Remembering my first soft field landing

In flying, as with anything else, when you have a goal, it helps to stay laser-focused. It helps to avoid distractions.

This is especially true when you're working on earning a new rating or trying to learn a new skill.

Take soft field landings, for instance.

I did my first soft field landing in April 2018. It was several months before I would get my private pilot ticket, and my instructor at the time, Justin, was intent on teaching me soft field landings on actual SOFT FIELDS.

That's the only way to learn it if you want my opinion. Simulated soft field landings might get you checkride-ready, but there's nothing like having some actual grass and hard dirt under the wheels to show you what it's really like.

The field in question was Lee Bottom Airport (64I), a gorgeous 4,000-foot-long nicely kept grass strip tucked away among trees in Hanover, Indiana. While it made some instructors nervous, Justin loved that field, and would often be happy for any excuse to touch down there, as long as the grass wasn't wet.

I still have video of my first landing there. With my Go-Pro pointed out the window – slightly crooked, as always seemed to be the case – I swung the plane onto final, at Justin's direction. Nervously, I could see the tops of the 60-foot trees passing below me as our aircraft glided closer to the airstrip's threshold, the branches seemingly reaching up trying to snatch our little Cessna in their clutches.

I was always nervous at this point -- particularly on days when there was a strong headwind and the airplane appeared to be moving slowly over those trees. On days like this, I was tempted to add power and come in too fast, floating down the length of the airstrip.

"I just feel soooo slow coming in over those trees," I once quipped.

"That's because we've got the headwind," Justin replied. "Don't worry about your groundspeed. Your airspeed is what is important."

But invariably I would glide over the trees and come down beyond them, landing just past the white cones of the airstrip's threshold. I'd try to add just a little bit of power just before the wheels would touch down on the grass.

The rough feeling of the grassy strip just rushing by under the wheels was so alien to a student pilot like me, who was so used to the smooth concrete of runways at controlled airports.

But I thoroughly enjoyed applying full back pressure to the yoke as I held the nose up and gently pumped the throttle so as not to lose momentum before turning the plane around near the end of the grass strip. Using no brakes, to avoid getting stuck in the grass, I'd taxi back to the threshold, set the flaps at 10 degrees and take off again.

We did this over and over again, in all types of winds, lesson after lesson. Because I was determined. I wanted to get my soft field landings down perfectly. I had a goal. I had a checkride. And I wasn't going to let anything distract me.

But one evening was different.

It was June 16 of 2018. It was sometime around 7 o'clock in the evening, and Justin and I were once again returning to Lee Bottom Airport to do some soft field landings. It was supposed to be a short lesson, and after one or two landings, we were going to fly back to the flight school and head for home.

But as we were gliding down on final, something caught our eye. A small plane was parked midway down the field, off to the side of the airstrip. We couldn't tell what it was. As we drifted closer, we could begin to make it out.

"It's a Pietenpol!" Justin said.

As we touched down on the grass strip and rolled passed the airplane, it grabbed my attention.Pitenpol

"You wanna stop?" I asked.

"You wanna?" Justin replied.

Thankfully, no one else was scheduled to rent the plane after us that evening, so there was no need to get back to the flight school right away. Sure, I had a lesson, but we could get back to that later. Right now, I wanted to check out the classic plane. After landing, we pulled our plane over into the grass on the side of the strip and climbed out.

The kind owner of the aircraft -- I don't recall his name, unfortunately -- had flown in from the north that afternoon and was more than happy to show us his plane. It was bright yellow taildragger with an open-air cockpit, with two big front wheels that reminded me of oversized wheels that came from a child's wagon.

On the side of the aircraft was mounted a device we could tell was the pilot’s pride and joy. It was labeled the "Bacon Savor" -- a simple pointer that warned the pilot when he was about to exceed the critical angle of attack and stall out.

On the ground next to the airplane was a simple blue mat. The pilot had actually flown in and planned to camp out that night under the stars – perhaps making use of the fire pit near the airfield to cook some grub.

It seemed like the perfect life.

Of course, we had to get going. I had a lesson to finish -- more stuff to learn -- I had to get ready for that checkride. But just as we were about to head back to our plane, we spotted another aircraft about to land on the field.

It turned out it was Elijah -- another pilot who flew out of our flight school. Cheerfully, he landed and taxied over to where we stood.
Quickly joining the conversation, the four of us found ourselves laughing about the things pilots and student pilots often joke about: Eccentric flight instructors, strange airplanes, predicaments we shouldn't have gotten ourselves into but did anyway, upcoming checkrides, stupid oral exam questions, etc.

Before we knew it, two more hours had elapsed.

By the time Justin and I climbed back into the plane and took off, the sun was setting -- and we were way later than we planned. As we flew west, we followed the Ohio River with the burning horizon in front of us. Behind us in his airplane, Elijah tried to race us back. He lost, but to be fair, we had a pretty big head start.

So much for avoiding distractions. Truth be told, I wasn’t very focused that night. We didn’t spend a whole lot of time practicing landings or doing maneuvers like I originally planned.

But we did have a whole lot of fun. And in the final analysis, I guess those are the lessons you remember most.

Travis K. Kircher is a private pilot based out of Louisville, Kentucky.