The Touch

The Touch

The Touch

I am sitting in the jump seat of a CJ2 brandishing my seldom-used CFI ticket and CE-525 type rating to complete a 61.55 ride for the pilot in the right front seat. It turns out that the pilot, Carolyn, let her second-in-command authorization run out a week ago and she and her husband John have a trip scheduled to the Midwest this week – not leaving much time for her to run back to FlightSafety where she normally does re-currency training. As an instructor, sitting in the jump seat gives you an entirely different perspective than being up front and actively involved in the aircraft’s flight path. You have more time to carefully observe how pilots handle themselves, right down to the smallest detail.

Most people can be trained to fly airplanes, but after spending my first 3,000 hours doing flight instruction, I came to realize that some simply have the “touch” more so than others, and Carolyn (like many women) is one of those. She did not start flying until well into adulthood, and only then (still with some hesitation) after her husband suggested she would be good at it. Yet, even though still considering herself a “fluffy” beginner, she seems to have mastered control feel in a way many pilots can only envy. I can see that none of her movements are sudden or of wide magnitude. Her hand movements are also very purposeful, with her fingers landing directly on the control or switch she is after without any insecure wandering. This is usually the case in pilots who have the locations of everything well embedded in their tactile memory (which in my observations, female student pilots seem particularly skilled). Another thing I notice is although she sits in the right seat, she is the Pilot Flying (PF), and in an understated but calm way is directive to the Pilot Monitoring (her husband John) who is sitting on the left. 

We do the usual air maneuvers like steep turns, approaches to a stall and slow flight, all of which she has no issues. Then, as part of the 61.55 check ride, we make an instrument approach into Runway 16 at Paine Field (PAE), where the Boeing 747 plant is located. The tower is running traffic off of Runway 34 which results in our need to break right at the missed approach point and enter downwind for that runway on the west side of the airport. I deliberately asked Carol to do this approach because it puts her in a position where she cannot see the runway she is about to land and makes for a good check on how she handles crew communication. 

Well before we arrive at the base turn, she asks John, who is sitting in the left seat and can clearly see the runway, to call out the base turn. He does so after about a minute, and Carol rolls into a 30-degree left bank turn, then nicely rolls out at heading 070 – perfect for the base leg. She still can’t see the runway, however, so again asks John to call the turn to final then finish the landing checklist. He obliges, and she gradually rolls into another 30-degree banked turn and comes back on the trim wheel slightly to prevent an increase in descent rate. At the same time, she squeezes in a touch of power to 63 percent, which I note keeps the indicated airspeed at exactly 120 knots when full flaps are deployed, or about 10 knots above Vref. From that point on, there is very little of the fumbling type power variations so often seen on final, the sound of which passengers can find disconcerting. At about 100 feet and just short of the runway, the power is reduced to idle. The slightly high ref speed results in a nice gradual descent to a gentle “in the zone” touchdown, with the nose wheel then softly placed on the pavement.

A CJ with its Williams engines does not have traditional thrust reversers, but rather a couple of paddles that stick out to divert thrust somewhat away from straight ahead. Carolyn gets those out, then starts a gradual braking action so that we are quite slow by the time we make the exit ramp about 4,000 feet down the 10,000-foot runway. She crosses the yellow hold line then slowly brings the airplane to a stop while John is calling ground control. No jerky movement there, and as we taxi back for another takeoff, I start thinking, “What is it about women pilots? They always seem to so gentle with how they handle the controls – maybe us males could learn something from them.”

Some time goes by, and I don’t see much of Carolyn and John until I find myself in the back of their new Bell 407 helicopter. In the left front seat is a very experienced former Bell test pilot who is spending the better part of the week putting on a Bell 407 training course for all of us. Carolyn’s husband John is in the right rear seat, and we are heading back to their home in the San Juan Islands just north of Seattle. I am along for the ride because once we drop them off at their home airport, I will move to the front to show the instructor that I too can fly the helicopter.

Just before we leave the mainland and head out over Puget Sound, the instructor decides to practice a few autorotations. The power gets rolled back and the pitch is adjusted to maintain airspeed. Sounds simple enough, but from my point of view in the back seat, I can only see the brown plowed fields of the Skagit Valley coming toward me at an alarming rate. This is partially because from the back seat, I am looking down the tunnel of the helicopter’s cabin. The other reason is that a Bell 407 has a relatively light four-bladed rotor system, and requires a fairly negative pitch attitude to maintain airspeed during an autorotation. Finally, when I can clearly see small clumps of dirt scattered by the plow, the nose gently pitches up, making only the blue sky visible. This decreases forward motion and increases main rotor RPM, at which time the nose drops back to the horizon as Carolyn goes forward with the cyclic and up with the collective at about 5 feet above the ground – the maneuver’s endpoint. I think to myself, “That was well done. Some pilots just have the touch.” I hope with all my helicopter time, plus helicopter CFI rating, I can perform just as well on the return trip.

Twenty minutes later, we arrive over the short, uphill grass airstrip at which Carolyn and her husband base their helicopter. The San Juan Islands are notorious for their overpopulation of blacktail deer as there are few natural predators and hunting is rarely allowed. In addition, the deer are quite skilled at swimming from one rocky island to another, usually favoring those on which humans have built nice grassy runways. This periodically leads to unpleasant deer and airplane encounters, usually fatal to the deer and occasionally to the airplane’s occupants. Knowing this fact, it is worrisome when I look down at the grass runway to see a herd of deer nonchalantly wandering around and large enough to have fed the entire Lewis and Clark expedition for a month. 

Given that tail rotors and deer do not mix well, the instructor and I must be thinking the same thing when I hear him ask Carolyn what she intends to do about the deer. She laughs briefly into the mic and says she has the deer “trained.” Sure enough, as she starts the approach, the deer briefly look up and seemingly without a care in the world, slowly wander away from our landing zone. We hover over to the cement pad near the hangar, touch down gently, then the power is slowly rolled off and the turbine placed at idle for the prescribed cooling period. The deer wander back to their original locations. Some pilots quite obviously have the touch.

Not once during the helicopter flight, or the earlier CJ trip, were the controls moved suddenly or forcefully by the pilot. Both machines seemed to flow very smoothly through the air to exactly where they were supposed to go. The truth is most of us have to work very hard to have that happen, while others just seem to have the “touch” – and they are often women.   

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