(Note from the future: I added video of a rudder walk in this post. -gb.)
One of a long list of surprising things I’ve learned flying the Pitts with Bill is how much control we have with the rudder. I expected this, knowing the tailwheel training would require more rudder skills than a tricycle gear airplane like the Cessna 172. Of course I learned during my Private training to keep the rudder and aileron coordinated and to use rudder in the stall for directional control. But the limits of the training (which was 20 years ago already), and the Cessnas I learned in, kept the true magic from revealing itself. Being taught straight-ahead stalls, since spins were removed from the requirements, satisfied the regulations but didn’t really require any skill or greatly expand my flying experience. For that I’m sad. Had I been wiser I would have asked for a deeper introduction to stalls and spins. But that’s probably the definition of wisdom: knowing now how much we didn’t know then. Or maybe it’s just called aging.
Fast forward to today and I’m in the Pitts, literally falling out of the sky, trying ever-so-valiantly-but-mostly-failing to keep the wings level…and the whole time cackling with the glee of the challenge!
Bill calls it a rudder walk. I’ve heard/read what appear similar exercises called a ‘falling leaf’. It amounts to climbing to 7500′, putting the airplane into a full straight-ahead stall…then holding the stick back and keeping it there. The Cessna, as long as you don’t completely screw up with the rudder, would just drop the nose a bit and fall straight-ahead until you release the elevator and the angle-of-attack is reduced enough to get the wings flying again…stability is part of the design. The challenge in the Pitts is it’s not designed to be stable; it’s designed for aerobatics. Just like the Cessna we keep the wings level, and in doing so avoid a spin, with the rudder. It doesn’t require much rudder, and by that I mean infinitesimally small amounts, but it does require immediate and forceful input. A “jab” and then back to neutral. With the wrong amount of rudder, or the right amount held too long, the Pitts will happily fall off into a spin. Once it’s starting to spin there’s no magic, just rudder, required to level the wings again and continue trying to keep them that way. Bill lets me practice this all the way down until we break the stall, recover at a safe altitude, and climb back up to do it again.
Think of it like walking a balance beam. In the Cessna the beam is about 4 feet wide: I have to be aware of the edges but it’s not difficult to stay on top. I can make a change, watch and wait for it to take affect, then change again however is necessary. In the Pitts the beam is an inch wide…and round on top: there is still watching but I’m looking for the tiniest of changes and there’s no thinking, it is only feeling and reacting.
The point of the exercise is to learn the same rudder inputs, here in the safety of altitude, that will be necessary to control the airplane on the ground rollout after landing. It’s one of the skills which an experienced tailwheel pilot employs without thinking…it becomes second nature. It’s important and it’s not easy, though I have no one else to compare my progress with. But it’s fun and it’s extremely satisfying to see improvement.
For those who’ve read this far and are interested in more, here is an article with much better rudder information than I can provide. It was written for AOPA’s Flight Training magazine by none other than Budd Davisson, a long-time Pitts pilot and instructor.