To Turf or not to Turf
By Steve Link
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A large part of general aviation pilots normally fly from asphalt or concrete fields…. I submit for your consideration a proposal. Have you tried a turf strip lately? I know that we all have shown our instructors we can execute the standard short/soft field take off and landing, but were they actually done on a grass strip? I know, I know….You’re going to say “But I fly a tri-geared aircraft that has the tailwheel on the wrong end and I’m afraid I’ll wrinkle my firewall.” Well, properly executed, a landing and takeoff from a grass strip is far from harmful to airplane and pilot. If anything it can be easier on all the above!
Here in Oklahoma, we have so many really nice grass strips to choose from. Most are private strips have hangar houses on them, but generally they don’t mind visitors. Ask around among your pilot friends and generally they will know of some of the visitor friendly grass strips in your area.
The grass strips hearken back to an era not unlike the barnstormers had to contend with. It may even bring out the pseudo-bush pilot in you. Care should be taken in picking the strips, especially if you are flying a tri-gear. Look for the smoother firewall friendly strips. Tri-gear isn’t quite as demanding on the turf, but is just as fun and enjoyable. Just act like you’re an F-16 and keep that nose in the air as long as possible. Yee-Haw! Not only is this proper soft field technique, but it keeps the loads off the training wheel and helps with prop erosion from sand, rocks, and the occasional pasture pie….
Most of the outlying strips will have obstructions you don’t normally see at your common hard surfaced airports. Remember, some of these will be hacked out of the surrounding wilderness! Fly over the strip and look at its length and if there is wildlife first. Check for obstructions close to both ends and remember that dry grass will shorten your landing and lengthen your takeoff so plan accordingly. An overloaded plane and a hot Oklahoma day can cause an embarrassing moment.
My aircraft of choice or the one I’m stuck with, monetarily speaking is a 1966 Citabria GCAA, which has the tailwheel in the right place. Heck, we’d all like to have a big buck warbird or bizjet to play with right?
When I’m flying off turf, I generally 3 point it just because it feels so good. A smooth turf strip is so forgiving on your airframe, tires and such, and really makes you feel like you know what you are doing. Try coming in a little sloppy or with a slight drift on hard surfaces and you are in for some side loads that tend to get your attention and unnerve you and can be hard on the airframe and tires. On grass, it just accepts the aircraft and forgives your drifts to the point that it isn’t even noticeable. I was a low time tailwheel pilot when I took a friend to a grass strip for some touch and goes….It was so forgiving that he thought I had been flying for years!
The forgiving nature of turf can also work against you….A hefty crosswind and a tailwheel can really get your attention on grass if it’s wet, as you loose all of that aforementioned authority to the tailwheel during rollout due to the low friction coefficient of the wet turf. Just be ready for it, it’s like ice. This applies to you tri-geared drivers too.
I guess that what I have tried to say with all this is that if you haven’t ever tried a grass strip, or it’s been awhile for you, rediscover the joy that turf has to offer. Like I pointed out there are many out there. Some of my favorites are El Reno (F28), McCaslin (O44) near Lexington, Thompson and Cole Fields near Tuttle, and for you golfers out there, Okemah (F81). Keep in mind that the out of the way strips sometimes have a warmer, more sociable atmosphere, compared with a lot of the bigger paved airports. And you might find some really neat planes and interesting people in your travels. Tailwinds!