Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Why a seagull.

I guess this is something I've never explained. I chose the seagull for my blog title not because I'm a seaplane pilot, or live on the coast. I've never gotten my seaplane rating and I grew up in Minnesota. It's because of that elusive perfect landing.

You see, as the saying goes, a pilot is only as good as his last landing. So, if you have a good one, you're Chuck Yeager or Wiley Post. Bounce it and you're Wrong Way Corrigan all over again. When I fly not only am I monitoring the airplane and it's systems, I'm monitoring myself. I'm trying to look for all those little thing that will improve me as a pilot. That's nothing special. We all do it in our chosen professions. The only time flying get tricky really, is on take off and landing. Take offs because you're going from an unstable 3 wheeled ungainly lump to a thing on grace and speed, hopefully without running off either side or the far end of a relatively thin strip of concrete.

Landings on the other hand are 10 times worse. I'm going to stick with airplane here, helicopters are a different story and can be dealt with some other time. A well designed airplane wants to fly. Hell, even a relatively less well (less well?) designed one wants to stay in the air. So, you've got to take this thing and make it do something that it really doesn't want to do. Namely stop flying. So, you're trying to slow the airplane down, descend and maneuver to a point on the earth. Easy right? Well, slowing down wouldn't be a problem, except that descending is using gravity to speed you up. And slowing down really isn't friends with maneuvering. Anyone who's sailed understands this. The slower you go the less steerage way you have. Not enough speed and the sailboat won't do what you just tried to do with tiller and jib. So, basically, you're trying to combine 3 things that don't want to be combined.

And finally, when you've juggled all that successfully and you're right there, just a couple of feet off the ground, physics gets in the way. When the airplane gets within, generally, half a wingspan of the ground, something called ground effect comes into play. This is a situation where the ability of the airplane to continue to fly is greatly enhanced. It's a thing with reduced drag due to interrupted airflow yada yada yada. Really, it just means that the airplane will continue to fly with much less needed power. There are some pretty neat flying machines that take advantage of this effect. Google them. The Russians created the incredible Ekranoplan using this bit of physics. Great. Now, you've got to deal with this. So, if you're unlucky the bird floats and then whoop, sits down on the runway, with varying degrees of comfort.

So, a perfect landing, one where the passengers hardly know you've landed is something of a holy grail for me. I'm forever seeking it. It always seems to be just out of reach though. If you've ever watched a seagull or gooney bird launch and land, I have to imagine they feel the same way. Graceful in the air. The laughing stock of the bird club on takeoff and landing.

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