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Brian Lecomber’s latest “From the Cockpit” column

NOW WHERE AM I?
Brian admits to an amusing foible – and remembers others not so funny

DAMN! I’ve done it again. Here we are, both Extras rumbling and ready to taxi out. We have a display to fly 70 nm away in 44 minutes time. We are smack on schedule, have pre-briefed, and I have all the flight details up on their clip in the cockpit. Initial heading; an 80 degr4ee right turn from take-off; frequencies to call en route; GPS dialled up, altimeters set for QFE at the display site; fuel correct for flight to the site, display and recovery afterwards; large-scale map of the display site in my leg-pocket, wind pinned in my mind for both the display and the landing destination…

And I’ve done it again! With all the careful preparation I know exactly what we’re going to do in the immediate future when we leave the ground. That is my mindset. There is, however, one little teensy snag… I am horns-waggled if I can remember where we are now.

Yeah, yeah, I know this is ridiculous. It is my equivalent of a nervous tic. As tics go it varies between the hilarious and the embarrassing. If I had a tenner for every time I’ve done this, I’d be a rich man.

If John Taylor, my Number Two, had made bets with me he’d be an even richer man. I stare around at the airport buildings. They are perfectly familiar to me, as are most aerodromes in the UK and near-Europe. But can I summon the name to my lips…?

Can I hell! While my thumb hovers over the transmit button John speaks quietly from the other Extra. “Shoreham,” he says.

Well, of course. Knew it all along…. “Shoreham, good afternoon, Firebird Team taxi for departure…”

This has happened to me time and time again. As nervous tics go it is, in fact, pretty innocuous. It’s not that I don’t know where we are – it’s just that my mind sometimes goes blank when I come to say it.

A chap feels a bit of a plonker, certainly – but I’d actually be much, much more worried if I couldn’t say our destination. My mind is running ahead of the flight, as so it should be. It’s laughable that I sometimes cannot say our point of departure – but hell, we all have foibles. Mine gives the rest of the team much amusement, and John has, in fact, been extremely gentle on this day. He could equally have just clicked the button and said; “Guess…”

“As tics go, this is pretty innocuous…” Why does this happen to me? I have no idea. Aviation psychiatrists might have a long word for it. I have a short one – idiocy. I have been known to address Glasgow as Edinburgh, Swansea as Cardiff, and RAF Waddington as RAF Cranwell. All on the ground. Well, there it don’t matter very much. Nobody ever got killed talking to ATC from a parked aircraft…

So it’s just a foible. A bit like my unhygienic habit of licking the palm and digits of my right glove before tipping in to a display. I have made enough plain bad decisions in my flying life not to lose sleep about a mere foible…Some foibles are slightly less funny.

FOIBLE WATCHING

Casting my mind back several years I well remember a morning of foible-watching. The occasion was the annual rally of the PFA (Popular Flying Association – now of course the LAA, the Light Aircraft Association).

The location was – well, never mind the location. The site layout was – well, shall we say, just a bit more cramped than would be allowed today. Not stupidcramped, but just not the biggest site in the world for hundreds of aircraft and thousands of spectators.

Two of the three runways were being used for aircraft parking, leaving one live tarmac east-west runway for take-offs and landings. Nothing unusual about this – pretty well every multi-runway aerodrome in the world does the same when they’re having an air show.

The front row of parked aircraft, which includes most of the display aeroplanes because you obviously don’t want them to spend 20 minutes taxiing out of some back lot somewhere, are as usual parked between the spectator barriers and the runway. They – we, since I am one of the display turns – seem a bit kinda close to the runway to me… But hell, nothing unusual in that, back in those days.

But on this day, this aerodrome has gotten just plain unlucky. An east-west runway is obviously the best bet for most inland aerodromes in a British summer if you have to pre-decide it – but on this day the wind has elected to back round to a strong 15 gusting 25 knot southerly. A pretty much direct crosswind.

For the display aircraft it is a strong offcrowd wind, which is a nuisance, but most definitely preferable to a strong on-crowd wind.

The old display adage goes: “Mentally halve an off-crowd wind and double an on-crowd”.

This is wisdom indeed if you wish to avoid busting the display line – or much worse the crowd-line – and so I am standing in front of the Pitts doing my tictac man impression of someone walking through his display and planning the wind corrections.

Then I see a Tiger Moth on finals out of the corner of my eye. And stop to watch it. Something tells me that this guy is out of his depth in this crosswind. Indeed, I had to pay attention in the Pitts when I was landing here, and now it’s blowing harder.

If I’d been flying a Tiger – with no brakes and a tailskid – on to this hard runway in this wind I’d have suddenly remembered an urgent appointment in, say, Venezuela, and gone off to land somewhere more wind-friendly. This Tiger Moth comes in to land without even side-slipping… Alarm singes up from my stomach. Gutfeel tells me this guy is going to screw up this landing.

He is coming in with a strong crosswind from the left. He has aircraft parked close to the runway on his left. If he loses it the Tiger is going to swerve to the left like a weathercock and go straight into the line of parked aircraft…

There is nothing whatsoever I can do. I can only watch helplessly, ready to run. The Tiger wheels on bumpily, slows, and as the speed decays the tail sinks. And then it swerves. Not, astoundingly, to the left. It swerves to the right and goes off the far side of the runway in a spectacular ground-loop.

The undercarriage collapses and the thing slides to a stop in a cloud of dust. Two figures climb out, obviously unhurt. A crash wagon wee-wahs its way to the scene, but there’s really nothing for it to do. The Tiger is on the grass well clear of the runway, doesn’t look terminally damaged, and there’s no fire risk.

However, it will obviously take a considerable while to move it – aeroplanes without wheels being among the most cussed things on the planet to shift – and in the meantime there are maybe 150 more aircraft converging on the PFA Rally… “It looks just fine right where it is, so leave it there.”

So somebody on high makes the perfectly sensible call that it looks just fine right where it is, isn’t in anybody’s way, so we’ll just leave it there and worry about the dang thing later.

Not 15 minutes later an incoming Stampe does almost exactly the same thing – goes off the right side of the runway. This is undamaged apart from a slightly scraped wing-tip, and able to taxi in.

Then a Jodel does it – again, able to taxi in, although knowing Jodel under-carriage mounts I certainly wouldn’t want to fly it again without a most rigorous inspection. Then an Auster does it.

Then two more aircraft do it. In all, SIX aircraft go off the right side of the runway on this one morning! I watch in mounting disbelief – as do the organisers.

There are foibles here, all right. Foible one is pure, unadulterated lack of forethought. The runway in use at this aerodrome is not exactly a state secret, and nor is the wind direction – so how come that six – six – pilots departed from their various points of origin to come here where the cross-wind was known to be outside their aircraft limits or their own limits, or both?

Three answers to that. Either they hadn’t bloody looked at the bloody forecast or Actuals; or they thought they could hack it anyway; or they had little or no real idea of their own cross-wind limits. Or all of the above. Yeah, that’ll do as a foible. Or three. Another is task-fixation. I’m going to the PFA Rally and that’s that.

Another is peer-group pressure. There’s something like 200 aeroplanes parked down there, and they all got in… And then there is a further foible. Or not so much a foible as a drastic gutreaction.

All these aeroplanes were landing with a strong cross-wind from their left. All aeroplanes, and especially tail-draggers, have more keel (side) area behind the Centre of Gravity than they do in front.

Therefore, as the speed decays on landing and the controls become less effective, so the wind gains increasing ascendancy and tries to yaw the thing into wind like a weathercock, maybe even lifting the into-wind wing at the same time just to make sure you’re having a Bad Hair Day.

So all of these six aeroplanes should naturally have yawed left, into wind – and into the parked aircraft… But they didn’t. They all yawed right. The “wrong” way, if you see what I mean. Why? I make my way to the control point, and there encounter the initial Tiger Moth pilot.

I cannot resist asking: “How come you went off to the right?” “It felt like it started to swing left, towards all the parked aircraft, and so I hit hard right rudder. And overdid it.” He seems near to tears. Well, he is not alone this day.

Five other pilots will say the same thing. Seems that if you want to stop landing aircraft pirouetting into wind, the best thing you can do is park a line of aircraft along the side of the runway to frighten them into over-reacting… Foibles. I’ll try to stick to forgetting where I am…

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THE NEMESIS DAY Burn-out caused Brian to quit professional instructing. Does something similar account for a 50% drop-out rate among new pilots?

 

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