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Hop #6

Nearly all my documentation has been submitted to the FAA Flight Surgeon's office (or whatever the official name of it is) in support of my application for a Special Issuance private pilot medical certificate. I think my sleep apnea doc is waiting to get electronic records of my CPAP machine use from my CPAP equipment provider so he can write up a report. After that, I have no idea what the process is or how long it will take; it's all internal.

I went flying this morning anyway.

It's overcast today, with scattered low clouds and associated rain showers, but my instructor said "Ahhh, we still have 3 miles visibility, we can do more work in the pattern." I had missed a couple of weeks flying because my instructor and the airport's lone Cessna 172 had been booked out in advance (the flight school had offered a Groupon some months before, with the past two weeks the prebooked dates) and because the Cessna had a down-checked alternator when I was scheduled to fly last Friday. They've replaced the alternator, and so off we went.

My first time around the pattern I came up on my turn to final and said "Hey, I'm low." So without waiting for feedback, I added some power, holding it in until I was sure I had the runway and then pulling it out and working on landing the plane. I kept remember my instructor telling me to 'fix things early!' so I tried, staying proactive all the way down - and was rewarded with a nearly-silent touchdown at just on 60 knots and the airplane slowing to taxi speed almost immediately.

"That was a nice one."

Around we went again. This time, I was higher, and I rolled onto final with a bit of extra speed on, so I put in flaps and concentrated on aiming for the runway numbers. I was pretty sure I had the runway, so I started to flare the plane a bit perhaps thirty feet up and-

We sank. Hard. I said something like "SHIT!" and then we bounced hard enough to wallow back up 10 or 15 feet. I swore again, decided not to add power because we were so close, and pushed the nose back down to gain a bit of speed. We floated a bit coming back down into ground effect, and I kept it centered and brought the speed down. When we were slowing on the centerline, I said a few more choice words and turned expectantly to my instructor.

"You didn't see you were getting slow on final?"

"No, I guess not. I didn't hear the horn go, and I was worried about making the runway and when to take the power out..."

"The lesson here is...?"

I thought for a bit while I turned the plane around and started to back-taxi. "The lesson here is don't listen for the horn, watch the damn airspeed."

"Yep. You had full flaps on, and you flared the plane a little nose high, and the speed will just vanish when you do that - so you'll start to sink like crazy. Also, hey, how d'you think your passengers would feel about you yelling 'SHIT!' right before touchdown?"

Winced. "Yeah, they wouldn't feel too good about that."

"Nope. Pilot face. Pilot face. Turn to 'em and apologize for the wind gust or the bump if you gotta, after you get on the ground, right?"

"Right."

The next landing was better, landed on centerline with a small thump but..."Hey, the airplane uses a lot of runway when you only have ten of flaps in, doesn't it?"

"Yeah, it sure does, I guess I was fast."

"Why didn't you have flaps at thirty?"

"I actually don't know, but I'd guess it was because on final I was still a bit low and was nervous about my airspeed after the last one, so I didn't put them in when I might have."

"Okay. You don't want to put in forty, you want to have those last ten degrees as a reserve, but you really want to come in slow with thirty on so you don't use up the runway."

"Right." So we went around again. And again. I did ask "Hey, I'm turning downwind over the steeple, is that right?"

"That's a little far out, I usually recommend coming in over the fairgrounds. Do you know what that has to do with how you've been doing?"

Thought about it for a sec. "Well, if I'm flying the pattern wide, then that would explain why I've ended up low on final, wouldn't it..."

"Sure would."

We flew through a couple of rain squalls on the last two landings, as a cloud meandered over the end of the runway and the final approach line. I mentioned I'd never flown in rain before, but my instructor just laughed and said "Good experience to have; better to know what it feels like. Remember, VFR is about visibility and cloud clearance, and you have at least three miles of visibility through the rain, right?"

"Yeah, I can see through it, but when we were in it, I couldn't see much due to the windscreen getting wet!"

"Think about making an approach with all your instruments covered. Think about doing it with all of them dead, right? Might happen. Could you have made the runway just looking out the rainy windscreen if your instruments had been out?"

I thought about that for a bit as I turned final and listened to the rain drum on the windscreen. "Yeah, I think I could, I'm not really looking at much right now except the airspeed..."

"Okay then."

And we were down.

Did six landings today, and spent the last five trying to match the first one I did and erase the embarrassment of the second one. They kept improving, and the last one was pretty smooth - but I didn't make the first turnoff. I looked, and sure enough, I only had twenty of flaps in. "Damn it."

"That's okay. You were dealing with the rain, it's all good. Better to carry a little speed through the rain if your visibility is affected; it's easier to go around faster if you need to coming out the other end, and it's a cushion against what you did the first time, getting too slow on the approach."

Slowly but surely, I improve by small increments and experience different conditions. This is what it's about. Hopefully I'll be able to solo soon, if the FAA approves my medical.