...finally. It's been more than three weeks since I last flew - other than one cancellation early on due to my instructor's car committing hara-kiri, every time I've been scheduled (at least twice a week) I've gotten the dreaded phone call an hour or so before flight - "Weather's bad."
Oh well. At least I don't get charged for the airplane/instructor if the flight school cancels due to weather!
Today, I had a bit of a stomach upset - my hosts' daughter has been sick, I probably have a bit of what she had, no fever or anything - and that, coupled with remembering how poorly I'd done last time, had me almost ambivalent. I really really wanted to get moving and fly again, but I really did't want to get into the airplane and end up screwing up landings one after another. Stress.
Last time I went up, I was having issues with landing. Ground panic. My instructor had explained (after we were done) that I was essentially 'quitting flying' around a hundred feet in the air - I was flaring the plane (way too high) and then freezing in place, afraid to make control inputs with the aircraft that low and slow. Bad bad bad. I had suggested that I do some more slow flight so that I could get used to flying with the airplane in essentially the same flight regime as at landing, just so that I got used to seeing the airspeed indicator around 50 MPH* and the stall horn intermittently sounding. That way I would know (not intellectually, but at the lizard brain level) that the airplane was still flying and still accepting control inputs.
So today the weather was nice. The airport was fairly busy, but we preflighted, got into the 172, taxiied out and did the runup.
"Northampton traffic, Skyhawk 12732 departing One-Four, left-hand departure for the practice area." Releasing the mic, I added throttle and we rolled smoothly down the tarmac, airborne after about half the runway (I'm a heavy guy). Climbed out to around 750 feet and then turned left to avoid the ridge just south of the airport, turning left again to head north. My instructor had me take the airplane to 3000 feet on the way out.
Once we got there, he nodded and gave me instructions via intercom. "Clearing turns, then take it into slow flight, clean."
After a pair of 90-degree turns to check for traffic, I added carb heat, pulled power out to around 1500 RPM, and held the nose high to maintain 65 MPH. As the speed fell, I trimmed the nose up and maintained 55-60. The airplane settled down a bit, so I added a bit of power, but before long had it holding at 3000, nose to the north, speed at 55-60 mph. The stall warning horn was moaning intermittently as we caught wind gusts; there was fluffy clouds a few thousand feet above and some lower off perhaps twenty miles to the west and there was a bit of bounce.
"Okay, give me a right turn to the south."
I banked right, juggling a bit to keep the ball centered as not only was I banking in slow flight but the bouncing was making it a bit difficult to keep the turn coordinated. "Don't rush, let it turn." So I let it turn. Soon enough, we were headed south. I found myself dropping, although my speed was still good at 55 mph, so I added power and watched the ship climb slowly back up to 3000. We held that for about ten minutes, then turned back to the north, and back to the south, flying our beat.
Halfway through the second leg northbound, I realized I wasn't glued to the instruments anymore, but was watching scenery - and the aircraft was at pretty much exactly 3000 feet, speed still at 55 kt, and I was still headed directly north. "Hey! I think I'm getting it!"
"Yep. Stop worrying about it, that's the ticket. Nice and easy." Sounds like a cliche, but in this case, absolutely on target and true. We flew around in slow flight for maybe half an hour, and I learned to stop listening to the stall horn until it went constant, and slowly spent less and less conscious time thinking about my corrections (lower the nose at the horn, raise the nose if the indicator hits 62-65...) After a bit, he had me make some clearing turns while in slow flight, and as I was doing so (wrestling the airplane a little bit to manage the bumps) I realized that this was what I had needed - I was busily wrangling the Cessna, kicking it back straight at gusts, turning, and managing altitude - all with the stall horn drifting in and out. This was slower than the point where I'd been freezing up during landings. I laughed, and my instructor grinned, clearly approving that I was relaxing. "Work your shoulders. Relax. Relax. This is the fun part!" So I did - stretched as much as I was able in the tiny space, and tried to spend as little time as possible looking at the panel.
"Okay, let's head back to the airport. Know where it is?"
I reflexively stuck my arm out over the instrument panel, perhaps twenty degrees from the nose. "Exactly. Okay, how are you going to go back, assuming we're going to land?"
"Um...I'm going to turn *left* a bit, head south until I'm roughly over the towers, then turn right to come in for a left downwind for One-Four."
"Great. Go for it. We tend to use Route 9 for that approach, which you just described perfectly - see Route 9 out there to the south? Yeah? Great, angle out east of that highway until you hit 9, and then stay just south of 9 westward and it'll put you right into the pattern."
So I did. Halfway there I remembered: "Oh yeah, I need to lose altitude, pattern is eleven hundred."
"Good timing, just pull power and let it slide down, from here you should be right about on when you hit the pattern."
Coming in, we listened to a helicopter, a light sport and a Piper Warrior announcing their movements in the traffic pattern. As I was reporting "over the mall" (Wal-Mart and Target on Route 9) and beginning to think about turning, I spotted another aircraft on a left crosswind. Before I could check with him, though - "Northampton traffic, Skyhawk '861 is on left crosswind for One-Four Northampton; we are behind Skyhawk 12732."
Great, he's got us in sight, too. "Northampton Traffic, Skyhawk 12732 is entering a left downwind for One-Four Northampton." A few seconds later, I had my touchdown point under the left wing, so pulled power back to 1500 RPM, added carb heat. When my touchdown point was 45 degrees over my left shoulder, I turned base, and realized I was a bit far out from the runway, so I blipped power back in for a few seconds but kept descending.
"Northampton Traffic, Skyhawk 732 turning final for One-Four for touch and go Northampton." Coming in on final, the approach indicators told me I was slightly high, but I pulled power out and settled...
"No, no, flaring early, keep the nose down..." Shit. Pushed the nose down again, watched the centerline rising up, then maybe...here? Pulled back. "Yep, yep, keep the nose up now..." We drifted right. Almost absently, added a bit of left aileron, then right, kicked the rudder to get the nose back on centerline, holding the airplane slow...stall horn just starting to come in, starting to wind up to a good note now and...
"...THERE you go." My instructor nodded. "Okay, power..." I added power and took out carb heat, pulling the flaps up. Holding the airplane steady, I let it roll for a bit then lifted off again, and we were back in the traffic pattern.
That time, we just went around and I stated that I wanted to full-stop - my stomach was acting up a bit. He nodded. "No problem, we're almost out of time. Take it in."
My second time around the pattern, I was still a bit far out, and I turned final a bit early, requiring corrections, but the landing was fine - started to flare early, but caught myself muttering "nose *down*..." and my instructor nodded without saying anything. We were right on centerline, but caught a bit of a gust and so landed with the nose a little left, but he said "No problem, you held centerline when down, that was just a gust, all good."
So I made the first turn-off, and announced I was clear of the active before taxiing back in and parking directly over the tie-downs.
We took off our headsets, and my instructor turned to me. "How was that?"
I thought about it. "I think that was better."
"Yep. You were right, the slow flight really helped. You're still afraid of the ground, a bit - you're flaring early - but you're flying all the way down, now, and that's what you needed to do. Great. Next flight, more of the same."
And you know, this time, I don't feel that trepidation.
My only issues at the moment involve my medical certificate. The FAA has decided that since I'm on blood sugar maintenance drugs, that means I have diabetes. I tried to explain to my examiner that my doctor had put me on them to make sure I didn't get diabetes, but she shrugged. "I know that, and you know that, but the bureaucracy doesn't know that." But, she explained, that didn't mean I wouldn't get the certificate. It meant I had to wait for them to send me Special Issuance application forms, and then take those forms to my primary care physician so that she could explain, officially, that I didn't have diabetes. So I'm waiting for those to arrive now.
One of the funny but annoying things - now that I'm finally in the gym (three workouts so far, doing well) I found that my range of motion was actually worse in the plane because my muscles are sore and the blood flow in them is pumped up a bit healing. I'm not going to be really comfortable flying in a Skyhawk until I lose at least 50 pounds; I can do what I need to do, but if I really had to move the fuel selector valve I might have to release my shoulder belt first...maybe I should take yoga or something like that to see if my range of motion can be bettered.
* Although I initially trained in a Skyhawk whose instruments were calibrated in knots, this one is in miles per hour. It's a bit confusing. My instructor admits that he has problems as well, since he flies in all the various aircraft in the school's fleet, and half are knots and half are miles per hour.