Searching for Centerline in Tracy

As I creep precariously close to my first solo flight, the only things stopping me right now are weather, and myself. When I called to get a weather briefing last night, the outlook for this morning's lesson was not looking positive at all. I had some doubt that I would be able to fly at all given the low hanging clouds and higher winds that have been moving in to the bay area.

Either way, I had planned to meet my instructor to go over some written work at 8am, when we would meet to decide whether we could have a lesson today. Fortunately the drive from Berkeley to Hayward quick enough such that I arrived about 25 minutes early. Without much else to do, I waited for my instructor, watched a couple planes take-off and got an update weather briefing.

Scattered clouds at 1400ft, winds between 10-16 knots and no ceiling.


The weather was sufficient to fly VFR, but not within our safety margin for a first solo flight. With the pressure off for the day, we still had a 2 hour lesson to salvage, so our plan B was to fly east towards Tracy (KTCY) and practice cross-wind landings.

With the strong tailwind between KHWD and KTCY, we made it to the area very quickly with a ground speed of about 130 knots, roughly 20 knots faster than our airspeed. Probably the fastest the Ugly Duckling has flown in a while.

Unlike Napa County, Hayward, or Livermore, Tracy is an uncontrolled airport. That is to say that there is no operating control tower in charge of the field. When operating at fields without towers, pilots have a protocol for self-announcing position and keeping traffic operating smoothly; something I had studied in ground school and finally got to practice at KTCY.

As we approached the area and flew over KTCY to observe the traffic pattern, it was a good chance to mentally cross-reference the 30 year old illustrations from my textbook with what I was actually seeing on the ground. Turns out, they're not as similar as I had hoped, but similar enough for me to understand where to go, and how to get there.

While radio chatter is much different at uncontrolled airfields, that wasn't too big of a problem for me, the cross-wind landings however were a different story.

Landing with higher winds requires the use of less or even no flaps on approaches, if you're chronically high like I have been, you need flaps or a forward slip in order to slow down and shed altitude. Suffice it to say, I've gotten quite a bit of practice with forward slips to where I feel very comfortable with them now.

The two fundamental pieces of my landing-toolkit that I think I am missing or lacking in right now are:

The go-around is something I have no trouble performing, but have had difficulty identifying when it should be performed. When dealing with new approach profiles like today's at KTCY, I have not yet developed the sense of what is correctable with subtle aileron or rudder inputs, and what is indicative of a sloppy approach should trigger a go-around.

Finding centerline in cross-winds is related to my trouble identifying a go-around situation. Fortunately KTCY has very wide runways which gave me a lot of leeway to screw up on my drift correction. With at least one approach and landing I probably floated for half of the runway before touching down far left, so far left I doubt my right wingtip was even over the centerline. After completing the touch-and-go, we discussed the mistakes made and my instructor pointed out that I really should have gone around on that particular approach.

With the higher pattern at KTCY, I only performed 5 landings before it was time ot head back to KHWD. That same wind that got us to KTCY at 130 knots over the ground, ended up slowing us down to somewhere around 70 knots on the way back.

We are certainly not done working on cross-wind landings, and while I didn't solo today I think this was a very important lesson to have at this point in my training. I have a much clearer idea of where my deficiencies are with approaches and landings. In the post-flight debrief we talked more about the problems I encountered, why I made certain decisions, and how to improve on that in the future.

For example, I simply didn't understand how long I should try to "work" an off-center approach in order to put the airplane down properly on the runway. The guideline I have after today's lesson is that if I've lost too much height to drift properly, go around. If I'm well past my aiming point, go around. Both of these are subject to the amount of available runway, with longer runways a minor power adjustment gives the necessary leeway to make corrections without a full go-around.

I think it's to the point where I need to change my view-point from landing-centric to go-around-centric. In effect, unless I'm feeling confident in the landing and my approach, go around should be the default, not the exception in my thinking.

As I mentioned in my first post on the subject, flying has been quite humbling for me, and I think to be a successful pilot I need to maintain the utmost realism about where my personal limits are. The only way I find those limits is through experiences like today's lesson where my instructor challenged me.

He mentioned concerns prior to flying out about my confidence level, and not wanting to mess with that so close to my solo flight. After having a whole day to reflect on the lesson, I actually think this might have been the most useful lesson to date. I'm not learning to land, I'm learning to land well, a highly important skill that whether we explicitly focus on it or not, I'm going to need to exercise and improve for every lesson from here on out.

I'm not going to learn much from an easy lesson, and today's wasn't an easy lesson, and that's a Good Thing™.

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