The Accidental Solo

Airplanes may have lured me into the world of aviation, but over the years I’ve come to realize that it’s the people who keep me here. They’re about as far from the homogenized 9-to-5 world as you’re likely to get.

My entree to this group really took off (no pun intended) when I started instructing in 2004. Where else could I have worked with rock stars, test pilots, homeless people, billionaires, octogenarians, and special forces? All these — and more — appear in the student category of my logbook.

One of my all-time favorite students was Mike. He showed up one day for a Pitts transition course. He’d recently purchased a beautiful blue S-2C which, incidentally, was previously owned by a friend of mine. I recall asking him about his background in aviation and didn’t really hear anything unusual. So we started the training process.

Mike was a fun guy to teach, a talented stick who always had a great attitude, not to mention a fascinating career. He was such a quick learner that saw his transition into the Pitts being a quick affair.

After a series of lessons I began to think ahead to the day I’d cut him loose for a supervised solo. Signing off a person to fly an airplane by themselves is nerve-wracking enough without adding the challenges of a Pitts to the mix. There are precious few places on this planet where a student will be allowed to even do this in a rented Pitts. In fact, I only know of one place that will rent a Pitts solo at all, and it happened to be where I was working. That last point is moot because Mike was going to be soloing his own airplane, but I mention it because if you’re not familiar with a Pitts, it’ll give you an indicator of what a challenging machine it can be to operate. I once talked to an astronaut who owned one and he said that in his opinion, if you could land a Pitts well, you could land anything.

Mike and I getting ready for a training flight.  Note the multiple cameras installed on the airframe -- an excellent teaching/debriefing tool.

Mike and I getting ready for a training flight. Note the multiple cameras installed on the airframe — an excellent teaching/debriefing tool.

One day after a flight, we were putting the airplane away and that Mike said he’d need to reschedule our next lesson because he was trying to get ready for a checkride. I said, “No problem. What are you working on? Commercial? Instrument rating?” and he replied, “Private pilot”.

At first I laughed because it’s just the sort of joke a person might make after a couple of pride-crushing landings in a Pitts. I’ve probably uttered something like that myself. Then I realized he was serious.

I started asking a few more questions about his aviation background and Mike offered that he’d started flying a family airplane (a Cardinal, as I recall) as a kid. Apparently in the area where he grew up — and no, it wasn’t Alaska — many people fly without any formal pilot training or certification. They have large farms and just stay over their own land while they learn. I’ve heard of people doing that with cars, but never an airplane.

The next question was what to do about his Pitts solo. He was sufficiently talented and experienced, but I explained that I couldn’t sign him off until he had the proper certification. Mike concurred, and after his student pilot certificate, tailwheel endorsement, and other paperwork was in order, I finally turned him loose in the S-2C.

That was the first “almost” accidental solo. Years later Mike told me about another one.

The solo wasn’t really the solo — been afraid to tell anyone that for years, especially you! Here’s where the risk for reward part comes in. So one day I’m polishing my new Pitts, waiting on my instructor to arrive for some more dual. I get a call from him stating that he wasn’t going to be able to make it that day and he’d like to reschedule. So I’m thinking no big deal, we will go in a couple days.

Well a couple hours goes by and I’m bored… and there is a Pitts sitting there. What harm could some taxi practice be? Twenty minutes later I find myself at the end of the runway with one aircraft entering the pattern and two behind me. So I decide I should taxi as fast as I can and exit the runway immediately. Of course, I can’t see so I think if I pop the tail off the ground with a little more power two good things will happen: one, I will be able to see, and two, I’ll get there sooner!

What I didn’t anticipate was number three: as soon as I lifted the tail it decided to fly. Me being me, I think oh s–t! As I’m climbing out I’m thinking, “Great, now I have to land this thing and I’m probably going to die.” So I know I’m full of fuel and I don’t want to burn if I do crash. So I decide to go sight seeing until I’m low on of fuel then I’ll land. Best hour and fifteen minutes of my flying career — and also my best landing to this day!

I taped a picture of my son to the instrument panel before the next flight and I look at it every time I climb in. I look at it and say these words, which are physically written on my check list:

15. Look at my son’s picture. Check
16. Don’t do anything stupid. Check

I must admit, I did something similar once when flight testing a brand new RV-8. A high-speed taxi turned into an inadvertent flight. I knew the hazard of high-speed taxi tests and had done them before in RVs, but this was a particularly light one, and the prop was pitched in a way that worked against me. The runway was really long, so I just eased the power out and it settled right down onto the runway again, but it gave me a lot of respect for the combination of a high speed taxi and the built in AOA of a tailwheel aircraft.

My first Pitts solo was similar to Mike’s in that it was the smoothest landing I ever made. What happened next was a bit more adventurous, but the initial touchdown was so perfect that it was almost unbelievable.

Anyway, Mike continues:

I’ll never forget my private pilot checkride. The examiner diverted me to an airport and requested a short-field landing. Problem is that by the time she asked for it, we were too close and too high. My solution: full flaps and a huge slip. I think I scared her a bit. I’ll never forget what she said to me next: “Oh, you’re Ron Rapp’s student, the one that soloed the Pitts already, right?? I shouldn’t have done that to you.” I bet she still remembers.

When we got stopped on the long end of the runway she said, “You know what the book says about slips and flaps in a 172?” My response was, “Ron taught me that!”

She passed me though. Thanks for all the good memories my friend!

We all make errors, in the air and on the ground. It’s part of life. I think what sets the better pilots apart is a) how we deal with them, b) what we learn from them, and c) that we don’t keep making the same ones over and over again.

Mike is one of the few people I know who soloed a Pitts before finishing a private pilot certificate. Of course, he’s done many things most people wouldn’t dream of.

Looking back on the experience, I may have learned more from Mike than he did from me. We remain good friends to this day, and that’s something aviation has given me which is far more valuable than any flight time.

Like I said at the top: come for the airplanes, stay for the people.

  7 comments for “The Accidental Solo

  1. October 23, 2016 at 7:54 pm

    Good stories. A Pitts is by far the hardest airplane I’ve ever landed. And I do it so infrequently that it’s more than an adventure every time!

    • October 23, 2016 at 8:20 pm

      Yes, infrequent exposure to the airplane would tend to keep the Pitts in that “fun” zone. It’s a challenge, to be sure, but one that’s mighty fun to take on!

      Glad you enjoyed the post. 🙂

  2. October 27, 2016 at 7:08 pm

    That is hilarious! I love how methodological he was – to think of flying around until he was out of gas before trying to land it on account of the fire danger. Read this at work and cracked up loud enough to disturb my neighbors. Thanks for sharing, it made my day.

    • October 28, 2016 at 12:08 pm

      That’s my favorite part of the story, too. He was already in the air, so he took those lemons and made lemonade out of it. Killed two birds with one takeoff by burning off the fuel AND sightseeing to pass the time. I’m glad he related the story… and just as glad that a few years went by before he did it. 🙂

  3. Peter Stauble
    November 2, 2016 at 12:58 pm

    Slips with full flaps in a 172 may not be “recommended”, but they are not prohibited.

  4. Deayne Ulrich
    November 3, 2016 at 12:13 pm

    Ron, you are so right…come for the airplanes,stay for the people. It’s stories and experiences like this one which fuel my love of flying and keep my heart at the airport.

    While reading this piece, waiting for an appointment in a quiet business office, I burst into uncontrolled and seemingly spontaneous laughter. Needless to say it drew the attention of more than a few people. When I recovered from the momentary loss of control and leveled my wings I could only shrug my shoulders and smile. What could I say? I knew they wouldn’t understand if I had tried to explain. Most of my onlookers would have thought a Pitts was somehow related to BBQ. I do live in Texas!

    In the story there were several moments I could readily relate to which fueled my laughter. One such moment was Mike’s checkride. During my private pilot checkride, after executing a successful short field/soft field landing with a crosswind, my examiner indicated he knew instantly who my instructor was and from his tone of voice and the look on his face I wasn’t sure it was a good thing. I was worried and practically held my breath until he signed me off. Good times!

    Bravo! Thank you Ron for sharing both yours and Mike’s experiences. Excellent piece. Well said.

    Come for the airplanes, stay for the people!

    • November 3, 2016 at 11:21 pm

      Aviation is a pretty small world. Sometimes people can tell who taught us to fly or where we learned just by techniques we use. It’s like an accent or fingerprint, something distinctive.

      I am in Texas quite frequently for recurrent training as well as periodic charter flights, and a good BBQ joint is always worth the trip. How awesome would it be if there really was a Pitts BBQ? Imagine a full-size Pitts Special mounted on the roof….

      I Googled it, just out of curiosity, and the closest thing I could find in Texas was a maker of barbecue smokers and grills called Pitts & Spitts. But I’ll keep my eyes open for the real thing. 🙂

      Glad the story brought some levity to your day, Deayne!

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