Gliding, Slow Flying and Preparing to Land

Again I’m a little late in posting but this was the most enjoyable lesson thus far! It was a wonderful, bright sunny morning as I arrived at Thunderbird Aviation on Sunday September 11th, 2011. It was an 8.30 am lesson and my instructor Tim was waiting for me. In fact this was his only class today. We greeted one another with smiles and a handshake and Tim said that he would get some papers and todays syllabus from his office while I go out to the plane and do the Walkaround by myself. I was excited that I was going to do something by myself now and as I walked out toward the plane, I wondered what was in store for todays’ lesson. Then I remembered and said to myself, “Oh yes, I’m going to do the gliding, control the plane in slow flight and prepare to land”. Now, I was a little nervous as this would involve considerably slowing the plane down and going into a stall. Stall is not the same as when a car stalls. Stalling in aviation means when the wings have no lift. There’s a certain angle called the Angle of Attack that when the relative wind hits the wings at that angle, the wings do not lift the plane. This is not a good angle to be in as it can mean the plane is too steep and the stall warning alarm goes off in the plane. But I digress.

When I finished the Walkaround and returned to the airport building, Time said, “Any problems out there?”  I replied emphatically “No Tim!”, and we sat down as Tim gave me a quick run down of the things we were going to do, and this included the Stall, Gliding, Controlling the plane in slow flight and preparing to land. And then an additional surprise. “After that we’ll fly out to Buffalo airport and we’ll learn about flying around airports.”, said Mr. Wallace. “Wow! Great, I’m excited!”, I replied. Buffalo is a small city about 30 miles from Crystal. I had covered flying around airports in Chapter 3 of my Pilots’ handbook. There’s a certain way one approaches and lands at an airport and one has to follow this along with information from the communication tower to avoid any accidents or problems with other planes that might want to land at the same time.

Today I was able to actually do the take off by myself i.e. without any comments from my instructor about the nose being too high. I was also able to keep the plane straight using the pedals at 55 mph and then gently taking off. Once we were in the practice area, we began practicing the maneuvers. Whilst maintaining elevation at about 3000 feet and the plane was in level flight, I turned the plane to the left and pulled the throttle all the way back which completely reduces the power and the plane is in slow flight. I found that the plane was much less responsive to my actions. I had to really turn the yoke to the left or to the right for the plane to respond. Now that the power was down, and the plane moving slower, we were losing altitude also. So I had to maintain the speed by elevating the plane by pulling the yoke back and trying to maintain a speed of about 75 mph, and added some trim. Then I found an area where we could potentially land and gradually slowed the plane down further by putting on the first stage of the flaps. The flaps produce drag to slow the plane down further. There are three stages to it and you pull it back and it locks in stage one, then you pull it back again to the second stage until you hear it click into place, then the final and third stage when you pull it back again. With each stage the plane slows down even more as we increase the drag. This makes the plane more manageable on the approach to land, as well as slowing it down. When we got close to landing, Tim said, “That’s good, take her up now”. I gradually pushed the throttle forward to increase the power and the RPM increased and we rapidly began to ascend. “Ok keep this altitude and heading and let’s go to Buffalo”, said Tim.

As we approached Buffalo airport my instructor said, this is one of many unmanned airports around the US and in Minnesota. I was surprised at this news and asked, “Well then if there’s no control tower, whom do we ask when and which runway to land on?” He said, “Well we just open up a frequency and listen in on the conversations of other planes around. They will tell you their position and if they’re coming into land or not. Based on that, you do what you want to do”. Then my instructor announced his position and his approach to Buffalo airport. He said it rather quickly and one pilot replied back, “Can you say that more faster?!”  Tim was amused and replied back, “Yes, I could”. The other pilot in the area replied back stating his position and my instructor took the controls to make a landing. I had read about all this in Chapter 3, Flying Around Airports. The flight path is rectangular in shape and the book quotes the following, “Airport traffic patterns can be likened to the on and off ramps of the aerial superhighway, and as with freeway on and off ramps, you’ll find a lot of traffic there. To ensure the orderly flow of traffic, the legs of the traffic pattern have been named – Downwind, Base, Final Crosswind and Upwind”. You always fly and land into the direction of the wind. This is when the control tower or the automated weather service come in handy. Since this was an unmanned airport we had to listen to the automated weather service which informed us of the weather and direction of the wind. I don’t want to turn this into a flight/landing lesson so I’ll end it here and say that once my instructor landed the plane we disembarked on to Buffalo airport. There was one other airplane parked a little farther away on the tarmac, and to my surprise a helicopter! I wasn’t aware that helicopters could land on airports used by airplanes, but apparently they could.

We walked toward the airport building in an environment that was warm, bright and totally without breeze. The building was extremely small as can be seen in the pictures I’ve taken. Tim began to explain about other unmanned airports around the country and how some of them have courtesy cars. People can fly in, park their planes and take a courtesy car and travel around the city. Further, he mentioned that since these were unmanned everything was based on the honour system. That’s regarding the payment for the use of the car. The key is at the airport and you put some money there for fuel and the use of the car. How much money you put down is up to you. Tim said some people use the car and then put the money on the table according to how much fuel was used. Now I must clarify what unmanned actually means. At this particular airport, there was an office inside for a couple of individuals who weren’t there. They probably came in once a week or a couple of hours a week, if that, so most of the times it’s unmanned.

We approached the airport building and opened the door and immediately on our left were the rest rooms, but before we could actually enter the airport building proper, there was a key pad in which we had to enter the UNICOM frequency, which only pilots know said Tim. Once he entered the code into the key pad, the door opened and we were able to go inside. It was a nice little airport with an open office which had a couple of computers on the desk. Tim showed me how we could use these computers by entering the code for Crystal airport and information popped up informing us of the distance from Buffalo, temperature, wind speed and direction, time and weather conditions. There were chairs for people to wait, or just sit and spend some time relaxing. Around the corner was a fridge, although empty, you could put your food in there. I’m sure it was also for the use of the couple of workers that came in during the week. A coffee maker, and then another computer which had access to the internet. Next we found a candy machine and soda machine next to that. We went back out again toward the front of the airport building and saw the radio tower there and the shell of a US Air Force plane. Then it was time for us to go back and so we boarded the plane and I once again took it up in to the air, “Next week we’ll go to Princeton airport”, said Tim. “That’s another unmanned airport, but slightly bigger and has the courtesy cars.” This trip to the airport was most fascinating as I had never expected unmanned airports, and then the courtesy cars followed by the honour system regarding payment for their use was just amazing.

Once we were back at Crystal airport, Tim scheduled my classes for next Saturday and Sunday. I thanked him for the trip to Buffalo, and said how thrilled I was to visit Princeton next week.

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