April 2002 Issue
View from 2 Feet
On a 400-mile flight, the last two feet can make a huge difference, in my view
Early on a beautiful February morning, I departed on a 370 nm flight from Orlando to Atlanta in a VFR Citabria. Winds aloft were light and the air was smooth, but the tranquility was battered at my mid-flight fuel stop.
As I rounded out to settle into the three-point sweet spot for landing, the aircraft unexpectedly bounced. I reined it in, a bit flustered by the momentary loss of control, and taxied to the ramp.
Later, when landing at my destination, the approach was only slightly complicated by a mild crosswind. Again, as I started to settle into the three-point attitude, the airplane took an unexpected hop. Because I was a bit tired after four hours of hand-flying, I wasn’t so quick to respond and the airplane began what seemed like a slow-motion trip toward the right side of the 100-foot-wide runway.
Finally I regained control and taxied red-faced to the FBO.
A few hours later, while riding as a passenger in a car, I unraveled the source of my two botched landings. A week earlier I’d been forced to admit I’m getting old and got glasses – my first pair since undergoing radial keratotomy 17 years ago. Not only that, they’re bifocals.
In the car I noticed that the sidewalks looked about two feet lower through my glasses than without them. I had simply been misjudging my height in the flare because of the refraction of the glasses.
The next day, I departed armed with the knowledge that I’d have to “flare high.” I was confronted by 30- to 50-knot headwinds for my return trip, and at my fuel stop faced 18 knots down the runway. I kept reminding myself to flare early, and even with the strong wind landed comfortably and stopped in what seemed like 200 feet.
When I arrived home nearly six hours after beginning the flight, I was facing winds 80 degrees off the runway at 20 knots, gusting to 28. As I bounced along short final, I thought to myself, “Flare early? No way this is going to work.”
As the runway loomed nearer, I was apprehensive of my technique, especially given the previous day’s performance. But I was able to three-point the airplane on the runway in what was an acceptable if not textbook perfect landing. Fact is, the taxi to the hangar was actually more challenging than the landing.
I took for granted that the new glasses would improve my flying by increasing visual acuity. I hadn’t thought of the other ramifications. A more challenging initial flight could possibly have resulted in a groundloop. Without the accidental epiphany of the change in my peripheral vision, a lousy outcome on the final leg is certain.
Sometimes, it seems, everyone needs protection from themselves.