Astronomers may differ, but I have my own definition for the first day of summer: The first day of the year that I don't have to wear a coat when I go flying.
Last Saturday was the day. I knew it was coming...the leather coat was shucked off in favor of my canvas jacket about a month ago, and the gloves had stayed in the pockets for the last couple of weeks. Cessnas were taxiing with their windows popped open, and Long-Ezs zipped out to the runway with their canopies atilt.
But last Saturday was finally the day. On with the SPF 30 and the comfortable knit shirt. Slide the heater knob to the "off" position for the first time since last fall. Sit in line for takeoff with hands clasped comfortably behind one's head, propwash cooling the armpits. Away aloft, blasting through clouds of cottonwood seeds.
Nothing much to report, the first day of summer. Dropped in at a local airport to check out a Rebel nearing completion. Circled a co-worker's house back in the boondocks, waving back at the tablecloth being fluttered in the yard. Back home to shoot touch-and-goes over the picnickers spread over the grassy verge just outside the airport fence. After clearing the runway, pull off the headset and helmet and taxi back to the hangar with the wind teasing my hair.
Got a little more exciting the next day, Sunday.
The weather was even better, and I launched in the early afternoon, heading south. I'd gotten email from a local man who'd just purchased a local Fly Baby, and I figured he'd be working on his airplane on such a fine day. It's based at a small private field located well to the south of the Seattle area; a long drive for the man, I knew, but the hangar rates are dirt-cheap.
I usually have trouble locating Cougar Mountain airport, and Sunday was no exception. The field is a classic back-country airport; a grassy gash in the trees, set down in a valley, in the middle of a lot of grassy gashes in similar valleys. About ten years ago, I almost got airsick in a friend's T-18 as we weaved around on a bumpy day looking for Cougar Mountain.
I eventually picked out the right valley, and started circling the field. The runway runs East-West with a pretty strong slope up to the East End. The airport guide says land to the East and take off to the West except in strong Westerly winds.
On the plus side, the runway is pretty long and the approaches to the west are clear and flat. It's really not that tough of a place to fly out of (as witnessed by the Cessnas and Cherokees based there), but I've always had trouble with it. The uphill slope throws me off, and the shallow valley further skews my judgement. Most of the pattern is flown outside the valley, but midway on base, you drop over the valley walls onto a flat, nearly featureless pasture leading to the runway. Go-arounds are tough; I went through a bit of pucker a few years back when I did a low pass, then wondered if the 'Baby could outclimb the hills and trees at the East end.
Plus, on this day, we had a strong Northwest wind when I'd taken off from Auburn, forty miles to the North. Should I land uphill like I normally do, or is the wind strong enough to require a downwind landing instead? But winds are fluky in the Puget Sound region...was the wind still from the same direction this far South? I'd never landed downhill at Cougar before...did I really want to try it in a stiff crosswind?
I pondered this as I circled the field. I couldn't make out a windsock anywhere, and there wasn't any close-by smoke to judge the wind. No Unicom, no other planes operating locally. I could see a hangar door gapping open, and a man in a white shirt standing in the opening. It's probably the new Fly Baby owner.
After two laps, I'd made my decision. I'd land uphill, taking the chance with the possible quartering tailwind. To minimize the chance of overshooting, I'd be especially careful to keep my airspeed nailed on final approach. Since the 'Baby's so draggy, I tend to let speed drift too high, since it'll shed excess speed in a second or two. It's a bad habit I occasionally work on breaking.
Swing out from the field, descend, and enter the pattern on the 45. Fly a long downwind to give more time on final. Turn base, trying to ignore the climbing sensation as the plane crosses over the lip of the valley. Then onto final, lining up on the paler center part of the strip of grass between the trees.
Back on the throttle the rest of the way. Airspeed to 80, hold it. No apparent crosswind drift. The airfield fence seems to be sliding upward...optical illusion due to the slope, or...? Burst of power. Back on the stick. Airspeed 75. Blip power again. Fence slides by below. Throttle off all the way. Moonraker sags downward. Back on the stick. Nose rises.
A soft plop, and we're down and rolling. Not bad for a one-eyed fat man. Most of the runway is ahead, and the 'Baby decelerates nicely on the uphill grass.
I swing off the runway and taxi toward the hangars. Swing the tail around, kill the power, and climb out. Odd. There *is* no crosswind...no wind at all, in fact. The location in the bottom of the low valley, which might account for the lack of wind.
Talk to the new owner a bit, look at his Fly Baby for a while. Curiously enough, I was familiar with the airplane, as I'd flown with a previous owner years ago. Swap stories for a bit, then mount up for home.
Normally, a takeoff would be anti-climactic. But Cougar has a surprise or two in store. Widely-spaced pairs of stubby tubes of reflective material mark the runway. In my concentration during the approach, I hadn't really realized how narrow the marked runway was. Plus, the markers all had high grass around them...they were still obvious on approach, but weren't so definite at ground level.
The full impact of the situation hit me when I shoved the throttle forward. No visibility forward...and no runway-side markings other than an occasional pair of grass-hidden markers slipping by on either wide. I didn't have a good, solid directional reference...and a mistake could run me over one of the markers.
I kept the stick shoved forward to pick up the tail as soon as possible. Slowly, ever so slowly, the nose came down. Moonraker got light (I didn't dare glance at the airspeed) so I eased the wheels off the grass.
We were still a little slow, so I didn't force the 'Baby to climb. No matter...we were leaving the same way we came, with a downhill slope and clear terrain. Airspeed soon got fat, and we pulled up and popped out of the valley. One good sigh of relief, then bank towards home.
But you know...I can't wait to go back. :-)
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