Stunning biplane video

I came across this on I don’t know the creators but they are to be applauded. It’s visually and creatively stunning and the music choice works perfectly. Of course the gorgeous airplanes and magical flying abilities of Skip Stewart and Kyle Franklin don’t hurt either.

Full screen and high volume is the way to watch this one.


Kyle and Skip from MikeL on Vimeo.


First flight in the Pitts S-1S

It’s official. And it’s no April Fools joke, despite the date. Two days ago I successfully took off, flew, and landed my airplane…several times! And what a perfect day for it. Clear, dry, and light winds. I was really nervous, I’m not used to being that nervous, but it was mostly good “sense enhancing” stress. I was tight for the first part of the pitts s1sflight but slowly relaxed. By the time I came back to Lee I relaxed enough to not screw up my first approach to the relatively short, narrow strip I’ll call home. (It’s too bad I don’t have cockpit video of that landing. I would love to see what my face was doing!) My flying wasn’t pretty but I’m really happy with it. It felt good.

Karen told me how quickly it gets up and goes, but I was still exhilarated by the takeoff and climb. Dan Freeman flew his practice sequence and had just landed at Lee when I took off (he makes an appearance in the video). Mark Meredith (restoring a Super Chipmunk in the hangar next to Bill Finagin) took the opportunity for a proficiency flight in his Archer and went down to Cambridge about the same time. Emily’s brother Bennett flew with him and we had lunch down there. It was a great afternoon.
pitts s1s

I went to Cambridge, did some testing west of the field: slow flight, stalls, rudder walk, turns, and found ~1900rpm gets me to a 100mph pattern speed. I did some brief checks of control feel at lower airspeeds and I’ll explore more soon. I found it takes a ton of right rudder, even in cruise a left turn only needs the barest hint of left rudder. I’ll explore that more as I get more time in it. Then I headed into the pattern at Cambridge for three low-approaches and then a landing.

Communication is still an issue, so maybe it’s not the radio. On the way out Potomac reported me weak, broken, and unreadable. Mark was only 5 miles away and said I was clear but very weak. (We planned to come back into the SFRA as a two-ship, just in case, but apparently Potomac could hear me well enough so we came in separately.) The automated radio check on the ground at Lee sounds fine. Troubleshooting ensues so I can go flying again!

I put cameras on the airplane but I didn’t give them much attention…I had other things to focus on. Consequently I didn’t get much usable video. The cockpit cam battery died quickly and the wing cam tilted back shortly after takeoff. I do have an hour of the underside of the top wing, though, in case that ever comes in handy.

It’s not exciting video but it’s a moment I’ll remember forever.

Thanks to Bill Finagin for his excellent training and getting me ready quicker than I thought possible.

Tank killers – twelve o’clock level

It’s not often we find ourselves down-range of any weapon, let alone a large one. How about this for size and sheer make-my-person-and-entire-airplane-cease-to-exist-from-4000-feet-away potential: 30mm gatling cannon delivering 3900 depleted uranium rounds per minute. Now make it a flight of two and you have my undivided attention.

It was a busy day at Easton (KESN) last time I flew with Bill Finagin. We were going around the pattern on runway 22 and a flight of two A-10 Warthogs were doing a practice instrument approach to runway 4, i.e. in the direction opposite our landing. The tower controller was busy and did a good job handling everyone. The timing worked out that we were on final as they were over the airport. Bill handled the important stuff of talking and coordinating our part and directing me, while I just flew. (To help make sense of the radio traffic: Bill’s permanent call sign is “bug 1” and you can probably guess “wardog 1” is the pair of Warthogs.)

Pilots spend a lot of time and energy watching for other aircraft. The vast majority of traffic we encounter is “no factor”, meaning we see them (and they probably see us) and no action is necessary for either party. Very, very occasionally we might have to slightly change our direction or altitude briefly. Rarely (it’s never happened to me) do we find ourselves flying straight toward another airplane on a collision course. Even more rarely is it death-dealers like the Warthogs. It was a unique experience.

It was never a problem but everyone was on their toes making sure everyone was doing what everyone else expected.

Video: My first hammerhead turns

image of airshow performer flying a hammerhead turn

Hammerhead turn

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:

  1. Consistently hold the 4g pull from level to vertical
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Video: Pitts Emergency Recovery training

Spin diagram from FAA's Pilots Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge

Spin diagram

Part of my journey into aerobatics includes Spin Training. Spins are the downward spiraling flight airplanes go into when the wing stalls (i.e. stops producing lift) without coordinated rudder input to keep them level. Spins are a required part of aerobatic competition. Accidental spins are associated with a great many aviation accidents. One would think they’d be integral to pilot training. And they are…sort of. We’re taught about them including the aerodynamics involved, recognition & avoidance, and the control actions to recover. But actually doing spins is no longer required by the U.S. Federal Aviation Regulations to be a certified pilot. We talk about them, get tested on them, but don’t actually do them. We’re required to perform stalls (the wings must be stalled before a spin can occur) but only just the onset of the stall, before recovering to normal flight.

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.

Image of an airshow performer in a flat spin.


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:

  1. Rip the power off
  2. Forcefully neutralize (center) stick and rudder
  3. Wait for 100mph (in the Pitts)
  4. 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!

Rudder Walk & Simulated Engine Loss video

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.

Now it really begins



It happened. My mind is blown and I am officially in karma-debt: I’m the proud owner of a beautiful Pitts Special S-1S aerobatic biplane.

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


In my wildest dream the plan was to maybe hope to start looking for an airplane in late 2014. I’m so far ahead of plan I’m completely overwhelmed in the best possible way.

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.)

Click here for a Pitts S-1S Overview (courtesy of Aviat Aircraft)

Current Specs

Engine 180 HP Lycoming IO-360
Propeller Sensenich 76EM8-0-62
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
Seats 1
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

So much more than just a tailwheel endorsement

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.onward & upward

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.

Thanks Bill.

Pitts hours 9-11: Now I can fly all the cool airplanes

Thumb up emoticonIt’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.