“Ever land on grass?” Chet asked quietly, as always, with great understatement that veiled the imminent challenge.
“No,” I replied, knowing that I would do it soon.
The morning was clear on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay even though the sun was not yet high, and the dew still hung on cool blades of grass. The turf runway at Harford County airport (0W3) in Churchville, Maryland, was only 17 nautical miles northeast of our home base at Martin State Airport in Baltimore. My flight instructor, Chet Allen, reviewed the reasons why every competent pilot needed to have proficiency in soft field landings, including his belief that it was an excellent way to satisfy, in part, my flight review required by the FAA (FAR 61.56 (c)).
Proficiency. It’s a big word at the FAA, and not a bad thing to possess, actually. It saves lives, mostly, and looks very good from the ramp.
“You know, Chet, I have only ever done simulated soft field landings.”
Those are the ones you must do for the private pilot flight test. The examiner asks you to “show me a landing for a soft field.” All he wants is a landing at minimum controllable airspeed where the main wheels touch down first very softly so as not to stick in the imaginary mud. Then, you plant the nose wheel even more softly so as not to stick it firmly in the mythical goo and produce the first step of a giant cartwheel that destroys both sod, airplane and occupants. And you do this on 3,000-foot asphalt runways where you can bleed off speed over the first third of the runway just before touchdown to make it all happen just right.
Chet merely shrugged his shoulders.
Simulation would not be permitted this morning. Today we would fly the Beech Sundowner onto real grass, all wet with the morning dew and soft from melted snow, grass that was 90 feet wide (nearly three times as wide as many runways I’d landed on before) but only 1600 feet long. A grass runway that was not only soft but short as well. During practice we had assumed that the soft fields were very long, and our “short fields” were very hard so we could come down steeply and plant the main gear firmly while slamming on the brakes to prevent careening off the end. That technique would not work here because a steep approach would bury the main tires in the real muck, and we would tumble nose first while losing momentum and create work for the National Transportation Safety Board as they investigated another training mishap.
The runway faced north along our direction of flight. At least the sun would not be in my eyes.
“Do it slowly,” Chet said, “or you’ll sink the mains into the turf, and we’ll flip over,” as if I had no idea that was even a remote possibility. What did he suppose was going through my mind?
“Keep the nose high and touch down softly,” he cautioned.
“Right,” I acknowledged. “I hope the turf is not as wet as the grass next to the ramp back home,” I offered aloud.
The field came into view. I steered a bit west and entered a left downwind to the runway at a 45-degree angle, just as the FAA’s Aeronautical Information Manual advised. I turned to the base leg, chopped the power, and dropped the full 30 degrees of flaps to get us slowed down. I trimmed the nose up as far as it would go. We approached stalling speed, and I added a bit more throttle.
Chet still said nothing.
“I hope he tells me if he thinks it doesn’t look right,” I said silently to my anxious soul. “I’ve never done this for real.”
More silence, loud silence with the engine at idle.
As I turned to short final approach, we were still descending a bit too fast. I added more power, but now the runway was moving to the left!
“Crosswind!” I uttered softly. “I don’t need this. Not short and soft and a crosswind!”
Not a word from Chet.
I dropped the left wing and recaptured the extended centerline of the runway. Then I kicked in some right rudder and held the forward slip on the center of the runway.
“This could get ugly,” I thought, but I remembered the wind speed was only 10 knots from the west. “I can handle this,” I repeated silently. “I can handle this. Just let the left main touch first and keep the nose high. Keep it high. Don’t cartwheel!”
We were near the ground now, just 200 feet to go. I had the drifting stopped with the left wing down.
“When do I chop the power?” I asked Chet.
“When you have the field made,” he parroted with the textbook answer, staring straight ahead.
I wondered why I was paying him.
“Chop it now!” was my non-verbal answer to myself. “Pull the power now!”
So, we descended, power off, left wing low, sun glinting on wet grass, with only the sound of slipstream air rushing by at 75 knots. Fifty feet to go, 40, 30, 20…
Early in my training, I tended to start the flare too high, ten feet or so over the pavement. On a concrete runway, that meant we plopped in hard with a clank and a bump. If I did that here, we were going to die, or worse. I desperately wanted to raise the nose and that drooping left wing, but I kept it down, sacrificing bank angle to drift control. The nose tracked straight ahead, gradually coming higher and higher in the flare until it filled my forward vision, obstructing my view of the runway racing by so that I could see it now only by looking out my side window. Then, almost imperceptibly, the left main wheel greased the wet grass silently. Remarkably, we were still tracking straight ahead, so I relaxed the yoke with my tense, sweating, left hand, lowering the right wing and the nose at the same rate. I simultaneously eased the pressure on my right foot as the nose wheel settled on the turf seconds after the right main. Still tracking straight ahead. No cartwheel!
I suddenly remembered to pull back on the yoke to keep the nose wheel from digging into the soft turf during the rollout.
Still not a word from Chet. He just looked straight ahead.
“Not bad,” he said finally, with no more enthusiasm or conviction than when he ate his beloved orange-colored peanut butter crackers. “Let’s go around,” he added.
The end of 1600 feet of turf was rushing closer. One more test to pass. Full power, flaps to 15 degrees, right rudder to fight the torque of the engine. Positive rate of climb at best angle of climb speed. Safely away. Obstacles cleared. On to the next challenge.
For an instant, I thought I detected the hint of a grin on Chet’s usually sullen face.
“Did you see that?” I yelled, relieved to be in one piece and airborne again, my heart racing.
“Not bad,” he repeated. “Not bad.” He glanced at me for only an instant, then stared straight ahead. Now Chet was smiling.