Tail-Kicking Fatigue

Wake me up when weve landed, will ya?


Recently I strapped into the company Lance for the semi-annual Instrument Proficiency Check, which I take every six months regardless of my perceived proficiency or legal currency. For more than two hours, flight instructor extraordinaire Steve Brady had me put the airplane through its paces while he put my brain through paces of its own.

He kept looking for chinks in the armor, while I was determined to show as few as possible.

Steve is one of those flight instructors who knows that his job is more than pencil-whipping a log book. He probes for weaknesses and, once he finds them, assaults them mercilessly. As a consequence, flying with him is always demanding, exhausting and extremely productive.

This IPC was no different, including about 40 miles of DME arc to within 0.1 mile and some dreaded NDB work in strong, gusty winds. After a couple of hours, I was happy to return to the airport. But the fun for the day wasnt over. We parked the Lance and fired up the Citabria for some tailwheel work with the strong crosswind.

The Lance is a fairly big single and the airplane responds slowly to control inputs and power changes. You need to think ahead and anticipate how the airplane will move. The Citabria is the opposite. Light and nimble, you think about what to do and the airplane almost reads your mind.

The stability of the Lance and the squirreliness of the Citabria in the crosswind made for an interesting transition that day, but I promised myself the little taildragger would not get the better of me.

After almost another two hours of being victimized by the sadistic instructor, I was ready to go home. Unfortunately, we were still 900 feet above the runway with another of those potential ground loops awaiting. Thats when I did something stupid – or rather, didnt do something smart.

I should have confessed my fatigue, turned the airplane over to the rear-seater, and had him take us back to the airport. Instead, I pressed on, my reaction time dangerously slow. I sort of pointed the airplane at the runway and thought, Come on, Trigger, take me home.

A Citabria in a crosswind, of course, is not a trusted horse. The landing that ensued didnt bend anything, but it sure wasnt pretty. My best lesson of the day turned out to be the last one.

Fatigue is an insidious foe that creeps up on you. Usually you know its there, but somehow you just dont care.

Winter flying is a time when more flights end after dark, and the darkness amplifies the fatigue factor. Its no coincidence that loss of control accidents dominate the winter months.

Stay sharp, and put the airplane on the ground before youre too tired to care how it gets there. Once you push it too far, youll be lucky if your arrival is only embarrassing.

-Ken Ibold


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