How I learned to love the rudder

Pitts tail


(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.

Pitts tail


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.

Pitts day two

My second lesson with Bill today in the Pitts covered air work, pattern work, approach & landing, and ground handling/taxiing. We went down to Cambridge for the pattern and ground work. It was quiet and we mostly had it to ourselves.

Bill Finagin

Bill Finagin

He started with the visual references I need to get on, and stay on, the downwind. We fly a relatively tight pattern, with the runway just off the lower wingtip when viewed from the cockpit, and bank to about 55 degrees. Much steeper than in a Cessna. The higher speed, tighter pattern, and steeper banks are all new challenges for me. The Pitts is both demanding and tremendously rewarding in that regard. It will do everything we tell it to, instantaneously. We need to be very sure what we’re telling it to do.

The first couple trips around the pattern he had me do a low approach, flying the length of the runway at about 10′, while holding altitude and runway alignment. I felt OK holding the altitude but struggled with alignment. The P-factor at the relatively low speed and high angle-of-attack is remarkable and takes a lot of right-rudder to compensate. I was drifting left consistently. An even larger bootful of right-rudder is needed when applying full power to climb out again.

All of these forces (adverse yaw, torque, slipstream, p-factor, gyroscopic precession) are present in the Cessnas I fly but are so damped they’re almost hidden. Every Private pilot learns about them, and right-rudder is always needed climbing at full power and low airspeed, but the relatively low-powered, heavy Cessna hides everything from me. The Pitts puts all these forces, and my ignorance of them, on full display. I feel like I’m only now learning to actually fly.

Bill had me fly a landing to touchdown and then took the controls when I botched the rollout. Giving them back once clearing the runway he introduced me to the ground handling and zero forward visibility. We also did a couple high-speed taxi runs down the runway to get me the feel of the rudder. It’s very clear why the feet and rudder work is so important…there is a magic to feeling and responding that has to be learned to the point of reaction; if I have to think, it’s too late.

Bill had me do the takeoff (he’s following me on the controls through all of this work) and that felt good. Not that I performed well, there were no directional upsets I needed to correct, simply that it felt good. Applying full power, hearing the engine spin up, feeling the tail start flying, accelerating quickly to takeoff and then climbing like a rocket just plain feels really, really good.

We climbed up to 7500′ and did another “rudder walk”. I want to write about this in a little more detail but suffice it to say I’m still chasing it but getting better, marginally. Afterward we headed back to Annapolis where we planned I would fly to final and Bill would take it from there, (Lee is a short, narrow field) and then have me taxi back to the hangar. (As I’m sure is true of any instructor, I can only imagine how painful it must be for Bill watching me stagger through a new skill like S-turning on the narrow taxiways.)



It was only 1.3 hours of instruction but, even with a 10-minute break while fueling in Cambridge, I was completely wrung out…sweaty and tired. Both mentally and physically. (Yes, I’m pretty sure I was mentally sweaty.) Eventually I will learn to relax into all the new sensations and my workload will reduce as my skills improve. For now though, I’m sure I’ll continue to experience an odd combination of two conflicting needs: desire to fly the Pitts all day long everyday, and the need to rest and absorb what I’ve learned.

It’s amazing to me how satisfying this airplane is. It feels right. By contrast a Cessna 172 feels like running through knee-deep mud. 2.3 hours in the Pitts and I’m completely sucked in. Obsessed. Addicted. Already worried about what happens when I’m not flying it anymore. So much so that I’m consciously avoiding thinking about any possibility of continuing to train with Bill after the tailwheel endorsement. I’ll try to find a taildragger to rent for the time being and let my obsession moderate. Maybe when I can think clearly again I’ll look into the realities of what it would take to continue chasing the dream of aerobatics in the Pitts.

At the same time I also can’t wait until my next lesson on the 18th!


I flew with Bill Finagin today in his Pitts S-2C.

I don’t often use “OMG” in my communication. It’s a kinda pithy, overly trendy exclamation usually befitting situations in which we’re otherwise speechless. I’m often not speaking but I’m rarely speechless. Today I’m speechless.


Bill Finagin’s Pitts S-2C – N390BF

It wasn’t even a very aerobatic lesson, but it was transformative. Awesome, truly, in the non-colloquial use of the word.

I’m technically not doing aerobatic training right now, rather working on my tailwheel endorsement. But having the opportunity to do it in the Pitts with Bill (a Pitts expert and aerobatic legend) was way too much opportunity to pass up. (We live .6nm from the field, right under his base leg for runway 12 at Lee Airport.) He did a nice and simple briefing on the very basics of the physics to get me started. Then we went over the Bay, working north of Easton’s airspace, and climbed to 7500′. He showed me the basic pitch and bank visual references, rudder coordination drills (the rudder walk…more on this humbling, fascinating drill later), loops, hammerhead turn, and all the associated references. We did two touch-and-go’s at Easton to introduce the landing cues then headed back to Annapolis where he covered the pattern, approach, and landing again.

I’m so screwed. I think I need to earn enough to own a Pitts and fly/teach/compete aerobatics. This could be both the best week of my life and the worst. I am so screwed.

…and I’m doing it again tomorrow!

ChesapeakeMan Ride – 112 miles!

We did it and had fun doing it! This is my longest ride ever. Next time I hope to be more ready, but finishing was the goal.

Everyone on our two relay teams finished their legs in good shape. The swimmers, my wife Emily and our friend Ashley (girlfriend of our marathoner, Wallace), are seriously hard core. The sea nettles were out in force in the Choptank River this year. They swam through the nettle goo for over an hour. You guys rock! After that performance, there was no way I was NOT going to finish my piddly little bike leg!

While they went off to shower, nap, lunch, nap, get lemonades, and wait some more Greg and I pedaled. He finished strong in 6hrs 20min despite taking a tumble at mile 52 that left his elbow and shoulder with less skin and more blood than when he started. (Who’s hard core?) I finished in 6hrs 55min and was ready to get off the bike. The wind was out in force, as usual in the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, and I was very thankful the last ten miles were downwind. My legs and hips were tired, in fact I’ve never felt so fried, but the hardest part was the neck and shoulders. A lot of fidgeting kept me going most of the time, but the last twenty miles there was no such thing as any kind of comfortable position.

Wallace and Dan finished healthily despite running the last 90 minutes or more in the rain and the dark. You guys rock!

Greg already wants to do the full Ultra distance next year. I’m going to reserve judgement until I’m sure my decision isn’t endorphin-driven.

40 miles with Tim & Andréa

Andréa had the good idea to ride to Chesapeake Beach, she’s ridden down once before, but we didn’t want to do the 60 miles it would be from my house. We met in Galesville (the little parking lot next to Pirate’s Cove is a great launching point) and rode down. I expected flatter but the hills along the coast give some good views of the Bay. We stopped and had coffee in North Beach. It’s a nice ride and the roads are mostly low-volume and comfortable. We only got one screamer and one close swerver. I felt pretty good and it was a great day to be riding.