Saturday, November 10, 2007

Checking Out (in) the Cardinal

I think Cessna Cardinals are beautiful planes. Since I started flying two years ago, I have flown Cessna Skyhawks almost exlusively. The one exception has been a Cessna 152, which I wrote about previously. Cardinals are similar to Skyhawks in that they are four-seat, single-engine airplanes. Some Cardinals have retractable landing gear, but most, like Skyhawks, do not. When I first started flying, I had trouble seeing the difference between the Cardinal and Skyhawk -- to me, a four-seat, high-wing plane was a four-seat, high-wing plane.

Cessna Cardinal

Cessna Skyhawk

Notwithstanding their similarities, though, Cardinals are different from Skyhawks in several important ways, and if you compare the two pictures above, you'll be able to pick out some differences. Cardinals are sleeker, with cantilevered wings instead of wing struts. They have much larger doors, and are more spacious inside. With the exception of the first year Cardinals were produced, they also have engines that are more powerful than most Skyhawks, with constant-speed propellers instead of fixed-pitch propellers. This all translates into smooth, faster flight, and quicker handling makes them seem more like sports cars than the Skyhawk family sedans.

On Friday morning I finally got checked out in my club's Cardinal, pictured above. Rich met me at the airport at 6 a.m., we spent some time going over the plane, then we went flying. I had read as much as I could about Cardinal systems and operations, but Rich really helped me understand the flow. Adjusting the prop was new to me, as all the planes I had flown before had fixed-pitch props. The view out the window was also different -- the wing is closer to eye level and further back than on a Skyhawk, and that made me feel different during turns. It took just a little getting used to.

Rich and I flew out to Westminster, where I practiced power-off glides, steep turns, and stalls, then we headed for Carroll County airport for some takeoffs and landings. I did three takeoffs and landings, including one short-field landing. All of the landings were good, and the short-field landing was great. The Cardinal has a stabilator instead of a horizontal stabilizer and elevator. When it was first produced, the light touch of the elevator controls gave the Cardinal a bad reputation for being squirrelly in the landing flare. To me, though, the sensitive pitch control was wonderful, and really made it easy to modulate the attitude of the plane.

Rich and I took off to head back to Gaithersburg and I climbed toward 3,000 feet so ATC could "see" the plane on their radar. If they can't see us, they won't give us clearance to re-enter the DC ADIZ. As we were climbing, though, it began to rain. Rain is typically not a huge deal. In fact, rain had been forecast to start, though not until 11 a.m., and it was barely 8:00. It was new to me, though, as I had never flown in it, and I was interested to see that the air from the propeller kept the windscreen clear.

I noticed the engine RPM dropping a little, so I pulled the knob for carburetor heat. The RPMs dropped further, then increased back to where they should be, confirming that ice had been building up in the carburetor. Then I noticed some airframe ice, about 1/4-inch, on the leading edge of the wing, and Rich pointed out a patch of ice on the front of the landing gear. Ice on an airplane is bad. The ice does not build up smoothly, so it spoils the smooth flow of air over the wings. It is also heavy, dragging the plane down. We had only a little ice, so there was no immediate danger, but we needed to get out of the rain and freezing temperatures.

ATC finally told us that they could see our transponder, allowing us to re-enter the ADIZ, so I pointed the nose of the plane down and toward Gaithersburg, descending rapidly while making a beeline for the airport. The ice stopped building as we descended into warmer temperatures. Then it started snowing. The effect was something like going "light speed" in the Star Wars movie as we headed toward the airport as fast as the plane would take us.

I loved flying the Cardinal. It handled great (with or without a little ice), was comfortable, and the constant-speed propeller was smooth and efficient. I greased in a landing at Gaithersburg, and Rich filled out my logbook before heading to work. It had been a significant flight: a new plane (to me), and an introduction to flying in rain, snow, and icing conditions. It was only 8:30, but I was already tired from the excitement of the morning, and I headed to the airport cafe for some food and more coffee. I was curious to see what Rich wrote in my logbook. I sat down at a table in the restaurant, ordered an omelet, and flipped open my logbook. After a brief description about the Cardinal checkout, it said simply, "Winter familiarization." Indeed.

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