Saturday, August 11, 2007

L'il Plane, L'il Runway

Today I got checked out in a Cessna 152. Now, this plane is nothing special -- probably more student pilots have learned to fly in 152s than in any other plane. But it's very small, a little two-seater with only 110 horsepower. With full gas tanks, it can carry only 345 pounds and I doubt it can hit 100 knots in level cruise.

But I learned in a 172, which is the larger, faster, four-seat version, so I've never had the experience of flying one of these little things. I wrote earlier about my attempts to get an instructor light enough to check me out in the 152, and this morning her schedule and mine came together to get it done.

We met at 9:00 and sat in the Airport Cafe for a while to go over some information about the plane and talk about the flight, then we went out, did the pre-flight inspection, and took off. The first thing I noticed is how light the elevator forces are compared to a 172. Since the 152 is so light (only 1,670 pounds fully loaded!) every little burble in the air seemed to knock it around -- at first it felt more like flying a kite than an airplane.

By the time we got to the practice area, though, I had a much better feel for the plane. Meredith (the instructor) asked me to do a steep turn. In a Skyhawk, I'll usually add some nose-up elevator trim to help hold altitude during a steep turn. Since the elevator forces were so light in this plane, though, I figured I'd give it a shot without any trim. Well, I underestimated how much elevator force would be needed and lost 100 feet within a few seconds. That helped me dial in how much control force it took, and I did it twice more. Stalls were non-events. I've had trouble getting a 172 to break into a stall with just me and a 200-lb instructor in the front seats, as I did on my checkride. The 152 seemed to have a slightly sharper break, which I actually like. That is, I like a sharper break when I'm practicing stalls and stall recovery.

We did a few landings at Carroll County Airport, then stopped to top off the gas tanks. The gas at Carroll County was $4.19 per gallon, compared to $4.95 in Gaithersburg. Gaithersburg is such a ripoff that everyone tries to fill up when they're away. After taking off from Carroll County, we headed to Clearview Airpark.

Clearview Airpark is known in the area for having a challenging runway, and some pilots even call it dangerous because the runway is short and narrow. In addition, it has a big dip in the middle and trees at either end. I've heard stories of pilots trying to take off from there and dragging their wheels in the treetops because they can't or don't climb fast enough. I've never heard of anyone crashing there, though. Looking in the accident database I can see nine accidents over the last twelve years: three with serious injuries, three with minor injuries, and three with no injuries. It doesn't look like there have ever been any fatal accidents there. That's not bad considering the airport averages 42 operations per day. Doing the math -- that's nine accidents in 183,960 operations, one for every 20, 440 operations, or a 0.004% accident rate. I think it's safer to land at Clearview than run to the store on a motorcycle. It just takes good speed control....

The long runway in this picture is Boston-Logan's Runway 33 Left, which is about 10,000 feet long and 150 feet wide. The middle runway is Gaithersburg, where I learned to fly. That runway is about 4,200 feet long and 75 feet wide. The small one on the top is Clearview, all 1,840 feet of it. (By the way, all three runways in this image are actual satellite photos and are the same scale.) Clearview's runway is only 30 feet wide, three feet narrower than the wingspan on a Cessna 152. Both Boston and Clearview have a little bit of extra runway that you can use to get a running start for takeoff, but you can't use it for landing.

I approached the runway three times today. The first time we were just going to overfly the runway, which was good because I was about 10 knots too fast for a good short-field landing. The second time wasn't right either. The third time, Meredith had me fly a higher pattern and a longer final approach. That gave me time to get the plane steady at 55 knots, which is the right airspeed for that plane, and on the right approach angle. It was a bit bumpy as we came over the trees, but I got it down. As we pulled off the runway, I was drenched in sweat. There was no way I was going to take off again without getting "The Mug."

On the front of the mug, in the drawing of the runway -- do you see that dip? When Meredith and I lined up on the runway to take off, Meredith told me that after our downhill run, if we weren't off the runway when we came out of the dip, I should abort the takeoff and hit the brakes. I held the brakes at the end of the runway and gave the plane full throttle, then released the brakes and we started to roll. I pulled it off just as we hit the rise. We climbed up and cleared the trees by a good margin, at least 40-50 feet, then headed back to Gaithersburg.

So all in all..... I really love flying that little 152. It's fun, although when the air is bumpy it tends to get tossed around a lot. Still, it's really great to buzz around in. And Clearview? Well, I'm grateful to Meredith for taking me in there, and now that I've done it once with an instructor, I'll go back. It's a good challenge, and if nothing else, it will help me keep my go-around technique sharp.

It was a good day of flying.


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