Sunday, September 2, 2012

#22 – PTMS Pitts S12 Macho Stinker

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.    

Saturday, August 27, 2011

#21 - DHC1 deHavilland Chipmunk

I am an unabashed fan of the whole deHavilland Corporation fleet.  What sort of mad brainiac names their planes after land dwelling mammals?  What says ‘load carrying beast’ better than Caribou?  Is there a better name for a plane that opens up the back woods than Beaver?  I don’t know what it could be.  But the Canadian naming guru who came up with the moniker for the company’s first big post World War Two military trainer deserves a special prize.  How better to convey the thought that this plane is the stepping stone to the Spitfire, Fury and Meteor than by naming the airplane after that speedy, agile, hostile rodent – the Chipmunk.  It is genius and nothing else.   No Texan or Valiant for those sardonic Brits and Canadians. No, they would strap on the Chippie and learn the aerobatics and control that would allow them to immediately transition into a single seat fighter with about eight times the horsepower.  Amazing. 

John getting in first to prevent me from leaving him behind

I love pilots…they are just the most fascinating, friendly and eccentric group of people I have ever come across. My friend John is a UFO (United Flying Octogenarian), and former professor of family medicine who commuted to work in a float plane.  His wife clearly shared his passion for aviation but embodies the sensible half of their partnership.  She laid down the rule that John could only have two airplanes at a time.  His main ride is a Cessna 180 but that second plane has cycled through a bunch of really neat types.  He has had part of a Breezy, a Hatz and the J5 Cub medevac airplane that I flew on an earlier occasion.  Since he has a lease to buy operation going with the J5 he has a free spot in the hanger and of course it was going to be filled with another taildragger.  Apparently the Chipmunk (DHC1) had been a long time dream and, after an amazing false start that makes the current Chippie technically his second, he is the proud owner of a genuine British ex-warplane.

John’s schedule has become more and more constrained with his flying time largely devoted to getting cancer patients off, then back on, the island for treatment. Though he had offered to take me up in the Chipmunk sometime, I assumed it would be a treat for the distant future.  However, the fates aligned in the form of an air show, a former DHC1 owner and a grass strip John had never flown into.  He offered me a ride in the back seat, and after looking to make sure there were controls back there, I jumped at the chance.  It made for an unforgettable Saturday morning.    

We met at the fuel dump and headed over to the plane.  Our destination was Meadow Mist, a 2000 foot long grass runway at a fly in community.   John carefully briefed me on how to get there because my job was to navigate.  He had one of those paper sectional things and planned for us to head to a VOR (despite not having a NAV radio) and then turn due south for 2 miles.  I expected him to scoff when I pulled out my iPhone, fired up Foreflight and told him that the airstrip was 16 miles away along that magenta line, and we could fly that if he wanted to.  Without even a headshake over the loss of skills in the kids flying today he said that the iPhone sounded just fine. The pressure was on though…those sectionals never run out of batteries or lose the signal, and to tell you the truth I am not sure how well I could have dead reckoned to this airfield.

Our little archipelago is made for flying

The Chipmunk is a fascinating airplane.  It has a metal fuselage and leading edges, but the wings, aft of the main spar, are fabric.  Like the planes it was designed to prepare students for, it is a low wing tail dragger.  The engine is a Gipsy Major with four cylinders, in line, hanging down from the engine (inverted).  This particular plane is painted with British  insignia and bears the markings of an airplane that has been used to teach plane anatomy and repair as well as flight.  The cockpit houses two seats, one behind the other and is covered with that wonderful greenhouse like canopy that so many fighters had.

The seating is just awesome.  I am used to squeezing into place, cheek by jowl with the other fellow, but here each seat is roomy, with plenty of space to put your feet, and your elbows have some room to get into trouble.  I have worn several types of harness before, but this particular five-point model is certainly an early test of a pilot’s coordination.  Two shoulder straps, two leg straps and a crotch strap meet at the groin.  Four tabs must be fit into holes and then the whole face of the buckle is rotated to lock the tabs in place.  There is not a hint of friction getting the tabs into their holes and they are stabbed into the central disk at every sort of angle.  In turning the disk to find one hole, a previously filled one is apt to spit out its tab.  When you rotate the face to lock it all in, there is a one in three chance that all the tabs will engage.  I gathered rather a lot of evidence to support this one in three proposition.  My advice is to pretend that you are avidly engaged in reading a complicated check list.  Also, be sure to lengthen the straps before trying this trick, or you will dislodge all the tabs every time you sigh in frustration. 

Once sitting securely in the front office, and with all the straps and the form fitting seat it does feel secure, your attention should wander to the instruments and controls. I was sitting in the back seat since John likes me, but he wisely only trusts my ability to land an airplane he is not sitting in.  The only difference between the front and back seats seemed to be the ability to tune the radio and the view.  I had throttle and mixture in a single quadrant by my left hand, a trim wheel low at my left hip, and magneto switches and lighting just above my left elbow. The brakes are differential with an interesting twist.  The amount of braking (and the parking lock) are on a red lever on the left side, while the amount of left versus right is controlled with the rudder pedals.  A giant, impossible to read, compass sat squarely between my feet and a flap lever with two positions was at my right hand.  The stick had a push to talk button and at its rearmost position it was not close to my belly, though full left and right required some adjustment of my legs.  The gauges are endearingly simple.  A horizon, turn and bank, a vertical speed indicator, and an altimeter and engine RPM gauge that were surprisingly easy to confuse.  Perhaps it was the large size of the RPM gauge or the fact that it was at 2200 most of the time, but I certainly congratulated myself on holding altitude when in fact I was holding RPM. For the non-pilot, holding RPM is a tad easier…resist the temptation to mess with the throttle and you are golden.

I had watched this plane take off several times and it impressed me how much it looked like it wanted to fly.  I was very interested to see whether my 210 pounds would make it look a little less like it was levitating and more like it was laboring into the air.  Nope, the throttle went forward and we were in a very flat decked climb within 700 feet or so.  The oddest thing, was that because the Gipsy rotates the opposite direction than most engines, you have to hold a little left rudder rather than right rudder in the climb.

At altitude John raised his hands above his head and said something incomprehensible into the headset.  I swear, when I get a little money I am buying him noise cancelling headsets. I was not sure what was going on, perhaps there was spider up in his area.  In any case the plane was not flying as well as it had been so I found myself sneaking my hands and feet into position.  After all, perhaps it was a dangerous spider.  Turns out that must be the universal signal for ‘your airplane’. I wonder how well it works when the fellow in back in these tandem jobs tries it, but in any case I was now really flying. 

Before I am allowed to buy another airplane, or even floor mats for an airplane, my spouse gets a long arm quilting machine with an automatic stitch regulator. It is good that this was somewhere in my mind, because after a single steep turn it was painfully difficult not to ask John whether it wasn’t time for him to do another lease to buy program and get a different second airplane.  I have already said that the DA40 is my favorite plane, and I suppose because it has four seats it will remain atop the heap. But, I have never flown anything that was as smooth and harmonious as the Chipmunk. 

The controls are so well balanced, and there is so little cross talk between axes, that it truly feels like the plane is wired in to your brain.  What a total gas.  The plane zips along at 100 knots and the landings, both three point and wheel, were very straight forward.  John kindly demonstrated the resilience of the gear on one landing and I am confident that even I would have a hard time beating it up too badly.  The benign deck angle and good forward visibility meant only gentle s-turns were necessary, and it also made landings a very calm event.  Good visibility down the runway goes a long ways towards making a taildragger feel good as you line it up to touch down.  Even in the three point flare we were not looking at nothing but nose the way you are when you solo from the back seat of a cub.  I swear in that plane I wanted to punch a hole in the front floorboards to see the center line.

We had a great flight over to Meadow Mist, the iPhone and Foreflight did not let us down, and once there we met Paul, an 86 year old pilot of remarkable versatility.  The hanger where John and Paul discussed spare Chipmunk parts housed a Stinson L5 (WWII observer) and two fabric jobs from 1931.  The first was a pretty, but pretty conventional looking American Eagle Eaglet.  The second was a bright red plane of dreams, the Curtiss Wright Junior.  Sporting a pusher prop powered by a teeny French radial with a single magneto, the pilot sits so far out in from that she is practically dangling her feet off the end of the plane.  It looks like a blast to fly. The airspeed indicator is a paddle that sits in the wind connected to a wire indicator that sits in either the red or white depending on whether you are too fast, too slow, or just right.  It was a banner day for airplanes, airplane people and airstrips.  I owe John a huge debt of gratitude for type #21. 

Friday, August 12, 2011

#20 - AC11 - Rockwell Commander 112

My friend Ken is one of those people who need to fly.  He is darn near a UFO (United Flying Octogenarian) so I think it is a little surprising that he did not discover this about himself until a few months after he sold his seventh Mooney.  Mooniacs, as aficionados of the narrow cockpitted speedsters with the reversed tails are called, are a special breed of pilot.  They love speed, and more importantly they love efficient speed.  None of this throwing a giant engine at the problem.  They want an honest 180 mph on 180 horsepower, and many of them get that and more.  Mooney’s have a reputation for being a challenge to fly well, though I have no experience in the type I am sure I could fly one as badly as the next fellow.  They are slick, so they don’t like to slow down, and they are fast, so you have to work hard to stay ahead of them, and they have retractable gear, which adds one more way you can botch a landing.  Someone who has spent 40 years pushing Mooney’s through the skies is a pilot through and through. 

So it was a bit sad to be talking airplanes with Ken when he was palpably missing getting up in the air.  He has a spot on the Icon light sport list, but the production date of that sexy amphib keeps moving back. He had no plans to re-enter the Mooney market having shed a mid six figure plane with no pressing financial need for another. That is how I found myself in the right seat of my 172 watch Ken work out his flying bug with a few landings at Skagit.  Ken is a really good pilot and my airplane is about as simple as a rock, so I was perfectly happy to add him to the short list of folks who have a key to the plane and an invitation to fly it when they need to (or really want to).  To me, loaning out an airplane is not a shocking thing.  My insurance covers just about any pilot with a pulse, and I like machinery to get used.  I have no sentimental attachment to the plane, I just really like seeing the hour meter move, and I am very aware that the more a plane flies the better off the engine is.   

The Commander - the horizontal stabilizer is midway between conventional and T-tail.

All this is preamble to explain how I got a chance to fly a Rockwell Commander 112 today. Ken really could not stay out of airplanes for as long as it was taking Icon to make a plane, so when a great deal appeared on the 112 he jumped.  I asked him how he liked it and he replied “it has the flight characteristics of an inverted bathtub and the glide characteristics of a large rock“. He seemed surprised when I replied that it sounded great and I would love to get a ride.  Surprised, but not shocked, since he understands the obsession.  In any case, Ken Generously offered to take me up and we arranged to meet at my home base and fly to lunch. While this is no Mooney, I really hope Ken gets to liking it, because it is a pretty neat airplane.  

The plane is very clean and has amazing avionics.  I don't know how much he paid, but I bet I could Ebay the panel for a large chunk of it, what with the Garmin intercom, radios, transponder and multifunction display.  Anyway, I got 1.2 hours and two landings.  When I got home I saw Bob J. and he asked me how it was. I realized I was not qualified to say how it was.  All I can give is a totally unqualified evaluation of the plane, but aside from a rank beginner in the market for an oddball plane, who would care? And that is how this 100 airframes project began. 

The Commander is roomy and the view is quite good.  The entry is easy and there are two doors.  For a low wing this is unusual.  Start up and taxi revealed no real oddities, but on take off Ken insisted on holding the brakes until manifold pressure hit 25.  I can't believe this is POH standard, but he said it was good for the turbo charger.  In any case, despite getting a real head of steam up before brake release the plane lumbers down the runway.  It took off cleanly with almost no right rudder and commenced an easy climb.  With three aboard and full fuel we made 800 FPM at a placid deck angle.  I was flying right seat as PIC which meant I could barely see the turn coordinator. My butt is quite uneducated, but I never felt badly coordinated.  We topped out at 120 knots and 12 GPH.  

Descent is a simple matter of dropping the nose, we lost 1000 feet and gained about 20 knots. This is not a speedy airplane.  As we hit the Arlington pattern I dropped the gear and we started down at 500 fpm.  Adding the flaps put us at 800 fpm with a slight nose down attitude, but no real feeling of diving for earth. The landing was a revelation.  I have never landed trailing link gear before and that stuff will make you look GOOD.  Really good.  On short final I did discover that the slightly oddball proportions of the plane, with its not quite T tail and seemingly undersized rudder, do result in a rudder that is not very effective.  I try to wag the tail a bit going in to make sure that both the plane and I are clear about who is responsible for the runway center line.  In this plane my wag made me look at my feet to make sure I could reach the pedals.  A more vigorous shake led to a lazy back and forth from the hind end.  Not very reassuring for crosswinds.  Nevertheless the landing was a treat because of the gear.  The return to Friday Harbor saw me get 5 knots fast on the approach and though I thought I would touch down in the first 500 feet, I was past the first turn off before the trailing link again made me look perfectly competent.  I am going to look into this gear for my 172.  I just installed a vernier mixture knob, how hard could new gear be?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

#19 - C206 - Cessna Stationair

The Stationair I identified as anything but to ATC...Skyhawk, Skylane, Centurion...whatever.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

#12 - J3 - Piper Cub

I was one year old when Rinker Buck and his big brother made a cross country flight in an airplane that is arguably the archetype for general aviation.  The Bucks were teens, crossing the country at 50-80mph in a bright yellow, fabric and tube, tail dragging, Piper Cub. There are many who argue that the Cessna 172 is the best representative of general aviation, being as it is the most popular airplane ever built.  But I think the Cub wins out, not because there are a lot of them, and not because they are near the ‘average’ flight experience, but rather because they fit the stereotype of an airplane owned by a private individual.  The Cessna 172 is just too modern, too metallic, and has the third wheel too far forward to be a convincing representative. 

I decided to get checked out in the Cub at John Wayne Airport because it was the cheapest hourly rental on the field, or any other local field for that matter.  This was primarily driven by the truly frugal fuel consumption of the 65hp Continental engine.  When you have less than half to horsepower of the most anemic of the 172’s it is important to leave things out.  The Cub leaves out two seats, it seats a small pair and they get to ride tandem style, one in front of the other.  All the fancy electronics are stripped down to a single channel radio and a transponder.  This last is not found on many Cubs, but John Wayne is within the 25nm mode C veil of Los Angeles International Airport, so no transponder means no takeoffs.  What else is missing?  There are no metal skins on the wings or the fuselage, but best of all the Cub saves a few pounds by shedding that pesky starter motor.  Yep, this one is a wind up toy. 

After the other two two-seater tail draggers I really thought the Cub would feel familiar.  But, it is enough smaller and enough older that it has very different sensibilities. There is no alternator, so power is supplied to the overhead electronics by a small battery that periodically needs charging.  The doors are so flimsy that they certainly feel like an unnecessary afterthought.  On this maiden flight the instructor said we would leave them on so it would be easier to hear each other.  I do love that there is a special spot near the tie down to store the doors when you want a Wright brothers experience.  The price for used Cubs is right up there with the Citabria, in the $40-50K range. This is hard to justify on any grounds other than you have always wanted to fly aviation history.  The cub is, in many ways an inferior airplane to the Citabria, so it would be nice to get a little price break. 

After a preflight that included looking in nooks and crannies for signs of corrosion on the tubular frame, I got to try out my first hand propping.  The first step is to make sure the airplane is not going to take off without a pilot.  Each year this step is missed by a few pilots, so there is a surprisingly large database of empty plane flight performance.  The Cub will get five or ten feet off the ground, pull slightly to the left and hit the hangers full of more expensive planes at about 45mph if you somehow forget to tie it down before starting.  In contrast, a fellow on the next island over discovered that a 182 will stay firmly on the ground as it taxis briskly into your neighbors hanger.  I have no interest in gather further data along these lines so I carefully check that the tail is tied down and that the tail line release mechanism is locked.  Once the airplane is going I can release the tail tie down by pulling a lever in the cockpit.  Next, I ensure the magnetos are off and pull the prop through three or four revolutions.  This sucks a little fuel into the cylinders while dead mags prevent a sudden start that might knock off fingers or even hands. 
Now we are ready for the big show.  The instructor is settled in the front seat.  In the Cub, this is the passenger seat and when empty the plane must be flown from the rear seat.  This makes visibility in the Cub distinctly worse than in the Champ offspring, the Citabria and Decathlon.  But I digress. The magnetos are turned on, the throttle is open 20% and the mixture is full rich as I stand with my left hand on the doorframe and my right on the propeller. 

When I started flying my instructor referred to the arc swept by the prop as ‘the circle of death’.  I have no innate sense of caution or self preservation, so maybe it was this sunny moniker that led me to conduct a few tests before starting the Cub.  While clutching the doorframe I cannot reach the propeller with my head.  By reaching hard and straight out the very worst I can manage would be a mid forearm amputation.  Actually if I were to skillfully execute a Buster Keaton reverse pratfall whilst holding the doorframe I could easily get my knee into the mill. 

I go over these facts one more time in my head and, feeling that I am just about at top dead center on one of the little Continental’s cylinders, I give a sharp heave.   Prior experience with remote control airplanes, glow plugs, batteries and ‘chicken sticks’ tells me what to expect and I am not disappointed.  The engine advances approximately 60 degrees and stops.  There is no bang, no putt putt putt, nothing.  This does not surprise or dishearten me in the least.  I reach over the cowl a bit and take ahold of the other blade.  Expecting little difference I heave this one through.  This time, in full accordance with my expectations the engine did not start.  Third time was not the charm.  Nor the fourth.  Then I shut down the mags and put the throttle at the firewall and pulled the prop through a few more times.  This time, on the very first pull, the engine started right up and settled in to a pleasant idle. 

The airplane is just a joy to stand next to, running or not.  It is a wonderful color, the lines are just fabulous, and the Cub has an amazing ‘flying machine’ aura that is unlike any aircraft I have flown.  Getting in to the plane is a bit of chore because you have to watch where you put your feet and the plane is not designed with taller fatter guys in mind.  But, once settled in, like all the tandems I have flown, there is a ton of elbow room.  The plane really feels roomy, but it is a bit odd to be looking at someone’s head while trying to steer to the hold short line. This is definitely a plane where S-turns are a good plan. 

When we finally started the take off run, form the shorter of John Wayne’s two runways, the size of the engine was immediately clear.  As a tail dragger accelerates there is a moment when the stick should be pushed forward to lift that little tail wheel off the ground.  Well, with two guys in the plane that moment was a long time coming.  The tiny engine huffed and puffed and finally got us going fast enough to fly the tail.  Some time later, before I was worried about runway but perhaps twice as long as I had expected, the rest of the plane wanted to fly.  In the air the Cub is a total ball.  It is completely docile, yet has a roll rate and sprightliness to the pitch and yaw that I did not expect.  The best thing is that it can be flown with your eyes closed by paying careful attention to the sounds.  You can hear the wind rushing over the fuselage and around the wires so clearly and with such detail that it is clear when you are in level versus climbing or descending flight, and a turn introduces a clear asymmetry in the sound.  It really made me want to fly with the doors off. 

Since this was a check out we did wheel landings and three pointers.  Everything was very benign despite a moderate cross wind.  About the worst thing I can say about the plane is that in three point attitude it is not so easy to see exactly where the plane is headed.  You need to fix the runway sight picture in your brain as the nose starts up then really keep your head still while looking out to the sides to monitor your vertical and lateral position.  It sounds harder than it is, but the first time I did it I flashed to John McPhee’s wonderful book on Bill Bradley – ‘A Sense of Where You Are’.  Apparently Bradley would walk around his hometown with eyes fixed straight ahead trying to increase his ability to process the scenes that were at the very edges of his peripheral vision.  That book was published in 1965, the same year the Buck brothers got the very most intimate sense of where they were in this broad and topographically interesting country.  A good sense of where you are is probably one of the most important prerequisites for enjoying flying the Cub. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

#11 - BL8 - Super Decathlon

The Citabria and the Decathlon are very nearly the same airplane.  The Decathlon wing has a metal spar and the engine is a far more exciting 180 horsepower Lycoming.  I took one flight in the 8KCAB and I did not make use of its major advantage over the Citabria.  The Decathlon can do ‘outside’ maneuvers…these are things that put negative Gs on the plane – outside loops and inverted flight being the most common.  These fabric covered planes are rather common high wing, tandem aircraft and are often painted with a sunburst pattern on the wings and tail.  Like the 7 series airplanes, this is not a long distance flier, or a cruising machine.  It is designed for moderate aerobatics and is often a first competitive plane for novice aerobatics pilots. 

The very decathlon I flew at the airport I flew it from

I got in it because the Citabria was rented that day, I needed more tailwheel time and I thought I might go on to get an aerobatics endorsement.  I still might, but I ran out of steam shortly after this flight. The parachute that is required when doing aerobatics does not cramp the pilot’s sitting arrangement or make it seem more difficult to get out the flimsy fabric door.  In fact, sitting on the chute makes for a slightly higher perch that makes taxing even less of an issue in this plane. We departed John Wayne for some aerobatics practice on a perfectly clear, blue-sky day.  The aerobatics box is about a five mile flight from the pattern and the controls on the Decathlon proved light and well balanced.  There is some adverse yaw, so I spent a little time in straight and level flight working on Dutch Rolls.  The rudder is heavier than in a Cessna or Piper, but it also does a good deal more.  On this particular Decathlon there were wire sculptures out at the end of the wingtip that allow pilot to judge the angle of the wing relative to the horizon when the wing is in usual attitudes. 

I did rolls, snap rolls, an inside loop, a hammerhead and I attempted an Immelman turn.  From this I learned that this is one capable airplane.  The larger engine relative to the Citabria really makes a difference.  The other thing we learned is that I might be too easily disoriented to be a good aerobatics pilot.  My principal gift as an aviator (or SCUBA diver, or parent) is that I do not get overly excited or panicky when things are potentially not going well.  When I got confused in the Immelman I was in no way wondering whether I knew where I was.  I absolutely knew that I was completely confused about my posture vis-à-vis the earth, but I was not overly concerned about that. Either I do not have the intelligence to understand the implications of situations like this or I am not imaginative enough about the outcomes.  As I must have known, back in the reptile part of my brain, once the world stopped spinning it was clear I was in a 60 degree bank and letting the nose fall off into a power dive.  I remedied that, but I suspect the true ugliness of the attempted maneuver made my instructor wonder.

Chris asked whether I had recently done much spinning.  I allowed as the last time I had done any was when Dan, one of my several flight instructors, decided it would be good for my digestion and complexion to spin his Cessna 150.  We did spin entries for about 40 minutes and I confess that I had only a vague idea of where I was at any time.  Well, Chris had me spin that Decathlon, and I am here to tell you that while I read in the magazines about the gentle stall characteristics of this plane and that I never read about how sprightly an airframe enters an ‘over the top’ spin.  Someone should write about that.  This plane really, really likes to spin.  The first spin I popped into in the usual fashion with some up elevator and crossed controls.  I pulled out of the spin without help, but was completely stumped by the question that came over my headset.  ‘How many times did we go around’?  Are you kidding?  I am psyched when I keep it straight and level, while spinning I have no clue what is going on.  ‘Once’ I said only to be told that we did two and a half rotations.  Huh.  OK, I’ll count the next time. 

I pulled us in to another one, this time stalling the higher wing and getting that awesome flippy sensation when the flying wing and the stalled wing swap attitudes all of a sudden.  I counted out loud and got to four before rescuing us from certain dizziness.    Chris allowed as I was counting something other than rotations since I seemed to increment the list a little more often than I should.  Three and a quarter rotations; I did not even come out on the heading I went in on.  A third time I took us around and once again my count was off.  ‘What part of the horizon are you looking at when you fix a landmark’ asked Chris?  That was when I realized that I generally keep my eyes closed for the first part of the spin.  It is more fun that way.  Less pro apparently, but more fun.  A few more spins with my eyes open and I was able to report accurately on the number of arounds.  The spins seemed less exciting though, perhaps I need to add a small cabin fire to keep things interesting.

In any case, as we headed back to the airport I decided that even a neophyte like me could feel that the Decathlon is a more capable aerobat than the Citabria.  Hopefully I will get some more comparison flying in.  No way I could afford to rent the Extra or Pitts, but someday I’ll get a few more aerobatic airframes under my belt.  A perfect wheel landing finished off the afternoon.

As two passenger airplanes, with a somewhat antisocial seating arrangement, neither the Citabria nor the Decathlon is something you would buy for transport.  If you need to get from A to B the choices range from the pedestrian and inexpensive Cessna 150, through the snappy handling Grumman Yankee, to the modern, sleek, fast and easy on fuel Diamond DV20.  No, these airplanes are for folks who want to fly.  Pilots who are perfectly happy if the majority of log book entries read KFHR Local in the destination block.  For someone who wants an avenue for experiencing flight at its purest, these are wonderful planes.  Their location in the flight envelope can usually be determined without reference to instruments, simply listen to the sound of the wind whistling across the fabric and around the struts.  The price for a Citabria is somewhere south of $50K and for the Super D you can expect to pay over $150K.  Neither one is for the faint of wallet, but both planes bring a purity of flight mixed with aerobatic capability to the table.  This has to be worth the price of admission for many folks. 

The only caveat I would emphasize for the potential owner is that as fabric covered airplanes these really should be in a hanger.  Though the John Wayne aerobatics operation kept theirs in the blazing seaside sun, and bragged about 10-15 year life spans for the covering, I would be very reluctant to put a $15K recovering job out in the salt air.  That corrosive air is another reason the hanger is worth while.  The fabric and strut combination makes for some really good hiding places for corrosion.  This is something to think about on the pre-buy as well as when storing the plane.

Friday, September 14, 2007

#10 - CH7A - Citabria

When I moved from Redondo Beach to Irvine I left the wonderful airplane rental community of Torrance Airport (KTOA), for the incredibly restrictive and stifling atmosphere of John Wayne Airport (KSNA).  I checked out the flying clubs and the FBOs but it was not going to be very much fun to get checked out to fly let alone head out on a whim to take the waters on Catalina.  I was a little bummed and started looking harder at the used airplane market.  I put myself on the list for a tie down at John Wayne - 4 years later they called me to say I was up. Then I realized that there were all these neat merit badges I could earn.  The FAA issued me a license to pilot a single engine land plane…under visual flight rules conditions…as long as the engine was not too big…and the wheels could not tuck up out of sight…and the third wheel was on the correct end. 

Each of the caveats can be wiped away with more training.  My brother got the engine size limitation removed by threatening to buy a Cessna.  Actually he was really up front with the salesman and explained that next week he was buying a Diamondstar.  The salesman said that what he really wanted was a glass cockpit 182.  Well, Colin said he was pretty sure he did not want that.  The salesman said he would be there in the morning with a spiffy new plane that would be irresistible.  When Colin pointed out that he could not even act as PIC of the plane since the engine was larger than 200hp the salesman allowed that as he was a CFI he could just write that endorsement in Colin’s logbook after he had flown around in the 182 for a while. It really was that easy.  Clearly not the merit badge I wanted. 

After some consideration I decided on the tailwheel endorsement.  Airplane generally have three wheels, though I have flown both two and four wheeled varieties. Those three wheels can come in two arrangements: either the single wheel can be in front of the pair of main wheels or it can be behind.  Airplanes started out with just a pair of wheels and the tail was held up by a bent piece of metal.  The planes were always landing on grass and the tail skid was just fine bouncing over the turf.  When runways started to get paved, say 90 years ago when flying was becoming mildly popular, the shower of sparks from a tail skid on tarmac could elicit concern on the part of potential passengers.  This led to its replacement with a little, tiny, hard rubber wheel.  This tailwheel configuration is called conventional gear because it was in opposition to the with the single wheel was up on the nose.  My goodness, all sorts of bad things, front smacking the prop to the plane hitting a bump and tripping on to its nose could be caused by that pernicious ‘tricycle’ gear.  I think the picked ‘tricycle’ because the old timers could not get ‘damnfool’ or ‘newfangled’ to stick. 

In any case, now it takes a special endorsement to take to the sky in an airplane with a tailwheel.  There are really good reasons why this is so and they primarily have to do with momentum. An airplane with tricycle gear has the center of mass somewhere in front of the two main wheels, this keeps the nose down on that misplaced wheel sticking down from the region of the engine.  With conventional gear the center of mass is behind those two big main wheels and if it were not the plane would nose right over on to its prop.  So, what is the big deal?  Well, once an airplane gets going the placement of that center of mass is important.  If the tail starts to wander left or right in a tricycle gear airplane the center of mass up in front of the mains will tend to pull the tail back towards the middle.  In contrast, a when the tail swings in a conventional plane the center of mass swings out that same way and tends to keep the rotation going. Imagine riding a bike with a big pail of water on a long stick out in front.  Hit the brakes and the pail pulls you forward, but if that long stick is trailing out behind, when you hit the brakes the bucket is apt to come swinging around one side or the other.  That fundamental instability is a real knock on the conventional gear, especially when combined with a little aerodynamics. 

The wing generates lift as air moves over it.  More airspeed means more lift, in fact much more because lift goes up with the square of airspeed.  Well, when the tail of a tailwheel airplane starts to swing around, propelled faster and faster by the instability of the center of mass being behind the mains, the wing on the outside of the turn is moving a lot faster than the wing on the inside.  In fact, the plane is often rotating around one of the wingtips, which means the airspeed is nearly zero. lift on the inside wing and a good deal of lift on the outside wing.  What happens?  The plane flips on its back or at least tilts the outside wing up until the inside wing hits the ground.  This is called a ground loop and while loops are normally something you might recount with great glee this type only happens to the other, less skilled pilots.  Except for that time when it was not at all your fault. 

More training is needed to fly tailwheels, that is all there is to it.  John Wayne has an excellent aerobatics school run by an autocratic, but basically nice fellow with very firm ideas of how people should fly, learn to fly, and think about flying.  One thing they do very well is teach the tailwheel.  For one thing they have a lot of different tailwheel types.  When I was there they had five types and perhaps eight planes.  This is eight more than almost any other training company I can name.  I flew three of these types and they would not have signed my endorsement without at least two.  If I were a bigger ticket sort of guy I could have flown the last two, a Pitts S2 and an Extra once I had the endorsement in hand.  But, to start they put me in the most docile tailwheel they could find, the American Champion Citabria 7ECA (type CH7A).

The Citabria was a stronger, faster version of the Aeronca Champ, itself an attempt to improve on the oddities of the Piper Cub.  The idea was to sell a short field plane that could hold two and be completely aerobatic.  In fact airbatic citabria is a palindrome. Walking up to the plane I was really book smart, I had read the POH extensively, and about tailwheels in general, but nervous about my lack of practical experience.  This was not just my first tailwheel plane but the first made of cast off rags and wire, the first where they threw the copilot seat in the trunk when they realized it would not fit next to the pilot, and the first with a wooden spar.  I mean really, the whole dang wing is supported with wood.  Termites eat it, it burns, it rots – what kind of fool build an airplane wing out of it and then sits the airplane outside?  I was nervous.  Also, the doors were essentially a pillow case strong on some coat hangers, with some saran wrap so you could see what you would fall on when the wing spar gave way. 

About that tow bar.  There is none.  You just grab the back end of the plane and push it to move side to side and push on a wing strut to get it rolling forward.  Once out of the parking spot we did a preflight that included looking at a lot of bits and bobs that might either rot or come untwisted, causing great issues with the aerodynamics of the plane.  Once all was inspected and found to be in as good condition as it was designed to be, we climbed in with the instructor in back. I’ll  get this out of the way early: this plane is not for folks who take great comfort (probably misplaced) in smooth metal or upholstery.  The seats are really camp chairs wired in to the birdcage frame.  I am pretty sure the cushions were leftover from a college football pep rally, though I was surprised they were not emblazed with a school mascot.  The controls and instruments are basic, but as I settled in to the seat I realized that nervous was giving way to excited.  This plane is designed to fly, not carry folks around in comfort, just fly.  There is something very, very cool about that. 

The forward visibility of taildraggers is always a potential issue on the ground, but the Citabria has a good enough view over the nose that the only reason for S-turns while taxiing is so that I can learn S-turns.  And to keep the stick back.  In the very light winds the plane does not even feel a little bit squirrelly and by the time I am lined up and ready to go I am nothing but excited.  The engine is small, but the tandem seating makes for a narrow, low drag fuselage, and that spiderwork of tubing covered with fabric is far lighter than an equivalent metal plane.  So, while the Citabria does not leap off the pavement it does get moving smartly and we are airborne and headed for the aerobatics box in short order.  This is another airplane with a control stick; I have a hard time imagining aerobatics with a control yoke.  I am mostly learning tailwheel operations, so we will soon go back and practice landings, but first I get to do what every kid who has ever thought of flying wants to do…fly the plane upside down.  All the planes I have flown until now can do aerobatics, but they are not only not designed for it, but it is both illegal and ill advised.  It is far too easy to screw up and overstress the airframe.

This plane is made to loop and roll and hammerhead.  So that is what I do.  The instructor is wonderfully tolerant. I just tell him what I want to try next and then I move the stick and rudder in the directions I think will accomplish that.  It mostly works, but when I ask to be shown the difference between a aileron roll and a snap roll I get a chance to see how wonderfully precise the Citabria can be in the right hands.  When we return to the pattern I do both wheel and three point landings and neither one seems particularly difficult.  There is little wind so there is not much opportunity for hilarity on the roll outs, but in general I am impressed with how docile and clean this little plane is.  The more landings I do the more I see why there are some folks who only fly taildraggers.  The plane has to be flown even while on the ground.  When it takes off you have to lift the tail, build up speed then rotate.  It turns a simple takeoff into something you have to pay attention to: it is aviating. The Citabria may not have all the muscle of its bigger aerobatic cousins, but it convinced me to keep at the tailwheel endorsement.  Next up the Decathlon…same plane with a bigger engine and a metal spar.  After the jiggling I gave my guts in this plane I am quite sure that I do not want to experience whatever G-forces lie between the wooden and the metal spar.  

Thursday, February 15, 2007

#9 - AA5 - Grumman Tiger

I flew the Grumman American Yankee when I was getting my ticket.  In the years that followed I was a serious student of plausible first planes for a fellow like me.  I am completely agnostic in the great wars over wing placement, except that I firmly believe they should be there.  High, low, mid, canard, it is all the same to me.  I can easily see myself in a pusher prop plane or a tail dragger, all that really matters is that it fly.  But, that little Yankee got to me a bit.  It was such a sweet flyer that a major contender for first airplane because its four seater big brother.  There were essentially three models that mirror the three/four engines put in the Skyhawk and the Warrior. The Traveler had a little 150 horsepower engine, but with its clean lines and narrow fuselage it managed 20 more knots than the Cessna on a little less fuel.  The Cheetah was a slicked up version and got yet more speed out of the same engine, and the Tiger put 180 horses up front and managed about 140 knots at less than 10 gallons per hour.  I was completely enamored with the sliding canopy and even joined the type club for a year to read more about people who had taken the plunge.  All things being equal I suppose the Cheetah is the plane I would have tried to afford and I even called Barron Thomas once when there was one that looked like too good a deal to pass up.  But I had never flown one until I stumbled upon another pilot who worked in the same building.

This is what the Tiger looks like, but I can't find any photos of the one I flew

Dana had been flying for 20 years and had owned the Tiger with a partner for about 8 years or so.  His description of the partnership is one of only two that I have heard in detail and it did not make me want to shell out real money for a part of a plane.  For one thing, when you have partners you keep track of every hour and charge the partnership for them.  I actively do not want to know what the flying is costing me.  Since I am well over 200 hours a year it must be cheaper than renting, but I sure do not want to really know the per hour cost.  Dana and I had talked planes quite a bit and I started passing along the copies of the NTSB reporter than my brother passed along to me.  It was pretty clear that Dana and I are very different sorts of pilots, with him being he smart cautious one.  We tried several times to set a time to go out flying, but with one thing and another it was about 8 months before we hit a day that seemed perfect for a lunch trip up to Santa Barbara.  We would depart from Orange County (KSNA) and meet my brother at 1500 feet over Santa Monica (KSNA).  He would also be in a plane. 

As I expected from the Yankee experience just walking up to the Tiger is great fun. It is a very cool looking airplane with flowing lines and neat little holes for cooling flow in the front of the cowling. Entry is exactly like the Yankee, step up onto the trailing edge of the wing then slide open the canopy and step in.  The ergonomics are such that it is easiest to step on the seat then the floor of the cockpit, so the smart pilot flips up the seat cushion with her toe before stepping on the seat then knocks it back down again as the other foot is brought in to the cockpit.  I flew right seat, but all that time in the right seat of the Diamond, and any other airplane I fly with my brother, means that I am about as comfortable operating on the co-pilot’s side as I am in the left seat.  The panel is pretty standard, with the main oddity being he placement of the fuel gauges, which are on the side panels because they directly read from the tubular tank in each wing.  The tubular tanks are an issue if the plane gets in a spin because the fuel can be pulled away from the wing root and the fuel line will unport leaving you in a plane that is rapidly rotating, falling fast and has no engine.  Since this is more excitement than even utility pilots are accustomed to, spins are prohibited.

Starting is about the usual for a carbureted 180 hp Lycoming.  Prime a few times with the mixture full rich and the throttle cracked.  Mags on both and push the starter button.  The engine usually catches on a few blades unless the weather is just brutally cold.  An excellent feature of the Tiger (and Yankee) is that the canopy can be open during taxi and even during flight.  This really mitigates the greenhouse effect of the bubble canopy on a sunny southern California day.  We taxied to the run up area and I reacquainted myself with the concept of a castering nose wheel.  It is a feature I actually like in a plane and would put it on a list of things I would like my theoretical perfect plane to have.  The ability to turn a tricycle gear airplane in a radius normally only seen by conventional gear planes is a real plus.   I like doing a 360 after the run up to see whether I can spot folks in the pattern.  Tail wheels or castering nosewheels make this a fun proposition rather than an exercise in staying inside the run up area. 

Lining up for takeoff I recalled that the Yankee needed more right rudder than the Warrior, but when I poured to coals to the Tiger I found it climbed straight and fast with pretty minimal rudder input.  Not ten feet off the ground it is already clear that this is not a Cessna/Piper straight ahead workhorse.  This plane can fly and if you are not right on top of the control yoke and rudders you quickly find yourself correcting for errors you are not sure you made.  The plane has such a direct connection between me hand and pitch, roll and yaw, that you will go exactly where you aim…but the corollary is that if your mind wanders the airplane will as well.  The C172 is so stable that I can often fly 50 miles without putting in more than a token bump of effort on the yoke.  In the Tiger you could get it trimmed then shift your feet or put a little unconscious pressure on the yoke and before you know it you are sliding off in some direction only vaguely related to the one you were hoping to fly.  I find that when I am ahead of the airplane and have a clear idea of my destination that I can keep my head out of the cockpit and fly long straight distances.  But when I get behind, like when I am told to watch for wake turbulence from a departing 737, the airplane darts around like a fractious horse. 

The airspace of LA and its environs is wonderfully complex. I say that as someone who trained in there and whose second flight was through the ‘miniroute’ over Los Angeles International Airport.  This required following a VOR before I was entirely sure what the navigation radio was listening for. I think I had a vague idea that it was turning in various talk radio shows and guessing where you were by the suite of available programming and the strength of the various signals.  Lots of preachers over by John Wayne/Orange County.   More NPR as you head north.  In any case, the airspace gave me an excuse to maneuver the airplane quite a bit on the way up to find my brother.  As I had hoped, the pushrod actuators on the controls and the laminar flow wing made for an agile and steady airplane.  Just to get the feel for what landing would be like I did one power off stall at 2500 feet.  The look on Dana’s face and his pointing out that he does not do stalls in the plane without an instructor, convinced me to go a bit easier in my testing.  We got overhead Santa Monica and I cranked in 45 degrees of bank, added a little trim (which is electric, by the way) and started a series of small circles over the airport.  Dana seemed to be impressed with my airmanship, but I believe he would have preferred to hear of my exploits while we sat in his office making flying noises.  Eventually the DA40 rose up towards us and we raced for the Santa Monica Mountains.  The Diamond is fast but the Grumman had no problem keeping up.  It may even be that the Tiger was a little faster.  You will never get my brother to say, he rarely thinks about his air speed as long as the plane is not in danger of stalling.

We zipped up to Santa Barbara and the flight was too short by several hours.  It is just a great plane to fly.  More fun than should be possible in a vehicle worth less than $60,000. I was really happy when Dana offered to let me take the landing.  I have no idea whether he was being generous, he was confident in my abilities, or so airsick from my piloting that he just desperately wanted to get on the ground. I set up for left traffic and went a little long on downwind because I had heard a long stabilized approach helps you to land these planes. If you read much about the Grummans a recurring theme is that they like to fly, conversely they are not so keen on stopping flying.  If you have a little extra airspeed, say for good luck, or because it is Tuesday, or because there are a godawful lot of bushes on that side of the runway, you will find that scrubbing off that speed is difficult.  Raising the nose just makes the plane balloon, neglecting to scrub off the speed leads to a departure into the weeds at the end of the runway.  In any case, I had been boning up on the POH and had the spot landing speed in my head.  I called the 1000 foot markers and landed 50 feet from the numbers end of them.  It was a good landing and Dana looked relieved.  We had a pleasant lunch and then headed back to John Wayne.  The plane is beaut and with the sliding canopy would be pretty easy to exit in the case of ending up in the water.  This one is on my list of step ups from the 172, but it is hard to imagine the circumstances where it is enough of a step up since I own the 172.  

Wednesday, October 4, 2006

#8 -G103 - Grob Glider

Pilots are remarkable folks in many ways, some of them quite entertaining. For example, my informal research has shown that over 90% of pilots consider themselves well above average when it comes to airplane handling skills.  This is certainly a possibility, but it requires that the remaining 10% or so be so deficient that I believe the FAA and perhaps even passersby would take notice.  Perhaps because I learned to fly with my little brother, who really is somewhat above average, I never had the illusion that I was a particularly good pilot…enthusiastic? Absolutely! Highly skilled?  Well, he has not screwed up too badly yet, but neither has he accumulated too many hours.  And many of those were supervised.  And there was that runway excursion we could mention.  And the time he tried to leave with the chocks firmly in place. Actually – ‘times’.  No, I have never thought of myself as the reincarnation of Wolfgang Langewiesche…but I did think I had passable stick and rudder coordination.
This is how the plane looks at rest, I did not just miss the runway.

Then I tried gliding.  My wife and I had a daughter, and I arranged to take a month in Hawaii to get some field work done and get to know the new baby.  I quickly discovered that airplane rentals in Hawaii were beyond my means and somewhat impractical, but there is a healthy glider gang that operates out of Dillingham Field on the northwest corner of Oahu.  That seemed like the ideal next step in my flight training.  I headed up to the airport to find two operations that would train new glider pilots.  There was nothing to choose between them as far as I could see so I walked up to the one that appeared to have a person right there, right now for me to talk to.  After some negociation we settled that I would take my glider ticket with the chief pilot/instructor/sightseeing flight pilot.  I was asked when I would like to start and answered as any completely addicted flyboy would – immediately. 

Well, there was about two hours of ground school and then we climbed into the two seater Grob 103.  I have no other gliding experience so I can’t say how this plane compares to the others, but as an SEL pilot I will note a few differences that I found striking.  First of all the wings are exceptionally long and have a narrow chord.  This is an efficiency issue and does an impressive job cutting down drag. The landing gear is just two wheels, and these are placed one in front of the other.  At rest the Grob lies with one wingtip in the red dirt.  Upon climbing in to this, my first tandem two seater, I was struck by the lack of instruments.  There is an altimeter and a very sensitive vertical speed indicator but no radio, intercom, transponder, or GPS.  This is rudimentary, seat of the pants flying. 

We were towed into the air by a conventional airplane which spends the day hauling the motor-deprived into the blue yonder.  The sailplane, once airborne, will get lift from two principle sources.  The first is the ridge of land that lies at an oblique angle to the nearly constant trade winds.  The wind hits the ridge and rises to flow over it.  A canny glider driver can ride the face of the ridge indefinitely, catching the rising air close to the ridge and then falling out and away before returning to the ridge for another updraft.  The other source of potential energy is the rising air at the center of the minor convective activity that is an afternoon feature in Hawaii.  Heading for the dark underbelly of a cloud will quickly land the glider in a rising column of air feeding the nascent thunderhead water and heat. 

This first familiarization flight allows me to try my hand at both types of lift.  Apparently I do passably well as we are still up in the air some 25 minutes into the experience.  However, something about my flying seems to trouble my instructor, and he asks me to head out towards the sea and roll the plane back and forth.  Specifically he asks for ‘Dutch Rolls’.  Now it is entirely possible that this is a maneuver that is required for the private pilot license, and if so I would direct your recollection to the fact that these writings are complete fictions.  But, if it excusable that I had never tried this then I will admit that my first thought was that this was an odd culinary tradition of the glider set.  I kept on a straight and level heading expecting some cheesy baked good in return for my ridge lift and thermal lift performance.  Instead I was treated to a demo of the Dutch roll.  It is simplicity itself to explain: waggle the wings so that the nose of the plane sits on a point and the fuselage rotates some 45 degrees about its long axis.  Having since tried this in every airplane type I have flown I can say with certainty that the Grob 103 is the hardest plane in which to execute this simple maneuver that I have flown.

A car driving through town on the way to the airfield is controlled along one axis – yaw. Turning the wheel causes the car to move about an axis that runs from the top to the bottom of the car.  Once you get to the airport and get in your plane there are an additional two axes to deal with. The yaw axis has been moved from your hands to your feet, explaining the sometimes panic stricken look on student pilots as they miss the turnoff because they are turning the control yoke rather than mashing the foot pedals.  Rotation about the long axis of the plane, called ‘roll’, is controlled by turning the yoke. The nose up/down movement, rotation about an axis passing from one side of the cabin to the other is called pitch and is controlled by pushing and pulling the yoke.  Or, in the case of the glider, a stick that serves the same function as a yoke.  In an ideal airplane these three axes could be controlled completely independently: a control input that changes the roll axis would have no effect on the other axes.  Of course the real world is not so neat.

Roll is controlled by a pair of ailerons, one on the trailing edge of each wing.  When rolling to the right the right side aileron goes up and the left side goes down.  This pushes the right wing down and the left wing up.  It also changes the amount of drag on each wing and it is the downward moving wing that has less drag.  Since there is less drag on the downward wing side a yaw is induced towards the left.  Get it? A roll right leads to the whole plane yawing left.  This is called adverse yaw because it is acting in the opposite direction from the roll.  After a fairly short time most pilots figure out that adverse yaw is easily corrected with a little bit of rudder; since you are countering a left yaw a little right rudder will do the trick.  Sounds easy and really, in most airplanes I have flown it is easy.  For one thing, the tail of the plane is big and far away from the cabin, so there is a lot of stability in the yaw axis.  For another the ailerons can be designed to minimize the drag changes when they are moved.  However, gliders have very long, narrow wings and the ailerons are also long.  This leads to an impressive amount of adverse yaw. 

A skilled pilot would have figured this out while boxing the wake the very first time they were towed into the air.  Me? I had no idea that I was not coordinated in my turns, that is, I was completely ignorant of the fact that my roll was causing the nose of the plane to push out the wrong way. I attribute this to the newness of the sensations and the complete lack of the simple slip indicator I was used to from powered flight.  This is nothing more than a black ball in a tube that has a slight bend in it. The bottom of this gentle curve is towards the floor of the plane, and the little black ball sits happily at this lowest point as long as gravity points in that direction.  When you turn the plane in a coordinated fashion, making sure there is no adverse yaw, the ball stays planted firmly in the middle.  It is possible to spin the plane through 360 degrees around its long axis without ever causing the ball to move from the center.  If you don’t believe me, take a look at Bob Hoover’s tea trick.  If the plane starts skidding or plowing through a turn that ball will move from the center in the direction of the gravity vector.  Stepping on the rudder pedal on the side that the ball has moved to will return it to the center.  But, no ball, no idea what I was doing in a turn.  That was when the instructor pointed out the yarn. 

Yep, this lightweight plane, with darn near no instrumentation, had a 4 inch piece of brown yarn scotch taped to the bubble canopy right in front of my eyes.  As I turned left and right the yarn was flopping first to one side, then the other.  The wind around the canopy was telling me when I was uncoordinated and the yarn was revealing the wind’s movement.  Yarn does not work on propeller planes because the prop wash over the windshield ensures that regardless of how ham-footed you are the yarn will always call you Georges Guynemer.  Turns out I was not just bad at Dutch rolls but maddeningly bad.  I would get two or three linked together, moving my hands and feet in a coordinated ballet, when somehow my lack of internal rhythm would intervene and I would push with the left foot when I meant to push with the right and the glider would shake itself like a dog getting up from a month old dead deer carcass.  I spent the rest of the flight trying to get the footwork to link up with the stick work.  I was sweating like I had been carrying the darn plane by the time we set up to land, and frankly I was so tired from concentrating that the lack of engine on final never bothered me a bit. 

I ended up taking three lessons and four hours or so of airtime in the Grob and I finally got the takeoff, Dutch rolls and landings totally knocked.  The best ting about learning to soar was learning to estimate the angle of descent in order to nail the landing zone.  This is a lesson that serves me well every time I fly.  So, I figured for sure I would get my glider ticket, and even if it was not something I would often use I would have one more credential.  I had not counted on the long arm of the law and the inflexible nature of my flying budget.  I really had things wired financially, enough for the ground school, teaching materials and the airtime.  I had even set aside the money for the designated examiner and a celebratory lunch.  However, there was not much slop.  I needed to progress quickly and be soloing by hour five.  My fourth ride was the pre-solo check and I was quite confident that all would go well.  I am sure my instructor had faith in me as well because he seemed like a fellow who was a good judge of character and flying ability.  Sadly, when I went up to Dillingham for that fourth flight he was not there.  It seems that he and the FAA did not strictly see eye to eye on some exposition he had placed in a student’s log book.  Something about signing off on flights where he was not actually at the airfield.  I am sure there are several sides to the story, but airplane piloting is quite unforgiving in that the only side of the story that matters in the slightest is that of the FAA.  They had suspended not just his CFI ticket but all his flight privileges for 90 days.  The other glider operation explained this to me since the one I wanted to see was closed.  The other operation was happy to take me soaring, but they would give me no credit for either the ground or the airtime and I was told it would be at least 5-10 hours before I soloed in one of their planes.  This pretty well took the wind from under my wings and I have put my glider career on hold.  Nevertheless this type did bring a lot of firsts: first tandem, first without electrical system, first without engine, first with speed brakes, and first plane that really made me work a the concept of stick and rudder flying.  That last one was well worth the price of admission.