Flying is Not Driving

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Is there anything as classic as the Mid-Century Modern ethos? From architecture to graphic design, there’s a sleek, organic elegance to it, with classically simple lines which avoid the period styling, superfluous components, and useless ornamentation often found in other trends. It flows logically, and centers on astute use of individual elements.

Best of all, Mid-Century is an inseparable component of my beloved Southern California. Perhaps that’s why I feel such an affinity for it. Oh, it may have incubated at the Staatliches Bauhaus, but SoCal is where the connection between Modern design and Mother Nature bloomed. You’ll find examples of Mid-Century design all over SoCal, from homes to restaurants to signage to furniture and even urban planning.

Modernism is also about the intangibles: casual lifestyle, the quality of light and shadow, and the easygoing nature of people in the West. Modernism is the perfect style for Southern California living because it is compatible with our way of life. Its horizontality and openness promote harmony between shelter and nature, while its aesthetic offers an environment that is at once relaxed and sophisticated. It is a style and it is a lifestyle. And like Southern California, modern is relaxed, it is dramatic, and it is beautiful.

The mid-century era was a seminal time for general aviation as well. By the end of World War II, the Army Air Forces Training Command had graduated 250,000 pilots from its schools. With war in the rear-view mirror, these highly experienced and well-trained military pilots were back in the civilian sector with the world at their feet. For those who were not yet aviators, scores of surplus aircraft were left over from the war and the G.I. Bill provided funding for flight training.

The future looked bright, indeed. Unfortunately, it was at this moment that Something Bad happened when Cessna’s marketing department got the brilliant idea to equate flying with driving.

The top of the slippery slope: a late 50's advertising campaign based on the concept that flying = driving.  Every time I see this, all I can think is "no, No, NO!"

The top of the slippery slope: a late 50’s advertising campaign based on the concept that flying = driving. Every time I see this, all I can think is “no, No, NO!”

Airscape’s David Foxx sent this to me after reading my Year of the Tailwheel post, calling the advertisement “about as heretical as anything a hands-and-feet aviator could ever read. You may want to wash your eyes after!”. Amen, brother.

It’s bad enough that they took a beautiful airplane and put a nosewheel on it; to this day, a Skyhawk still looks to me like a tailwheel C-170 that’s been converted. It may not be in the league of that “flying milk stool”, the Piper Tri-Pacer, but it’s more than enough to make me pine for the days when happiness was a point-and-go airplane and a lung-full of wholesome, unfiltered cigarette smoke.

This mid-50’s advertisement wasn’t a one-time effort; Cessna continued using the “land-o-matic” schtick well into the 1970s. You can find ads for the Cardinal — which ironically was designed as a replacement for the 172 — peddling the same dreck.

There are all sorts of annoying things about the ad. First of all, it claims the 172 will “turn on a dime”. False. The tailwheel can pull that trick, but not the nosewheel. As anyone who’s flown them will attest, a Skyhawk requires three times the turning radius of its predecessor. Then there’s the $8,700 price tag ($72,125 in 2013 dollars) for a factory-new airplane. And last but not least, the “drive it like a car” pronouncement. I’ve seen more than one person try to fly the way that ad says it can be done, only to end up with a bent firewall, broken nosewheel, and mangled propeller.

It is funny to look at though, isn’t it? I suppose in the heyday, anything seemed possible–at least, in advertising. Compared to landing the 170 and 180, the Skyhawk can feel like a cakewalk if the winds are calm. But that’s part of the problem: it’s not. But it convinces pilots they needn’t apply the same care, attention, or skill to their flying that they otherwise would have applied were the plane equipped with “conventional” landing gear. Proper control inputs during taxi? Gone. Slow taxi speeds? See ya! Precise energy and flightpath management? Sayonara. Solving a crosswind? Don’t even get me started.

Land-o-matic?  Hardly.    Just because you can get away with "driving" it on doesn't mean you should.  The technique for landing nose and tail wheel airplanes are basically the same!

Land-o-matic? Hardly. Just because you can get away with “driving” it on doesn’t mean you should. The technique for landing nose and tail wheel airplanes are basically the same!

Even worse, instructors easily fall into the same trap, allowing students in Land-O-Matics to get away with performance they never would have accepted if the third wheel was where God intended. This only reinforces the lesson in the minds of many a pilot, spreading the “new normal” until we arrive in the 21st century, where tailwheel aircraft are often eyed with a wary suspicion by those who don’t understand them or the many benefits they offer.

Some unintended consequences flow from those “so easy a caveman could do it” ads. Somewhere along the way, conventional wisdom seems to have begun opining that tailwheel aircraft require some magical, specialized landing technique. Nothing could be further from the truth.

My experience has been that if a person knows how to land a nosewheel airplane properly and does so on a consistent basis, the move into a tailwheel will be quick and smooth. If not… well, let’s just say the majority of my time with transitioning pilots is spent building the rudimentary skills they never learned as a primary student.

The only significant difference between the two is this: the conventional landing gear absolutely requires proper technique, whereas the nosegear may not. Having said that, questionable flying skill can lead to problems no matter what kind of landing gear you’ve got.

Flying is not driving. Never has been, never will be. So remember, just because you can get away with low-quality takeoff and landing skills doesn’t mean you should.

Year of the Tailwheel

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Thanks to an incredibly generous friend who said, “Make a set of keys and fly my airplane whenever you like”, my wife and I just returned from a fun and relaxing flight along the Southern California coastline in a vintage 1947 Stinson 108-2 Voyager.

If there’s a better way to commemorate the end of the holiday season, I can’t think of it. Winter flying in SoCal is darn near unbeatable. I actually like it more than summer flying, when temperatures rise and the coastal stratus can foil the best-laid plans of the VFR-only set.

Anyway, cruising down the beach with the windows open, enjoying fresh air and clear skies was a perfect start to what will hopefully be a safe and prosperous new year. It also got me thinking about what would make this trip around the sun a positive one for the world of aviation.

In the Chinese zodiac, this is the year of the horse. Conservation groups have designated it the year of the salamander. CNN claims it will be the year of the blame game. For aviators, I firmly believe 2014 should be the Year of the Tailwheel.

The tailwheel — that tiny little protuberance below the rudder — is the answer to many of our problems.

I got the idea for this from an email exchange with AOPA’s Alyssa Miller, who related the story of flying a Cessna 170B out of a 25 foot wide, 900 foot long turf strip crowded in by trees, a barn, and a pond. She wasn’t too happy with her first takeoff, but I reminded her that the need to extract maximum performance from a demanding aircraft as she was doing qualified as graduate-level coursework in flying. It’s not beginner stuff.

Consider the many ways that tailwheels can help our community:

Poor manual flying technique? There’s plenty of that going around (see: Asiana 214). The tailwheel will set you straight! Or rather, you’ll set it straight, lest you end up in the weeds. It’s been proven time and time again that lousy coordination, stall/spin scenarios, loss of control, and takeoff or landing accidents can be avoided through proper training and recurrent flights in tailwheel airplanes. As an instructor, I’ve seen the dramatic transformation first-hand.

For the professional pilot: burned out by countless hours in that airliner, bizjet, or turboprop? The tailwheel airplane is a solid gold antidote and will remind you of why you got into flying in the first place. There’s a reason those graying flight deck veterans flock to conventional gear aircraft: they miss flying.

If money is tight, the tailwheel airplanes can help. The best of breed are often the least expensive to operate, simple two-place tandem seat aircraft like Cubs, Citabrias, and Taylorcraft.

Worried about your medical certification? Tailwheel airplanes like the Champ are LSA-compliant and can be flown right now without a medical. Why spend $150,000 for a new Light Sport aircraft that won’t be half as much fun as the one that costs 80% less? I’ll never understand that. The new airplane smell may be worth something, but not that much!

Tailwheels love unpaved runways. These airplanes land short, turn on a dime — literally — and are both practical and historic. They’ll attract the kids, the aviation geeks, and the ladies. They’re an entrée to aerobatics, warbirds, and just about every other uber-cool airplane you can think of.

Looks fun, doesn't it?  That's because it is.

Looks fun, doesn’t it? That’s because it is.

Operating a tailwheel marks you as more than just the holder of an airman certificate; it says you really do know how to fly. From airline pilot to flight instructor to astronaut, fellow aviators will accord real (and well-deserved) street cred.

So what’s not to like? Let’s make 2014 the Year of the Tailwheel. Even if it’s just for the endorsement or a flight review, you’ll be glad you did.


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

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.

Stick & Rudder Skills Are Important

Bellanca Decathlon

AVweb’s Glenn Pew interviewed Embry-Riddle professor and former Northwest captain Jack Panosian in a podcast entitled “Avionics — Good Pilots Not Required?”. It’s an inflammatory title, no doubt to encourage people to dive for that “play” button. Obviously it worked, because I listened to the whole thing.

Panosian has an impressive resume: 20 years at Northwest, 5 years at ERAU, and he’s got a Juris Doctorate as well. Nevertheless, while I agreed with some of what he said, certain portions of his thesis seem way off base.

I’ll summarize his points:

  • automation used to monitor human pilots, but today it’s the other way around: we are monitoring the computers these days, and we’re not very good at it
  • computers are good monitors, they do it the same way every time, with the same level of diligence
  • stick & rudder skills are less important than avionics management skill and we need to teach with that in mind

The first two points may be correct (I’ll get to the third one later), but computers don’t “monitor”, they simply execute programming. There’s a big difference there. It’s true that when people monitor the same thing over and over again, we cannot maintain the same vigilance ad nauseum. But when humans monitor something, they’re capable of doing so with thoughtful and reasoned analysis. Humans can think outside the box. They can adapt and prioritize based on what’s actually happening rather than being limited by their programming.

Computers are not capable of that. Remember, system failures are not always covered by the aircraft operating procedures or training, and that’s why safe flight still requires human input and oversight. We are also capable of putting more focus on our monitoring during critical phases of flight. For example, I watch airspeed and flight path with much greater attention during approach than I typically will during cruise.

It’s also worth considering that, despite all the automation, humans still manually perform the takeoff, landing, taxi phases, as well as fly the airplane when the computers get confused or take the day off. These are the areas where most accidents happen. Air France 447 stalled up in the flight levels and remained in that state until reaching the ocean. Colgan 3407 was another stall accident. Asiana 214 was a visual approach gone wrong. Better manual flying skill might very well have made the difference in at least some of these accidents.

Tailwheels, aerobatics, gliders, and formation flying are just a few ways to improve stick-and-rudder skills.  We need more of that, not less.

Tailwheels, aerobatics, and formation flying are just a few ways to improve stick-and-rudder skills. We need more of that, not less.

Glenn Pew asked, “How much of flying the airplane is flying the avionics?”, and Panosian replied that “the greatest innovation was the moving map”, giving an example of synthetic vision showing terrain at night. In my experience, a moving map is no guarantee of situational awareness. I’ve trained many pilots to fly VFR and IFR in glass panel Cirruses, DiamondStars, experimentals, and so on. I can’t tell you how many of them had no idea where they were, even with a 10″ full color moving map directly in front of them. When asked the simple question, “Where are we right now?”, you’d be surprised how many have a tough time coming up with an answer.

Does that seem odd to you? It shouldn’t. Situational awareness is not about the map in front of your eyes, it’s about the moving map inside your head. If you want evidence of that, look at the 2007 CFIT crash of a CAP Flight 2793, a C-182T Skylane which ran into high terrain near Las Vegas. That flight was piloted by two highly experienced pilots who were familiar with the area, had a G1000 panel in front of them, and still managed to fly into Mt. Potosi.

Panosian made the point that the Airbus was designed to be flown on autopilot “all the time — it was not designed to be flown by hand. It was designed so that it’s a hassle to be flown by hand”. Some business jets have similar characteristics. Who would want to hand fly the airplane straight and level for hours on end anyway? The light GA arena has an equivalent as well, the Cirrus SR20 and SR22. I enjoy hand flying them, actually, but the airplane has a somewhat artificial feel due to the springs in the flight control system. It was purposefully designed to fly long distances on autopilot. It’s very good at that mission. It’s well equipped, and has plenty of safety equipment aboard. TAWS, traffic, CAPS, a solid autopilot, good avionics… and yet the Cirrus’s accident rate is not better than average.

I don’t believe the answer is to make the pilot a better manager of automation. This will not stop CFIT, stall/spin, weather, and takeoff or landing accidents.

“The Good news is that we have a generation of pilots that have grown up with this technology, these tablets, etc. and they grab hold of these things better than the older pilot who was trained on the round dials. That’s a good thing because now you’re just molding them into the aviation world and this is how you’ll operate the aircraft.”

I’m a big proponent of glass panels, tablets, and technology. They’re great. But they do not make one a good pilot. If you want a better pilot, start primary students off in a tailwheel airplane and ensure they know how to fly before doing anything else. Everything should flow out of that. I wouldn’t expect this to be a revolutionary idea, but perhaps it is.

“You are not going to be hired because of your stick and rudder skills. You will be hired because of your management skills.”

A good aviator needs both sets of skills. Management ability is important, but no more so than stick-and-rudder capability. If you can’t physically fly the airplane during any or all phases of flight, you don’t belong in the cockpit because any equipment issues during those phases can leave the aircraft without someone capable of safely operating it. Pilots who can’t proficiently hand-fly are passengers. Console operators. Button pushers. System monitors (dog not included). But they’re not pilots.

“In other words, can you manage all these systems, can you manages the information you’re getting and make sure that the airplane is doing what it’s supposed to do? The fact of the matter is that we’ve see this in other industries. It’s hardly unique to the airline industry. A robot can do a better job of welding than a human. An autopilot has many more sensors than a human hand does. They can be done better and safer than a human being, but they must be monitored properly. That’s where the training comes in. We have to change from the stick & rudder skills to the manager skills. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

The problem with his comparison is that flying an airplane is not like welding. Welding does not require you to manage the energy state of a large chunk of metal hurling through the air while maintaining situational awareness, staying ahead of the aircraft mentally, and adjusting for countless variables ranging from weather to traffic to equipment failures to controllers, often all at the same time and at the end of a long work day. Doing all those things does constitute “management”, but I don’t think it’s the kind Mr. Panosian is referring to.

And as far as the autopilot is concerned, it’s extraordinarily simplistic to compare a full autopilot system to a single human hand. What about the rest of the body? What about the vestibular labyrinthine system and resultant equilibrioception? There’s proprioception, thermoception, etc. (Look ‘em up — I had to!). And that’s to say nothing of our sense of sight, hearing, touch, and smell. We use those when we fly, even without direct knowledge of what our body is doing. How many times have you noticed a subtle vibration from a prop or engine, the sound of a leaking seal around a door, the sense of something just not being quite right?

Autopilots do some things better than a human. Automation is helpful and absolutely has it’s place. But it is no substitute for a flesh-and-blood pilot who knows how to fly the machine.

What say you, readers?


This article first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog at http://blog.aopa.org/opinionleaders/2013/09/11/stick-and-rudder/.

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”.