burnered the slip while doing so. We came out of the worst of the turbulence still a bit high and fast, still bouncing, and just as I was thinking about how high I was and what to do about it, I saw motion ahead of me. "Whoa." A lot of motion. A huge flock of birds - black, big, probably corvine - flushed from the trees to the left of Three Two and flooded across the runway.
"That's a lot of birds."
"Yeah..." ...and that's when it happened. I just blanked for a second. I know what was going on - I was trying to decide whether to go around to avoid the birds or not. I was pretty frantically going over things in my head - I didn't want to hit any of those birds, for sure, but there was a big cloud of them and I had full flaps on, so I didn't know if I'd be able to climb quickly enough to miss them. On the other hand, the flock was thinning, maybe I'd be okay...
"Nose down, nose DOWN..." my CFI shoved the yoke forward, and I realized the stall horn was stuttering. We were sinking really quickly, and were still two hundred feet or so up, just reaching the runway threshold. As he shoved the nose down, the plane started to cavort around in a new patch of rough air, and he fought it.
I lifted my hands off the yoke and said "Your airplane, your airplane" and he wrestled us down to the runway.
"Keep flying the airplane, don't worry about the birds, they got their own short final to worry about, you fly THIS airplane..." and we touched, ballooned up and drifted sharply right, then corrected and touched again. I put my hands back on and felt him release the yoke, and we slowed to a walk, short of the turnoff. "Hey, look, we made the turnoff. Were we too high?"
"Nope. Guess not. I didn't allow enough for the wind."
"Yeah. That's pretty strong, it's maybe fifteen knots, that's almost thirty percent of your touchdown speed, right?"
"Right." I was subdued, kicking myself in the ass as I cleared the runway, made the call and cleaned up the airplane. "Dammit."
"You get distracted kinda easy, don't you?"
"I was trying to decide whether to go around because of the birds, and I blanked."
""Okay, so you were at least deciding. What would you have done?"
"I think I was about to go around. If I had to, I would have turned left to get behind the flock if I couldn't climb over it."
"That probably would have worked. If you think you might have to go around, go around. Don't push. I would have landed short of them, but I have a lot of time in high wind, okay? Remember, 3P; Perceive (you did that), Process (you were taking too long to do that) and Perform. I think you could have handled that go around okay, you wouldn't have lost the airplane - it was just that we were nosing up while you were thinking, instinctive clutch to the chest while processing, and that was giving us way too high a sink rate."
"Yeah. Yeah. Ah, damn it."
"Relax. Nobody got hurt. I think you had another couple of seconds where you still could have gone around, and if you think you were about to decide that, then I'd say you would have made it."
"Okay. Yeah, I think I need some more windy pattern practice."
"Sure. Practice is good, practice is fun."
We pulled back in to the ramp, and I swung the airplane around so we could push it backwards into the last available tie-down spot. I shut everything down, we tied it down and I set the control lock and parking brake just in case the winds kicked up worse, then we went inside.
Next week, some evening instrument practice - I need another hour of hood time. And I get to think about freezing up on landing. I don't know exactly what happened, but I suspect the answer is: I was tired because of the hour of bouncy maneuvers near the ground, I was a little stressed because I knew I was being graded, and I was also a little worried because I wasn't in a position that I instinctively knew was okay - the height for the headwind landing was confusing all my 'reference memories' of where the runway should be. If I'd forward-slipped through it, I would have been calmer - but I think it would have been the wrong answer, because although I thought I was too high, the headwind meant we came in not too far past the runway numbers anyway - so I would have been in a bit of trouble and had to add power.
Anyway. This is how we learn. Nobody got hurt, no damage to the airplane, just damage to my ego. Infinitely preferable.
And we didn't hit any crows, either.