One of the additions pilots can add to their license is a tailwheel signoff. This allows flight in aircraft with ‘traditional’ undercarriage (two under the wings, one under the tail) as opposed to the more common (now) tricycle undercarriage (two under the wings, one under the nose) that are generally used for training. Tailwheel aircraft often demand more pilot input (particularly on the rudder) during takeoff and landing, so a new set of skills need to be learned as a result.
Freedom Aviation have recently acquired a Champion Citabria, an aircraft which is suitable for tailwheel training, with the additional benefit of being approved for aerobatics (something else which I’ve been promising myself some experience in). Always eager to continue to extend my flying experiences, I arranged a flight with Dave on Saturday. Sadly Saturday’s weather was very unpredictable so the flight was cancelled and moved to the Sunday. Almost ideal flying weather meant a perfect opportunity to get the whole family down to Oaksey Park Airfield for the afternoon, with Luned and Catrin playing in the sun and enjoying a picnic while I had some fun of a different kind!
I arrived (as ever) in good time, and chatted with Sarah as we waited for Dave to return from his previous flight. He soon arrived, and we had a quick chat about what he intended to cover in today’s flight. One characteristics of a typical training aircraft is that they tend to be relatively docile and stable, and easy to fly. As such it is easy to be lulled into bad habits when these are the only type you’ve ever flown (as I have). One principle difference is that for typical flying, the rudder in a PA28 can often be ignored, whereas in other aircraft it’s a key flight control that needs careful attention.
This is the case in the Citabria, so Dave proposed that the first flight should primarily be spent ‘getting used’ to the different aircraft without even worrying about takeoff and landing. We’d concentrate initially on turns, learning the rudder inputs required for this aircraft. Assuming I was getting the hang of it, we would then move on to steeper turns, perhaps culminating with some practice approaches and maybe even a landing or two.
The difference between passenger comfort in the PA28 and Citabria can easily be compared with Mondeo and Westfield. As such, getting into the Citabria and getting settled can easily require the sort of contortions I’m well used to from having owned a couple of Westfields in the past. Dave and I are both pretty tall, and after I got settled in the front he squeezed himself into the back and we started the rigmarole of fitting the 5 point harnesses (again, something that was reminiscent of Westfield ownership!).
After a bit of fiddling with the cable for my headset (helpfully fitted with a clip that could attach it out of the way on a convenient plate above my head to the left) and a brief look over the checklist (which only contains two procedures at present!) we set about starting the engine. Despite needing three hands, this was a relatively simple procedure, and the engine started without too much coaxing. We took advantage of the lack of other aircraft in the ground to taxy around a bit, getting used to the ground handling of the aircraft. In general, it was relatively easy to manoeuvre on the ground, but definitely noticeable that the steering was a lot less ‘direct’ that what I’m used to in the PA28. Also, it was apparent that turning into wind was a lot more difficult than turning away from it.
After a few turns using the brakes (leading to a very tight turning circle indeed) we taxyed to the start of runway 04 in readiness to depart. Dave talked me through the takeoff, before taking us to the air with me following him through on the controls. The climb rate in the Citabria didn’t seem sparkling, and for the first time I was aware of just how close to the airfield the Electricity Cables are on the Eastern side (having previously only ever approached over them, rather than departed towards them).
Once clear of the cables, I took control and started to get a feel for the aircraft. Everything Dave had told me proved accurate, the aircraft needing a lot more rudder input when rolling into or out of the turn. Also, the lack of a rudder trim meant that a small amount of pressure was always required to keep the aircraft in balance. Also, Dave had warned me about a tendency for PA28 pilots to climb the aircraft when attempting to fly level, due to the fact that the horizon is in fact about half way up the windscreen, rather than 2 or 3 inches above the coaming as I’d previously been used to.
Attempting to level off at 2500 feet soon had me up near 3000, but I brought us back down and concentrated on getting the right attitude to maintain altitude, getting the trim sorted while doing so. I experimented a little with the trim control (that Dave had warned me was likely to be a lot more sensitive than what I’m used to), and we moved on to more practice with turns. I still had a tendency to be wallowing around the sky out of balance, but as the session progressed I started to get more of a hang of things. We gradually increased the angle of bank, including reversing from right bank to left (and vice-versa) to continue to build up a feel for the controls.
We weren’t paying too much attention to navigation, using large features like Lyneham and the surrounding towns to fix our bearings. We moved on to a couple of stalls, with the first being a particular none-event due to me not being ‘aggressive’ enough with the control inputs. After some urging from Dave, I made a point of trying to get into a deeper stall, and managed to get the aircraft nodding nicely, with the occasional break from level flight too. The nose attitude and airspeed clues were obvious, so it’d be difficult to get into a stall such as this during a normal flight, but it’s always good to have a feel for how the aircraft feels in slow flight and close to the stall. We didn’t move on to stalls in the landing configuration, as due to a lack of flaps, the Citabria is always in the landing configuration!
I experimented with the fresh air vents ahead of me, as I was starting to feel the heat in the relatively open cockpit. This prompted an encouraging comment from Dave in the rear, he’d obviously been having the same thoughts in the back! Dave urged me to try some steep turns. I did one initially to the right at something like 60 degrees of bank, before further urging put me into a left turn approaching 90 degrees of bank, with further prompting from the back seat to pull back on the stick and experience some ‘real’ G (I think the G meter got as high as 2 G at one point!). The aircraft handled really nicely during this, so I can see that I might have to try some real aeros in it with Dave at some point in the future.
Dave had me practice a couple of glide approaches into a field. As was customary with my PFLs, the first attempt had me significantly high. The difference here was that I had no flaps to help me lose height, but a side-slip would have been a good alternative for losing height without picking up too much airspeed. After climbing away I tried another, and would almost certainly have made the field we chose this time. One thing I did find relatively straightforward was getting the aircraft trimmed for the glide, getting the sense that I had a much better feel for the trim in this aircraft than I often do in a PA28 (or perhaps it was just beginners luck!).
We headed up towards South Cerney, listening in to Kemble to get a feel for the wind direction. Typically it was almost exactly 90 degrees across Cerney’s runway, meaning that approaches into either end would be relatively difficult. Dave had me make 3 approaches in alternating directions, demonstrating on one of them what can happen if you end up too high and how difficult it is to lose height without consequently gaining too much airspeed to be able to actually complete a landing. On the third approach he had me try a full side-slip (taking care to ensure I kept the nose down, as this is a ‘pro-spin’ control input, and being aerobatic this aircraft is certainly capable of spinning!). This demonstrated how height could be lost if necessary, and we transitioned nicely into a low-level approach over the airfield, flying along the runway again just a few feet off the ground.
We’d now been airborne for close to an hour, so decided to call it a day for this flight. The plan was for Dave to demonstrate a landing at Oaksey, then for us to position for another takeoff and landing with me at the controls. As we positioned at Oaksey, the two windsocks seemed to be pointing in different directions, indicating a tailwind for both runways! We initially positioned on a Right Downwind for 04, before changing our minds part way down the Downwind leg and reversing course to put us on a Left Downwind for 22. Dave brought us in over the cables, as the windsock again seemed to change direction, this time indicating a distinct tailwind on 22!
Dave brought us down for a low approach, before deciding that discretion was the better part of valour as the runway disappeared below us. We received a cheery wave from Luned as we passed (she probably assumed it was me that had made a mess of the landing!), and Dave climbed us away to position for a more appropriate landing on Oaksey’s runway 35 (which rather helpfully has a house right near the runway about half way down!). There was a slight comedy moment caused by the fore and aft seating configuration in the Citabria, in which neither of us were actually flying! I eventually asked Dave “Who’s flying now?” and he chuckled before (correctly) announcing ‘You have control’ and I took over and set us up for an approach to 35.
The approach is quite low over the woods to the South of the airfield, and I brought us down over the trees before handing back control to Dave at a few hundred feet. Dave demonstrated a perfectly adequate landing from the rear seat, despite being unable to see the altimeter, airspeed indicator or even get a good view of the runway ahead of us due to my big head being in the way!
Once under control, Dave handed back control to me, and I taxyed us back to their hangar before we shut down and pushed the aircraft back in to the hangar.
Dave announced he was happy with my progress on the flight, it was just unfortunate that the wind conditions on the day weren’t really conducive to getting in some takeoff and landing practice. I’ve booked another session for next weekend, so hopefully conditions will be a bit more favourable and we can continue to make good progress.
Total flight time today: 1:30
Total flight time to date: 243:40