“That guy can really land the airplane.”
Midway through the Navy initial flight training syllabus at NAS Whiting Field I was “that guy,” and about as cocky as a man can get. When I overheard the runway duty officer (RDO) on the radio complimenting my touch-and-goes at the outlying field in the Florida panhandle, the exhilaration of the flying phase of my student naval flight surgeon program reached its peak. To be singled out as an “ace” by the guys who do it for real, well…priceless.
Pride goeth… I wrote that here last month.
I’m older and wiser now than in the spring of 1992, when much of my world revolved around the next flight, the next takeoff, the next landing, the next debrief; and ultimately the first solo flight in that most fun airplane, the T-34C Mentor. For a recycled middle-aged ER doc, my life was hot stuff.
“Do one more and then head back,” said my on-wing flight instructor from the back seat. He hadn’t spoken much during the seven prior touch-and-go landings, and I’d almost forgotten that he was in the airplane; more like a sack of potatoes in the rear than a veteran pilot mentoring the s**t-hot doc pilot in the front seat.
The single engine turboprop aircraft accelerated under full power to traffic pattern altitude, whereupon I cranked it into a 45-degree angle of bank turn per the standard Navy racetrack landing pattern.
|Diagram from www.tpub.com
In my head I recited the mnemonic for the landing procedure: Flop, chop, check, drop.
1) Flop. Roll into a steep bank 180 degree turn.
2) Chop. Retard the throttle to landing pattern power setting.
3) Check. Monitor the airspeed bleed-down into the safe zone for lowering the gear and flaps.
4) Drop. Extend the landing gear and deploy the flaps, further slowing the aircraft to pattern standards.
I executed a precise roll-out at 180 degrees of turn, and completed the landing checklist on my downwind leg parallel to the runway. At the abeam point, I flopped into another steep bank turn and set the throttle for the final approach. Past the 90 degree point, losing exactly the right amount of altitude, I rolled out to straight and level flight to see the runway in front of me. Then it was a simple matter of controlling airspeed with pitch, and altitude with power until I arrived over the runway threshhold, chopped the remaining power, and allowed the airplane to settle gently onto the asphalt.
He shoots, he scores! Touchdown! Grand Slam! (So what if it’s a mixed metaphor? This is flying, man!)
As soon as the tires kissed the pavement, I pushed the throttle full forward, gently eased back the stick, and lifted the airplane back into the air.
“Nice job,” the instructor said. “Let’s go home.”
I continued on the upwind to departure altitude, and then started a turn back toward Whiting Field. The airplane didn’t accelerate like I’d expected, but it was late June — hot and humid. Just the density altitude, I thought. (Airplanes don’t perform well on a hot, humid day when the atmosphere is similar to thinner air at higher altitudes.) My self-aggrandizing cockiness ignored a deep inner voice: Might be density altitude effect in a normally aspirated piston-engine single like your old 172, but in a turboprop? Think again, Hot Shot.
I leveled off at the prescribed cruise altitude. To maintain the desired airspeed, the engine required more throttle than usual. I still thought it was density altitude. Like flying back in Arizona, density altitude can sure diminish an aircraft’s performance.
Then I heard the instructor’s voice in my headset. “Hey, Doc. Where are you from?”
“Arizona,” I said. He must be thinking about density altitude as well.
“What do they raise in Arizona, Doc?”
“Cattle,” I said in a proud voice. I came from a ranching family.
“Do they raise anything else in Arizona, Doc?”
I thought for a moment. “Crops,” I said. “Cotton, citrus, that sort of thing.”
“What else do they raise in Arizona, Doc?”
“We have copper mines,” I said. “Tourism is big.”
“Do they raise anything else?”
I was at a loss. “Pretty much it,” I said.
“How about the landing gear?”
I shifted my gaze to the landing gear handle. Sure enough, it perched in the “down and locked” position from landing. Chagrined, I jerked it up, and felt the landing gear raise. The aircraft performance zipped up as well. No longer flying “dirty,” and relieved of the excess drag from the extended landing gear, it purred along like a contented cat. We completed the return to Whiting Field in silence. That landing approach may have been less than perfect.
There was no density altitude problem in the aircraft that day. Just a dense student naval flight surgeon who still had a lot to learn — about flying, and about life.