An Explanation by Example
By Tom Cole
Written Fall Semester 1998
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It was late in the 1970s and I was readying to take a three-hundred-mile solo flight in a two-seat Cessna 150. The trip was part of my training as a private pilot. The flight school wanted me to fly from Houston to Austin and then on to Victoria and back to Houston, making three take-offs and three landings. I drove out to the airport that morning to start the trip by doing a preflight of the plane. 

As I looked at the Cessna, a high-winged plane with tricycle landing gear (consisting of two main wheels and a nose wheel). I was struck as I often was by how truly small it was, and I felt a pang of self pity that was born of real fear. "You must be crazy," I told myself. "You're going to take off in that tiny tinfoil ship and rip along at a hundred miles an hour up in the air when you know darned well you're acrophobic." I steeled myself and started the preflight.

The preflight is the first step to any airplane trip. You have to check to see if anything is broken or otherwise wrong with the plane. You'd be crazy not to. I first walked around to the front of the plane and ran my fingers across the edges of the prop looking for dings. If there was any large notch there, I would cancel the flight until a certified mechanic had filed the area smooth. Popular theory said that if the prop broke while you were up in the sky, the imbalance could pull the engine out of the plane if you didn't throttle back immediately. With the engine gone, or yanked a foot to the side, the plane would acquire all the aerodynamic characteristics of a grand piano.

I pulled open the flap door to the engine compartment and stared in. All looked good to my uneducated eye. I saw four cylinders and eight spark plugs (spares you know) and I checked the oil. I had to wipe off the dip stick and test it again because during the cold night the oil had creeped up and given an overfull reading. There was plenty of oil -- and gas too, as I learned after climbing onto the wing, removing the cap, and looking into the tank. I would check the gauge later, of course.

I next checked the leading edges of the wings. Then I stuck a hollow metal pin into the bleed valve underneath one of the wings. The pin was fixed in the center of a thick, clear plastic cup into which a measure of blue fuel squirted from the gas tank. The blue color meant that the fuel was 100 octane gasoline. Reddish would mean 80 octane. I knew that if I needed gasoline, I would have to put 100 octane in the tank. You can only put the high on top of the low; you never pump 80 octane into a tank with 100 octane in it.

But I was not looking for the octane as much as I was for air bubbles that I didn't want in the gas lines. Bubbles collected at this bleed valve and the test alone would purge most of them. There were none I could see as I looked into the fluid, and I tossed the contents of the cup on the tarmac and put the cup in the glove compartment of the plane.

Next, I stepped over and grasped the wing tip and rocked the plane. The whole plane only weighed 1600 pounds and it moved easily but as one solid, collected piece. If the wing made any noises or didn't feel right, I would know it and have someone qualified look at it.

The pitot tube sticks out from under the wing like a little pointed faucet with a hole in the end. It gives you your airspeed. If there is a bug stuck in there, you'll get no airspeed reading. I knew this well, for once I had taken off with a mud dauber's nest clogging the hole and found I had no air speed reading on the control panel. I turned the plane around immediately and made a decidedly nose-low landing. How I didn't notice the malfunctioning airspeed indicator before I was in the air I can't really say.

There were many other spots to check: the brake lines, the tires, the trim tab connection in back, and my favorite, the tiny nut connecting the elevator to the cable. I hated the idea of having no elevator to control pitch and if that nut came loose or the cable broke, I would be in dire straits. An instructor had told me that that would be his first choice if he had to lose a control surface. He figured he could control pitch with the trim on the elevator or by lowering and raising the flaps. I thought he was crazy. No one could argue about a lost aileron (That would spell curtains.), but let the rudder break, I thought. I flew fine without it all the time.

The thing that keeps pilots alive perhaps more than anything else is the engineering that goes into the planes. The nuts and bolts and cables just don't break very often. They aren't Ace Hardware nuts and bolts and cables; they are the real thing, specially-engineered parts that are made to the highest industry standards.

In view of this attention to design and safety, it always amazed me to know that underneath the control panel in front of both seats were exposed chains that pulled the cables attached to the twin yokes. I am referring to chains in the bicycle chain sense of the word. The chains look exactly the same and they are right next to your pant legs and your shoestrings. For anyone who has ridden a bike without the chain guard and found himself or herself repeatedly parking the bike by falling over with their shoelaces caught fast in the chain, this will seem amazing. But it is true. Next time you get the chance, look under the control panel of any small plane and you'll see what I mean.

When the preflight was done, I unfastened the chains that held the wings and tail of the plane and let them fall to the tarmac next to their steel fittings. I got in the plane and put on the rather old fashioned seat belt and shoulder strap. I pulled out the pin that locked the yoke and put it in the glove compartment. Then I flipped the two red master switches that started the magnetos and avionics purring with that characteristic airplane sound that you hear nowhere else.

With my left hand, I grasped the key, looked around the plane, and shouted "Clear Prop!" I pushed the red mixture knob all the way in and then started the plane just like you do a car but adding the power with my right hand by pumping the black, cue ball-sized knob of the throttle. My toes were pushing good and hard on the upper part of the rudder pedals. The brakes were located there, the hinged top half of each pedal. The prop spun and the engine roared to life.

It was time for the run-up. I pushed the power to 1800 rpm and checked the oil pressure, voltage meter, and gas gauge. I then turned the key to the left, disabling one magneto. The rpm fell only slightly as expected. I did the same with the right magneto, turning the key to the right, and got the same effect. I left the key in the dual position so both mags would be on. Both were working fine.

When the plane was idling smoothly, I switched on the radio and turned it to the information frequency where I heard:

"Hobby Airport information Charlie. Measured ceiling two two hundred. Visibility ten. Smoke. Haze. Temperature eight seven. Wind one eight zero at one one. Altimeter two niner niner zero. ILS runway two two in use. Landing and departing runways one eight right and one eight left, one seven and two two. All VFR and IFR departures contact Hobby ground one two seven point nine prior to taxi. Advise you have Charlie." I set the altimeter to 29.90 inches of mercury and switched the radio to the ground control frequency 127.9. I waited for a moment for everyone else to stop talking and said into the mike, "Hobby ground, Cessna 11452 at Fletcher's with Charlie. Negative transponder. Taxi to runway one eight right. Student pilot."

"Cessna 452 . Cleared to taxi. Hold short at runway one eight right," came the immediate reply.

"Roger" I said.

What I had told the ground control was that I had listened to Information Charlie ("Charlie" being airplane talk for the letter C) and was therefore informed about the current conditions of flight. Later, I might have to say that I had the latest information Delta (D for Delta). Fletcher's was the flight school and I told him that so he'd know where I was. I said, "Negative transponder" because the plane didn't have one of those expensive devices that detect radar and send back a powerful answering beam to the tower people so they know who and where you are. "Holding Short" meant I was to taxi up to the end of that runway but not drive onto it. "Roger" meant "I understand."

I had already phoned in a flight plan on the telephone and all I had to do at first was fly over to Austin and close the plan by phone.

My non-electric calculator and pencils and maps lay on the seat by my side. As my plane rumbled along the yellow-lined taxi way I saw a 737 coming in to land on runway 18 Right. Ground Control came back on with, "Cessna 452 hold short at Runway one eight right."

I picked up the black microphone, pressed the button and said, "Roger. I will hold short." The words "student pilot" had made the ground controller nervous. He didn't want me taxiing in front of a jet. But I didn't mind. I felt no pride about my abilities and felt more secure knowing that the controllers knew I was green. They'd pamper me some for the good of all and that was just fine with me.

Ground Control called back and said, Cessna 452 contact Tower point 7. I said "roger" and switched to 127.7 and said, "Hobby Tower, Cessna 11452 ready for take-off at runway one eight right." I clicked the mike again and added, "Student pilot."

There was static and then very clearly came, "Cessna 452 taxi into position and hold."

At small airports before I taxied onto the runway I often did more than just look out the window to check for approaching aircraft. I would often spin the whole plane in a circle as I looked out the windows and checked the whole sky for traffic.

I would do this by locking one of the brakes on the main wheels and pushing with just one toe on the top of the rudder pedal. If it was the left toe, the left main wheel would freeze and the rest of the plane would pivot to the left around it as I added the necessary power with the throttle in my right hand.

The rudder pedal also turns the nose wheel on a Cessna 150, so if I pushed the rudder pedal down too, it wouldn't hurt. The nose wheel is spring loaded so if you're sitting on the tarmac and want to test the rudders you can stomp on the pedals and only the rudder will move -- not the nose wheel. The nose wheel spring just stretches if there's much resistance, and it doesn't turn. But if you are taxiing briskly or taking off, there's less resistance and the light pull of the cable attached to the spring becomes effective and you can steer with it alone. I always liked the fact that the plane would spin on a dime and it was fun to do a clearing turn at smaller airports.

Here at the big airport, things moved a bit faster. I could have spun the plane and no one would have complained, but instead, I just taxied the plane out onto the runway and stopped with my directional gyro reading 180. From Information Charlie, I knew the wind was coming from 180 degrees on the compass or south at eleven miles per hour, directly down the runway at me. The runway was named "one eight" because it ran south from this end and north from the other. The other end was named runway 36 because north is 360 degrees on the compass.

The tower waited a good bit before clearing me for take-off. There was a rearview mirror in the plane and a back window. I found myself looking in the mirror for aircraft. The wait, however, was really welcome and necessary because of the dangerous wake turbulence the 737 had left. It takes two or three minutes for it to dissipate.

When I heard, "Cessna 452 you're cleared for take-off," I said, "Roger" and pushed the black throttle all the way in; full power and nothing less is what you want with a take-off. The plane rolled down the runway and quickly picked up speed.

The take-off was fun as usual. It is a simple maneuver and if you keep the plane straight by steering with your feet, there's little that can go wrong. I held the U-shaped yoke with my left hand and gripped the throttle with my right. You never hold the yoke with both hands; the left hand flies the plane and the right works the throttle and other controls.

I looked at the airspeed indicator as it climbed across the numbers. When it hit sixty-five miles per hour, I lifted the nose with my left hand and the plane jumped into the air.

Now I had entered the airplane's other realm. I said that it was fun to make the plane spin in circles on the ground. It is. You can drive a plane on the ground (once you learn how) and you can do the same tricks perfectly every time. You can master the plane on the ground. In the air, it is a very different story. If you take a test with an FAA official who tells you to fly a certain course at 1200 feet, you can lose or gain 100 feet as you do it and still pass that test. You can always turn the plane on a dime when you are on the ground, but some days, you can't buy a good landing. The difference between the plane on the ground and the plane in the air is obvious very early on in your training.

Since I was climbing now, the nose was high and the instrument panel was all I could see. You can't see through the windshield of a climbing plane -- well, you can, but the view is almost vertical and consists of only sky. The higher the nose, the steeper the climb, the slower the airspeed, and the less the visibility. It's like driving one of those old steam locomotives with no front window. Your view is completely blocked and if you want to see where you are going, you have to stick your head out the window.

I could never stand not being able to see and this time like most other times I lowered the nose until my climbing speed rose to 80 mph. I could see just barely over the control panel with the nose lower and I also took comfort in the extra wind over the wings to keep me aloft.

The plane was still climbing and with the nose raised there were other matters to consider. The plane is rigged aerodynamically for level flight. When the nose is high, however, the descending prop bites harder into the air than the ascending prop. This causes the plane to yaw to the left. The effect is magnified by the air that swirls from the prop. It washes over the fuselage and hits the left side of the rudder, increasing the yaw. You have to add some right rudder to counteract all this.

Even over an metropolitan area like Houston, the most appealing thing about flying an airplane is the view from the air -- Once you leave the ground almost instantly you have a view that is almost Grand Canyonish is its beauty. You might think that people fly planes for the thrill of speed, but you cannot perceive that speed unless you are landing or for some other reason close to the ground where things are whipping past you. Almost always there is no sensation of forward movement -- only a floating feeling as you fly a plane. I think most people fly more for the view.

I flew the plane around some radio towers I knew and made a one-eighty north, flying until I had the airport behind me. Then, I got on my heading for Austin.

The Astrodome passed beneath and I recalled that I had been this way before. I got lost on a trip to College Station and had to buzz a water tower as my mom, a WWII WASP pilot, always told me to do. The tower had "Municipality of Hempstead" painted on it, so I looked for Hempstead on the sectional map, found it, marveled at how far off course I was, and headed in to College Station where the tower asked me to wag my wings so he knew which plane I was.

Nothing special happened on the way to Austin. The view was spectacular. The tower at Austin told me to climb to 2200 feet and I procrastinated a bit and he came back real soon and said, "Cessna 452, say your altitude."

"1800 feet," I admitted, embarrassed.

"Climb to 2200 feet!" he said sternly, and I complied.

The tower directed me around so I was coming in for a straight-in approach to runway 27 left, only I couldn't see 27 left, only 27 right with its big letters 27R. "Cessna 452, do you have the runway?"

"Negative," I answered, "I have only two seven right in view."

"You cannot see two seven Left?

"Negative. Only two seven right." I looked, but I couldn't see the other runway.

"Cessna 452, you are cleared to land on runway two seven right."

I felt relieved because I was approaching the airport so quickly and now had a place to land. I set the plane up to land with 30 degrees of flaps and was coming in low and slow over the runway when the tower shouted, "Cessna 452 Go around!"

"Holy cow," I thought, worried that I was in the way of an airliner or something. I said, "Roger," pushed the power to full, and climbed slowly away, carefully bringing the flaps up five and ten degrees at a time.

The tower cleared me to land on runway 27 again and had me make a one-eighty. Then I was flying back to try the same landing again.

It was a familiar routine for me to fly a downwind leg for a landing. The plane was moving at eighty miles an hour or so in a straight line parallel to the runway, which was a couple of hundred feet to the left. I would fly beyond the end of the runway and make another one-eighty to land on it.

The runway on my left moved by and when I came to its end, I pulled the throttle back to 1700 rmp and pulled the carburetor heat knob on. That's the first step to a landing. The carburetor heat knob lets unfiltered air rush around the hot manifold directly into the carburetor. It prevents ice from forming as the sucking carburetor cools the air that enters it at low rpms. You pull it out when you land and push it in along with the throttle when you take off.

With the rpm down to 1700, I reached down and gave the little black flaps tab a nudge and heard the electric buzzing sound of the flaps going down. I only put down about ten degrees.

When the flaps started down, the nose of the plane pitched up and I had to hold it down by pushing on the yoke. It took a little muscle to do that, so I reached for the trim wheel just under the throttle. I spun it up a little and it took that extra pitch out of the plane without my having to push on the yoke anymore. You are always adjusting that trim to take uncomfortable pressures off your yoke.

I made a 90-degree left turn called the "base leg" so that I could see the end of the runway through my left window and I added on more flaps, held the nose down and trimmed the pressure away. Then I turned to final approach, another 90-degree left turn that put the runway right in front of me. I added in the last of the flaps then and pulled the throttle out to nothing. The prop whirled in the wind with no real power as the engine merely idled. I was down to under seventy miles per hour.

You have to use your eyes when you land the plane. The runway is a long rectangle and its end is a straight line with a number on it. Neither that line, nor the number should move in the windscreen. They should stay right in the same place in the windscreen frame. If the runway appears to move up in the windscreen, you are too low and had better act to correct it. If the runway seems to fall in the windscreen, you are too high. You fly the plane so that the line at the end of the runway and the number simply grow bigger and wider in the same place in the windscreen. Soon they'll be very big indeed, and you'll be putting your wheels on them.

At the same time you watch your airspeed. The stalling speeds are marked there on the indicator and you cannot allow the plane to slow beyond the point of no return. One way to get killed is to stall the plane on the landing. I'm referring to stalling the wing, of course -- not the engine. You don't really need the engine to land. You do need to keep the nose low so the plane doesn't stall.

The end of the runway spread out wider and wider in front of me and when I was about eight feet above the ground I gave a little tug on the yoke. The plane didn't flare, so I did it again and the plane stopped its descent for a moment and floated over the runway. Very gently I pulled the yoke back -- and I kept pulling it back quarter inch by quarter inch until the stall warning horns were screaming. Nose high, I could see nothing in front of me except the control panel. I pushed in about five rpm of throttle just to spin the prop and keep the plane flying that much longer and then the main wheels behind me touched the runway and rolled rubbery without a squeak. I held the nose high until the yoke was back to its full stop and then the nose wheel came down and touched the pavement on its own. I could see in front of me again. A perfect landing. No one on earth could do it better. Still, I felt the sense of relief I always felt when the plane got safely back on the ground.

I switched to the ground control frequency and heard my instructions to exit via one of the left ramps. I saw an exit ramp and I slammed on both brakes and let the plane come to a shuddering near-stop. I put some extra weight on the left toe so the plane would turn that way as I gunned the throttle to move the slower, heavier plane around the axis of the left main wheel.

At the airport I made a phone call and closed my flight plan so they knew I had reached Austin safely and no one would start a search for me. It was hard to forget because there was a huge sign that said, "Did you Close Your Flight Plan?" Reminders like that are common at airports. Deer Valley Airport in Arizona has a good example of such a reminder. As you approach the runway, you see written in spray painted river stones the word: "Wheels."

I took off again and headed for Victoria. The flight was nearly south and I didn't bother to add in the positive degrees you add when you are flying west. The plane has a magnetic compass, but the sectional map shows true north, so you have to adjust with the "East is least, West is best" system to make up for that. That's a part of dead reckoning navigation, a little science that is quite impressive at times.

If you plot your course correctly and compute your heading (a course corrected for wind) you can time your passage over selected landmarks almost by the second. Let's say you have planned to power the plane at a certain rpm and a certain heading starting at a certain time. Your calculations on the sectional map indicate you will pass over a stock tank at 9:15 and 20 seconds. It's perfectly reasonable to make that forecast with your knowledge of where the wind is blowing and so on. But it is still an eerie feeling to find that the second hand of your wrist watch bears out the prediction just as you pass over that stock tank.

I said that a heading is a course corrected for wind. This means that if Victoria is directly south and a hundred miles away you can't just fly at 180 degrees at 100 miles per hour and expect to be there in an hour. You may have ten degrees of cross wind, in which case in that hour you will have flown ten miles off course and probably not even see the Victoria Airport. You have to add that factor to your course to get a heading that does what you want it to do.

There is no ignoring the winds aloft (or on the ground). The plane is imbedded in the air mass. If that air mass is moving at ten miles an hour to the west, the plane is doing that too. When you fly your heading and you are correcting for wind, the plane will fly sideways. This is called crabbing and it is the normal way to fly from one point to another. There's no other way. You must account for the wind to get anywhere.

One more point about being imbedded in the air mass: I have read newspaper articles that suggest that this plane or that plane crashed because the pilot turned away from the wind, lost airspeed and stalled. I have also heard people worry about the wind stopping and the plane losing its lift and falling from the sky. These things cannot happen. Again: the plane is imbedded in the air mass. If it's approaching the runway and the wind stops, the plane will simply increase its ground speed while maintaining its air speed.

When I got to Victoria I was met with a serious problem. It seemed that the airport was hosting some sort of twin-engine aircraft aficionado convention. The air was alive with planes. I looked at the approaching airport and there must have been twenty-five big planes on the upwind and downwind legs of the runway. I switched the radio to the local frequency and said, "Victoria unicom, Cessna 452 entering downwind leg from forty-five for full stop on runway two two." By this I was telling everyone that I was coming into the downwind leg at a 45-degree angle and wanted to land and stop on the runway as opposed to making a touch and go.

I tried to get into the traffic, but the other planes were too fast. I gave up the effort almost at once and turned the plane around. I thought of trying to get back into the pattern, but when I flew back to do so, just one look at all those big, fast twin-engined monsters made me change my mind. I climbed to 3000 feet and went right over the top of the airport and looked down. There were a million of them. I suppose I could have got on the radio and begged everyone to get out of the way, but the whole situation was just too scary for me. I decided to fly back to Houston.

I put the plane on my predetermined heading and then realized I hadn't closed my flight plan. I freaked for a minute before I thought, "Heck, I'll just close that flight plan using the radio and open the new one the same way." I had to juggle some papers and things as I flew the plane and gave the people on the radio the figures they needed, but soon I was flying back to Houston's Hobby airport.

The trip back dragged and soon I wondered whether I was lost. None of the landmarks seemed to be on my sectional map. Finally, I saw a little kidney-shaped lake that matched the lake on the map exactly. I changed my heading by eyeballing the map, not even using my plastic protractor. A while later I saw familiar radio towers and I knew I was near home. I felt a kind of grateful lump in my throat over this. I knew that I was going to survive another flight.

I contacted Hobby Radar who passed me on to the tower. I came in to land on runway 22 and as I did I noticed that the runway was falling in my windscreen. I was high. I began a maneuver called a slip that I was pretty skilled at.

I put the left wing down and pushed on the opposite rudder. With the controls crossed this way, the plane flew banked and sideways toward the runway presenting a great deal of the door and fuselage to the wind. And with that drag on the plane, it just began to drop like a stone from the sky. Slipping is the best way to lose altitude fast, but you have to watch the airspeed and keep the nose down as you drop sideways toward the ground. You don't want to slip with any flaps on either.

The runway came up in the windscreen and I took out the slip by simply rolling the plane level and taking off the opposite rudder. Now I was making a good approach.

At the end of the runway, to my right, I saw a 727 waiting to take off. There was a slight crosswind that would like to push me in that direction, but I used my controls to counteract it. As I got closer, I could see the pilot of the 727 looking out the window at me. He had sunglasses on and a white shirt and tie. I'm sure I made him nervous, but I missed him by at least fifty feet and landed full flaps on the runway. Another real nice touchdown. I left the flaps down because I thought the plane looked so cool that way, and when I asked to taxi to Fletcher's the ground controller asked if I was the plane that still had its flaps down. I said, "Affirmative." and raised them.

Back at the ground school, my instructor asked how I had done. "Fine, I said. "Er, there was a lot of traffic at Victoria."

"Was there?" he said smiling.

I never told him that I didn't make a landing there. I wanted credit for the flight.