Sunday, June 15, 2008

Flying the Jantar

The idea of a single seat aircraft has always attracted me.  Besides fighters and the U2, very few come to mind.  Let's see, the Mooney Mite, some homebuilts like the Baby Ace, and lots of gliders. In a single seater you are not as alone as Mike Collins was on the back side of Moon during Apollo 11, but it's as close as most of us will ever come.

Yesterday was my first flight in my single seater, and although almost nothing went as planned, it was still a big thrill.

My first priority yesterday was my student André, whom I soloed. That makes it a big day already, but it soon got bigger.

Brad and I pulled the Jantar out of the hangar and towed it to our staging area. He showed me how to get into the parachute harness, and we tugged and pulled a little to get me into the cockpit. It's tight, but not outrageous. I've grown accustomed to the back seat of the Blanik L-13, where I have lots of room to store a Camelback and snacks and a handheld radio and a kneeboard or notebook. This time the radio went between my legs, and the Camelback behind the headrest.

I wanted a few more seconds in the cockpit, but the tow pilot had to go. I was not rushed, but I had no extra time, either. I was hungry, and ate most of an apple while Brad and André put the glider into position. I knew the speeds and cockpit controls. I ran the checklist, wiggled the rudders, and off we went. It was just after 5pm.

I took a high tow. "Steep turns, stalls, slow flight, then some fun" was my announced plan, but as soon as I was off the tow that plan went out the window. There was weak lift along the ridge, just 1 or 2 knots up, and I decided to work it for more altitude so that I would have some time to explore the airplane. You understand that this is stupid, right? Ridge flying, so close to the ground, is not the time to get to know a new plane. But I continued.

The lift was chopped up, not steady, and I spent 45 minutes between 7800MSL and 8300MSL. I was not happy with my coordination; it was acceptable, but not sharp, but sharp takes time in the cockpit. My airspeed was a little higher than ideal, but I was on the ridge and wanted the extra maneuverability that you get from more air over the ailerons. And I was staying up!

Finally I decided that I had enough altitude that I could turn away from the ridge. I did clearing turns and a stall. No surprises; the airspeed comes up quickly when the nose is lowered, and there was no wing drop. OK. Now it was time for some water.

I reached behind me for the hose from the Camelback, but couldn't find it. Did I have the hose on the left or the right? There was nobody to push it forward to me; I was all alone. I twisted left in my seat, and I could see the bottom of the Camelback. I twisted right, but I could not see the hose.

That's because the hose was outside the plane. We had closed the canopy on it. I have saved other people from this several times, but didn't manage to save myself.

There was no banging or scraping, so I figured that there would be no damage from continued flight, or maybe we had cut it off and it was lying on the runway. But I was thirsty. It had been a long day. It was 6pm, and I had had a 90 minute drive, some groundschool with André, staging the gliders, running wings, talking with a prospective student, the excitement of the solo, and the Sun beating down on me the whole time. How dehydrated was I? How could I judge? It's not like I could look at my fingernails and see if they were turning blue. I did not feel thirsty, but I know from my triathlon training that you are dehydrated long before you feel thirsty.

I went back to the ridge and found some lift, and decided to continue. I felt like I could continue as long as there was good lift, but was not in a position to do a lot of hard work. I left the ridge and looked for lift over the city, but it was weak there, and I headed back to the airport. I found a weak thermal about a mile east, which put me over the downwind for runway 17, but I talked with the airplanes in the pattern and we saw each other and I was above them and it was fine.

When that thermal died it was time to land. RUFSTALL time: radio call, check; undercarriage down, check; no flaps; spoiler check; trim for 60; look and land. Man, was I high, and the variometer showed 0 sink on the downwind. I pulled the spoilers on, and my altitude was gone, just like that. Not that it was unsafe; I had plenty of altitude to reach the runway, but all of a sudden I was a lot lower.

I turned final, one hand on the stick and one on the spoilers, and there was a radio call. "Glider, will you be able to stop short of runway 17, or should we wait." I appreciated the pilot's concern and his awareness of the traffic, but all I had was a handheld radio without a hand to hold it. I grimaced a little to myself and put him out of my mind. Or at least I tried.

I crossed the threshold and nursed the Jantar into ground effect over the runway. It floated pretty well, but the main wheel is pretty big and I had less float than I expected. It settled gently on both wheels, and I worked hard to keep it rolling. By accident, I hit one of our standard precision landing stopping points. I refused all compliments on my landing.

In the end, I flew it for 1.5 hours, mostly in a narrow altitude band. It is responsive and has good control authority. You lay back pretty far but not extremely far, like you would in a Diana, and although my butt was a little sore it was generally comfortable. It handled well at low speeds. I did not try any high speed runs, but that will be high on my list for next time.

And next time, I'll make sure that the Camelback hose is in the plane.

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