Sunday, April 18, 2010

Why Don't You Just Go Flying?

This was the question that was put to me by my wife the other day. She has gotten tired of me moping around saying that I want to fly, that she just burst out: Why don't you just go? What are you afraid of?

That got me. What was I afraid of? What was it that prevented me from just going? The new airport? No. I have used several airports over the years and that really doesn't bother me. With GPS, it is easy to find my way back to the home base, so not a big issue there. The check ride? No. I have had to do a check ride every two years since I became a pilot. I can do those in my sleep. The fact that the main general aviation airport in OKC is a tower controlled airport? Maybe. I have not landed at a controlled airport since 1992. But I have dealt with approach control at many other airports since. I don't really think that would be a big deal. Dealing with Ground Control? Some. I have never ever dealt with ground control. I never had to. Wiley Post Airport, the general aviation airport, uses ground control to ensure that ground traffic does not cross runways, and makes sure airplanes do not collide on the ground. I am nervous about this, no denying that. However, if I request progressive taxi instructions, I really don't have to worry about anything. Progressive taxi instructions is requested at airports where the pilot is unfamiliar with the airport, or does not have an airport diagram in the cockpit. Ground control will instruct the pilot in small segments on where to go and when to stop. It takes the guess work out of everything. Then it hit me exactly what I was afraid of.

I am afraid of the wind. Oklahoma City has some of the strongest winds in the country. The average wind speed is somewhere around 14 knots. It is not just that. OKC is known for never having just a steady wind. It always has gusts. Just the other day we had a 10knot wind gusting to 24 knots!
The wind is never just blowing down the runway, so that means that I will be dealing with crosswinds. Honestly, this is what gives me the pucker factor. Crosswinds are tricky with steady winds, add gusts, and they get down right nasty. Combine that with the big winds that we get here in OKC, and you have some sticky situations.
When measuring crosswinds pilots do a quick computation called the Crosswind Component. This is figured by first finding the angle of the wind relative to the direction of the runway. So with a runway facing north (360), and the wind at 45 degrees, the angle is... 45 degrees. You take cosine of that angle and multiply it by the wind speed. So that same wind that was at 45 degrees is coming at 10 knots. The computation for the crosswind component is 10*sin(45), or 7.07 knots. Now pilots don't typically have a scientific calculator with them in the cockpit, but what they do carry is a chart that quickly tells them the cross wind component (it is in the owners manual of the aircraft, something that is required by law for pilots to have in the aircraft). Or, if they are really fancy, they have a Garmin 1000 that does all of that figuring for them.
The normal maximum crosswind component, the maximum crosswind the manufacturer of an aircraft says their airplane can take, for most single engine airplanes are in the range of 15 knots. That is easy to reach on a typical summer day here in OKC.
The good news here is that Wiley Post has several crosswind runways. After several years flying out of BTA, MLE and CBF (before the new crosswind runway was completed) that is refreshing. It means that I shouldn't have to ever deal with a high crosswind component that is very high because there always should be a runway that is relatively in the same direction of the wind. That is a good thing.

View Larger Map
Wiley Post Airport. You can see the multiple runways facing different directions.

The simple fact of the matter is that the scariest moments I have ever had in airplanes has been during crosswind landings. Because the wind is blowing you off course, you have to point your nose in to the wind. That means that it is pointing somewhere other than down the center of the runway. As you get ready to touch down, you do a funny, counter intuitive thing. You keep MORE speed than usual, and attempt to touch the wheel that is most in to the wind, your windward wheel, on the ground first. Then, while still on one wheel, you pull your nose up slightly, then set the other wheel down. Now things get crashy. You have just enough speed now that your control surfaces are active, but not enough speed to sustain flight. You have to keep your nose wheel off of the deck to bleed your excess speed off. Too much nose and you are airborne again, sure to stall and have a bad day. Not enough nose and you touch the wheel down and you can end up "wheelbarrowing", nose wheel down mains off, down the runway. The trick is to use your ailerons to keep your windward wheel down on the deck at the same time using your rudder to keep your nose headed down the runway. It is one of the most difficult, most perishable skill in flying. Now you add in wind gusts. You have to do everything above, AND deal with rising and falling wind speeds. You have to be very quick on the throttle, or you could find your self having too much, or worse, not enough airspeed when it counts.

However, just talking about it is getting me charged up. There is little to match the feeling of landing an airplane in crosswind conditions. Time to hero up and get myself in the air.

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