Preflighted an airplane and collected my instructor, both of us looking like we needed a bit more coffee at 9am. "What was our plan?" he asked me, squinting with trying to remember our last discussion without enough caffeine.
I didn't want to say "SOLO!" so I said "I think we were going to work on landings?"
"Oh yeah, right - landings. Right, let's do it."
Weather was awesome. Clear blue skies, maybe a puff or two of cloud waaaaaay up there, but looking like lost tissue paper up in the blue. The wind sock was hanging pretty forlornly down. '732 had 24 gallons of 100LL and 6 quarts of oil, so I declared her ready to go, with one proviso. "Hey, I'm not sure this is new - I could have missed it before - but I swear there's a hole in the front cowling right next to the air filter."
"Yeah?" My CFI and I walked around front and knelt, and I pointed. Just along the edge of the base of the raised housing for the air filter, there was a slightly ragged hole. It looked like a pebble or something had gotten tossed by the prop, and ripped right through what must be admitted is pretty thin fiberglass. He ran a finger along it. "Huh, look at that. I think that is new, I don't remember it." We both looked up from the nosewheel strut, trying to see if anything had been damaged behind the cowling. "I think it's okay, though - I can see the tarmac through the hole, and the area behind it looks open. I don't think anything's hurt."
"Good enough for me." We got in (I always sort of wallow into the airplane - I'm a big guy, recent weight loss notwithstanding, and a Cessna really isn't a big space. A 40-year-old Cessna built for lightness isn't the most durable of environments. I don't mean it isn't mechanically reliable - but you know, the seats are like seats from a 40-year-old convertible - the UV has made them a bit brittle and they'll rip easily. The thing runs great, but the cabin was never that luxurious or even that durable in terms of upholstery, and I just know that one day I'll brace myself on the seat back while levering my fat ass into the left seat and the plastic seat frame will pop off or something.
But got in safely. I've gotten smart and learned to plug in my headset before I wedge my oversize heinie in the plane. So the only real issue I have when flying is that in order to actually reach the fuel selector valve between our feet, I'd really have to either fully loosen or remove my shoulder belt. We both studiously ignore that - I can perform the checklist-required check of the valve position with my fingertips without doing so, and if I ever have to, changing the fuel selector valve won't be a seconds-are-critical thing...unless I'm about to land hard and need to shut it off, and that would be a bad time to have to remove the belt. So, um, yeah. I am pretty sure that if I was willing to contort embarrassingly and bump the passenger, I could flip it to off without undoing the belt, because I've done it when I was the only one in the plane. So...yeah.
Anyway, got started and taxied out for One Four. The runway was available, and I did the runup (remembering this time because a few flights ago I hadn't to set the gyrocompass and the altimeter...the checklists are starting to worm into my brain, but they're obviously not there yet, as you'll see). Got a nod from my instructor. *click*"Northampton traffic, Skyhawk 12732 is departing One Four Northampton, remaining in the pattern."
Pushed the throttle in, and away we went. Takeoff went smoothly. Turned crosswind without even really thinking about it, and it was at the right place, with no drama. Ended up on a proper downwind at 1000AGL, with carb heat on and power at 2100 RPM. As the runway numbers drew abeam, pulled power back to 1500 and added in the first ten of flaps. *click*"Northampton traffic, Skyhawk 12732 is turning left base for One Four Northampton." Did that, hung the flaps out another ten degrees, and watched the speed float down to 80 MPH, right where it should be. Looked out the window to the left..."Hey, that looks right."
"Don't sound so surprised!" We both laughed. Turned final in good time this time, remembering the winds blowing me out last time, and ended up on a really nice approach, pulled the power all the way out a quarter-mile or so from the threshold and had enough speed that as I came over the boundary marker I was at exactly 70 MPH. I flared just over the numbers, not too high, and...thmp. "Very nice. No drama, right in the middle."
I was busy holding the yoke back and braking, but kept letting them back out. 12732 has an annoying habit - under braking, the nosewheel starts shimmying like a bastard, and the whole plane vibrates. After the third time (I kept waiting for it to slow) my CFI said "Yeah, you gotta overbrake that...my airplane-"" (I lifted my hands and feet off and watched). He stabbed the brakes down hard; the shimmy got REAL BAD for a second, but then the airplane slowed past the unhappy speed and tamed right down. "So remember, just overbrake for a second, and the braking seems to straighten out the shimmy."
"Thanks, will remember." We'd rolled long, as I hadn't braked hard early, so I turned the airplane around to head for the turnoff in the middle (7B2 has two angled taxiways that form a triangle with the first half of One Four; the ramp, hangars and FBO are at the point of that triangle, and there's a short taxiway directly to the departure end of One Four. From the Three Two end (if you run long, or if you need to depart three two) you have to taxi out for Three Two or back for One Four to reach the turnoff. We made the turn. *click*"Northampton traffic, Skyhawk 12732 is clear of the active, Northampton." I cleaned up the airplane, taking carb heat out and retracting the flaps as we passed the hold-short line.
We taxiied back past the fuelling stand, and a Piper Warrior (one of the school's fleet) was already ahead of us, heading for the departure end of One Four. I fell in behind, and when he stopped just short of the last turn, I stopped early to give him space, figuring he'd need to do a runup which I didn't want to be too close for. Yep. Took his time (I don't think they knew we were behind them) but finally - "Northampton traffic, uh, uhm, Warrior Eight Zero Niner Zero Hotel departing. Uh, departing One Four." The Warrior taxied onto the runway, pulled up to the numbers past the displaced threshold, and sat there for a few moments. We could see the instructor talking, and then they started to roll.
"Don't ever do that."
"Look where he started. Look at all that runway behind him. Runway behind you doesn't do you any good. Unless ground tells you to taxi to the threshold and hold, if you're going to stop on the runway, always stop as far back as you can so you use all of it."
"Wilco." I waited until I saw the Warrior lift off, then announced and departed - not stopping, but making sure to crowd the back end of the tarmac just in case. Again, no problems on climbout; turned left and had just turned downwind when-
"Northampton traffic, Piper 57 Niner 83 is inbound east of the field, we're aiming to come in on base for One Four Northampton."
Base? Looked around out ahead, nothing, out to the right - oh, there. Sigh. *click*"Northampton traffic, Skyhawk '732 is on a left downwind for One Four, I have inbound traffic in sight, I'm number two for One Four Northampton."
"Ah, 732, got you too, I should be out of your way."
*click*"No problem Niner 83, I can extend."
"Thanks 732. Niner 83 on left base for One Four Northampton."
Followed my downwind, watched as he turned final - and I was almost even with him. "I don't think I'm going to have enough room." Made my own turn to base, looked - he wasn't down yet, and was still on short final. "Yeah, if he misses the turnoff, that's a problem. *click* Northampton traffic, Skyhawk 732 is going around for One Four Northampton, will re-enter a left crosswind." Set that up; pulled back on the yoke to stop my descent, pushed carb heat back in and got rid of my ten degrees of flaps from the downwind. At my CFI's pointed look, added full power back in and started to parallel the active.
"Remember, if you just pull back without adding power, you're just gonna sink faster!" Nodded.
Came around again; this time, the runway was clear, and turned to final to end up pretty much right where I wanted to be. Felt I was a little short, so gave it a blip of power and had it pulled out again by the time I crossed the airport boundary; this time, touched down centerline and braked hard to kill the shimmy and made the turnoff. "Nice. Nice. Let's do it again."
That was fine with me. Landings that go right, because you did them right? Those are probably the best parts of learning to fly. The most 'Hey I'm a *pilot!*' part. So i taxied back. This time, there were a couple of airplanes in line ahead of us, and as it came to be our turn, a helicopter which had come in on a short right-hand approach while we were taxiing back was departing, so I was busy tracking traffic. When I was sure the runway was clear (ducking to see under the right wing, verifying the airplane before us had lifted off and the helo were out of range) I made our departure call and taxied out, lining up on centerline. I must have felt something, because I muttered "Okay, let's see..." but then put throttle in.
"Stop." My CFI has never said that before, but I immediately chopped power and hit the brakes. The airplane stopped. "What's wrong with this picture?"
I looked around, more carefully. "Oh...damn. Carb heat. And...oh, man, I never..." reached over, pulled the flaps back up.
"I waited because I was hoping you'd notice. That's how people die. Always check. I always do this right before starting the roll: fuel selector valve, trim tab, flaps, mixture, carb heat."
I nodded, chastened. Did just that, calling out and tapping each. He nodded, and I took off again, subdued. That's the other thing about piloting - every time you feel like you're totally the shiznit, that usually means you just did - or are about to do - something wrong. There's no ego in flying. Or at least, there's no room for it. There sure is in bench flying - but not in the airplane.
My next three landings all went super smooth, and each time, I remembered the takeoff roll checklist. We taxied back in to park the airplane. "That was great. I didn't really need to be here for the landings. Let's look for some calm weather on Thursday and try to get you soloed."
Thought about it. Thought about the screwup; labelled it 'lesson learned', and thought about the landings. "Yeah. Okay. If you think so."