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A Lesson on Aerodynamics MAG
We were 4,000 feet above Infineon Raceway and dropping fast. Weweren’t diving that day, we were falling. Our airplane was beginning to invert and eventhough we were exceeding 150 knots, it wasn’t flying. We were at 3,000 feet and had 30seconds until we hit the ground. Then 2,000 feet, and we now had 20 seconds to figure out how topull up away from our death. We were in free fall; I could feel it in my stomach. Everything in thecabin was floating as we neared our doom.
Since I first saw a plane, I’ve loved theentire idea of flight. The grace and beauty of a million-pound plane gracefully lifting into theair - I never understood exactly why it flew, I just accepted that it did. I began learning to flybefore sophomore year, but I still could find no distinct reason why a plane’s wings createda pressure difference to induce lift. Although I had more than five hours in the air, I was stillamazed by the idea of flight at every takeoff, climb, dive or landing. I knew I should understandwhy a plane flew, but I took it for granted. I was an over-confident pilot who did not understandadvanced aerodynamics.
That day I drove my mom out to the airfield so she could watch. Myinstructor briefed me that the day’s training would be stalls and slow flight. Having donethese before, I felt confident. We checked weather reports, pilot reports, and other possiblehazards. We learned that there was a 15-knot breeze gusting to 20 in the area. High windsprovide outstanding practice, though they are extremely difficult in which to fly.
Afterpre-flight and an engine test, we taxied to the runway and brought the engine to full throttle,2,500 revolutions per minute. We reached 60 miles per hour and gracefully lifted into the greatblue sky. About 100 feet up, there were considerable buffets because of the wind, but we continuedclimbing.
We approached our destination to practice: 4,000 feet above the raceway. Infineonhas hills on all sides, but to its east, there is a large valley at sea level, making my job withthe altimeter much easier so I would know how much room I had before I would hit the ground. I hadflown here many times, as Infineon is only ten miles from our airport so if we had an engine out,we could land safely back on the runway.
I was told to take the plane to slow flight. Nobig deal; I put the carburetor heat on, engine on idle, and flaps to 40 degrees. Once I hit 70knots, I brought power to 1,500 revolutions per minute. I continued to slow to 55 knots and pulledon the yoke to slow even more. When I hit 45 knots, I only had five more to go. At 40, I pulledharder and before I knew it, a piercing horn was coming from the cabin. My instructor told me hedid not want me to stall yet, so I added full power, reduced flaps, and continuedflying.
Then my instructor told me that this time we would stall, but he wanted to show mehow to do it first. He stalled and recovered without breaking a sweat or losing 50 feet. I satthere in awe. He then asked me to do it. I began slow flight and easily reached 42 knots, with twoto go. The horn was so loud that with the engine, the noise-reducing headphones, and the radiotalk, I felt like I should have been covering my ears. Then suddenly my plane was dropping, notgracefully, but hard and fast. A 20-knot gust hit the right wing just as the plane stalled, so myleft wing stalled aggressively while the right was still producing a positive lift. I have neverbeen more scared.
I looked up and saw Interstate 37 right in front of me, not below me. As Iwas past 75 degrees nose-down, I was staring straight at the highway while dangerously exceeding 160knots.
The plane was not flying, it was falling. I continued to struggle with theunresponsive controls. I heard my instructor but his words just weren’t registering. Finally,when my instructor yelled to grab my attention, I understood that he had the plane. My instructoris usually extraordinarily calm, and when he yelled, I immediately let go. We were falling almost6,000 feet a minute and in 20 seconds, we would have fallen the remaining 2,000 feet to our deaths.He pulled out of it at 1,850 feet and again I sat there in amazement. How could I have struggledfor what seemed like hours over 2,000 feet and he simply pulled out of it in 150? I rememberedChuck Yeager, falling from 108,000 feet in this type of spin, only to eject at 7,000 because hecouldn’t wrestle out of it. The greatest pilot of all time, ejecting from the exact sameproblem my instructor could have done blindfolded. I was stunned.
For over a minute I satand thought. Spins are illegal and if someone had seen ours, my instructor and I would have beenprohibited from flying. Luckily, no one saw and we regained altitude. Then he did the unthinkable -he asked me to do it again. He actually wanted me to go for another stall? Now? I was back inshock. His pulling out of the spin was one thing, but asking me to do it almost made mecatatonic.
I took control and brought the plane to slow flight. We were down to 50 knots,then 40, then the horn sounded and again, my left wing dipped, not due to wind, but because of thetorque of the propeller. I pulled out of that after seeing how my instructor did it not fiveminutes before. As easily as that, I had figured it out. Sure, it was not the same magnitude as thefirst attempt (or of Yeager’s), but I had cracked the code. I flew back to the airport, madethree perfect landings and we called it a day. We had certainly had our share of excitement for onesession!
Safely on the ground, my instructor taught me about the four forces that act on anairplane while it is flying, on the ground or falling. Since that day, I have had greater respectfor planes because now I know why they fly. I also have never gone into a spin since that day. Myknowledge of aerodynamics and the consequences of spins have made me very wary of losingcoordination in the air. I learned about aerodynamics the hard way, but I will never make the samemistake. By teaching me with my own mistakes, I have learned the greatest lesson of allaerodynamics: not only why planes fly, but in some cases, why they don’t. c