Adrenaline, in large doses, has a truly unsettling effect on the belly. Getting jumped by a tiger just before dinner, even if you escape, is likely to give you the flutters for a few hours. Turns out my latest flight was not unlike getting jumped by a tiger and escaping. My tummy is better this morning, but for hours yesterday it was unsettled and Sharalyn reports that I emitted occasional quiet ‘woohoos’ until long after bedtime. In my quest to fly 100 types of aircraft I have hit #22, the Pitts S12, a 410 HP radial engined, fully acrobatic biplane with tandem seating and more shear flying fun than I imagined was aerodynamically possible. My chance to fly the plane came courtesy of my friend George, a man with nerves of steel who allowed me to get a landing in his 180 last year. I am surrounded on these islands by pilots who are more skilled than I am, but there are not many who just plain like it as much as I do. I am not sure what units I would use to measure a love of getting off the ground, but George is one of the few who may actually push that needle further than I do.
As I returned to Friday Harbor from a flight to Paine Field with Sharalyn and the kids, George asked for a radio check from somewhere. He was coming in loud and clear, and as I drifted down final in my 172 I wondered whether he was calling from his new airplane. As I pulled off onto the taxiway the answer was clear, a little yellow biplane was steaming towards me, s-turning and belching smoke. I cheekily asked whether I could get a ride with him the next day and was happy to get an affirmative reply. This Pitts S12 is a gorgeous yellow plane with bright red and blue accents. The 410HP engine spins a gigantic prop that darn near precludes wheel landings. I texted him in the morning and offered my services as ballast and, just as I settled in for quality time with my 1 year old, he texted back that he had the time and inclination. I quickly dumped the boy off with his mother and sped to the airport. I surfed the web looking at the specs of the S12 while I waited for George to arrive. I was only a little intimidated that the Pitts community (and perhaps the FAA) calls the darn thing the ‘Macho Stinker’. With more than 50 of them built it is not super rare, but it is a niche airplane with a very small community of pilots good enough to fly it well and safely.
George rolled up with guests in tow and I was a little more worried when they told me he refers to the front seat as ‘where the victim sits’. Glad I skipped lunch. I strapped on an incredibly comfortable seat-parachute and after the plane was towed out I got in the front seat. Like the cub, the person in charge gets to ride in back. There are abbreviated flight instruments up front, including a fuel computer, and airspeed indicator, there are three turn coordinators, one inverted and two right side up. George took care of the rather extensive prep to make sure the radial engine did not have an oil lock, and I slipped into a seatbelt that required an advanced degree. In addition to the usual 5-point system there was a redundant lap belt and a ratchet that snugged me remarkably firmly into the seat. My legs are a little too long for the foot pedals but overall the office was tight without being uncomfortable. There was no sense of claustrophobia because the huge bubble canopy gives all the benefit of an open cockpit without the oil in the hair and the bugs in the teeth.
George fired it up and we trundled down the taxiway. They are moving the taxiway centerline at KFHR and this involves laying some new asphalt, but also narrowing the taxiway. Not a great thing for taildraggers needing to S-turn, but the FAA is concerned about other matters. George and I sorted out that he would be doing the flying and that I was willing to do anything. Take off involves a great deal of noise, but surprisingly little right rudder, and we were about 40 feet off the ground doing 120 knots with about 1600 feet of runway behind us. Just as I registered these little factoids George put our plan into action. ‘Our plan’ involved doing some rolls on runway heading at 3500 feet. There are probably a lot of ways to get into position, but I will admit that I was extremely impressed with the Stinker’s style. Three very steep hard banks and a deck angle reminiscent of an Atlas rocket put us over the numbers and at 3500 feet within 60 seconds. I realized that this was going to be a really fun flight.
George is very good at aerobatics…good enough to wring out an Extra 300 and this Pitts and smart and modest enough to admit that the airplane can do a hell of a lot more than he can. I am no good at aerobatics at all. It is not for lack of interest, but rather for lack of an appropriate airplane. This is a very appropriate airplane. We started with rolls. One right, one left, two right. George checked in. I was having so much fun I almost could not find the mic button. A loop. Well, I have done loops. I have even flown the airplane through loops. The routine is to point down until you have enough speed to carry you over the top then pull smoothly so as not to bleed off too much airspeed with drag. This is not the way of the Stinker. Apparently in this plane you yank back on the stick like you are setting the hook in a marlin and hold the Gs until you are well over the top. I grew jowls. Even with a big smile I could feel my cheeks hovering around my collar. It was amazing. Then loop to a Cuban and Cuban to a loop. A hammerhead. A humpty. A barrel roll. When I clearly doubted that George had done a barrel roll we did another. Another Cuban and another barrel roll and then George made a huge mistake.
Aerobatics pilots develop a strong stomach. Literally strong because tensing up as you experience the Gs is a good way to keep from spewing your preflight meal all over the airplane. A real key to the strong stomach is to have a sense of what is coming. Hard to maintain that well honed sense when you give the controls to a happy chimp. George invited me to try some rolls. I rolled right. Over shot and snatched it roughly back while also pointing the nose well off course. Ahhh, this was going to be a humiliating plane to fly. Every little motion of my hand was translated instantly into movement of the airplane, no matter how aerodynamically unsound or unwanted. I tried a slower roll to the left. Mistake. Nose dropped because I was rolling slow. Pull up on stick to fix nose. Does not work when the airplane is flying on its side. Realize this and correct. Then guess wrong about which way to push the stick to correct. Then, before much else could go wrong we were through the roll. Without waiting for critique I took another bash. Maybe worse. George explained that I should try to do it faster. I am sure he also meant cleaner and with fewer wobbles, but he did not say that and I could not have managed it. One fast right was OK. One fast left was marred by what must have been a wrist spasm that gave the plane a brief epileptic seizure. Another was adequate but with a lot of overshoot. Then George had had enough. I am pretty sure his tummy was not loving what I was doing because it was so darn surprising.
We headed back and I got to enjoy a few minutes of just straight and level flight in this awesome airplane. With the wonderful view and the comfy seats you could certainly see ferrying it from air show to air show, but the beautifully harmonized controls are so sensitive that it would be a nice days flight make it 400 miles. Having watched the plane land from the safety of the ground I knew what was coming and in person it is far less intimidating than it looks. The big difference between the Extra and Edge and their ilk and the acrobatic biplanes is drag. Without that huge prop spinning fast the Stinker drops out of the sky. Base was at about 150 feet and 400 feet from the numbers. We turned final and as we dropped through that 150 feet the airspeed indicator dropped from 120 to 80 in about 5 seconds. At 80 the nose reared up and the tailwheel dropped on for a lovely three point landing. If I had to guess I would have said between 30 and 45 minutes of airtime. The GPS said 12 minutes. Wow. Not a plane for everyone, but I’ll go up every time George needs to test his stomach muscles and his adrenal gland.