Fly Girl in Training: Getting the hang of landing the airplane

Another benefit to the 6 a.m. flying lesson–spectacular sunrises.

“How’s six?”

“In the a.m.?” I sputtered. When I said I was “free all morning” for a flying lesson, I didn’t expect to be taken so literally. I waited a beat to see if my instructor, Stan, was teasing–many folks know I’m no early bird–but alas. As I soon found out from chuckling and unsympathetic Mr. T, “Stan loves the 6 a.m. lesson.”

What I didn’t realize was that 6 a.m. flying is genius on several levels. One, very few people are out and about which means this new student doesn’t have to share the traffic pattern or worry about too many witnesses. Two, it’s blessedly cool-ish. Sacramento’s been masquerading as Phoenix lately with a week of 106-112 degree days. Even at 6 a.m., it’s been in the 80s! Three, the air is more or less smooth. And as I soon learned, smooth air helps with just about everything.

After the wheels touched down, Stan looked over and said, “You did that one all by yourself.”

I’m not sure I verbalized the surprise. Me? I did that scary thing?

Yep, yours truly landed an airplane, unassisted and didn’t even realize it. Me. Landed an AIRPLANE. Mind boggling.

Yes, I did eventually squeal. Had my hands not been busy pushing in the carburetor heat knob and retracting the flaps, I would have punched a fist into the air. Such an utterly thrilling experience to know that I’d executed the maneuver I fear the most. And I did it a couple more times that morning without help.

Yet as I found during our 10 landings (before breakfast, mind you), I didn’t have the feel or the sight picture. I knew the procedure–configure the airplane with the proper speed and at the right altitude, line up on the numbers, slowly descend with wings level, and just a few inches above the ground, flare so that the plane lands on the main gear first.

But I was flaring too early, bouncing, and once, landing a little bit on the nose. Ahem. (Both Stan and I apologized to the plane.) Stan assured me that I was getting close though and that “getting it” would be an “ah ha moment” I would never forget. Landing, he promised, would soon be like riding a bike.

It wasn’t until the next lesson a few days later that I started to believe him though.

As we were landing for the third or so time that morning, Stan told me to “hold it” just before touching down, which up until then, I had taken to mean holding the yoke in place before pulling back for the flare. Stan actually meant, as he soon explained, holding the sight picture and doing so by gradually adjusting the yoke so that the runway lines stayed in approximately the same place on the horizon as we touched down. Apparently there was a reason both Stan and T hollered for me to “pull back, pull back, pull back!” all the time.

The next go round, something clicked. I made the landing well enough that Stan told me to try the whole pattern myself, without any direction. So I did. Three more times! And then once more at a different airport and once again (more or less) at our home airport.

Ah ha, indeed.

Up until those last few landings, I’d had textbook reading and discussions with Stan and T to work from, but I just wasn’t getting it. Intellectually, holding the plane off the ground until just a few inches above the ground made sense, but how on earth was I supposed to know how far away the ground was from inside the plane?? And furthermore, I’d built up landings in my mind as something scary. Even up until last month–having flown with T for years–I’d find myself praying hard for a safe touch down instead of realizing that good landings are the product of training, skill and safe handling, not luck (usually).

Finally getting the proper sight picture and feel took away my lingering fear about landings and made me more confident about flying in general. That is until my instructor told me to wear a shirt I don’t like to my next lesson… More on that soon!


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