Taming the Beast

Taking off is the easy part; now let's see if he can LAND it...

From the Wright’s very first powered flight in 1903 to ordinary, everyday folks taking flight from a local airport today, the very act of breaking ground and venturing into the sky has always been associated with memorable moments.

What’s yours? Even if you’re not a pilot, there’s a good chance you can recall a particular flight to see a loved one, embark on a vacation, or maybe even start a new life somewhere else. Honeymoons, college careers, and countless other indelible memories often begin with a flight. Sometimes I think it’s the only element of commercial air travel that still retains the slightest semblance of the romance and magic of the old days.

As for me, it’s a tough call selecting just one flight as my “most memorable”. There are so many choices: the control jam in the middle of an aerobatic sequence? The electrical fire in a U-21A? Perhaps one of the partial engine failures I’ve experienced could be considered most unforgettable.

Of course, not all my notable flights have centered around near-death experiences! There have been many joyous and poignant occasions as well: my first solo, first instrument approach to minimums in actual IMC, scattering the ashes of loved ones, taking an old friend for their last flight, introducing kids to the wonders of aviation, helping those in need through Angel Flight, and more.

A memorable flight by anyone's definition.  The Wright brothers make the first heavier-than-air flight in 1903.

A memorable flight by anyone’s definition. The Wright brothers make the first heavier-than-air flight in 1903.

There is one particular flight which keeps coming back to me. It’s hard to say that this is the most memorable, above and beyond all the others. But I can state with certainty that this is not a flight I’m likely to ever forget.

It was April of 2006, and for some masochistic reason I’d decided to get checked out in a Pitts S-2B. If you’ve never had the pleasure of flying one of these, it’s the kind of airplane that can go from exhilarating to terrifying and back again in extremely short order. All of Curtis Pitts’ designs have what you might call “personality”. Depending on the quality if your last landing, of course, you might call it something else. Something wholly inappropriate for polite company.

It’s not like I was a neophyte when it comes to high-performance aerobatic tailwheel airplanes. I was already instructing in the mid-wing Extra 300, which has it’s own list of challenges. The mid-wing limits visibility from the back seat during landing. I had trouble landing that aircraft until I realized I was sitting a wee bit too low in the seat and not picking up the necessary sight cues. Ironically it was a flight from the front seat of an S-2B that clued me in on that.

Mastered?  Maybe not... but I always put up a good fight when doing battle with the S-2B...

Mastered? Maybe not… but I always put up a good fight when doing battle with the S-2B…

Even with the Extra 300 experience, though, the Pitts was a worthy challenge. I’m actually surprised the FAA certified it at all. I mean, the fuel tank is inside the cockpit. And if the plane ever goes over on its back you won’t be able to open the canopy and can easily end up covered with fuel if the tank gets crushed by the engine that sits directly in front of it.

A friend of mine actually did have to make an off-airport landing in his Pitts S-2B later that year. I recounted his mishap in a previous entry. Yuichi was lucky — the fuel tank remained intact. But if you read his story, you’ll see that he was trapped upside down in the plane. If the fuel tank had ruptured, any spark would have turned him into a human candle.

Like I said, the Pitts is a worthy challenge.

But! Once you’ve mastered — I mean really mastered — this airplane, I firmly believe you can fly anything. And I’m not the only one who thinks that. I once ran into a NASA astronaut in Las Vegas who said he’d taken the controls of many different flying machines ranging from gliders to helicopters to supersonic jets to the space shuttle, and in his opinion if you could land a Pitts you could land anything. Did I mention he was also a test pilot before he joined NASA?

(No, I didn’t ask about night traps on a pitching carrier deck in the middle of a typhoon. I think he was an Air Force guy…)

Anyway, back to the story. I’d been flying a series of dual flights in the Pitts with a fellow CFI and was doing well in the relatively benign wind conditions prevalent at John Wayne Airport (KSNA). I’d completed the full spin course in the airplane, including all upright and inverted spin modes, plus crossovers from upright to inverted and vice-versa. But I had yet to solo when the day arrived to move the airplane out to Borrego Springs a the two-day training camp which preceded the annual spring aerobatic contest.

No problem, though. The plan was for me to solo out there during the training camp. In many ways, Borrego was a better environment for it. A longer runway, less traffic, no wake turbulence concerns, and fewer distractions. What could possibly go wrong?

The first flight at L08 was dual and honestly felt a little rough around the edges. The emphasis had gone from focusing exclusively on landing the airplane to flying competitive-level aerobatic sequences before doing so. Eventually it was determined that I was “good to go” and the next flight found me in the cockpit by myself for the first time.

Taking off is the easy part; now let's see if he can LAND it...

Taking off is the easy part; now let’s see if he can LAND it…

To say I could feel the eyes of the world on me would be an understatement. The training camp was populated exclusively by tailwheel aerobatic pilots, and everyone was watching. I don’t recall much about how the training session in the box went — I did well at the contest the next day, so it couldn’t have been too bad — but I’ll never forget what happened next.

After vacating the box I flew over the airport and entered right traffic for runway 8. By the time I reached pattern altitude, it was clear that the wind had picked up. A lot. Welcome to the desert! After turning final I noticed that the windsock indicated I’d be landing with a tailwind. So I went around, congratulating myself for catching the change, and re-entered for left traffic on runway 26. Problem solved!

Or not. Oddly enough, the windsock on the other end of the runway was showing a tailwind there, too. Another go-around. Circling overhead, I took a careful look at the windsocks and noticed they were each pointing in different directions, and moving all over the place. The turbulence had increased significantly, and the wind velocity at each sock seemed to be at least 20 knots because they were fully deflected.

Time for Plan B! But first I’ve got to make a Plan B. I briefly thought about simply waiting it out, but that strategy doesn’t work for long in a Pitts. I took off with about 15 gallons of fuel, and the airplane has a very thirsty 540 cubic inch engine which will burn through that in about 45 minutes when you’re running full-rich, just as you would be when punishing the engine during an aerobatic sequence.

I’d never encountered this before. Both ends of the runway were indicating tailwinds and the mid-field area seemed to have a substantial, direct 90 degree crosswind. If you’re not a tailwheel pilot, you might wonder what the big deal is. Assuming you’ve got enough runway — and at 5,011 feet, Borrego certainly is long — what’s the hazard?

Tailwheel airplanes are directionally unstable on the ground, and landing in a tailwind means you’ll lose rudder effectiveness (and therefore control) as you slow down after landing. In most airplanes, the landing is “over” once you’re on the ground. OK, not really — but that’s how many pilots fly, and they seem to survive somehow. But the guys flying tailwheel aircraft know that touchdown is when the fun begins, not ends, as the aircraft tries to go everywhere except straight.

I radioed down to the ground to ask for an opinion on the conditions there at mid-field and was told the winds were gusty and coming from various directions. They were seeing the same thing I was. Question is, what to do about it?

The suggestion came back, “Just pick a runway.” Well, I’ve only got two to choose from. I elected to circle over the airport a couple more times. Then I realized things had indeed changed! The windsocks were all fully reversed. Both runways now indicated a headwind! I was starting to wonder if this was some sort of trick they played on pilots crazy enough to try and solo a Pitts. The aerobatic equivalent of asking for a “bucket of prop wash”, as it were.

Flying solo and loving every minute of it.

Flying solo and loving every minute of it.

By now I was starting to think more about fuel. Or the lack thereof, I should say. In a Pitts, the fuel level is indicated by a simple tube connected to the fuselage tank. The turbulence had the fuel flowing up and down the tube, so it was hard to get a reading. This S-2B was also equipped with a fuel totalizer, and it indicated that I was fine for now. But the thought of needing to divert to another airport meant I’d have to watch things carefully. Aside from a small residential airpark, there are no airports terribly close to Borrego Springs.

Another look at the windsocks. They’ve all reversed once again! Tailwinds on both runways. Hmmm. Suddenly, the wisdom of “just pick a runway” began to dawn on me.

I flipped a mental coin and re-entered the pattern, bumping my head on the canopy over and over again and I descended on base and then final. The approach looked good. Real good, in fact. I kept expecting something nasty to happen, but it never did. I fought Mother Nature all the way down to the ground, floated for what seemed like an eternity, and made the softest, smoothest touchdown I’d ever experienced. “Am I on the ground? I think I’m on the ground….”

“Oh &#@*, I’m on the ground!”, I realized. The wind hit me from the right, but I danced on those pedals and kept it straight. Then the left, then the right again. The stick was all the way back and she was solidly on three wheels. Nothing left to do but keep it straight on the rollout. But — there was a gust from in front of the little red biplane, and it got light on the wheels in a big hurry. Airborne again, dammit! Okay, stay with it… re-flare…. plenty of runway left… squeak! Or was it “plop”?

Who cares! I did it. My goal was achieved: land a Pitts without breaking anything but a sweat. As far as I was concerned, the entire week was a success at that point. I’d proved to myself that it was possible to coax, manhandle, and sweet-talk this red devil back down to Mother Earth.

Taxiing back in to the ramp at Borrego Springs.

Taxiing back in to the ramp at Borrego Springs.

After extracting myself from the cockpit, I went into the airport terminal (really nothing more than a semi-permanent trailer sitting on the ramp) and bent over the desk to see the digital ASOS wind readout. The direction was all over the place, but what really caught my eye was the velocity: gusting to more than 40 knots.

Borrego is like that. I recall being on the judging line once when a front passed through and you could actually see it coming. The wind shift on frontal passage was so strong that it broke a PVC pipe used in the shade structure over my head, which proceeded to hit and crack the top of the white resin chair I was sitting on. I heard it but didn’t see anything because my eyes were filled with sand. The wind blew the rest of the afternoon.

In the southwestern U.S., these aerobatic contests are always held in the desert, and there’s rarely a shortage of “sporty” wind conditions once afternoon hits.

I’ve had a few other notable experiences getting back on the ground after landing, but none quite as memorable as that first Pitts solo. The legends are true, my friends: what doesn’t kill you really does make you stronger.

This entry is part of an ongoing collaborative writing project entitled “Blogging in Formation”.

Big Brother is Watching

The two most dangerous words in aviation:  "Watch this!"

“Hey, I’m not paranoid. But everyone is out to get me…”

In the 21st century, nary a day goes by that a security camera, paparazzo, web cam, smartphone photo, Twitter post, or e-mail doesn’t undo a celebrity, politician, or executive somewhere. An entire industry of magazines and low-budget television shows (TMZ, anyone?) testifies to the fact: we are always being watched.

Did you stop by the bank or eat at a restaurant today? Smile — you’re on candid camera! Driving in your car? Cameras abound on highways and streets. Law enforcement vehicles have them built-in. If you used a credit card, proximity key card, or access badge, your location has been logged. At work and at home, computer and/or phone usage leaves a trace, too.

Speaking of phones, we tend to forget that our phones connect to cellular networks periodically whenever they’re powered up, whether we’re actively using them or not. The cell towers they connect to are an indicator of one’s location — evidence that has been used in court. Even refrigerators are digital these days. The one my wife and I have keeps track of when the door is opened so that it can run the freezer’s defrost cycle at the appropriate intervals.

"What's it doing now??"

“What’s it doing now??”

Do you ever think about these things? I do. Not because I have anything to hide, but because I simply don’t like being monitored, especially if I’m not sure who’s doing the watching or what nefarious schemes they might be able to hatch with the collected data. The bottom line here is that in many respects, privacy seems to be a thing of the past. It’s part of the price we pay for technology and convenience, and it’s one of the darker sides to the digital age.

It shouldn’t require the presence of a camera to keep an aviator from experimenting with Stupid Pilot Tricks. But let’s face it, knowing we’re “under glass” may help keep those of us with Type-A personalities on the straight-and-narrow when we’re tempted to do something that is, shall we say “on the margins” of acceptable behavior. Perhaps it’s flying a bit too low, busting weather minimums, rolling a non-aerobatic aircraft, or just a low approach with a slightly aggressive climbout at the other end.

Alas, in some cases the presence of a camera seems to have the opposite effect, actually encouraging behavior that is beyond the pale. I’ve noted quite a few examples of that in the past. You can find hundreds more on YouTube.

The latest example, a low pass by a Pitts biplane that appears to come within inches of persons on the ground, has been picked up by the national media.

From CNN:

The pilot, identified as Jason Newburg, previously had an FAA waiver to do aerobatics at the airport, but the waiver expired in November, an FAA source — who requested anonymity because of the ongoing investigation — told CNN.

FAA spokesman Lynn Lunsford said Thursday the agency is investigating the incident.

“Even with a valid waiver, there is a requirement that people on the ground not be endangered,” he said.

The irony here is that Mr. Newburg is a fairly well established airshow performer. Unlike recreational and competitive aerobatics, airshow pilots (especially those with a surface waiver) can do pretty much anything they darn well please with only one exception: they can’t put people on the ground at risk. Typically that’s interpreted as keeping the aircraft’s energy directed away from the crowd. It will be interesting to see how the FAA proceeds with their investigation. If the individuals who were so close to the fly-by are part of the airshow performer’s “team”, would this constitute a violation?

The FAA’s army of inspectors and attorneys makes and interprets these rules, so only they know the answer. Regardless of which way it goes, it was clearly unwise to have a video of that sort posted on the internet because the average Joe (including the media) doesn’t understand the FAA’s national airshow program. Even if all the paperwork was in order and it was legal by the letter of Advisory Circular 91-45, FAA Order 8900.1, and FAA Form 8710-7, those things are meaningless gibberish to the general public. All they see is something that looks dangerous. It spread across the internet and onto cable channels faster than… well, than a Pitts doing a 200 mph fly-by.

Think you’d never fall victim to the temptation to do something stupid while being recorded? Don’t be so sure. This kind of thing isn’t limited to intentional stunts. In an era of glass panels, portable GPS receivers, tablets, and smartphones, it’s worth remembering that if you’re got a computerized device in your aircraft, everything you do is being recorded. Your flight path, attitude information, altitude, position, acceleration, and many other parameters might be stored on silicon.

Even something as simple as a graphic engine monitor will be creating log files with your power settings, fuel flows, engine temperatures and pressures, and more. They’re fantastic tools for diagnosing engine issues, but the fact that they record data can come back to haunt you if a warranty claim is required or if the FAA or aircraft owner suspect improper operation.

Simple aircraft are not exempt. If you’re flying a rag wing Cub, the presence of an ordinary transponder means you’re position is being monitored and recorded onto tape by the FAA. You might think a 1200 code will protect you from identification, but as long as the device is transmitting, it’s also sending out a Mode S code that’s been assigned to that radio.

Upon interrogation, Mode S transponders transmit information about the aircraft to the Secondary Surveillance Radar (SSR) system, TCAS receivers on board aircraft and to the ADS-B SSR system. This information includes the call sign of the aircraft and/or the transponder’s permanent ICAO 24-bit address in the form of a hex code.

Even if you don’t have a single piece of electronic equipment in your aircraft, you’re still flying a loud vehicle that attracts attention from those on the ground. Think about that. Big Brother isn’t always electronic. Sometimes he’s a flesh-and-blood human witness. Ironically, they can be far worse than electronic evidence because unlike computers, people can take proactive action against pilots they perceive to be doing something wrong. A Garmin G1000 isn’t going to call the FAA on you. At least, not yet. But a human?

So don’t forget, my friends: it may not be 1984 anymore, but it’s still 1984. Whatever form he may take, Big Brother is always watching.

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.

Applemoon “Flying” Slide Show

The fine folks at Applemoon have put together a lovely slide show of photos from our shoot earlier this month. As a Sinatra fan, I thought the sound track was a nice touch. It’s also the title of our wedding web site.


We’ve gotta narrow it down to about 20 pictures for our album, and that’s not going to be easy! So many of them turned out beautifully that it’ll be a shame to pick only 20. Oh well — that’s certainly better than the alternative!

I thought I was creative with a camera, but even after 4500 hours of flying, I never came up with any of the stuff they thought of. The photographers commented many times on how they could have spent all day out there on the ramp because airplanes present so many interesting photographic possibilities.

You can see from the slide show that they took advantage of many of these options. Wings, struts, cabanes, flying wires, chromed spinners, gull-wing doors, and all sorts of funky curves throughout the fuselage. We ran out of time long before they ran out of ideas. The fact that they don’t spend all their time around aircraft probably let them come to the shoot with a fresh perspective, whereas I see the aircraft every day, so I overlook many of the details they immediately noticed.

The beauty of digital photography is that you can shoot to your hearts content without driving up the cost of the photos since there’s no film to purchase, process, develop, store, etc. I’m not sure how many pictures they took in total, but it may have been over a thousand. Both of them were shooting all day long.

Again, many thanks to Michael & Maren for the great work!

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??