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5  Return To Flight, Part Three

Pattern Work, And Learning (Again) How To Land

Rob Finfrock, Aero-News, 25/2/2007


As I drove to my third flight lesson at Aviator Air in Grand Prairie, TX earlier this month, I was expecting a call cancelling the lesson at any minute. I'd checked the field AWOS throughout the day. The wind was only blowing at around 12 knots -- barely a breeze in Dallas, and more importantly, it was blowing straight down the runway -- but the ceiling was only 1,100' AGL. Low clouds had enveloped the metroplex all day, with nary an improvement.

Ah well, I thought. I'll stop in at the very least. There are worst things to do than spend some time hanging around the airport on a Friday afternoon.

A funny thing happened, though. By the time I pulled into the parking lot, the ceiling miraculously lifted to over 2,000 feet -- more than enough for today's planned lesson in the pattern. Hey, anyone can hang out at the airport... I was going to be able to fly over it, after all!

Jay watched as I preflighted the plane. Evektor's preflight checklist is very thorough... but it contains a few curious translations. The SportStar's Eastern European origins are most apparent here; for example, "fuel sumps" become "receivers of condensate."

One thing I can't blame on the checklist, though, is my own over-eagerness. So far, every time I've preflighted 676EV I've skipped over a step. Nothing earth-shattering, mind you -- but it does demonstrate that while I am using the checklist, my eyes are also glazing over one part of it.

My white whale is the SportStar's pitot-static tube, tucked far back under the plane's left wingtip (below). Maybe it's because I'm used to high-wing aircraft, where the pitot tube is in plain sight... but I tend to miss this vital part of the plane's equipment when conducting what otherwise I would call a very thorough preflight. I've caught my error every time... but I'm still making the mistake.

Fortunately, it looks like it would take an act of God to harm the SportStar's solid-chunk-of-metal pitot/static tube. Judging by looks alone, it may just be the single sturdiest component on the entire plane. 

With the preflight -- ALL of the preflight -- complete, Jay and I climbed in the cockpit, ran through the required checklists (that, perhaps in another odd translation, has the pilot checking engine instruments three times within about 20 seconds... then again, you can't check those things enough) and started up the eager little Rotax.



By the time we'd taxied to the end of runway 35, the wind had shifted just a bit from the west... and I could feel it as we rolled into position. It is very important to hold proper crosswind corrections in the SportStar; when I eased my aileron correction slightly, and could feel the opposite wingtip lighten up a bit. Nothing spooky, mind you... but the wind made the plane feel light on its wheels.

Which was fine with me; the SportStar's made to fly, anyway, not dally on the ground. The wind resulted in a short takeoff roll; we weren't even 500 feet down GPM's 4,000 foot runway before we were off. The plane duitfully settled into a slight crab to the left; the winds were a bit stronger up here, than they were off the ground.

As we entered right traffic, Jay repeated the steps we had run through during our preflight briefing. "Level off at 1,500 feet." Check. "Bring throttle back to 4,200 RPM." Check. "That should give us about 85 knots." Check.

Just seconds later, we were abeam the numbers, and ready to descend. GPM's runway is over 2,000 feet shorter than every other airport I've ever flown from... and I could see the difference those 2,000 feet make! I had barely processed "4,200 RPM" when it was time to bring out carb heat, and slow to the white arc.

"Keep the nose up," Jay instructed. "Remember, don't descend just yet."



Once we slowed to 80 knots, it was time for the first notch of flaps. A Johnson bar between the seats controls the flaps on SportStars, and it operates much the same way as a car's handbrake does. Push the button in, and pull the lever up to deploy the flaps.

Just as we had settled into a 500 feet-per-minute descent, it was time to turn base leg. (Boy, things were happening fast! I've done this before, right?) I put in the second notch of flaps, for 30 degrees, as we turned onto base. 

I turned to final just a bit too soon, and had to correct slightly. There was very little crosswind, though, and I had the plane lined up straight and true. What had felt like a Keystone Kops-like routine to start, had settled down nicely.

We crossed the threshold at 60 knots, with power to idle. I leveled off over the runway, and began the flare.

I realized a bit late my transition from descent, to level off, to the flare had been one too-quick movement. In response, the SportStar arrived on the runway with an uncomfortable thud, on all three wheels.

OK... that didn't work.

Flaps back to takeoff position, carb heat in, advance the throttle... and we were in the air again.

"Next time, ease into the flare," Jay instructed as we turned crosswind. "Don't be quite so abrupt; let the plane settle onto the runway."

Roger that. Soon we were abeam the numbers again. Time for another try. Carb heat, slow to white arc, first notch of flaps. Remember to report base leg to the tower. Add second notch of flaps, keep the speed steady.

I turned onto final, this time better aligned with the runway. The plane wanted to crab a bit -- the crosswind had become a but more pronounced, but it was entirely manageable.

Over the threshold at 60, level off, flare... and darn it, same result. The SportStar touched the pavement on all three wheels, not as firmly as before but still lacking finesse.




In mild disgust I raised flaps to takeoff position, and shoved the carb heat (above) in. This is a somewhat awkward maneuver in the SportStar, due to the control's placement on the far left side of the IP. To engage or disengage carb heat, the pilot to either a) remove their left hand from the stick to push the lever in, or b) take their right hand off the throttle, and cross that hand over to push the lever closed.

My thoughts were still on my clumsy landing, though... and not necessarily on the task at hand. As a result, as I applied full throttle for takeoff, the SportStar veered left -- and continued in that direction, despite what I thought were my best efforts to counteract with right rudder. Fortunately, our speed was sufficient... so I raised the nose and took off.

"That was... interesting," I said, after we were established in the climb. At least I was able to keep the plane over the runway, I noted.

Jay laughed a little. "You need to apply right rudder. You were hard on the left that whole time."

Great, I thought to myself. Somehow I've been able to forget nearly all my training from the past three years, and turn into a complete and total dunderhead. And hey! I'm gonna get to write about it, too, sharing my experiences with the entire ANN readership!

I briefly wondered if it was too late to go back to wallboard sales.

"My airplane," Jay told me. I gratefully relinquished the controls. "Let me show you what I think you're doing wrong in the flare." (Hint -- when your instructor uses this phrase, it means they KNOW what you're doing wrong.)

Jay flew the pattern, and brought us over the numbers right at 60. His landing was as smooth as glass, and the plane stuck like glue on the centerline as he cleaned up the plane and took off again.

"Ease into the flare a bit more smoothly," Jay repeated. "Let the plane settle onto the runway. Keep the nose up as long as you can, but if you're too high, lower the nose a bit to smooth out the landing."

"Oh, and let the plane roll out and settle before transitioning for takeoff," Jay added. "We have plenty of runway available. Don't try to do everything at once."




I heard all of Jay's words, but his last admonishment finally illuminated the proverbial lightbulb over my head. I was treating the flare as one maneuver... instead of the series of smaller ones that it is.

"Ready to try again?"

"Yep. I have the airplane," I replied.

"You have the airplane."

Apart from overshooting pattern altitude by 50 feet while turning onto downwind, I flew the rest of that circuit to checkride standards. As we crossed over the numbers, I reminded myself one last time... "don't try to do it all at once."

Level off... stick neutral... nose up slightly... level off... nose up again... a little more... a little more... touchdown! Keep the nosewheel off... keep it off... keep it off (as the SportStar doesn't have a stall warning horn, I imagined one wailing in the background)... keep it off... and down!

I'm also proud to note I kept the plane centered this time, and I was able to transition for takeoff without sending us towards the weeds. We lifted off smoothly... and this time, I felt like a pilot. Again.

"Was that what you had in mind?" I asked Jay, grinning. He nodded enthusiastically.

I flew four more circuits. Some were better than others... but all were better than the first few had been.



"Good flight," Jay told me after shutdown.

"Yeah," I agreed. "But I can do a lot better, too."