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August 13, 2019

Lesson #21: Sunday Aug 3 2019

I'm remiss in writing these reports. My last one was for lesson #18 on July 7th, but since then I've flown 3 more lessons, with the most one being lesson #21 on Sunday, August 3rd 2019.

There's a simple explanation. I've been flying the same lesson over and over. When people ask how I'm doing, I say "I'm still trying to learn how to land." That's true, but putting it that way short-changes my progress. It would be more accurate to say I'm trying to learn how to handle the last 15 seconds of the landing. Learning to land is the hardest thing you do when you're learning to fly because there are so many parts to it. I've written many times before about these various parts.

Lesson #18 on July 7th was probably my low point. I'd spent weeks not even touching the ground, and once I did start actually bringing the airplane all the way down the runway, it was pretty rough. It's actually still pretty rough, but the difference the last three lessons have made is that I'm starting to dial in the other parts.

For me, the landing really starts when you're heading downwind in the opposite direction from the runway and you're "abeam the numbers" when you pass the end of the runway where you intend to touch down. At this point you're 1,000 feet above the runway going about 110kts. In the next couple of minutes you want to get the airplane down to about 40kts inches above the runway. The goal is to standardize how you do this—basically, do it more or less the same way every time. I'm not there yet, but every lesson I've been getting a little better. I still don't know how to handle crosswinds, but as luck would have it my last three lessons have had very little wind to work about.

I'm really starting to get a feel for how to control the pitch and the power to bleed off that energy. Abeam the numbers: pull out the carb heat control, which cuts the power by about 20hp. Cut the power from 2300-2500rpm down to 1700. Get the speed down to flaps range, which is 85 knots. Once you're at that point, put in the first 10° of flaps.

And so forth. I've written about the sequence a few times - [lesson 9], [lesson 14], and [lesson 18] among others. I'm starting to get a feeling for whether I'm too high or too low. I'm getting better about monitoring my speed, which is arguably the most important single thing you need to manage on the way down.

So let's talk about lesson 21. How did it actually go?

The weather was iffy. There was rain in the area, but the airport was still VFR; the rain was perhaps 10 miles to the north. You've probably seen photos of rain coming over the desert; it looked something like that from 1,000 feet up. You could tell where it was.

Before we went up, Steve wanted me to notice something about the wind. Wind 200 at 8 knots with runway 21L and 21R in use. I started up the Foreflight app on my phone to get a feeling for which way that was. Wait—we're landing on a runway with a compass heading of 210—roughly North to South, and the wind is out of 200—that's a tailwind!

Conventional wisdom is that you never want to land or take off with a tailwind. A tailwind means you go further down the runway on takeoff, and when you're approaching the runway on a landing, the ground comes up at you a little faster. Not good!

Normally the tower will "turn the airport around" when the wind direction changes—they'll tell aircraft to takeoff and land in opposite direction. Steve's explanation for why they hadn't done that was first that the wind was still relatively low, and more importantly, PDK really likes to try to keep the ILS approach available, and that's only on 21L. (ILS is a system for precisely landing an airplane; the business jets that typically come on the longer runway like to use ILS.)

Despite what I said about being able to control the approach, the first time around I was much too high and not getting down. We executed a go-around —fly above the runway and get the plane back into climbing and cruise configuration: carb heat back in, flaps up in stages, full power.

I don't remember the exact sequence of the next 4-5 landings; I don't even remember the exact number of landings.

I do know on one of them I fell prey to the pattern I'm still trying to get out of: not flying the plane all the way down to the runway and stalling while I'm still 20'+ in air. "Jesus!" Steve exclaimed and struggled to keep us from going splat. That was the low point for this lesson.

The final landing—a "full stop"—was pretty bad. I think I bounced the airplane.

But on one landing, Steve said "That was acceptable!" And that felt pretty damned good.

Landing an airplane is the hardest thing I've tried to learn in my adult life. My progress is measured in chunks of perhaps 50 minutes in the air at a cost of $275-$335 per lesson. My log records that I've had 22.9 hours of dual instruction. 21 lessons, 8 months, something over $5,000.