Today was not a fun day; after several hours working on a rib, I left the shop with the rib in a worse state than when I started. On the other hand, I now know one of those missing basics that will make the rest of my life easier: to remove rivets, drill halfway down, then use a flat-end punch levered around to break the machine head off before tapping the punch to break out the shank and shop head. This will save me a lot of figure-eight drilled holes in the future.
Yesterday, though, yesterday was fun. Well, not the restoration part - this rib is teaching me full well the depths of malice that can be possessed by inanimate objects. But after I got out of the shop at seven, I met up with Flying Buddy, and we went out to Birchwood.
The word flying conjures images of deep blue skies that go on forever, bright sunshine in early afternoon sunlight - ah, but this is Alaska in mid-June. It had been raining off and on all day, but yesterday's clouds had dropped enough moisture to rise above the peaks of the Chugach Mountains, a solid layer of overcast at six thousand feet that was impossible to see for all the swaths of fine virga hanging down like torn insulation combining to seem like fog hiding the distance, sprinkling like a melted snowfall on the ground with fine drops barely heavy enough to fall. This is a normal rain here - the sort that will fall for hours and still you'll leave a dry spot in the outline of your car when you leave work.
It was well past 8:30 when we got to Birchwood, but this close to Solstice we had plenty of time to go fly - it was no darker than most cloudy days, and even tonight I could easily read a book outside under overcast skies at midnight. The rain had let off where we were long enough for the asphalt to be dry, though the mountain valleys alternated down the chain between clear and piled in fine rain like fog thick as forest fire smoke. Flying Buddy popped the cowling so I could point out the answer to his curious question: I learned how to hotwire an airplane this week (in the context of learning the electrical system and safety), and he was mighty curious in case he ever loses his keys while out somewhere.
Then he fueled and did a thorough preflight, while I called my Calmer Half. (I miss you, love!) In the trade of favor for favor, I got the front of the PA-12 for the second time ever - Flying Buddy squeezed into the back, and the stubborn dog went into the baggage. It's amazing, with so much view in front of me - and I'm still short in a seat set up for a man a foot taller than me, so I couldn't see over the nose without grabbing a V-brace and doing a one-armed chinup. The panel in a no-vacuum tandem VFR plane is so clean that instruments and switches can be arranged as suits the owner best, instead of crammed into a six-pack with radios and other overflowing to the right. I had to spend time fumbling to find everything. Master on, compass on, inch of throttle, three shots of prime, left mag, and hit the starter - she turned and rumbled to with a sleepy grumble of a cold engine at low idle.
I taxied out, stepping hard on the right heel brake to counteract the cockeyed angle the tailwheel was left in, and turned on the radio. The ASOS was reporting dead calm air, six mile visibility, Altimeter 30.02, so I did a mag check parallel to the runway, cleared my throat, and found the push-to-talk velcroed halfway down the stick. It's been five months since I last really handled radios, and I worked out what I wanted to say aloud before keying the mic. Flying Buddy corrected me with a note of laughter in his voice, and I mangled it anyway on the radio like a student pilot. We taxied out, stopped, and I put in two notches of flap, then repositioned my feet so they wouldn't touch the heel brakes, smoothly added full throttle and right rudder, and pushed the stick full forward.
The last still feels strange to me - all the nosewheel training of yoke coming aft for soft field takeoff makes pushing the stick forward couterintuitive. But it is correct for a tailwheel, and as we gathered speed, the tail came up. I pulled back gently, then, and the ground fell away, trees sinking below us as I climbed out at sixty. When we were clear of trees, I eased a notch out, gathered speed, and let the last of the flaps retract as we climbed up into the virga. Rain spattered lightly and streamed away on the windshield, making forward visibility a little blurry - but I could easily see down and around. Cautiously looking for traffic that hadn't called, I called on our departure on downwind, raised a wing to look, then rolled right and made a climbing turn across the Knik Arm of the sea. Grey water and grey glacial silt mixed with volcanic ash into a fine clay mud flowed beneath us as we rose into a rain so fine that, though it seemed we would be lost in the clouds at any moment, never actually dropped our visibility beyond speckled and streaming windscreen.
Turning left, we followed the shore south until the tall antennas by Goose Bay were clearly visible and avoidable, switched over to the area frequency, and cut inland to enter the downwind on a 45. With the trees in full summer foliage, it was hard to spot the right runway, for all we could easily see several smaller backyard strips cut into the trees with one or two planes parked in back yards. We discussed finer point of flying, leaning the engine and applying carb heat for the moisture - and then applying cabin heat, for it was definitely in the cooler 40's at altitude. Finally, I saw the long straight disturbance in the treeline, and a glimpse of gravel where a pullout had been logged into existence confirmed it. Time to put the mixture in, throttle back, and wait for airspeed to fall enough for flaps to slide down.
My first landing was roughly ten seconds ahead of me, coming in high and wobbling all over - I could feel Flying Buddy shadowing me and correcting as I struggled to get the plane down. When I got to a stop, he patiently just reminded me to get carb heat in, two notches of flaps down, and waited. The takeoff went fine, and on downwind, I finally spotted a friend's plane parked just over the rise at the far end of the strip, and one of the old bunkers as I turned base. I was still behind, juggling energy and airspeed and trying to get flaps down, but better than the first time until I got to ground effect. In a Cessna, you have to thumb the release to lower the Johnson Bar for every notch of flaps, so I was holding onto the bar and twisting as I lowered it to the floor when dumping the flaps - but that twisting was moving the stick, and the airplane, off straight centerline and toward the trees.
The third time round, I found 1650 rpm, and the approach became smooth as glass, soaring like an eagle on the wing instead of beating hard like a raven playing in the tumbling drafts off a skyscraper. I stooped upon the runway coming in smoothly... and right through ground effect, flaring too late, for a landing that proved just how well the stiff new bungees on the gear could bounce. Flying buddy was also on the rudders and brakes, heavily, and we staggered around the runway a bit before stopping. He apologized, then, for overriding and adding extra input without warning, but I'd take a staggering unplanned waltz down the gravel over a ground loop any day - and trust he knows his airplane far better than I do. After we both caught our breath, we were off again. I'd hit my stride on the approach, handling it smoothly, and now focused on the last few seconds of landing. As I passed the threshold panels and the grass gave way to gravel, Flying Buddy said, "Flare!" so I did.
...it would have helped if we'd been lower. At least the airplane is very forgiving. Sigh. So up again, stretching and working my jaw to uncramp tensed muscles, and trying that one again. This time I added a little power back in at the end, to arrest our descent and level out, and it helped immensely, but it still wasn't pretty. I pulled off the runway, shutting down the plane and getting out for a stretch. If you are getting frustrated, it's time to stop - each landing needs our full attention, as it happens, not what can be spared from thinking of how the last landings went wrong. We talked of throttle and flaps, brakes and movements by space and time, moving our hands around in gestures familiar to pilots everywhere. Our friend touched down in the Citabria, took off for a low pass, then landed short enough to pull in and join us without back-taxiing. Being smart, he stayed in his plane and stayed dry, as I stood under the wing to be out of the rain. Flying Buddy chose to stand out in the rain instead of duck under the wing, and really didn't seem to care. Inbetween talking about a gun that was finally sighted in and calling the dog over before she got too far away, our friend tried to be supportive. "Your landings are getting better!"
He took off, then, to head back to Birchwood. We loaded the dog, got back in the plane, and started up again. As I rose to downwind, we got a call from traffic crossing the airport headed to Elmendorf AFB, and I immediately started scanning instead of paying strict attention to where I was in the traffic pattern. Goose Bay is in the way of a route the air force likes to use for training, so traffic calls could be a flight of F-22's or C-17s just as easily as an Aero Club 172, so I was more concerned about staying out of the way and wake turbulence. I never saw whoever it was, but they saw me - they were low, camouflaged, and moving fast. So I turned late, but salvaged a decent landing.
The seventh landing I turned short, and came in too high, flaring a little too late and dropping in. As I sucked irritated and embarrassed air in past my teeth, Flying Buddy responded with a voice brimming with laughter. "Oh, now we have to do another one!" So we did, and it wasn't great, but it wasn't bad. Practice had worn enough rust off true metal was showing through, skills were meshing again, and I could feel the airplane talking to me, even if I was slow and clumsy in my response.
We departed back north toward Birchwood, trying to see it through hanging veils of rain, and trying to figure where the ASOS was looking as it reported 10 miles visibility - I'd have put it at three. Crossing the Knik Arm, we were too high as we came into the base leg, so we stayed high, crossed midfield, and entered the pattern for the gravel, 19L. It wasn't a great landing, but serviceable, and I taxied to the tiedown knowing that while I hadn't done great, I had gone from rusty to competant. Sometimes, that's all I need.
As I tied down the plane and left a message for my Calmer Half that I was safe on the ground, I realized that all of the frustrations of working on the plane were gone, as if soaked in gentle rain and scoured away by attention to the immediate, important, vivid and real demands of flying to the best of my abilities, and all the tragedies and triumphs it contains.
It was a Good Day.