Does flying into big fly-ins make us better pilots?

Flying into Oshkosh can be a nerve-wracking experience. I would not recommend doing it alone due to the large amount of air traffic and the need for lots of eyes. During your arrival to Oshkosh, one of the VFR initial approach fixes is Fisk. At Fisk you may arrive as we did, to find a long line of planes just to your right already aligned before the starting point.

Oshkosh
Landing here means you’ll be flying a tight pattern.

Unfortunately, they somehow joined up early and you are the plane out of line. This is not as simple as merging onto the highway when the DOT has cut a six-lane highway down to one lane and everyone has to merge together.

What I want to emphasize are the instructions we receive from ATC about turning downwind, base, and final approach. In normal flight operation, the PIC chooses the size of their pattern. Each pilot does this depending on how proficient they are in their plane and the characteristics of the plane. At Oshkosh and Sun ‘N Fun, those options are not available.

I fly a Cherokee Six (PA-32), which I have owned and flown for over 200 hours. Not only did I get my instrument rating in this plane, it is the only plane I have flown in IMC. I’m very comfortable with how it feels and sounds, which is important during all phases of flight—especially the takeoff and landing characteristics.

I recently received my tailwheel endorsement in a Citabria. Flying a lightweight Citabria that holds only two people and has a normal takeoff/landing weight of 1,800 lbs is much different than a Cherokee Six loaded to maximum weight of 3,400 lbs, which includes five people, clothing for a week, and camping gear.

During my tailwheel training, I had the good fortune to fly to the airport in my plane several times before and after the lesson. The nice part of the experience is I flew the same traffic pattern in the same weather conditions on the same day in two very different planes.

One day we were training and the wind was pretty gusty. I flew in and parked my plane by the school’s hangar. My wonderful instructor was a petite, 78-year old lady with a lot of patience. I asked her if she thought I needed to chock my wheels due to the wind gusts. She laughed and replied, “That thing is a truck; it isn’t going anywhere.”

I climbed into the Citabria and started my lesson for the day. She and I discussed the difference in the traffic pattern I flew in the Citabria and the Cherokee Six. We were flying a pretty tight pattern for my comfort level and shooting for 65 mph on base and final approach, which was much slower than I ever fly the Cherokee. I asked if she thought that I was flying too big of a pattern in the Cherokee Six. Her response was that when flying a much faster and heavier plane, you should fly a larger pattern.

Her response took me back to the fly-ins. I think once we get on downwind, all single-engine planes are treated the same by ATC. We are instructed to keep it in tight. This requires an aggressive downwind-to-final approach and not more than 30 degrees of bank, accompanied with no base leg.

What normally occurs is I overshoot the centerline while turning from downwind through base to final, maintaining a 30-degree bank the entire time and still overshooting the runway centerline. While performing this maneuver, I’m also watching my airspeed, descending, and keeping the plane coordinated to prevent a stall and inadvertent stall-to-spin hazard.

During a normal maneuver such as this at a “regular” airport when you overshoot the centerline, you may choose to go around and try the approach again with a little wider flight pattern. At Oshkosh you certainly are going to try to make it work because otherwise you will be sequenced back to Ripon and have the potential to be put in a holding pattern.

What can make this landing even more challenging to your eye is that you are not lining up on the centerline well before you reach the runway. When landing, they use both the runway and parallel taxiway as landing strips. When turning onto final, you are already over the centerline, not lining up one-half mile to a mile before the runway threshold. This is safe because the 8,000 foot runway and taxiway allow plenty of time for you to maneuver over the centerline and get down onto the runway at the spot you are being requested to land on (land on the dot).

Downwind
How wide is too wide?

I have had two recent experiences where I needed to be on the ground due to concern about the mechanics of the plane. I flew too tight of a pattern and had to implement the same skills as previously discussed. The first occurrence happened after a taildragger lesson. My wife and I had flown to Houston Southwest to meet my instructor for the lesson. Everything was uneventful during the lesson.

While flying the return trip, I had a hot exhaust gas smell that was not normal for the plane. Since the plane’s heater is never used, I eliminated it. During my last annual, I had to have the entire exhaust system replaced, including the muffler. I had flown the plane approximately three hours since the annual with no issues. As we were flying over south Houston, I noticed the floor channel between the two front seats was getting hot. It is carpeted but has some metal snaps on it. I touched the metal snaps and burned my fingers. We had only been in the air for ten minutes, and I was concerned about the possibility of a fire.

I have seen videos and read articles about fire consuming a single-engine plane in a matter of minutes. I was talking to ATC on VFR flight following and told them I was going to Pearland. The controller was a little confused because I changed airports, but I did not have time to explain my actions. I repeated that I was going to Pearland and banked the plane north. He asked if I wanted to declare an emergency, and I responded with, “not at this time.”

As I came upon the Pearland runway, I flew a horrible pattern because I was focused on getting on the ground quickly. I made radio calls the entire time saying I was going to land on runway 32 but instead found myself lined up with runway 14. Once I saw the 14 I was aiming at, I announced my mistake on the radio, looked for any traffic on the runway and proceeded to make a hard downwind-to-final turn, overshooting the centerline and then keeping the bank in until I positioned myself on the centerline.

Upon landing, we pulled off the runway, shut the engine off, and pulled off the engine cowling. Luckily there was no fire; however, there was an issue with the cabin heat system that allowed the center channel to get hot and send the exhaust smell into the cabin. I was able to have the mechanic on the field repair it. Unfortunately, I was so concerned with the possibility of fire and landing, my mind did not operate at the level it needed to for safe flying. My skills to fly the plane did not falter; however, my navigation and communication skills were not efficient.

The second time this situation occurred was when my brother and I were taking off from Weiser Field, where he is currently taking his private pilot lessons. I unfortunately ignored one of my normal routines and allowed him to put his bag in the back seat and close the rear passenger door. Routinely I close all the doors except the right passenger door and ensure that they are locked with nothing hanging out. I once had the front luggage door come open, and, of course, due to aerodynamic forces, it occurred at rotation speed.

Upon takeoff, I heard a rattling noise that was unsettling and unfamiliar. To complicate matters, my brother had a new headset he insisted that I wear. As we were in the air and gaining altitude, I asked him if he heard anything unusual. After repeating the question, a second time, he responded with, “The rattling?”

At this time, I turned left crosswind and back into the downwind leg for runway 27. I didn’t know what the rattling noise was nor how it would affect the plane, and I wanted to get down on the ground to see. The same scenario happened as before: I flew too tight a pattern, overshot the centerline, and kept bringing it around.

My student pilot brother, who had not soloed yet, was concerned and thought we were too close and needed to go around. Knowing my plane and keeping with the same flying skills (airspeed was good, not close to stall, plane was coordinated, flaps were configured, and no more than 30 degrees of bank), I brought it in on the centerline and touched down.

We pulled off the runway and I did my inspection that I should have done before takeoff. It appeared there was a strap hanging out the rear passenger door, beating on the fuselage. After fixing the strap, I switched back to my own headphones and took off with no further incidents on the flight.

So, I will answer the question of, “Does flying in the high-pressure environment of Oshkosh and Sun ‘N Fun make us better pilots?” I contend it does. As the old saying goes, “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.”

8 Comments

  • Sometimes I think it is the FEAR itself of stalling and spinning in from a low altitude that puts pilots into that exact situation. They’re so paranoid that they forget to fly the airplanes right. Thirty degrees of bank or less is not going to save you from death if you are uncoordinated in your turns. I used to spend weeks on end during the hot summers in Mississippi watching my uncle fly Agcats and Snows in spraying operations. I’d often see him in 70 degree or greater banks while low to the ground and I’d be very frightened for him. He just chuckled one time when I asked him about the dangers of steep banks while at such low altitudes. He said to me on more than one occasion, “Respect the load on the wing, watch your speed, keep the nose down, and keep the turns coordinated and you’ll never have a problem. But be ready for wind gusts.” He lived to a ripe old age before retiring from ag flying, logging more than 27,000 hours of accident-free crop spraying while following his own sage advice. Don’t be paranoid; be a better pilot.

  • I agree with Ben’s first comment, “… I contend it does.” However, as a pilot for ~50 years, that flew in the US Air Force, Mass Air National Guard, owned and flew a Cessna 182 in the civilian ‘World’ and flew to AirVenture (Oshkosh) numerous times…. I NEVER flew into Wittman for the event…. wasn’t worth the risk… too many ‘AH’ pilots flying??? in the area!

  • It is a challenge and will give you bragging rights that you did fly into the worlds busiest airport once in your life time. Kind of like your first solo or losing your virginity, the first time is the most exciting and the best experience!

  • I have flown into 2 AOPA fly in events. One the day of the event, and one the day before the event. Trust me, go the day before. The event I flew into the day of, was packed to the gills. I had to land at another airport 30 miles away, and take the shuttle in. I wasn’t all too happy about that. The one I fly to the day before, I combined with my vacation. Flew into a small GA airport, paid a fraction of the parking / tie down, and fueling fees, had a much better time, and enjoyed it a whole lot more by doing it that way.

  • It’s the other way around sir, you need to be a somewhat experienced pilot to be able to safely get into larger flyins. So you need to be comfortable enough to fly your aircraft almost by feel and for example constant reference to airspeed. Sure you glance once in a while. Also you have to be able to maneuver enough to realign with centreline or adjust your altitude and/or rate of decent without overtaxing you’re main power BECAUSE you want most of your attention and concentration on seeing and/or being aware of the planes around you.

  • I hit send too soon… Correction:

    It’s the other way around sir, you need to be a somewhat experienced pilot to be able to safely get into larger flyins. So you need to be comfortable enough to fly your aircraft almost by feel and for example WITHOUT constant reference to airspeed. Sure you glance once in a while. Also you have to be able to maneuver enough to realign with centreline and/or adjust your altitude and/or rate of decent without overtaxing you’re brain power BECAUSE you want most of your attention and concentration on seeing and/or being aware of the planes around you.

  • how can you make a correction/edit your comment here?
    I tried to resend my comment but refuses to accept it because it thinks it’s a duplicate and a key word was missing on first attempt

  • I hit the post button too soon… Correction:

    It’s the other way around sir, you need to be a somewhat experienced pilot to be able to safely get into larger flyins. So you need to be comfortable enough to fly your aircraft almost by feel and for example WITHOUT constant reference to airspeed. Sure you glance once in a while. Also you have to be able to maneuver enough to realign with centreline and/or adjust your altitude and/or rate of decent without overtaxing you’re brain power BECAUSE you want most of your attention and concentration on seeing and/or being aware of the planes around you.

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