Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Light-Sport Chronicles: The Rashomon Effect

What you think you heard can mess with your head

J3 and CTLS (left below). A deft touch in one airplane doesn't automatically translate to the same precision in another.
This time of year, we winter-bound types shiver our timbers and wistfully harken back to the glory days of summer. I typically lament the lack of flying during snowball season, though I plan to remedy that with some J3 ski-flying soon. Longer layoffs make for shorter confidence on the next dust-off flight. Significant gaps are grounds for a tune-up flight with a friend or CFI. Case in point: Some lessons I learned recently remind me of the movie Rashomon, in which several people witness the same event, but each experiences it in a dramatically different way.

Half an hour into a recent flight, bounced around in our peppy CTLS by late-summer turbulence, my prelaunch enthusiasm has morphed into abject frustration. My partner in flight is pal John Lampson, the tireless CFI who took me through my sport-pilot training two years ago. I haven't flown the CT in six months and felt a bit homesick for the lively little critter. I'd been getting my taildragger endorsement recently in a wonderful 1946 Piper Cub J3.

My problem: The John in the right seat seems to have been overtaken, Body Snatchers-style, by this contrary dude, and I have lost my mind, forgotten everything he ever taught me, and have no business behind the controls of an airplane. Compounding the frustration: I'd felt so chipper and confident just before our Flight Design CTLS brought us up to 3,000 that Clue #1.

Now John leads me through slow-flight practice for my upcoming BFR. "Let's slow to 60 knots," he says, "and hold altitude at 3,000 feet." No problemo, amigo, I think...except I don't seem to be able to do it! Everything seems backward as I try to hold speed and altitude but find myself all over the place, like the Fantastic Four's the Thing trying to thread a needle with boulder-sized fists.

"No, no, you want to pitch for altitude and control speed with the throttle," John insists in his ever-cheery style. How flight instructors remain so agreeable with the endless repetition and challenges presented by befuddled students boggles the mind. I consider them among the great unsung heroes of aviation.

But John's instructions feel alien to me. Body Snatcher! And the more I try to comply, the more frustrated I get. And the more frustrated I get, the faster John, a speedtalker if ever there was one, throws corrections at me. "It's like riding a motorcycle, you use the throttle to go uphill." That sounds completely contradictory, and my brain just locks up. "Man," I protest, "that feels wrong! That's the exact opposite of what my Cub instructor taught me."

Herewith, let's segue to my Magic Box of Memories in an effort to understand where LSA editor Lawrence has gone so terribly awry.'s a usual suspect: my flight the previous week in the J3 with another terrific instructor, Rick Solan of Berkshire Aviation Enterprises, Great Barrington, Mass. Rick and I are practicing crosswind technique. On downwind, abeam the numbers, I set up the short-field-style approach Rick has taught me: rounding base into final, looking way, way down at what seems like an impossibly high angle—except all those hang-gliding and ultralight years from 1973 into the '80s have hopelessly corrupted my landing eyeballs, so it looks just right!

And the Cub is an all-time drag queen, so we're indeed in the slot. I chop the throttle, and she's a-comin' down like a tank under a 'chute canopy. "Remember," says Rick, another fast-talking dude, "pitch for speed, and use throttle to adjust your approach altitude." I make the landing, displaying an instinctive and frightening ability to overcontrol the rudder, but we survive the rollout and continue our practice.

Now back to my late-summer CT flight with Body Snatcher-version John, who insists I use pitch for altitude and throttle for speed. "But," I protest indignantly, "my Cub guy says just the opposite!" Clearly I'm right, and John, with his 6,000 hours of flight experience, is dead wrong. In time, frustration and confusion give way to more measured in-cockpit communication. John talks me down from my hysteria to give me, in essence, a beginner's lesson in basic airmanship.

And my brain slowly unscrambles as my hands and feet "remember" how to fly the CT properly. Later, we wrangle it out over tea and chicken Caesar salad. I realize I've heard but misinterpreted what Rick taught me in the J3. "I think," says John, still flustered by my earlier insistence that his instructions sounded like Swahili to a California surfer, "your Cub instructor meant the power-off descent phase. When power is off, you do use stick for speed and adjust approach altitude with power."

Which brings us to the point I wish to make: What you hear, especially in the Worst Classroom In The World, isn't always what's intended. Cases in point:

  • Rick Solan taught me to "roll it over" for wheel landings in the J3. I thought he meant on the wheels after touchdown. He meant when the wheels are just above the surface. Since they angle forward, nosing over brings them down to the runway.
  • Rick taught me to use toes on the heel brakes until flying speed, then pop my feet quickly to the pedals for takeoff. During a later lesson, he saw I stayed on the brakes too long. "Once we start rolling, get right on those pedals." No doubt he'd told me that in the beginning, but that timing hadn't sunk in. I'd done it wrong ever since.
  • The CTLS has a distracting sight picture due to its short, sharply curved nose, and takes getting used to. The one I flew with John has tape on its windscreen to help out. He told me to use them for alignment, but I'd forgotten how to do it correctly and kept landing with the nose too far left, until he straightened me out—literally.
  • Flying the CT after hours in the Cub, I jerked it all over the place. As a flying friend describes it, "Hey, we're mixing cookies!" I'd misinterpreted instructions to make quick responses to gusts and bumps by overdoing it and making smooth flight actually more difficult.
Piloting an airplane with precision and grace takes practice. I'd suggest a major component of returning to the groove with any airplane should include a preflight "briefing" with an instructor or friend. We think we know what we've heard, but the wetware likes to interfere. Newly formed habits, instincts and state of mind and body can all contribute to give us our most challenging flights.

In truth, I honestly believe these to be the best learning opportunities. They remind us that every flight is unique; that we're prone to a unique set of strengths and weaknesses every time we climb aboard; that we should never assume we've got it perfectly wired. Give yourself a gift this holiday season: Fly as often as possible...even if it's on skis, landing in a white cornfield, during the ice-cube time of the year.

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