I've been wanting to do some spins in the Citabria, so I phoned Carmine.
He was busy all week, but he finally said, "How about seven on Monday?"
"Seven AM? I don't know..."
"PM," he said. "Seven PM. I have to fly traffic and can't get there before seven."
"Okay." I could handle seven PM.
But later I got to thinking that it's getting dark pretty early these days. I hauled out my trusty Palm Pilot and checked with a program called Planetarium. Sunset today was going to be at 19:21 PM and civil twilight at 19:48. (In case you're dying to know, nautical twilight occurred at 20:19 and astronomical twilight, at 20:50. The three twilights happen when the sun is 6, 12, and 18 degrees below the horizon, respectively.) That wouldn't give us much time because I didn't think either of us would be too interested in doing a lot of spins in the dark. So I resolved to get to the airport a bit early to preflight the Citabria before Carmine arrived at seven
The whole weekend was beautiful--clear skies and relatively dry air. By noon today, there were big, scattered cumulus clouds at about 4000 feet, and they seemed to be getting bigger and more closely spaced all afternoon. I drove to PTB thinking that it might not work out, because we'd need a good 4500 foot ceiling do do spins comfortably.
As I drove in the airport road, a powered parachute was cruising around the field at about 50 feet. It landed just as I was parking.
By 6:45 I was sitting at a table in front of the FBO, looking at the sky. The clouds were blowing off to the west, and by 6:50 the sky above and to the east was clear and blue.
At .6:55, a guy came out with a cordless phone. It was Carmine, running late. He'd just landed at FCI after his traffic stint. He said he'd be there in ten minutes, to go ahead and preflight the Citabria.
I got the Citabria book and walked to the hangar. Pushed the plane out onto the taxiway and went through the checklist. All the nuts, bolts, and cotter pins were in the right places. Five quarts of oil. Fuel tanks as full as they could get. Drained fuel. Everything looked good. Then I thought I'd better check the lights, just to be sure, because the sun was almost on the horizon already. Nav lights--OK. Landing light--OK. Beacon--oh, hell. (Actually, I checked the beacon first, but I like the effect of it coming last.)
No beacon. Bulb burnt out.
Carmine trotted up just then. He said we still had the nav lights, so we could go. That's not quite how I remembered the regs--but I figured that maybe the bulb would burn out after we took off.
We climbed in quickly. And found that the push-to-talk wiring had been removed and someone had hung a handheld mike over the panel lamp, up by the left wing root. That was awkward because with the mike plugged in, we wouldn't be able to talk to each other. But my AvComm 900 headset has a push-to-talk switch built in. Maybe it would work. And if not--well, we were just going up for a few minutes. Gave it a shot with the primer, a good full squirt, and flipped on the master and the mags, hollered "Clear" and hit the starter button. Engine fired right up. Carmine immediately opened the throttle and headed for the runway, while I tried out the push-to-talk switch on my headset and found that it actually worked. Okay, so we had communications--even though I'd have to use my stick hand to activate it.
Carmine was still taxiing, so I gave the free end of my seat belt a good tug to snug it up
"Uh, Don," Carmine said into the intercom. "Your belt is around my foot." Great. This flight is going just fine. We fixed the belt problem and I took over the steering. But I wasn't taxiing fast enough for him, so he grabbed the controls again and the next thing I knew we were taking off downwind--mostly--on the crosswind runway. As soon as we got off the ground, he turned it back over to me (and I think he snugged up his own belt at that point) and we began the long climb to 5000 feet. With the full fuel tanks, the best rate of climb I could get was 500 feet per minute, so we had ten minutes to chat and watch what was left of the sunset. There wasn't much sunset to watch, though, because of the heavy clouds that had blown off to the west, blocking the sun.
I noticed that the gyros were working for the first time since I've been flying this airplane.
There was still some light when we made 5000 feet, but we could see that it was going to be mighty dark by the start of civil twilight, so we weren't going to have much time. We did a clearing turn, and Carmine said, "When I'm clearing before a spin I look mainly straight down for traffic--because that's the direction we'll be going." Oh, yeah, that's right.
Carmine did one spin and then I did one. No problem. It went just as I remembered from 40 years ago. Throttle to idle, slow up and just before the stall, give it full rudder with the stick all the way back, and over goes the wing and we're pointing at the ground, then we shallow out a little as we go around. After one turn--he's counting, I'm not quite oriented yet--I relax the stick and give it full outside rudder and the spin stops right away, almost before I know it. Pull up, open the throttle, and climb back up. I did a second spin and a third. I was a little slow on entering the third one, and the airplane sort of slogged into the spin as if it were bored. So then Carmine decided to show me how to do it right. He kept a bit of power in and pulled the nose up sharply, then stomped the rudder when we still had plenty of speed. The Citabria promptly rolled inverted before pointing at the ground and starting to spin--it was great fun--essentially a snap roll. But as we pulled up that time, I saw that the attitude indicator gyro had tumbled big time, and the ball was spinning faster and faster, until it turned to a blur. Oh, well, so much for the gyros working.
By then it was getting on toward dark, so we headed back down. We were then at about 4000 feet, just east of the airport, so I had the throttle open a little and let the airspeed indicator rest just shy of the yellow arc, and we went down at 1000 feet a minute, crossing over the field in a teardrop approach.
On downwind I hit the push-to-talk on my headset and announced where we were. After I turned base, we heard someone on the radio say, "Petersburg traffic, Army" --something or other, and something about being four miles south on final. I announced again while turning final, and Army something or other started asking questions. Were we on final, were we landing, and maybe one or two more questions. I was about to answer, despite being then on short final, with the runway coming up, but Carmine said to ignore him, so I did. It was a nice smooth landing, all three wheels at once, and not even the slightest bump. As we were rolling out, Army something or other wanted to know if we were landing to a full stop. I had visions of some warbird bearing down on us in the almost-dark, so I swapped hands on the stick and reached for the push-to-talk switch on my headset long enough to say, "Full stop." But Carmine chewed me out--said don't ever let go of the stick. In my view there was no problem, as I'd just made my best tailwheel landing ever and we had already slowed down nicely, but in his view from the back seat it evidently looked different. And he couldn't see that I still had the stick all the way back with my left hand. But I won't ever let go again. As everyone keeps telling me, you have to keep flying a taildragger until it's tied down.
So that's the story of my first spins in a Citabria. It was fun,
and the being hurried part was part of the fun, and it all turned out fine.
Except, maybe, for that gyro. It was still spinning when we closed
the hangar doors.
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