Soft field takeoffs / landings

It was a little warmer today; warm enough to ride to the airport. They still haven’t fixed the gate at the club, but they did leave it half open, so I was able to get in and out without jumping a fence.

Gene told me at the end of the last lesson that we’d be going to Harnett County to practice soft field landings and so that he could sign me off to solo there in the future. Knowing that, I got NOTAMs and information for HRJ when I called for a weather briefing. A lot of work was going on there around the runway, but nothing to stop us from visiting.

I was in 333 today, but I didn’t mind. During the long taxi to runway 21, Gene suggested that he demonstrate a soft field takeoff at Sanford and a soft field landing when we get to Harnett County. After that, I’d take over and practice a few rounds.

Soft fields are defined as anything that isn’t paved. Grass is the most common, but it could be dirt or gravel or whatever. The most significant issues with a soft field are the drag that it creates when rolling on it and the “sink” factor that could cause things like the nose wheel to dig in, get stuck, and make the plane tip forward like a tricycle when you turn it too fast.

The takeoff goes like this: 10° flaps; taxi onto the runway; without stopping (you don’t want to lose momentum or you’ll increase the distance required to get off the ground), full back pressure on the yoke and full throttle; as soon as the nose wheel lifts off the ground (it happens at a very low speed), let off the back pressure enough to keep from dragging the tail, but not so much that the nose wheel falls back to the ground; as soon as you lift off the ground at the slowest speed possible, maintain level flight a couple feet over the runway until you pick up enough speed for a normal climbout (60-ish knots, or 54-ish knots if there are obstacles to clear); climb out and retract flaps after clearing any obstacles.

The point of this technique is to get the plane off the ground as soon as it will fly to eliminate the drag that the soft ground causes, but not to start climbing out until a safe speed is reached.

The landing technique is designed to touch down as lightly as possible at the slowest speed possible: full flaps (30°) on approach; 60-knot descent; at the roundout, maintain about 1200 RPM throttle (high enough to keep it flying slowly over the runway); pull back slowly to lose airspeed while maintaining level flight; eventually you can’t pull back any more and right before it stalls, it will touch down; keep full back pressure on the yoke to keep the nose wheel off the ground; usually no need for brakes, as the ground will provide enough drag to slow you down.

So… on to the trip. Gene took over the plane as we taxied out onto the runway. With full back pressure the nose came up almost immediately after adding full throttle and the plane left the ground well under our usual liftoff speed. Level flight over the runway and then a normal climbout. It all happened pretty quickly.

I took over after a few hundred feet and we headed to Harnett County (it’s a little over 20 miles to the southeast). The air was smooth and visibility was fairly high, but not nearly as high as it had been. I could see downtown Raleigh, maybe Durham, but certainly not Greensboro. There’s a 2,000 foot tower a few miles east of the Sanford airport that we have to make sure we avoid. It serves as a good landmark, though, to find the airport on the way back.

After a few minutes I made a call to Harnett County UNICOM. The response wasn’t very clear, but Gene understood. I guess with experience you know what you’re expecting to hear and it doesn’t have to be clear. He responded and we’d be using runway 23 with nobody else in the area.

Gene pointed out a few landmarks, some of which I’d remembered from the one other time we went there. The airport appeared more quickly than I expected, so I started to descend a little late. Not a problem, though; we hit pattern altitude at just the right time and we entered on a midfield crosswind. I turned downwind and Gene took over to demonstrate the first landing. I noticed that the runway numbers 23 had been painted over and moved back three times. I guess that runway had been extended three times. The sectional showed a 4,300 foot runway, but the online airport info showed closer to 5,000 feet, so the last one must’ve been pretty recent.

It did not go very well for Gene. He wasn’t at all happy with it. He didn’t hold it off as long as he wanted, but I got the idea. I followed up with a combination of stop and goes and taxi back for four takeoffs and landings of my own. They all went fairly well, each better than the one before. I did notice that 333 seemed heavier than 40B, so I had to adjust. Gene agreed and suggested that’s why his touchdown was so short. It just feels different than the other two 152s.

Gene was satisfied that it was going well, so he decided we should go show off my new skills at a real soft field. A few miles directly north is Angier, and just north of that is a private grass strip in the middle of town with some small hangers. Gene had called in the past and they told him it was fine for him to practice there if he wanted, so we didn’t need to call again for approval.

We had a little trouble spotting the strip, but when we did it was just off to the west and we were set up perfectly for entering downwind. The “runway” doesn’t have numbers on it, so we just picked a number based on our magnetic heading… runway 14 it was. There is a frequency listed on the chart for this runway, so Gene made a radio call that we would be landing shortly.

Slightly impaired by my excitement and the lack of numbers, I forgot the usual procedure of starting my descent abeam the numbers, but Gene quickly reminded me. We turned base, and final, and there I was over a small town watching a lot of cars driving on the road that was not more than 50 feet from the grass strip. Cool, I thought briefly, but quickly turned 100% of my attention to the landing. I went through the same procedures as I had just practiced and made a really nice landing. After we touched down, the plane slowed down quite a bit. I thought Gene was using the brakes because I had landed long, but he was not, and I did not. We had plenty of room and it was the soft (slightly more wet than Gene expected) grass that slowed us down. That was fun.

We turned around to taxi back for takeoff. Gene had to take over the throttle because we hadn’t talked about not letting it stop and I didn’t do enough to keep it going. It was hard to get the plane moving once it was near stopped.

We had to dodge a plastic bag and some runway lights that were stuck in the ground. When we got to the end of the runway, we made a wide turn to keep from slowing too much and immediately went to full throttle with full back pressure. “Uh oh!”, I thought to myself. “We’re not going very fast.” And we weren’t. The ground was just too soft. Just after that thought, the nose wheel lifted off and we picked up a little more speed. I sensed a little concern in Gene, but maybe it was more intense concentration. We had plenty of runway from what I could see and I could tell we were close enough to the imaginary center line. The plane struggled, but finally lifted off the ground. Without the drag, it picked up speed quickly. I held it just over the ground, being sure not to run into the hangers or out into the street. At 54 knots I pulled back and we climbed out with plenty of clearance. Gene was happy, but didn’t want to do that again because the ground was just too soft.

Wow! There’s no substitute for actually using a soft field to see how the technique works and is really necessary. I was glad I got a chance to do that. We’re not supposed to solo on a soft field, so I won’t be doing that again until I get my license (unless Gene want’s to).

We headed back to Sanford and mostly just enjoyed the view. I made a call 5 miles out and then again when entering the 45 for runway 21. However, Raleigh Approach responded that we were on the wrong frequency. Oops. Gene had been controlling the radio and I thought he had it on Sanford’s frequency. So did he. He apologized to Raleigh (and to me) and we fixed it. I’m sure they get that a lot, but I’ll bet it can get annoying for them.

Instead of a normal landing, Gene had me round out and continue flying above the runway for more slow flight practice until about half way down.

While we were filling out the log books, I could tell Gene was a little flustered, so I asked about it. He was still upset about his landing. He didn’t want to waste my time trying another one, but I could tell he wanted to. It’s actually helpful to me when he’s not perfect. I can relax and not be so hard on myself knowing that even the most experienced pilots won’t do everything right every time. It’s about being safe, not perfect.

Another fun and very helpful lesson for 1.4 more hours and 41.3 total. My next couple lessons will be solo to practice the new landing techniques, turns around a point, and anything else I feel like practicing.