Short, Soft, & Grass
This was to finish up my Wings Program participation. I had already attended a safety seminar, done the first flying session (airwork), and half of the second session (some landings) before thunderstorms arrived and forced a postponement. Today, the plan was to take off and fly west on instruments to the Flat Rock VOR (FAK) and then northeast to a grass field near Hanover County Airport (OFP). There I'd take off the hood and get in both short-field and soft-field landing and takeoff practice. Then I'd put the hood back on and fly the reverse route back to FCI.
There was a bit of a cross wind at FCI--220 at about 10 knots. We took off on runway 15 and turned west in the general direction of FAK. Then it was time for the hood. (It's a kind of eyeshade that lets you see the instrument panel, but keeps you from seeing outside.) With the hood on, I continued climbing to 3000 feet, tuned in the FAK VOR, and headed for it on the 300 degree radial (120 from).
This was the first time I'd flown solely on instruments for more than a few seconds since I was a student, so it took a little while to get the hang of it again. It was complicated by the fact that the airplane, N73852, wanted to turn left if I didn't keep in some right rudder. Also, the directional gyro kept precessing for the first fifteen minutes or so, and I never did feel comfortable with it. The result was that I had some trouble keeping to a straight course. Mike (the instructor) thought I was chasing the VOR needle, but it was more just that I had too many variables to keep track of. I was able to keep to my altitude pretty well, though, and despite some wandering around, we got to FAK okay and then to the grass field.
It's something of an art to spot grass runways unless they're used a lot--they're just grassy fields, after all--but the GPS took us right to it. I entered the pattern on left downwind at 800 feet AGL, flew well past the end of the runway to be sure of having enough room to make a stable approach. I turned base and then final and was just getting nicely lined up with the runway.
"Where are you going?"
" Getting lined up on final."
"That''s the wrong runway. That airport's not open."
Doh! Sure enough, Mike was right. I turned left another twenty degrees and then spotted the field I was supposed to land on. (It's larger, more in the open--but closed to the public.)
The approach was through a cut in the trees that angled off our path at almost 45 degrees, making me feel as if we were slipping to the left. We weren't, and despite my consternation over almost landing on the wrong field, I managed to keep my focus, ignore the odd angle of the tree line, and get us down on the 3000 feet of grass with plenty of room to spare. Piece of cake. (But it wouldn't have been if I hadn't landed at the 2009 foot Eagle's Nest runway lsat year.)
We turned around and taxied back to the end of the runway. The grass was fairly short, but there were buttercups about 14 inches tall the whole way, and it seemed almost as if we were plowing through yellow snow. The prop was cutting yellow blossoms and blowing them back onto the landing gear and fuselage.
All right, that was the short-and-soft-field landing. Now we do the short-and-soft-field take off. The density altitude when we left CFI was 2900 feet, so this was going to be for real. I stood on the brakes and opened the throttle, waiting until the rpm's maxed. Everything looked good. Let off the brakes and we were away.
And we were away, and we were away, cutting through those buttercups again, over the grass that seemed to have grown another three inches in seconds. Finally we hit 50 knots and flying speed. A little back pressure got the wheels up out of that grass and I eased off just enough to stay in ground effect while we accelerated to Vx, 59 knots, the speed of best angle of climb. The end of the runway was coming fast, and I began to wonder if we really would clear the utility wires across it and the woods just beyond. They were very tangible versions of the "50 foot object" that you train for. We cleared the wires with a good 50 feet to spare and eventually worked our way up to 1000 feet again.
"We have plenty of time," Mike said. "Want to try another one?"
Well, that was a relief. I hadn't scared him too much after all. So we did it again--only that time I set up for the correct runway and, even though the diagonal line of trees was still hard to look at, made a better landing. The second take off was like the first--we cleared the wires by 50 feet.
The rest of the flight was like the first part. At 1000 feet Mike had me put on the hood, continue climbing, and fly to Flat Rock, then turn toward FCI. As we eared the field he let me take off the hood and do a normal landing. Of course, it was the crappiest of the day.
But now I've gotten the feel of grass, and I'm ready for more.
Before I shut down the engine, Mike radioed to ask that the airplane be washed.
And stuck in the landing gear we found this frazzled bouquet.
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