Searching memory might be compared to throwing the beam of a strong light, from your hilltop camp site, back over the road you traveled by day. Only a few of the objects you passed are clearly illuminated; countless others are hidden behind them, screened from the rays. There is bound to be some vagueness and distortion in the distance. But memory has advantages that compensate for its failings. By eliminating detail, it clarifies the picture as a whole. Like an artist’s brush, it finds higher value in life’s essence than in its photographic intricacy.
-Charles A. Lindbergh, preface to The Spirit of St. Louis
The three most common expressions in aviation are, “Why is it doing that?”, “Where are we?” and “Oh Crap”.
If God had meant man to fly, he’d have given him lots more money.
The Hammerhead Turn is a fun maneuver. It’s a challenging combination of all three planes of motion, plus the fourth dimension of time: there are two quarter loop components to pull in pitch changes courtesy of the elevator, a roll component (to counteract torque at low airspeed and asymmetrical lift) to exercise aileron control, and of course the yaw component where we get to kick the rudder to turn around at the top. Plus it gets us close to the zero airspeed regime.
There is more going on here than I can keep track of now. For the moment the important parts are the pull up, the yaw turn around the top, and the pull out. Eventually I need to add these parts:
- Consistently hold the 4g pull from level to vertical
- Timing the turn around. Done correctly, the airplane pivots around its center of mass in less than a wingspan. Too early leaves the airspeed too high and the airplane “flies” through a wingover, instead of pivoting. Too late and it falls backward into a sloppy tailslide.
- Find the exact mix of right- and then forward-stick to keep the turnaround in the same vertical plane. The outside wing is traveling faster so it’s generating more lift, than the inside wing, which results in left-rolling tendency that is counteracted with right-stick. Forward-stick counters the gyroscopic force from the spinning propeller trying to pull the nose up.
- Timing the turn stop. Without right-rudder the nose will swing through the bottom, past vertical. The engine and propeller make an effective pendulum weight.
- Timing the vertical down-line and nailing the 4g pull-out to finish on target in both airspeed and altitude.
It looks so easy from the ground!
Here is video evidence of my first attempts…preserved for all time (at least until electrons are obsolete). I hope to look back at this clip 5000 hammerheads from now and shake my head at how anemic my skills used to be.
When in doubt, hold on to your altitude. No one has ever collided with the sky.
I won’t go into the great debate here but the teaching of spins is the aviation equivalent of religion or politics (or even worse: the pc-mac debate!): everyone has an opinion and they are mostly strong and very likely to run the entire gamut. There are those for whom the spin is the modern equivalent of the flat earth: a fear born of uncertainty and a place best left unexplored. It takes all kinds but in their defense, spins are perhaps the least understood of basic aerodynamic phenomena and have been for over a hundred years.
For aerobatics, spins are required in all their flavors. But for the moment I don’t want to talk about spins; I want to talk about ’emergency recovery’ from accidental spins.
Part of trying new things is the certainty we will fail regularly and often. In trying new aerobatic maneuvers, one likely outcome of failure is simply falling out of the maneuver and into a spin. We practice with lots of altitude so recovery is easy, until we can perform the maneuver perfectly every time. This mastery is what allows airshow performers to dazzle us safely and consistently. Every second of their performance is only made possible by thousands of hours of preparation.
During the journey toward that mastery, we need to prepare to fail. That’s where emergency recovery training is worth its weight in gold-wrapped diamonds set in Californium-252.
Bill Finagin teaches a variation of the Mueller-Beggs recovery.
It goes like this:
- Rip the power off
- Forcefully neutralize (center) stick and rudder
- Wait for 100mph (in the Pitts)
- Pull out of the dive
The main points are:
- Recognizing when we’re out of control
- Performing the steps in order, with authority, while saying them aloud
The main advantages:
- Does not burn a lot of extra altitude compared to traditional recovery techniques
- No need for the pilot to know the direction of spin
- No possibility of making the spin worse (e.g. recovery inputs held too long inducing a crossover spin to/from inverted)
My primary flight instructor did a good job of making me not fear the spin 20 years ago, but I never knew how fun they (and emergency recovery training) can be. My understanding at this point is basic and growing. My confidence is growing by leaps and bounds!
I wrote about the rudder walk exercise a while ago and tried to explain what’s involved and how challenging it is for me.
Now I have some video to go with it, but the video isn’t that exciting until you realize a few things:
- The airplane isn’t flying; it’s falling
- The wings are generating no practical lift
- We’re holding the airplane in a full stall with the stick all the way back
- The only thing keeping the wings even close to level is my tiny rudder changes. That’s what Bill is referring to when he talks about “input” and “pressure”.
- Airspeed is somewhere just under 60mph; we’re normally zipping around at 150mph
- The beeping is the stall warning indicator
- Descent rate is ~3400 ft/minute. (Maybe more accurately termed “free-fall rate”.)
It was a beautiful day for flying and Bill and I both had open schedules so we flew a long time, including airwork and pattern work/landings at Cambridge and Easton. It was New Years Eve and no one else was flying; even Potomac Approach (the Baltimore-Washington International control frequencies) was quiet.
This rudder walk and the simulated engine failure were the start of our flight. I’ll post some other video snippets soon.
I’m getting better! And loving every minute of the challenge.
We just happened (not an accident, I’m sure) to finish the rudder walk near a small airport (Ridgely) where Bill felt the most appropriate celebration was a nice simulated engine failure exercise. This amounts to pulling the power to idle and working through handling the emergency and setting up a power-off landing. I didn’t do it perfectly but it would probably have been a successful landing.
Here’s a laundry list of reasons this situation is seriously taxing my karma. I couldn’t have dreamed it any better:
- It’s a beautiful, extremely well-cared-for airplane
- It’s been based at my local airport (Lee-KANP Annapolis, MD) for 13 years
- It’s in a hangar with three other Pitts, all S-2’s, owned by experienced Pitts pilots, who’ve all been extremely generous with their time and experience
- The hangar is .5nm from my house
- The hangar is next to Bill Finagin (in fact Bill owns both hangars and we rent from him)
- Bill is a rare and valuable resource by himself, having 5 other Pitts hangared feet away is amazing
- Karen took excellent care of the airplane and has been very generous with her time and experience in answering questions
- Knowing the previous owner and other pilots who’ve known the airplane for thirteen years, including the mechanic who has done all the work, is extremely comforting and a very rare thing when buying an airplane
- It was factory re-covered and extensively refreshed eighteen months ago
I’m not even ready to fly it yet. I have my tailwheel endorsement (but only 15 hours total tailwheel) and a few more Pitts-transition hours with Bill and I’m almost ready. I’m also dedicating the time and money for Bill’s Spin & Emergency Recovery course. I consider it required training and the best insurance available, not to mention just plain fun.
In the mean time I have a few small projects I can work on.
- Replacing the flat wooden seat pan with an aluminum sling similar to the production builds. I’ll go with a seat-pack chute to get back far enough to get my knees out of the panel and the new seat pan should get me down another inch or so.
- Order a Quiet Technologies Halo in-the-ear headset which will give me a bunch more headroom compared to the Telex Stratus 50D behemoth earcup ANR.
- New vinyl lettering to apply to the cockpit panels.
- It was already in beautiful condition so I’m cleaning, polishing, and waxing now so when I’m ready to fly I can concentrate on the flying for a few months.
It was homebuilt in 1993 and I’m the third real owner, including the builder.
If it’s not clear let me reiterate; I can’t believe my good fortune and I plan to make good use of it. I’m not so much an owner as I am the current custodian. (Please god don’t let me do anything stupid. I don’t underestimate my capacity for stupid.)
|Engine||180 HP Lycoming IO-360|
|Gross Weight||1150 pounds|
|Empty Weight||850 ± pounds|
|Useful Load||300 ± pounds|
|Fuel Capacity||120 pounds (20 US gallons)|
|Oil Capacity||15 pounds (8 quarts)|
|Length||15 feet 6 inches|
|Wing Span||17 feet 4 inches|
|Wing Area||98.5 square feet|
|Top Speed||176 mph|
|Max Cruise||155 mph|
|Stall Speed||62 mph|
|Rate of Climb||2,600 fpm|
|Rate of Rolll||180 deg/sec|
|Range||± 300 miles|
For a pilot it’s a happy thing to add a rating or endorsement; it’s a badge that says you’ve expanded your repertoire in some way, have a new skill or competency that allows you do to new stuff in an airplane, and it’s a satisfying accomplishment. This one was more than that for me.
On that fateful, wonderful day (October 2nd, 2013 to be exact) when I asked Bill Finagin for advice on who he would recommend as a tailwheel instructor, he responded with one question: did I just want the endorsement or did I want to really learn to fly? The question caught me a little off-guard since I’d never considered the first option. Thinking about it now, I guess I can see why some people might want “just the endorsement”. Maybe they just want the “badge” and don’t really want to fly any of the cool airplanes. I don’t understand it, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. Of course I wanted to learn to fly them, the answer was simple, but the question itself was really the important part and did one vital thing for me (or maybe to me?): it was the seed that fundamentally changed my value proposition. Let me explain.
I’m not independently wealthy and I was unemployed. Five days earlier I had flat walked away from a good salary with a great group of guys at a good company because there was precious little life in the life-work balance. I was decompressing a bit and planned to take some of that hard-earned cash to reward myself with my tailwheel endorsement. While it was an easy expense to justify, money was very much a concern. I had done some internet research on pricing and local instructors but needed some expert insight. I knew Bill taught aerobatics in the Pitts and was comparatively expensive. The price tag and the thought of flying the “tricky” and often-feared Pitts never really let the possibility of flying with Bill enter my consideration. (This is just another example of my bad habit of thinking too small getting in the way.) But I knew he was an expert whose insight would be valuable. I was taxiing back to the ramp in the Cessna and noticed his hangar was open so I wandered over to reintroduce myself and get his input.
Then he asked the question. My interest piqued, my questions grew bolder as we talked and I explained what I wanted. Can I even handle the Pitts? How much does it really cost? Where do I go after? His manner and easy confidence in this exchange hinted at the depth of his flying and teaching abilities. He wasn’t selling me but he was encouraging and matter-of-fact about the realities of flying with him in the Pitts compared to a lower-performance, lower-cost airplane. He was also already teaching me and I liked it. After twenty minutes I headed home 99% certain, still a bit in denial but with the value proposition now completely clear, that I didn’t just want to fly with him…I couldn’t afford not to. Three hours later I called him and we started flying the next day.
I was not wrong. In the last seven weeks I feel like I’ve only just now really started learning to fly. My skills and my confidence have grown. More importantly, I have found something I see myself driven to do the rest of my life. Like sailing, aerobatics takes a relatively short time to learn and then, most importantly, a lifetime to master. I’ve heard golf described the same way and I’m sure it’s applicable to many other skill-based activities. My addiction to the Pitts and to the allure of aerobatics are on display for all to see. I’m plotting, planning, scheming, and dreaming. I have new motivation for finding an income that satisfies all our needs, not just the financial ones. It’s exciting and liberating and scary.
It’s official, Bill signed off my tailwheel endorsement! It’s a good feeling and I know I’ve made tons of progress in this 10.8 hours of flying. I feel confident in my ability to go out and keep learning. Despite asking around and doing some digging, I haven’t found many tailwheel airplanes available for rental. I know of only one so far and it’s over an hour away. Fortunately it’s at the same airport as the glider club so I can combine drives up there.The last couple of hours I’ve spent flying from the back seat. It feels and looks different so it took some getting used to, and represented a spike in my workload, but I like it! Not only does it feel more like the command center (the front cockpit has just the main instruments, the radios and most engine controls are back there so solo flight has to be from the back seat) but it seems more comfortable. The visibility is a little better since it’s further from the wings. And since it sits further out on the moment arm from the main gear, s-turns while taxiing aren’t as wide. It’s also smaller and cozier, with pads at each shoulder. Stick forces are the same but the brakes and rudder pedals are hinged slightly differently. The pressure difference is minimal; Bill pointed it out and I’m sure I would not have noticed it right away.
I have the endorsement but this isn’t the end of the story. I plan to take Bill’s Spin & Emergency Recovery course and also reward myself with a very brief intro to aerobatics. And while I’m anxious to go fly other taildraggers in the meantime, I know if I am lucky enough to end up with a Pitts of my own, I’ll be right back here with Bill to brush up before getting into it.
Here is video of a recent lesson. It’s typical of our tailwheel lessons: repetitive and boring to watch, especially with the heavy overcast conditions but still challenging for me to fly and helpful in my post-flight analysis. This was five of 19 landings I did that day. For non-pilot friends and family I’ve added some explanations in the video, I hope it helps make sense of what’s going on.