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Thursday, January 8, 2009

A Very Nice Day

In the cool dense air over North Central Texas, my Beechcraft Sundowner climbs like a rocket. I’m light on fuel, with three empty seats. Opposite a farm house where I’m normally about 700ft above the ground level (AGL), I turn left onto the crosswind leg, and before I can level the wings heading 90 degrees, I’m at 1700 ft above Mean Sea Level (MSL), the pattern altitude at TKI.

Turning left again, heading North over a gravel pit, I ask for and receive clearance for a series of touch and go’s. The tower warns of bird activity east of the airport, but I don’t see them. Opposite the approach end, 1,000 ft AGL, about 1.5 miles to the side, I reduce power to 1500 RPM, and lower a notch of flaps. The nose comes down, and I set up a 500ft per minute descent. I do my short pre-landing check list – mixture full rich, correct tank selected, electric fuel pump on.

Left again, this time heading west, about a mile off the approach end of runway 17, I look back along the straight in approach. The tower cleared me “number 1”, so it’s supposed to be clear, but I still look anyway. It’s a good habit, because not all airports are “controlled” by a tower. Most are uncontrolled, and rely on all pilots to communicate their position with blind radio calls. But not all pilots are conscientious, some forget, and some fly airplanes without radios. So I always look.

One more left turn to align with the extended centerline, heading directly towards the approach end at 75 kts and 500 feet AGL. The VASI lights on the left side show I’m high – one red light and 3 white ones. Sundowners glide like a rock, so I prefer to be high. I add another notch of flaps to increase my descent. Once I have 2 reds and 2 whites, I know I’m on the glide path, and pull back on the yoke a bit to reduce my descent and drop a little speed.

Over the end of the runway – a perfect 50 feet up, 70 kts and slowing. I can’t believe I haven’t flown for almost 2 months! Just above the runway, pull the nose up, but not too far – the slightest hint of a ballooning action and I stop pulling – settle, settle, pull some more – and the main wheels touch without a bounce and just a little “squeak”. Best one I’ve done this year! First one I’ve done this year!

Flaps up, full power, flying speed already – we do to “go” part of a touch and go. Climbing, I follow the same procedure. The goal is to do it the same way every time, no variance, make it habit. Now there’s a Diamond DA20 (2 seat trainer) in the pattern with me. He’s fast, but not quite as fast as me. I have to spread out my pattern a little to stay in sync. I do another Touch, another Go.

This time I deliberately delay my crosswind turn, staying straight until I reach the magic 1700 ft. I’m planning to change things up. On the downwind, opposite the tower, I see the Diamond is about to touch down. “Sundowner xxx with a request”.

“”Go ahead” says the tower. “Yeah, I’d like to make this a power off precision landing, if able” I say, trying to be polite,, but clear with my request. “Cleared for close in approach, cleared to land number 2”.

The Power Off Precision Approach is a commercial maneuver you have to demonstrate as part of the commercial FAA License. It involves pulling the engine power all the way to idle opposite your chose landing spot, and carefully controlling your turns and rate of descent to touch down within 100ft of the pre-designated spot. I’ve done power off approaches before, but this is the first one I’ve tried as a precision approach. Before I started working on mastering the commercial maneuvers, it was good enough just to land on the runway. Now I’m trying to land on a dime, without the use of an engine.

It works. I find I need to delay turning towards the runway for about 1000ft, then make my base leg, followed by turn onto approach. 1 notch of flaps on the base leg, and add more as needed on final. I do this twice, and each time touched down on the white touchdown zone stripe I chose as my target. This stripe is 1000ft from the runway end on all ILS-equipped runways – knowing that helps me judge on the downwind distances.

Finally, I left the now busier airspace around McKinney, and flew east over Lake Lavon about 15 miles while climbing to 3500 ft for some airwork. I’m practicing chandelles, another commercial maneuver. It involved flying straight and level at cruise power, then adding full power while turning and climbing at the same time. To goal is to end up facing the opposite way with the maximum altitude gain – presumably to avoid some obstacle, but also to show how well you as the pilot can control the aircraft through a radical change in pitch, speed and climb.

With 3 chandelles done, it’s time to land. I head back to the field, making a call 10 miles out over the 380 bridge. Just as I prepare to call, I hear: “McKinney Tower, Cessna xxx, 10 miles east, inbound for landing”. Oops. That’s right were I am. I rapidly look all around, and chime in with “McKinney Tower, Sundowner xxx is also 10 miles east inbound, 2000ft over the bridge, with the numbers”. He didn’t give his altitude. I gave mine, along with the fact that I already had all the weather data (the “numbers”) and my exact position.

“Cessna xx, Mckinney, ident”. With that command, McKinney is asking the Cessna to press a button on his panel that causes his “target indicator” as they call the radar return to “blossom” so he can tell who is where. “Sundowner xxx, expect left base approach runway 17.” “Roger xxx”.

I start my base leg about 4 miles away. I’ve found the Cessna, off to my left, no factor. “Sundowner xxx, cleared to land runway 17. Will this be a full stop?” “Affirmative, Sundowner xxx, cleared to land”

“McKinney tower, Sundowner xxx is cleared to land, by the way I found your birds, 700Ft AGL just north east of the approach end runway 17”. “Thank you Sundowner xxx. Taxi to parking, have a nice day”

A very nice day.

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