By lex, on December 28th, 2009
One of the bennies promised by CFI Dave as he lured me into the world of tailwheel aviation was that, at the conclusion of my course of instruction in the mighty 7GCAA Citabria, I would be offered a flight free of charge in his 1947 Stearman.
The machine was down for a new set of magnetos after I got my endorsement with a total of three flights and 3.6 hours dual instruction (and if Dave was at all fashed by the low return on investment, he had the kindness not to show it) but was up today, so it was off to Horrible East County for to go a ’flying, open cockpit, tailwheel/biplane-style.
Dave lives in a hangar at the airport with his bride of many several years, his Stearman, Citabria and a Cessna 310 down below, and the living apartments up above. Retired for some time from a fast-paced business career, he augments his 201K with flying lessons when he takes a shine to the student. It’s in many ways an enviable arrangement.
His machine is so goram pretty that I was almost afraid at first to touch it, far less manipulate the actual controls. It shows a deep pride of ownership and the kind of obsessive love and attention to detail Shakespeare never quite got ’round to writing about. Dave offered me the choice between flying from the rear, from whence the aircraft is invariably soloed, or the front, from whence I might see where I was a-going, like. Not liking my chances of every soloing such a marvelously fragile machine, I chose to go up front, rather than spend the 1.3 hours looking at the back of Dave’s head, objectively lovely though it may be.
After a few moments talking about our overall scheme of maneuver – Runway 27R take-off, downwind departure from Gillespie Field, east of El Capitan and airwork over the reservoir before heading to Ramona to practice our landing technique – Dave gave me the skinny on the Stearman. Two-hundred and twenty-five horses throbbing up front (the 450 HP variant gives you an extra 10 knots) combined with a large prop and lots of moving metal forward meant you had to stay busy on the rudders during take-off, especially as the tail comes up. Off at 55 knots or so, climb out at 70-75 knots and cruise at all of 85. Sixty-five to seventy knots in the landing pattern, flying an arcing approach to final rather than the box pattern general aviation pilots are so inexplicably enamored with.
That, at least, would feel like home to a naval aviator.
The landing gear struts have effective shock absorbing oleos in ‘em, which allows for a bit of finesse on the wheel landings, which Dave assured me would be simpler than they had been in the Citabria. Three-point landings, conversely, could be a little tricky since there was so much weight carried high, the fuel all residing in the top wing. One has to be careful adding power on take-off or on the go-around, since the normally aspirated radial engine has the tendency to gasp a bit when you put the spurs to her. Nice and easy does it, at least until you get a good 1200 RPM, and then fire away.
Will she quit on us, or merely hack? I asked. Unhappy memories of a certain Aeronca Champ still fresh in my mind.
She’ll never quit, he answered. But she will hack. A rapid reduction and re-application of throttle should do well to clear her throat. Dave got her cranked from the back, and then the aircraft was mine – all mine! – to taxi for to take-off.
Attentive readers may have noted videos of old school tailwheel aircraft S-turning down various and sundry taxiways like sailors coming home from a long night in Alongopo. It turns out that such variability from the Platonic Ideal of the yellow stripe going straight down between your legs has less to do with inattention to niceties than to the fact that one cannot see a damned thing looking right forward, what with all that metal taking on attitudes, nose in the air. So I experimentally see-sawed from side to side every 100 yards or so, if only to ensure that nothing had interposed itself in our path, while trying desperately to memorize the sight picture of the aircraft sitting on three points at ground level. I’d need that for later on.
The run-up was unremarkable, 1500 RPM and both mags checked for attentiveness to their respective duties. With final clear and Tower’s permission, we took 27R for a bit of high speed taxi work at 25 knots or so, just to get our feet warmed up. Satisfied that man and machine were suitably in synch, Dave asked why we shouldn’t go flying, so I shoved the throttle up to 2000 RPM and off we went.
I’ve been taught two take-off techniques in tailwheel aircraft; the first is to hold the stick aft until you feel the tail start to work in the breeze and then relax it to a neutral position, allowing the machine to get airborne when it’s good and ready. The second is to shove the stick full forward as the throttle hits the stops, which serves to load the main mounts with negative angle of attack until you decide to rotate to a fly-away attitude. Both are equally valid, but the latter involves a fair amount of gyroscopic precession as the tail comes up, especially in a radial engine trainer. Dave had us opt for the first, and – once again – I was treated to the still-unfamiliar sensation of breaking earth without any pilot intervention whatsoever, apart from a several second old decision to run the engine up.
And then suddenly, we were airborne.
Robert Pirsig wrote in his “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” that the motorcyclist has a different view on the world than does an automobile driver. The latter sees the world through a windshield not unlike a television viewer sees it through his TV screen, while the former is in the environment. (He also wrote a great deal more about “Quality” and “Chataquas” to someone as named “Phaedras” but none of that sticks with me much.) But motorcyclist that I am, I was nonetheless thrilled at my first experience of flying with the top down, a big engine purring right in front of me and the wind whipping this way and that, no glass between me and all the world, apart from the cloth helmet on my head and the goggles it sported. Wearing my best $100 Osan Special leather jacket, I lacked only for a scarf and a worthy adversary coming at me out of the sun. It was an absolute hoot, and I nearly wore my chops out with the grinning.
What with two wings on either side, turns were accomplished as much with rudder as with aileron, and the power-off stall was announced more clearly by a certain whippy vagueness in the control stick as any class of objectionable buffet. Accelerated stalls in steep turns merely returned the machine to level flight, which characteristic I found remarkably fore-sighted on the part of the aircraft designers. If they weren’t just lucky.
I would have loved to put her through some aerobatics, but neither of us were wearing parachutes and both of us had too much to lose, so after a few minutes of making friends, it was off to Ramona.
Which, the automated terminal information service informed us, was using Runway 9, the winds being uncharacteristically out of the north, bearing 010 at 15 knots. My happy smile turned into a thoughtful frown, for a nearly ninety-degree crosswind in a new/old aircraft is a bit much to take on, all at once.
Well, let’s just give it a go, said Dave, and I’ll fly the first as a demo, see what we’ve got. But don’t be disappointed if we have to end up going back to Gillespie.
Our resolve was rewarded, for in the event it wasn’t so bad as all that. Dave came to a gradual stop, gave me the machine back and then it was my go. My first wheel landing in a month and a bit wasn’t awful, but neither was it the kind of thing to boast upon, having waited a trice longer than I ought to have to force the tail back up again after a relatively smooth landing, the shock absorbers taking the load off, cushioned with a bit of power. The second was unfortunately worse, as I landed a few knots fast, placed the stick forward and then – eagerly anticipating the pitch change that announces tail stall – pulled the stick back in my lap before the old Stearman had quite given up the ghost, not to mention flying speed. The machine struggled manfully airborne, which was not at all the thing, given that the throttle was on the idle stops and gravity still beckoned. Together we coached the coughing engine back to full power and flew away in ground effect, CFI Dave no doubt regretting his untoward charity to plumbers and bricklayers masquerading as pilots.
Another two wheel landings followed, and – our minds re-focused on our responsibilities – they were not entirely awful, if I have to say so myself. Two uneventful three-points after that and we were back to Ramona, somewhat regretfully. But it was his money I was spending, and he wouldn’t take a dime off me in recompense, not if it were ever so.
We flew a short approach back to the home drome, and stuck a wheel landing on like we knew what we were doing. Taxied in, shut her down, savored the moment together.
Some day, when the kids are all successfully launched down range and college bills are paid for.