Sniffin' the Wind

Posted October 2005

On Thu, 13 Oct 2005 00:43:15 -0000, Marco wrote:

> Come on guys, I need to read some new stories. I am pretty sure all of
> you who have a Flying Baby have some thing to tell about it. Does not
> have to be long but even a small paragraph will do. I need to keep my
> spirit up even if it is not in a Baby.

Well, they ain't all waft-aloft-with-the-scent-of-daffodills-and-leather-in-your-manly-nostril stories, ya know.  Sometimes, it's just plain work.

Take last Sunday, for instance.  With typical fall weather having moved in to the Seattle area, flying opportunities get rarer.  Sunday was dry, though mostly cloudy.  Ordinarily, a reasonable day for fall.

But...the fall winds come from the southwest, around here, and my home drome runway runs north-south.  As I drove to the airport Sunday afternoon, the flags were showing a pretty hefty crosswind.

Even worse, it was a right-side crosswind.  When landing a taildragger in such a wind, one has to hold right stick.  This means a "backhander"...holding the stick like you're doing a backhanded swing with a tennis racket.  I've *never* liked landing with the wind from the right.  And today's wind looked pretty stiff.

There's a big flag at the car dealer just on the other side of the fence from my hangar, there's a wind sock at the departure end of 1-6, and the airport has a "Superunicom" that gives the current wind conditions with three clicks of the microphone.

It's strange, but I've never really trusted any of them.  I need to walk clear of the hangars and any obstructions and feel it for myself.  I call it "Sniffing the Wind."  I stand facing the breeze, inhaling slowly, judging what angle I'd standing from the runway centerline.  Then I glance at the other clues; rippling grass, whipping trees, windsocks, flags, even birds.  I turn and watch planes buck their way down the final approach path, trying to judge whether there's any sort of wind sheer, and how gusty the wind is at altitude.

I show a lot more confidence in the air that on the ground.  Before mounting up, I fret over perceived issues with the airplane, I think carefully whether I should go flying with a slight headache... and I look, very carefully, at the wind.  But when I drop into the cockpit...well, the worries drop away, the headache disappears, and I'm ready to tackle any problem the sky throws at me.

I guess that's the way it should be.

But what it boils down to is that I'm often very namby-pamby prior to takeoff. As I was that day.  I sniffed the wind (at least 45 degrees to the runway), I watched the trees flutter (probably around 10 MPH), I saw the Pipers and Cessnas way overshooting their base-to-final turns in the crosswind (no taildraggers in the pattern).  I waffled back and forth a few times...and decided to fly.

Why?  A couple of things.  The biggest one was the dislike of my own dislikes. If it had been a left-hand crosswind, I would have leapt into the cockpit with only a fleeting concern.  But I have that bugaboo about right-hand crosswinds. I decided I needed to face the problem, to get some practice to assure myself that I could handle it.

So, preflight, roll out, fire up.  I'm based at the north end of the airport, so it was just a short roll to the runup area.  Someone else clicks the Superunicom, and it reports a sixty-degree crosswind at nine knots.  Run up, make the radio call, roll onto the runway.

One of the tricks light airplane pilots can use is to make their takeoff run at an angle.  I started on the left edge of the runway, aiming for the right edge about a thousand feet away.  It reduces the effective crosswind by 10 degrees or so.

I shoved the stick hard right (darned backhander!) before hitting the throttle.  I clenched the grip hard as the air pressure tried to push it from my fingers. Stabs at the rudder kept us going straight.

Up with the tail.  Ease off the pedals a bit, with the rudder biting harder in the stiffening headwind.  Feel Moonraker roll, leaving the right tire planted on the asphalt.

Add back pressure, and away we go.  The heart rate slows.  I swing the nose a bit to hold a crab angle that tracks us straight down the runway.

Then it's off to view the fall colors, to circle the farmhouse of a flying friend, to check out the columns of smoke rising from the Enumclaw plateau (usually burning yard waste, but this summer I came across a house being burned for a Fire Department exercise).

Finally, though, it was time. Normally, I'd shoot a couple of touch and goes before putting the plane to bed, but not today.  Patterns' empty as I come home. I remember the teardrop base-to-final turns of the airplanes I'd watched earlier, and made my turn early.  Too early, by a bit, but I just let the crosswind slide me into alignment.

The angle trick would work as well with a landing as a takeoff, but I've never been able to force myself to do it.  I crab a bit to hold alignment, and keep a little power on.  Over the fence, I kick the crab straight and dip the right wing (darned backhander!).  I keep the speed high, feeling for the ground with the right tire.  It touches, not too bad, but the plane twists like jello on a hot rock and lifts off again.  Hold it, ease it, touch-skip-touch and we're rolling on the right tire.  Throttle off all the way, stick hard over (darned backhander!), let it curve just a little to the right, let the tail ease down, and soon we're rolling sedately along.

Turn onto the taxiway, position the controls for downwind/crosswind taxiing, and head back to the barn.

Gee...who's afraid of an ol' backhander, anyway?

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