May 30, 2012
By Kathy Dondzila
I stung for days over the terrible round of touch and goes I had flown during my previous lesson. After I’d finished kicking myself, I focused on identifying specific things I could do that might help me improve. I talked with Tom Zecha, my flight instructor, and with my Alaskan pilot friend, Dwayne, who happened to call as I was lamenting the landings. Between the two of them, they have more than 20,000 hours of flight time, and I gleaned three action items from their wisdom: Sit up higher so I can see out the window better; look farther down the runway as I judge when to flare; and make small, gradual changes to pitch and power as I hold it off, hold it off, hold it off the runway.
During the previous lesson, as Tom and I were flying around the pattern, we had talked about the airplane’s attitude in different configurations. He had mentioned the nose in relation to the horizon and I had remarked that I couldn’t see the nose unless I sat forward and stretched up. He slid down a few inches in his seat to see what I was seeing. It was an “Aha!” moment. I’m 5 feet, 3.5 inches tall. Although I’d cranked up the Skyhawk seat as far as it would go, it wasn’t enough. I needed a seat cushion.
After I returned to the office, one of our corporate pilots overheard me talking about this. She had a very nice set of leather seat cushions (one for the seat and one for the seat-back) that she had used routinely when she had been flying an older airplane with a saggy seat, but wasn’t using now. She graciously showed me where they were and said I could use them whenever I flew. Turns out, they were exactly what I needed. As we taxied out to the runway for Lesson Three, I grinned and said to Tom, “No excuses, now.”
We took off and climbed to pattern altitude. The wind was not gusty, as it had been on the day of the previous lesson, but blew a steady 12 knots from 220 degrees. It was lunchtime and there were three other aircraft in the pattern at Frederick doing touch and goes. Tom handled the radio calls and we both listened and watched for traffic. Someone was five miles out on the 45-degree entry for the downwind. We kept an eye out for him, too. So, with distractions all around, I kept my main focus on flying a textbook pattern, establishing a stable approach, and greasing the landing. No sense aiming for less than perfect.
The pilot in front of us was flying an airliner pattern. We followed him around, delaying our turns to accommodate his large rectangle. At least I had plenty of time to make each power and pitch adjustment. As I came in on final, it felt right. The descent was stable; the picture out the window perfect—not too high and not too low. I flew the airplane down to the runway, keeping my eyes on the far end, instead of just ahead. As I got a few feet above the ground, I made small final reductions in power and small changes in pitch, holding the Skyhawk off until it settled smoothly on the runway. Woohoo! Tom and I cheered as he hollered, “Go!” We flew six more times around the pattern, fitting in with traffic, sometimes flying wide patterns, sometimes able to keep within gliding distance. At one point, Tom covered up a few of the instruments and we flew partial panel. I barely noticed. I was focused outside; the only gauge I even glanced at was the airspeed indicator. Every landing was much better than any of the previous week’s fiascos had been. Fantastic! We could move on to other things now.
Kathy Dondzila is the manager of technical communications for AOPA’s Pilot Information Center. She has 300 hours total time and an instrument rating. After being an inactive pilot for nine years, she is working to get back in the left seat.
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