On my way back, I couldn't resist. I was making good work of the list, and figured I had enough time for a half-hour hop. The last few times I'd flown the C-170, I made pretty ugly landings. There weren't any big directional excursions, but I kept misjudging my height in the flare - bane of airline pilots flying little planes! The result was typically sinking in the last few feet for a plop with a bounce or two afterward, or worse yet driving the mains in hard to set up a crow hop. The ugliest of these took place with a NewCo First Officer in the right seat when we were playing hooky from work on a four-hour "productivity break." That was embarrassing. I figured the problem was that I wasn't flying the 170 often enough given my relatively low time in the airplane, and most of my flights were focused on sightseeing or going somewhere instead of practicing landings.
As I untied and preflighted the plane, I resolved to practice wheel landings. These require a pretty precise idea of how far your wheels are off the ground, as you need almost zero sink at touchdown to prevent a "crow hop." The 170's spring steel landing gear is fairly unforgiving of bad wheel landings, especially on pavement. The usual technique is to come in a bit low, power-on, with no flaps. Over the threshold, you begin a very slow easing off of the power, cutting it completely at the moment of touchdown. Meanwhile you don't really need to flare, as ground effect will slow your sink rate. You ease the wheel back just a smidge when you're about to touch down to bring the sink rate to virtually nil, then at the moment of touchdown you bring it forward an inch or so to eliminate any tendency to crow-hop.
This being my first 170 flight sans passengers, it leapt off the ground and climbed like a scalded cat. I didn't know the old girl was capable of such performance! I was at pattern altitude before I turned downwind and was cleared for the option. My first landing was almost an exact repeat of my performance with the NewCo FO. I flared for what seemed like forever, and was convinced that my tires were only an inch or two off the pavement. I was spring-loaded to push the yoke forward on touchdown, and must have got tired of waiting because I jumped the gun. It turned out my wheels were feet, not inches, off the ground, and my premature push drove them right into the pavement. The impact pushed the tail down, increasing the wing's angle of attack, which sent me airborne, where my nose-down elevator input drove the mains back into the ground again. This is what I mean by crow-hopping. It is the taildragger equivalent of a Pilot-Induced Oscillation, except it's physics-induced. There's nothing the pilot can do to stop it but go around or pull up and convert the landing to a full-stall three-pointer if the runway is long enough and directional control isn't a problem. I went around.
On the second pattern, I reminded myself that the ground was a lot lower than I thought it was, and to not put in the forward yoke until I felt myself touch down. This time it worked out perfectly. I timed the flare perfectly, felt the upwind wheel squeak across the blacktop, nudged the yoke forward to keep it planted, then the downwind wheel came down. I held the tailwheel up as I slowed, then gently lowered it and used aft elevator to keep positive traction as the rudder lost effectiveness. Perfection.
By the time I had a half-hour on the Hobbs meter, I'd made five landings. Only the first was awful, two were beautiful, and the other two involved a bit of skipping but nothing horrible. I felt a whole lot better about having the right picture in the flare. As I tied down the old bird, it occurred to me that my thirty minutes of simple pattern work were more challenging - and more fun - than any flying I had done at work in months. It's a shame so few airline pilots fly on their days off. Too many associate the very act of controlling an aircraft with workaday drudgery.
This Friday, I landed the JungleBus on Minneapolis' Runway 12L in a sixty degree crosswind that was gusting to 36 knots. There was moderate turbulence most of the way down final, and the airspeed was bouncing around plus or minus ten knots of my approach speed. The autothrottles kept trying to alternate between unspooling the engines and firewalling them, so I overrode them to keep the thrust in a reasonable range. As I flared, I kicked in nearly full left rudder to swing the nose around to runway heading, while putting in enough aileron to drop the right wing and keep the plane from drifting. I touched down smoothly on the right wheel, lowered the nose just a touch, then increased aileron deflection as the left wing came down, the left main touched, and I derotated. The wind gusted mightily as I deployed the thrust reversers and braked, but quick work on the rudders kept us right on centerline. I got quite a few handshakes, thumbs up, and "well done"s from the passengers as they deplaned. It was a pretty beautiful landing, if I say so myself.
Truth be told, virtually every airline pilot out there can land well in those conditions and far worse, and does so on a semi-regular basis. That said, I've noticed a definite improvement in my JungleBus landings since I started flying taildraggers. I notice drift a lot earlier and am a lot less tolerant of it. Most modern airliners, by design and by sheer mass, will tolerate a certain amount of hamfistedness. Most old light taildraggers will not. I'm not saying I'm ready to take on a Pitts just yet, but it sure is nice to occasionally fly something that taxes - and builds - my stick-and-rudder skills a bit more than the JungleBus.