The Regionals

The 2011 Central Area rally was held in Tokoroa this time around.  I was going to compete in the Wigram Cup Senior Landings and the GM Spence Senior Forced Landings.  I had not flown into Tokoroa since my PPL cross country way back in 2006.  As the club had graciously allowed us some low cost practise hours I took WAM down with an instructor to get the lay of the land a week prior.

Since then, the wind had swung 180 degrees and had intensified.  We were looking at a surface wind of approximately 220 degrees at 15 knots gusting to 20.  There was also a lot of mechanical turbulence from buildings and trees adjacent to the approach on Runway 31 (the runway in use) which made things lively in addition to the right hand circuit direction.

I had chosen to drive to Tokoroa although I had considered flying the Arrow down as it's only about 20 minutes flight time from Hamilton.  The trip by car would take around 1hr.  The main reason I had baulked at flying the Arrow was that a front was supposed to have blown through at the time I was going to be flying down.  On the day there was no sign of the front but as it was I only just made it with about 10 minutes to spare before the competitor briefing began at 0830.

My first flight wasn't scheduled until 0930 so I took the opportunity to watch the other competitors struggle to cope with the conditions.  Things didn't look too bad until short final when the fickle turbulent winds around the hills and trees wrecked havoc with peoples approaches.

I was rueing my decision not to fly the Arrow down when I saw the high winged Cessna 172's and 152 get blown around like kites whereas the Cherokee's and Alpha's looked much more stable on approach.  I am not sure the powers that be would have let me change planes anyway.  Up I went in JGP with air judge Sam, a nice bloke formerly from Christchurch up here doing commercial GA ops but helping out judging because they were short.  My first go I got a little high, well,  OK really high because I cut in on the base leg too much.  Having only an imperceptable headwind meant our ground speed on finals was a lot higher than most of us realized.  I had chosen 70 knots for finals with 2 stages of flap to maintain some semblance of controlability but found it really difficult to wash off that ground speed once we were over the fence.  Add to that the fact that I had flown the entire approach from the base turn on with a totally closed throttle.  Had I flown into a patch of rising air there would be very little I could do.  I was not totally comfortable with side slipping a 172 in turbulent air that close to the ground with 20 degrees of flap hanging out, and while S turns might have been a better idea, the crosswind would quickly blow you off centreline if you were not paying enough attention.  I chose to go around rather than push a bad approach.  My sole aim of the day was to walk away from the day without bending the plane, and it became quite apparent to me I lacked the skill level and currency to really try to do anything other than safely land the plane.

The second pass I felt was much better, they say a good landing starts from the downwind leg, and I just proved it to myself.  I hit all my turns and heights, and my airspeed was right where I wanted it.  Coming down finals I thought to myself I was comfortable enough to go for the grid when we hit a patch of sink, by the time I had enough power on to arrest the sink my airspeed was passing 80 knots and climbing, and I chose to forgo the grid for a safe touchdown.  Not a great start.

After lunch I was to go up again in JGP for the Senior Forced Landings.  This would reunite me with Wayne Harrison from New Plymouth, the examiner who had in his words, "only come along for the ride" during my PPL checkride in 2006.  The brief was to climb in the right hand circuit to 2500 AGL and then cut the power, and conduct a forced landing on Runway 31, followed by another climb this time to 2000 AGL and a second forced landing from a lower altitude.

The first attempt went like clockwork.  Speed was good for the most part, I got all my checks out, I hit my marks perfectly.  On final I was a little high but I was expecting a small patch of sink which when it happened I was waiting for it with my hand on the flap lever.  The only thing I did which I had not intended to do was lower full flap.  We dropped almost below the level of the fence but the flaps ballooned me over it easily.  If I had stuck with 20 degrees I thought we would have had a good chance of making the middle of the grid, but I didn't stop the flap switch in time and we got an extra 10 degrees of flap which meant we touched down at the end of the grid.  Oh well, that wasn't too bad, lets get back up in the air and try again.

By the time we got to altitude, squally showers were being blown over the runway, and in hindsight I should have been more aware of the small gusts that precede them in various directions.  I think it was about this time I was starting to overload myself because basically I made a complete hash of things.  The speed was all over the place, the checks were hesitant and I am sure I missed some, I didn't nail my heights properly and was high on almost every mark except the finals turn.  I did have the presence of mind to realize I was high and made a plan to widen the base leg slightly and turn finals early to make up for it.  I turned finals at 500 AGL and JGP just wouldn't come down.  We were higher than previously so were above the mechanical turbulence zone.  I lowered all my flap but probably 10-15 seconds too late to make any difference so I finally made a good decision and abandoned the approach and went around.  Competition over, but not out of the drama yet.

We flew a standard powered circuit this time and I was much better but the fickle gusts had one last surprise for us.  On finals I had 20 degrees of flap deployed and we were coming down at 70 knots to try to cut through the worst of the turbulence.  We crossed the fence and I was just about to cut the power when a gust picked up the left wing about 20 degrees (it felt like 30 but was most likely less),  when I was slow to respond Wayne grabbed the controls and in one swift jerk righted us.  I at least did the right thing in applying full power to arrest any resulting sink.  Wayne just as quickly gave me back the plane and we made a somewhat rough landing further down the runway.

Taxiing back I felt a mixture of relief that I had an experienced instructor next to me and a sense of disappointment in myself that I hadn't performed to a standard I would have expected.  I knew I had blown my chances and that of the Clubs Wigram Cup aspirations.  It was a pretty low place to be in.  But I was genuine when I shook Waynes hand and thanked him for the flight.  Had I been alone I am not sure what I would have done, most likely JGP would have powered out of it and I would have gone around for another attempt.  There are altenative scenarios but I don't really want to think about them.

Driving back to Hamilton later in the day, the days events repeatedly going through my head I realized that I had relearned a valuable lesson, fly the plane, and the lower the airspeed the more assertive you need to be on the controls because down low you don't have a lot of time between safety and disaster.  In a couple of weeks I will be going have a dual trip to the airstrip on Waiheke Island to get checked out so I can go in there alone.  I think what happened this weekend was a timely reminder because Waiheke has very similar properties to Tokoroa, only the runway is half as long, slopes significantly and is not sealed, giving me even less options.


Aardvark said…
I managed to get some video of landings and takeoffs in the rough conditions. That video can be found here on my YouTube channel and a sample of the aircraft that attended can be seen in this video.