July 15th, 2009


approches on a new day

I got to fly some more yesterday, after taking a week off to go to Atlanta. It was a nice time. We went to a little airport and did touch and gos in the pattern for two hours.

I've learned that landing is all about gaze-shifting. As you look further out, you detect tinier changes because you have more perspective. When you're looking at a little screen you're really limiting the processing power of your brain, but look out at something big and there are wonderful things going on that you don't even know about. Obviously this applies to more than just airplanes.

An instructor once asked me to describe the landing sequence and when I got down to where we'd be about 20 feet off the ground I just skipped to being done, and he wanted more information so I was like, "I don't know, adjust pitch based on... what you feel?" He didn't like that either. And this frustrated me, because if you're not learning to "feel", why should it take multiple lessons? If it's a concrete thing we should be able to make flashcards for it. But when it was explained to me it sounded like something you feel. Making all these little adjustments as you go? come on, that's not science.

I think now that he didn't like the word "feel" just because it seems to cancel out the word "know". When I was a high jumper there was a time in every jump where I did just feel. Since 99% of high jumping is approach and the jump itself, there's not a lot you can do in the air. So you just leave your mind and let the physics carry you. Airplanes aren't like that, you have to focus intently. More like surgery, less like falling... and there's no cushy relaxed feeling once you're on the ground because you have to keep going in a straight line and you're still in an airplane, where air and wind have strong effects.

So on final approach I stare at the numbers on the runway and aim for them. Then when we're over those, everything shifts to the end of the runway, and then later out to infinity, and I do my best to judge when we should be flying straight and when we should be pitched up to land on the main wheels based on where I know we are and airspeeds I know. Occasionally it all comes together now... I land by myself, and it's a big deal, because I was getting really worried about it.

After a landing we take right back off again. On my last flight the instructor told me to glance back behind us to make sure I'm still lined up with the center of the runway, not drifting off... I'd never done this before. I was barely aware the airplane had a back window. But it did, and when I looked back I saw the runway numbers getting smaller and further away. I was happy. Not only was it a cool view, but all that intense focus on the ground from a few minutes ago was undone and left behind, and I could see it go.