Flying the Traffic Pattern

This is a flight around the pattern at the local county airport. It describes the piloting chores on each leg of the pattern and gives you an idea of what it's like to fly in and around other traffic at an uncontrolled field.

Our instructor is Walter “Walt” Blumenthaller, retired airline pilot who learned on Cubs, Champs, and Luscombs a long time ago. He now hangs out at the airport, tells jokes, listens to lies, and instructs just for the fun of it in the two-place Challenger he built himself.

1. Starting the Engine and Taxiing to End of Runway

After a rather long preflight, we're in the plane and buckled up. The Rotax 503 just started and is warming up at about 2,000 RPM. With a click of the avionics master switch, the intercom comes alive. “You there?”

“Yep, loud and clear,” says Walt from the back seat of the C-II. We set the altimeter to 700 feet, the elevation of the field above sea level (msl). Radio is ON, and set to the local CTAF frequency of 122.8 MHz. “Let's roll.”

We release the brakes and the plane starts to inch forward on the pavement. A gentle nudge of the left brake pedal and then the right indicates that the brakes are working.

With the power increased to just slightly above idle, we begin to move along nicely, but slowly even by golf cart standards while we're still near other planes tied down on the ramp.

Walt keys the mike, “Davidson County Unicom, how about a radio check for the Challenger on the ramp?” And right away, “Yeah, Walt, we got you loud and clear.” And over the intercom he adds, “Like to know this thing is workin'. Don't trust these new-fangled things with all the buttons. Don't seem big enough to be any good.”

Traffic is using Runway 24 as the active runway. Wind is only about 5 mph with a slight crosswind from the left. We turn onto the taxiway leading down to the approach end of 24, taxiing a bit faster now that we're clear of the ramp area.

Radio comes alive with, “Davidson County Traffic, Cessna four two zero two Quebec, downwind for 24, midfield, Davidson County.”

“Spamcan on downwind,” says Walt. “We'll probably have to wait for him.”

Then he adds, “You're not riding the brakes while you taxi are you? Lotta people do, and all it does is waste your gas and wear out the brakes. Back off the power a little. This thing rolls real easy on the pavement.”

(Old graybeard Walt's been flying for almost 50 years. Friendly fellow, but definitely old school. Doesn't mince words. Figures you're paying good money to have him ride with you, and if he don't tell you what you're doing wrong, you ain't gettin' your money's worth.)

As we pull up to the runup position for Runway 24, we hear, “ Davidson County Traffic, Cessna zero two Quebec, turning base for 24, Davidson County.” The spamcan is now on base leg.

Engine temps are showing about 200 for the CHT's and something over 800 for the EGT's. We hold the breaks and run the RPM up to 3,400 for the mag check. Right mag ON, to OFF, with a slight RPM drop, then back to ON. Left mag, same thing. Throttle back slowly to idle. Engine runs smoothly at 1500 RPM. RPM back to 2,000 to keep the temperatures up.

“Davidson County Traffic, zero two Quebec, short final, 24, Davidson County.” We watch the spamcan make his approach and touch down.

Then the radio again, “Davidson County Traffic, Cessna niner seven Alpha entering downwind on a 45, Runway 24, Davidson County.”

“I know that guy,” says Walt. “He'll fly about a four-mile final. We can go now. Plenty of time.”

“Zero two Quebec is clear of the active, Davidson County.” Spamcan is off the runway.

A touch of power on the throttle and we move toward the runway. “You make our radio call,” says Walt.

“Davidson County Unicom, Challenger niner Whisky Bravo departing Runway 24, remaining in the pattern, Davidson County.”

“See if this thing will fly!” says Walt. We turn to line up with the centerline of the runway and smoothly push the throttle forward to full power. RPM goes to 6100 as the Challenger accelerates quickly down the runway.

2. Takeoff, and Climbout

As the airspeed passes through 20 mph, a bit of backpressure on the stick begins to take the weight off the nosewheel. At 30, the nosewheel is off the pavement. Then, as the airspeed builds to near 40, a slight increase in backpressure lifts the Challenger into the air. All in about seven seconds or less from when we started to increase power.

We feel a slight sinking sensation as the plane becomes airborne. The plane is not really sinking. What we're feeling is the momentary decrease in acceleration as the weight of the plane goes onto the wings.

Once well off the ground, actually by only a few feet, we release a bit of backpressure on the stick to let the nose come down, ever so slightly, even while the plane continues to climb. Airspeed builds to 55 mph, and we again raise the nose to maintain the 55 mph on climbout.

“That takeoff wasn't all that bad,” says Walt from the back seat. Coming from Walt, that's about as good a compliment as you're ever gonna get. But then he adds, “You know that when you made your radio call, you called Unicom instead of Traffic. The people in the office don't really care what we're doing unless we're buying gas.”

Plane is drifting to the right, being blown by the wind which seems to be a bit stronger as we gain altitude. A touch of left rudder swings the nose of the plane to the left to set up a crab of about 10 degrees. We continue to climb, adjusting back pressure on the stick to hold the airspeed at 55. Walt likes the airspeed glued on 55.

On the radio, “Cessna niner seven Alpha turning base, Runway 24, Davidson County.” And Walt adds over the intercom, “See I told you he'd fly a four mile final. I keep telling him that if his little ol' motor ever decides to quit out there, he'll wish he didn't have such a long cross country to fly to get to the runway!”

A quick glance in the little mirror overhead ... Walt is sitting back there just a grinnin', looking around like he'd never seen the country before. He loves to fly. Then, he comes on the intercom, “Lower your nose just a bit as you start your crosswind turn. You've been letting your airspeed drop in your turns. I want to keep this boring if we can.” ... “Yes Sir.”

3. Crosswind

We're now well beyond the end of the runway and the altimeter is approaching 1100 feet. We're amost 400 feet above the ground. A bit of left rudder with ever so little stick pressure to the left, and the Challenger banks and starts turning gently to the left. Even though we lowered the nose a little, the airspeed stays on 55 mph. Once the plane is in the turn, we neutralize the controls, except for a little back pressure on the stick, but the plane keeps on turning.

As the lake to the south of the airport comes around on the nose, a touch of right rudder and a bit of right stick pressure causes the plane to roll out of the turn. Now the same amount of back pressure on the stick to maintains the 55 mph and we're climbing again. Soon we're approaching pattern altitude of 1500 feet. A quick look to our right front ... do not see any traffic making a straight-in entry onto downwind.

When the altimeter indicates just under 1500, we begin lowering the nose to the level flight position and throttle the 503 back to 5500 RPM. At the same time, we start the downwind turn, trying to keep the yaw string in the middle of the windshield with good rudder - aileron coordination.

Lot of stuff going on right now: leveling out, changing the power setting, and turning all at the same time. Airspeed is building up to about 65 because we aren't climbing any more.

“Davidson County Traffic, Challenger niner Whisky Bravo turning downwind, Runway 24, Davidson County.” That was Walt in the back seat, making the radio call. He seems to know when things get busy up here.

4. Downwind

Now that we're level on downwind, flying parallel to the runway, there's a little opportunity to relax. Airspeed is steady on 65 mph, altitude is ... well, close to 1500 feet ... and the 503 is just humming right along at 5500 RPM. Man, this is fun!

“You're drifting in toward the runway, lettin' the wind blow you around all over the place! You flying this thing or just riding it?”

Oops. That was Walt's gentle reminder that a crab is required on downwind leg to compensate for the wind blowing from the south. No problem. Touch of rudder and a tad of stick swings the nose to the right a few degrees. The runway appears to intersect the front strut just above midway between the wing and the fuselage. Walt likes a tight pattern. Could make the runway easy if the 503 should decide to rest for a spell.

“You can make the radio call this time.”

So, “ Davidson Country Traffic, Challenger niner Whisky Bravo, downwind for 24, opposite the numbers, Davidson County.”

Looking to the front and toward the right, we see no other planes that may be entering the pattern straight-in onto base.

Silence from the back. That's good. With the runway slipping toward the rear, we reduce power to let the airspeed dwindle down to about 50 mph. According to Walt, “Fifty is Nifty.” End of runway is now behind us, about midway between our left wing and tail.

“Davidson County Traffic, Challenger niner Whisky Bravo, turning base for 24, Davidson County.” Left rudder, bit of pressure on the stick, and the plane rolls smoothly into the turn.

From the back, “Hold your altitude and airspeed through the turn.” Woops! Altitude has dropped to 1450, but the airspeed is still on 50. Bit of back pressure to stop the descent. Now the danged airspeed is working downwards towards 45! Adding a bit of power while holding the nose at the same pitch brings the airspeed back to 50.

5. Base

We roll out of the turn onto base leg. Runway 24 is in clear view on our left. No traffic in view making a straight-in final. Now, when to start the descent?

At about midway on base leg, we reduce the RPM to 3,000, and with the power reduction, let the nose drop to the pitch attitude for the approach. Airspeed is solid on 50 mph.

Anticipating the turning radius from base to final, we roll into the turn well before we get to the runway centerline. “Davidson County Traffic, Challenger niner Whisky Bravo, turning final, Runway 24, Davidson County.”

Adjusting stick pressure to keep the airspeed dead on 50 mph, we note that the plane comes down a lot faster in the turn. Ugh oh. We're overshooting the runway center line! Should've started the turn sooner. Danged wind from the south is behind us on base leg and blowing us along. Groundspeed is faster going with the wind.

But, taking Walt's advice, we don't try to steepen the turn or make it turn more quickly by “ruddering it around.” That can make the flight exciting, and Walt doesn't like excitement when he flies.

“Let it complete the turn, and then make gentle, gradual, shallow turns to get back on centerline. That's what final is for!” according to Walt.

So, we let the nose of the plane continue around and roll out with the nose turned a little to the left of the runway. We begin to move back toward the centerline. Now we're exactly in line with the runway but are flying past it in the other direction. Roll back to the right a little ... now the nose of the plane is pointing straight down the runway. Looking good.

6. Final

“Airspeed!” GoodGaudAmighty. Airspeed is down to 45. With all the turning, forgot all about that. Lower the nose, ... airspeed builds back up to 50.

Now plane is drifting to the right of the runway, which is beginning to look far away and sort of flat. “When in doubt, whip it out!” We add a bit of power to slow our descent, and set up a crab toward the left at the same time. It's hot in here.

On short final now, airspeed solid on 50, right on center line, looking good. Oops. Plane starts drifting to the left. Wind apparently not as strong down low. Touch of right rudder brings the nose around to get rid of the crab. We cross the end of the runway a few feet left of centerline. Let it be! A few feet to the left doesn't matter on this wide runway. More likely to get into trouble trying to correct.

7. Flair and touchdown

Reduce power to idle; back pressure on the stick slows the descent. Nose of plane rises gently, but just as soon as the plane is flying level, we release the back pressure ever so slightly so we don't balloon. We're now flying parallel to the ground just a foot off the runway.

Rudder action keeps the nose of plane pointed straight down the runway. Plane is slowing and the nose is rising even more as we try to hold it off the runway. Must not balloon. Plane settles, then .... chirp, chirp, rumble, rumble. We're on the gound!

“Don't quit now, fly the plane!” The nosewheel is not down yet; it doesn't drop until we've run a bit farther down the runway. We use the rudder to keep the plane rolling in a straight line. Only when the nosewheel is down do we release back stick pressure and apply the brakes.

We taxi on down to the first turnoff, and then turn slowly off the runway. “Davidson County Traffic, Challenger niner Whisky Bravo is clear of the active.”

From the back seat, “Why don't we go fly around a bit and do some sightseeing? It shore is a pretty day.”

That's a fine compliment from Walt! No comments on the approach and landing. Guess it wasn't too bad after all.

8. Sightseeing

We taxi back to Runway 24, listening on the radio for traffic. Seems quiet at the moment. Do another mag check, etc., and take off. This time, we set up the crab early for the wind on climbout and hold the airspeed on 55 mph.

“Davidson County Traffic, Challenger niner Whisky Bravo, departing straight out from Runway 24, Davidson County.”

Once out in the country away from the airport, after climbing up to 2200 feet, things settle down a bit. The old 503 still purring right along. We practice slow flight, do some steep turns with an angle of bank up to 45 degrees. You have to add right much power and watch your airspeed in steep turns. Walt says 45 is steep enough. The Challenger will come around quickly at that angle of bank.

Then, after doing gliding turns right and left to lose some altitude, we do turns about a point and S-turns back and forth across a long, straight power line. Not as easy as you think, due to the wind drift.

But the best part is flying along the Yadkin river, following its crooks and turns at only a couple hundred feet above it. This really lets you see what the plane is doing relative to the ground. We see a cave beside the river where Daniel Boone is supposed to have slept.

Danged river turns pretty sharp every now and then. Walt didn't say a thing, just sat back there looking out at the country below, seeming to enjoy himself.

All too soon, the hour is up and we go back in. Do a straight-in to join the downwind leg. This time, we set up the crab on downwind, hold the altitude in the turn from downwind to base, and turn onto final a bit sooner so we don't overshoot the runway like last time.

Approach is good, but just slightly high. Nose the plane down to lose the altitude and then cross the end of the runway. Ease the stick back to slow the descent, then release a bit, plane is slowing, settling in, ... main wheels touch with a simultaneous chirp, but the plane doesn't stay down!

Aw shucks! But, as Walt had advised on many previous occasions, we just hold everything right where it is and let the plane settle back onto the runway. That wasn't really a bounce and it didn't balloon up. We just let it touch down before it was through flying. Could have held it off a bit longer.

After all three wheels are on the ground and we're rolling slowly toward the turnoff, Walt comes on the intercom, “You gained a bit of airspeed when you lowered the nose because you were too high. Diving like that doesn't really serve any purpose. You did good in the recovery.” Hummmmm.... didn't do anything in the recovery ... ? ?

As we pull up in front of the hangar, a bunch of Walt's old buddies come out to watch the Challenger drive up. After shutting the engine down and clicking all the switches, we pull the headsets off, and one of them yells out, “Walt, can that young feller drive that thing?”

“Why he shore can! Didn't need me in here at all. I've just been a sightseein' while he did all the work!” Everybody's just a grinnin'. They know he's lying.

“What a day! What a business. Man, there's nothing like it!”

Author:   Doc Green