Vintage Flying

Forget the pressurized aluminum tube.  This is flying.

Do you ever get the feeling that you were born in the wrong era? I do. It’s ironic because I have a natural affinity for computerized devices, web development, coding, glass panel avionics, and other high-tech elements. Nevertheless, they don’t hold a candle to the mechanical brilliance and timeless design ethos of vintage aircraft. I love ‘em.

A student of mine owns a fully-restored 1928 Travel Air 4000, an aircraft that turned heads 85 years ago and still does the same thing today wherever it goes. For all the advances we’ve made since the Roaring 20s, I sincerely doubt my automobile, cell phone, computer, furniture, or other belongings will be around in the year 2098, let alone looking as good as this “old” airplane.

An aircraft like this is all about the details.  For example, the leather grain and embroidery in this rear seat headrest.

An aircraft like this is all about the details. For example, the leather grain and embroidery in this rear seat headrest.

A Travel Air Primer

Even if you’re unfamiliar with the Travel Air Manufacturing Company name, you might recognize people who founded it in 1925: Clyde Cessna, Walter Beech, and Lloyd Stearman. Travel Air was one of the companies that first put Wichita on the map as the “Air Capital of the World”. The firm only lasted a few years, building about 1,800 biplanes before the company was absorbed by the Curtiss-Wright Corporation (which still exists) in 1929.

Among antique biplanes, the ubiquitous Boeing Stearman represents the bulk of the existing fleet — no surprise given that about 10,000 of them were built. Waco biplanes are less common, although they have the advantage of being in active production. If you’ve got the wherewithal (ie. $500,000 or so), a new Waco YMF-5 can be yours. There’s one at John Wayne Airport with a full IFR-certified Garmin avionics suite. Imagine it: a 1930’s tube-and-fabric biplane with a 21st century WAAS-approach capable panel.

An open-cockpit biplane with a glass panel?  Yep.

An open-cockpit biplane with a glass panel? Yep.

Anyway, a Travel Air — one that actually flies, at least — is rare. Relatively few were built, and those that were manufactured were rolled out in an era when preserving aircraft wasn’t as much of a priority. Aviation was fairly new and all eyes were on the future. The past… well, there wasn’t much of a “history” to really worry about. In addition, after the first World War there were plenty of used Curtiss JN-4 and JN-6 series “Jenny” biplanes to be had at a fraction of the $6,000 price Travel Air wanted for their product.

By the time World War II ended, there were tens of thousands of trained and experienced pilots, aircraft were being sold off as cheap surplus, and biplanes made ideal cropdusters, trainers, and personal airplanes. So the Stearman seems to have fared better in terms of survival. You’ll even see the effect on other biplanes, as many Travel Airs have had their landing gear and powerplants converted to the Stearman equivalent because those parts are in better supply.

Today, the FAA has 248 Travel Airs in their active registry, but I doubt anywhere near that many are in airworthy condition. This aircraft was built just about in the middle of the Travel Air’s production run: it’s number 849 and the surviving documentation goes all the way back to the day it was manufactured. The bill of sale was signed by Walter Beech.

This Continental W-670 radial engine is not original.  Most commonly found on the Boeing Stearman, it replaced the factory-standard Wright “Whirlwind” J-6 five-cylinder powerplant.

This Continental W-670 radial engine is not original. Most commonly found on the Boeing Stearman, it replaced the factory-standard Wright “Whirlwind” J-6 five-cylinder powerplant.

The Travel Air has some interesting design characteristics. Like the Waco, Travel Airs were three-place aircraft: two seats in the front and one in the back. The airplane’s landing gear was especially rugged for the day, being built with large tires and strong rubber shock cords on the main landing gear. The wing itself is a historic artifact as well, featuring an undercambered shape. This was common at the time but went out of style pretty quickly thereafter. Also, the Travel Air airframe was designed to allow for different wing designs to be attached. I’m not sure if this was a marketing idea or a cost-saving one.

Flying History

We launched early in the day for some pattern work. His three-point and wheel landings were quite good, so I threw a curve at my student by heading to a much narrower runway where there wouldn’t be as many sight cues to work with. Narrow runways also encourage rounding out too low because of a visual illusion which leads the pilot to believe he’s higher above the ground that he actually is. Result? Bounced landings and some difficulty determining where the edges of the pavement are. But those are mistakes you only make a few times before the proper sight pictures are committed to memory and things fall into place.

The best way to see Orange County:  through a maze of wires, struts, tubes, and javelins.

The best way to see Orange County: through a maze of wires, struts, tubes, and javelins.

After that, we spent some time on wingovers, stalls, steep turns, and teaching techniques in a local practice area before departing on a tour of the L.A. basin. My student is in the process of establishing a sightseeing business with the Travel Air, and we’d been thinking about some routes he could fly which would cater to the Travel Air’s strengths. SkyThrills already does this with great success using one of the “new” Waco YMF-5 biplanes, although they’ve really gone the extra mile in achieving a Part 135 charter certificate with the airplane.

Our basin tour started with an inspection of the Santa Ana mountains while enroute to Dana Point, whereupon we descended to 1,000 feet before proceeding up the coast toward Long Beach and the Queen Mary. Then we made some Class D airspace transitions through Long Beach, Los Alamitos, and Fullerton enroute to a smooth landing at Chino. After a few days of gusty Santa Ana winds and the accompanying crystal clear skies, the prototypical Southern California haze was just starting to return. Catalina and San Clemente Islands were clearly beckoned in the distance. If only this biplane had amphibious floats…

Aircraft like the Travel Air are extremely weather-dependent, even by aviation standards. It’s a flying convertible, albeit one that moves at 100 mph. That’s a pivotal part of the experience — you feel every change of temperature or humidity, you breathe unfiltered air, and the roar of the exhaust stack is so close you can literally reach out and touch it. At night, those metal tubes glow with a hot flame which extends out the back of the pipe. On a good weather day it’s a glorious experience. If it’s cold and rainy? Not so much.

The Travel Air looks good from any angle.  What it lacks in speed it more than makes up for in panache.

The Travel Air looks good from any angle. What it lacks in speed it more than makes up for in panache.

Just the act of getting into the front seat of the Travel Air is an event. For one thing, it’s got a 15 inch tall mini-door which swings out in gallant style. Once you’re in the front cockpit, the leather-wrapped bench seat is wide enough for two but has only a single, extra wide seatbelt without a shoulder harness. Keep in mind, I’m used to having a 5-point harness in the Gulfstream, airbags in the Diamond, and a beefy, secondary lap belt in aerobatic airplanes with a parachute on top of it all. In other words, yeah, I was strapped in safely — by 1928 standards.

My student was kind enough to play passenger for a few minutes while I made a few circuits. I’ve never been a fan of flying from the front cockpit. I do it all the time, but it’s not ideal, because in many tandem airplanes the front hole is more-or-less co-located with the center of gravity, so it’s hard to feel the yawing motion. You’re sitting closer to the engine, so it’s considerably louder. And in this particular aircraft, the front cockpit also lacks brakes, push-to-talk, and instruments.

I can see a modern pilot moaning about the lack of a stall warning horn, angle-of-attack indicator, or GPS. Grrr — don’t get me started.

I’m used to flying with very limited instrumentation while instructing, but this airplane has absolutely nothing up front beyond a stick, rudder pedals, and throttle. Not even an airspeed indicator or altimeter. I had a paper chart, too — but it wasn’t sepia toned or black-and-white, so no style points for that!

Of course, gauges are not necessary to fly. I didn’t even miss them, really. I’d make an occasional query with my student about altitude or airspeed, but for the most part you can judge altitude by looking at the ground and airspeed by wind noise. Close enough for government work, as they say. But it was weird having a huge, beautiful wood panel in front of me containing absolutely nothing. When I first climbed into this airplane a few years ago, I giggled about it for a second and then asked my student if he could check me out on the front seat instruments before we cranked up. He got all the way out of his seat before realizing that I’d pulled a fast one on him.

As is becoming my custom, I hauled out the iPhone 5 every so often and came up with a few photos which I trust you’ll enjoy.

Best Bang for the Buck

AOPA never disappoints in the photography department

With a title like that, you’d think I’m about to expound on the virtues of a massage parlor which offers the proverbial “happy ending”. Alas, it was only the alliterative qualities of the title which I was after, and so we’ll be sticking to aviation topics today. And P.S., please get your mind out of the gutter, my friend.

Anyway, aviation is a tough place for the dollar store crowd. When it comes to bargains, the list is short. Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to owning an airplane. The first thing any veteran aircraft owner will tell you is that there’s no such thing as an inexpensive airplane when it comes to overall cost of ownership.

Sure, you can buy a piston twin in today’s market for almost nothing, but good luck with the fuel burn, insurance rates, and parts supply. A relatively low-time Gulfstream III can be had for a few hundred thousand dollars, but the maintenance cost will exceed the value of the jet within months. Even the vintage tailwheel aircraft like the Citabria and Cub, which are the airplanes I think of (after laughing, of course) when someone utters the word “bargain”, can eat a hole in your pocket as they require true artisans to work on (and frequently fabricate) the wood-and-fabric airframe components.

AOPA never disappoints in the photography department

While the word “bargain” is a relative term, if you want maximum performance and fun for your dollar, it’s hard to beat a single-seat Pitts. AOPA’s Dave Hirschman recently penned an article about the Pitts S-1, accompanied by some gorgeous photography.

You can get a high-quality S-1 biplane for $30,000 in today’s market. Fuel burn is low, the airplane is mechanically simple, and I can’t think of any other model which approaches the cruise speed, climb rate, aerobatic capability, or sheer fun you’ll get out of one. The aircraft is still not cheap to own, but the ratio of dollars spent to smiles generated is approached by few airplanes. Perhaps an RV-3 or Wittman Tailwind might come close.

The Pitts has the added advantage of making a seriously skilled pilot out of any individual with the temerity to try and land one. High approach speeds, short coupled landing gear, and a total lack of forward visibility in the flare mean this airplane separates the men from the boys when it comes to skills. Even the best of us can be humbled by this overgrown R/C model with just a moment’s inattention.

Having said that, I would take issue with one aspect of Hirchman’s article. He writes:

In the early 1990s when I had just begun flying a Pitts, I was practicing touch-and-go landings at my home field (General Dewitt Spain Airport in Memphis, Tennessee) one still morning. When I put the airplane away after about a dozen trips around the pattern, a veteran Pitts pilot took me aside and warned me against the practice.

“Don’t do any more landings in a Pitts than you absolutely have to,” he said. “No one ever completely masters them, so touch and goes only tempt fate.” (I regarded that piece of advice as overly fatalistic then, but I’ve since come around to the old sage’s way of thinking.)

The old sage’s line of thinking has been applied to stalls, spins, night flying, aerobatics, carrying passengers, and even flying without a GPS. It’s tempting fate to do it, so don’t. What’s so annoying is that if you take this to it’s logical conclusion, you’d never fly at all. No one ever completely masters flight, so why not avoid tempting fate and just stay on the ground?

My S-2B -- a larger, two-seat, certified version of the S-1

Isn’t this the same logic that keeps instructors from taking students aloft when the weather is less than perfect? At some point you’ve got to take a risk in order to gain the experience and proficiency that will keep you safe when you fly. There’s a line there you don’t want to cross, but I question where many people choose to place it.

Besides, the old sage’s logic flies in the face of a primary reason to own a Pitts: the difficulty of landing it. Would the airplane be as intriguing to its legion of followers if the landing sequence was docile and forgiving? I think not. In the end, it depends on what you’re looking for out of your flying experience. Unless you seek an aircraft which will challenge you from the moment you start taxiing until you shut the thing down at the end of the flight, a Pitts is best avoided.

Waiting for the starter to give me the "go" at Borrego Springs in 2006

Based on my years of owning a Pitts, teaching in them, and flying everything from jets to seaplanes to gliders to warbirds, I’d opine that if you can land a Pitts — I mean really land it well and do so on a consistent basis — then you can land anything. A Concorde, a space shuttle, a lunar lander. I once heard a NASA pilot say the exact same thing, and he actually flew the space shuttle!

Nothing I’ve seen or heard of compares to the challenge of landing a Pitts in the kind of strong gusting crosswinds you’ll find at virtually any aerobatic contest around the country on a given weekend. The exhilaration of completing a bone-crushing Advanced unknown sequence, covered in perspiration, amped up with adrenaline, and entering the pattern with the realization that, in many ways, the best part of the flight is yet to come.

Forget the aerobatics — that’s the real fun in flying a Curtis Pitts design.

Engagement Photos

Kristi and I recently had the opportunity to work with the very talented duo of Michael and Maren Brajkovich on our engagement photos.

We really wanted to do something special, something that reflected our passion and history together. So it goes without saying that aviation would be a part of it.

We originally had the idea to shoot over at Chino Airport, where we’d have access to not only my Pitts S-2B, but also the many amazing warbirds at the Planes of Fame. Imagine it: Mustangs, P-38s, Spitfires, Corsairs. Ah, the possibilities!

Unfortunately, we found ourselves with a few time constraints. In addition, it turned out to be one of the hottest days of the year — nearly 105 degrees at SNA, which is only a mile from the ocean. So we regrouped and ended up doing the photos at John Wayne Airport with Sunrise Aviation‘s recently acquired S-2B standing in for good o’l 1191. Aside from the three-blade MT composite propeller, the two aircraft look virtually identical from the outside. And to be honest, the metal two-blade Hartzell prop probably evokes a more vintage feel anyway.

Kristi, ever the creative soul, put together a 1930’s-era wardrobe to accompany the biplane, and off we went! Snap snap snap…. and before we knew it, two hours had gone by. Despite the searing heat, we had a blast.

After finishing with the Pitts, we switched into some casual contemporary clothes and flew to Catalina Island in a Cirrus SR-22. This also happens to have re-created our first date! If you can believe it, it was even hotter on the island.

We returned a few hours later and, after a break, met up with Michael and Maren in Old Town Orange where we took advantage of the late-afternoon light for some fun shots around one of our favorite weekend hangouts, Byblos Cafe.

We can’t say enough good things about Michael & Maren (aka “Applemoon Photography“). They were fun, energetic, creative, talented, and open to ideas other photographers might have laughed at. In addition, they came all the way down from San Luis Obispo to spend the entire day working with us.

So, have a look at the pictures. What do you think??

These Are A Few Of My Favorite Things

Now is this a sweet looking pair of machines or what? A 1993 Pitts S-2B and a 2008 Honda Accord Coupe in matching paint:

I had the opportunity to get back into the Pitts yesterday and when I saw the two of them together I had to take a picture. It’s so rare that both the car and the plane are clean at the same time.

I was out at CNO to take Dan for a flight. His flight review (an FAA-mandated recurrent training requirement) was due and I owed him a favor for ferrying me out to Borrego last fall. I had needed to get out there to retrieve the Pitts after the Acrofest. I was the Contest Director for that competition. And a competitor. And a judge. And… I’ll never do that again. It was a crazy time, even by my standards.

Anyway, Dan wanted to try some advanced spin training as part of his flight review, so we focused on flat and accerated spins modes. After that, I went up for a solo flight to work on the 2007 intermediate known sequence. I’m trying to get an early start on preparing for the upcoming competition season.

The 2007 season was basically missed by all of us at Cloud Dancers because the airplane was undergoing a particularly heavy maintenance interval which lasted for most of the spring and summer. The timing was unfortunate, but after the aircraft came off leaseback it only made sense to get it into good working order. The wings were off, the prop was overhauled, fabric & paint were touched up, the top end was overhauled, and she was cleaned, rigged, inspected, and so on.

When I got back to Chino, I spent some time just shooting landings in the pattern. It’s such a blast to go from 1300′ AGL to zero in about 15 seconds. The airplane pretty much climbs at the same rate. I had forgotten how much sprightlier the S-2B is when flown solo vs. with two people on board. Losing that 200 lbs up front really makes a difference!

I’ve been doing a fair bit of Pitts flying lately, but most of it has been dual in an S-2C owned by one of my recent Part 61 private pilot grads. This airplane was originally owned by a good friend from the aerobatic competition circuit named Reinaldo. The person Reinaldo sold it to installed a wicked six-camera video system and sold it again shortly thereafter, leaving my student as the lucky beneficiary of this upgrade. Here we are preparing to start up during a recent flight:

Turbine Toucan

I first saw this on the wall in a restroom at Cable Airport. No joke. For reasons I can’t begin to fathom, someone had taped a photo of this aircraft to the wall:

Turbine Toucan biplane

It’s called Turbine Toucan, and it’s just another ho-hum aerobatic biplane, just like my Pitts. Except that it boasts something most modern jet fighters can’t even claim (no, I’m not referring to the paint scheme): a positive thrust-to-weight ratio.

This thing weighs 2000 lbs and the turbine engine puts out 3300 lbs of thrust. That’s an amazing 1.65:1 ratio, enough to accelerate in a vertical climb. Indefinitely.

Even fighter jets with positive thrust-to-weight ratios — of which there are few — can’t match Turbine Toucan’s performance in this department. The F-15 Eagle, for example, is about 1.12:1. Even the latest and greatest generation of jets like the F-22 Raptor (at 1.26:1) and F-35 (1.22:1 with 50% fuel) can’t compare.

Among aerobatic aircraft with reciprocating powerplants, only the most pumped up Sukhois and Edges approach the performance of that magical 1:1 ratio. I ran the numbers on the Pitts S-2B and was surprised to find 0.95:1, because it sure doesn’t feel that sprightly on the uplines. Maybe I need to go on a diet?

Eh. More likely it’s due to the high level of drag from the Pitts’ biplane design. That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.

This isn’t the first time someone’s had the bright idea of putting a big turbine engine on a featherweight aerobatic airplane. Wayne Handley did it back in the late 90’s with his Oracle Turbo Raven. Equipped with a 750 hp Pratt & Whitney PT6A turboprop powerplant, that monoplane sported a 1.47:1 thrust-to-weight ratio. Still not up to the Turbine Toucan standard.

Handley frequently demonstrated a vertical climb where he would stop in mid-air, hover, and then accelerate upward again. I never had the opportunity to see the Turbo Raven in person, but from what I’ve been told it left quite an impression. I think of it has a GA equivalent of vectored thrust. Handley would take off directly into a half Cuban, then perform a vertical half-roll and push over into a steep descent which ended with a landing in the exact same spot he’d departed from 60 seconds earlier.

Sadly, the Raven was badly damaged in a 1999 accident (see video). Wayne Handley was injured but has since recovered and still trains aerobatic pilots at his private airfield in central California.

Being a biplane, I can’t help but wonder if the Turbine Toucan will beat the Turbo Raven’s time-to-climb records. Toucan has a higher thrust to weight ratio, but will certainly be hampered by higher drag. The Raven climbed to 3,000 meters (9,842 feet) in one minute and nine seconds seconds, a rate of 8,560 fpm.

Initial testing of the Turbine Toucan yielded an 8,400 fpm climb rate at about 50% power, but that was based on a sea level climb to 4,500′ MSL. Even with a turbine engine, as the airplane climbs, thrust will decrease. Drag will decrease as well in the thinner air, so I think it’ll be close.

As a biplane owner, I’m going to have to root for the Turbine Toucan. (Sorry, Wayne!)