“Let’s go flying”
Airplanes and cars are a lot alike with one major exception. When the engine quits on a car, the driver pulls over to the side of the road and calls AAA. When the motor quits in an airplane, the situation goes from “hey ain’t the views beautiful” to a full blown emergency. Contrary to popular misconception, airplanes don’t fall out of the sky when the motor quits running. All airplanes, from a small general aviation plane like a J-3 Cub to a B777 airliner will do the airplane equivalent of coasting to a stop. We call it gliding. When I learned to fly, I found it surprising to learn that big airliners, like a 777 glide really well. From a normal cruising altitude, a big airliner can typically glide 75 or so miles. In most parts of the continental US, that means there is likely a safe place to land within gliding distance. Practically speaking, most commercial airplanes have at least two engines, and can fly on only one, so the likelihood of ever experiencing a “dead stick” or no engine landing in an airliner, even for a professional pilot, is almost nil.
With general aviation airplanes, most glide well enough, but because general aviation airplanes generally tool around at low altitudes, the pilot doesn’t have the same flexibility to pick an airport 75 miles away and then go land there. From 5,000 feet when the motor quits, you might have eight minutes and ten miles on a good day to pick a spot and land. First choice is an airport, but if none is available nearby, the pilot has to start making hard choices. In urban areas, sports fields, cemeteries and roads can all be decent choices. People, cars, power lines and other obstructions have to be taken into account. In more rural areas, there are usually open fields, but fences, soft plowed fields, tall crops like corn, irrigation equipment, tractors and power lines can make these “off – field” landings very challenging. The primary mission becomes for the pilot (and any passengers) to walk away from the “landing”. Not hurting the airplane is a secondary goal.
The good news is that airplane engines don’t quit very often in 2011. Advances in technology and human understanding mean that well-maintained airplane engines are very reliable. Jet engines found in passenger airliners, with their professional maintenance programs, are 99% + reliable. Piston engines typically found in general aviation (GA) machines are very safe as well, but require consistent maintenance and good pilot treatment to get the best reliability.
So why all the talk about engines quitting and off field landings? When you study GA accident statistics, you find that the overwhelming majority of aviation accidents come as the result of pilot error. We humans have an unbelievable aptitude for making really stupid and avoidable errors and killing ourselves. Organizations that fly for a living like the military and commercial airlines spend big dollars studying the interaction between pilots and airplanes. The findings are pretty clear: pilots don’t do very well “ad libbing” flights or emergencies. For the overwhelming majority of pilots, something breaks down in their risk analysis once wheels leave the ground. “I think we’ll make it” normally works fine in a car, but is a really bad place to find yourself in an airplane. In real emergencies, pilots do best by relying on checklists and practiced emergency procedures.
Remember our protagonist “Big Jim”? He started flying in the late 30’s after high school and enrolled in the Navy out of college. After earning his wings, he was assigned to a squadron flying the Boeing PB4Y – the Navy variant of the B-24 bomber. He was a few years late to see action in WWII, but saw the South Pacific and gained valuable experience in a wide variety of airplanes, including the PT-17 Stearman, SNJ, BT-13, DC-3 and more. He left the Navy at the end of the war and during the ensuing postwar boom in aviation, worked for a host of small startup airlines, a character named Larry Rausch selling used airplanes out of Teterboro Airport in NJ, as a contract pilot shuttling David Ben-Gurion between Rome and the middle east in the formative days of Israel and finally as an American Airlines pilot. There is an old saying among pilots that there are “old pilots and bold pilots, but no old bold pilots”. Jim’s flying career spanned over 60 years, a few very close calls and 40,000 hours at best guess (FAA rules put limits on how much time a commercial pilot could fly so Jim didn’t log general aviation activities for much of his career), so he was doing something right.
Standing in the “Pitts Hangar” in June of 1991, I didn’t know Jim and his history and most of what I knew about flying I had read in a book. I did know that I was standing beside a tiny little airplane inside an equally small hangar about to go do “real aerobatics” for the first time in my life and I was excited.
Jim started his routine. Have you ever watched a little dog who wants to occupy the same space as his owner yet avoid getting stepped on at the same time? The dog darts from side to side, wagging his tail and watching his owner’s face for any sign of connection or approval. So imagine Jim at 6’ 7” and me at 6’ 2” in a small hangar, moving around a small airplane with Jim focused primarily on ensuring a safe flight and secondarily trying to ascertain where on the idiot scale I would measure. In the meantime, I was trying to digest or ask a question about every single event that was happening. As we say in Texas, “ya can’t dance unless ya know the steps”. It wasn’t pretty, but we got thru it.
Remember the discussion about planning each flight? A successful flight starts with a thorough inspection of the airplane or “preflight” for short. Jim started at the cockpit and checked for parachutes and headsets. The FAA requires that pilots and their passengers wear parachutes for aerobatic flight and the headsets are a must for communication in a Pitts. Jim then turned his attention to the airplane.
For those interested, the next section is a fairly in depth review of the preflight of a Pitts. With apologies to both the experienced and the neophyte, I have tried to write this in a way that a person with no aviation experience could understand and yet not bore a seasoned pilot to death. If you don’t want to get intimate with a Pitts, I suggest you skip to the section entitled “The Flight” below.
The Pitts S-2A operating manual has a fairly perfunctory preflight checklist. What follows here is the process Big Jim taught me to get a Pitts ready to go aviating.
Start on the right side of the airplane, in front of the right wing. Begin by inspecting the right tire for wear and inflation and the brakes. Open the cowling. This is a complicated affair involving springs and Dzus fasteners, flat head screwdrivers and the guarantee of a scratch on the cowling if you don’t know what you are doing. There isn’t much inside the cowling of a Pitts – just an engine with very few things to check. Engine mounts tight, spark plugs tight, fuel injection lines and stays tight and no tell-tale blue residue evidence of a fuel leak, exhaust pipe linkages secure but free and a holistic look that everything is where it should be and no fluids where they shouldn’t. Close the cowl – carefully.
Moving to the front of the machine, step back. Are the wings level? Check the two little doors where the center of the landing gear meet the fuselage. Are they sagging, indicating that the “bungee cords” – strong rubber bands that act as shock absorbers – are in need of replacement? Step up to the front of the cowling and reach in through the left side of the cowling and find the alternator belt. Does it feel tight and smooth? Feel the entire propeller for nicks on the leading edge or any other abnormalities and visually inspect. Grab the spinner on the propeller and make sure it is secure. Finally, grab the propeller on both sides near the center and shake to prove that the engine is really securely mounted to the airframe.
Proceed to the left side of the cowling and open to inspect the engine. Perform the same checks as the right side plus check the constant speed prop governor and related linkages for security. Carefully close the cowling. Check the left tire for wear and inflation and feel the brake rotors for thickness and residue. Crouch down and take a fuel sample in the fuel sampler you have been carrying around in your back pocket. Inspect for water floating on the top and discard.
Proceed along the front of the left wings. Inspect the cabane struts and their associated attach points between the wings and fuselage. Inspect upper and lower leading edge for any evidence of damage. Check the pitot tube (measuring side of an airspeed indicator/speedometer) for security and to ensure that it is not the new home for a family of wasps. Pull the flying wires connecting the upper and lower wings to check for appropriate tension. Check the “bayonet” that stabilizes the flying wires and keeps them from vibrating in flight.
Proceed to the left wingtip. Grab the top wing tip bow and shake firmly, but gently. The wing should not move. Repeat for the lower wing. Standing along the trailing edges of the left wing, inspect upper and lower ailerons. Pay special attention to the hinges and lock nuts on the control rods. Check the spades on the lower ailerons for security and for cracking. Visually inspect upper and lower wing and any inspection covers for security or damage.
Proceed down the left side of the fuselage with a visual inspection. Remove the rubber gas cap. Grab the graduated stick that hangs on the hangar wall and check the fuel level. Make a mental note of how much gas to put into the tank based on planned activities.
Facing the rear of the airplane, visually inspect the horizontal stabilizer, rudder and elevator. Grab the lower elevator brace and pull for security. Proceed around the horizontal stabilizer and inspect the left side elevator hinges. Check the elevator trim tab for security. Inspect the rudder, rudder hinges and rudder cables. Inspect the tailwheel, paying particular attention to the control springs and their connectors for security. Move along the right side horizontal stabilizer and repeat.
Proceed up the right side of the airplane, then around the right wings, repeating the inspections done on the left side. Step back, take a deep breath and visually take in the entire airplane. The airplane is almost ready to fly, are you?
Once the preflight was completed, Jim began the preflight briefing. He started by handing me a parachute and telling me to put it on. Like most of rest of the world, I had never donned a parachute, so the thought inspired a mixture of giddiness and fear. There are three common types of parachutes – “seat packs, back packs and chair packs”. The parachute Jim gave me was a seat pack. In essence, the entire body of the parachute was folded neatly and inserted in a container hanging at fanny level. Once seated, the parachute would become my “seat cushion”. In the meantime, putting on the parachute was about like wearing a backpack with two added straps that run between the thighs and strap along the front of the wearer’s hips. One check strap keeps the two upper arm straps from coming off. With the lower straps tightened, I learn that it is almost impossible to walk.
The parachute, as Jim explained, would be used in two events. One was a structural failure, which he assured me would not happen. The other was a fire. He showed me the “D” ring, the appropriately named handle that opens a parachute. Grab the D ring with your right hand, hook your left thumb through, look and pull all the way out. The process for getting out of the Pitts was to grab onto the upper wing handle, step out on the wing and dive off of the side. P.S. "Don't pull the chute until you get out of the airplane."
Being twenty something and mostly fearless, this sounded pretty good to me. I did wonder, though, in the event of a structural failure, how hard it would be to get out of an out of control airplane. I asked the question and Jim smiled. “You would be amazed at what you can do if you really need to.”
Once the parachute and exit briefing was completed, Jim instructed me on how to get into a Pitts. First, the two sets of seat belts have to be properly positioned so the occupant does not sit on them when entering the airplane. The shoulder straps get draped gently over the sides of the cockpit and the lap belts pulled taught and forward along the seat. In order to get in, grab the handhold in the center of the upper wing . Place your left foot on the 6 inch wide abrasive strip on the left wing and pull yourself up. Do not put any weight on any part of the wing other than the abrasive strip because there is only fabric and ribs everywhere else and you will put your foot through the fabric and ruin Big Jim’s day and deplete your bank account. Finally, don’t lean on the canopy because it has “breakaway” mounts and a new one costs $1500. Swing your right leg over and step on the aluminum seat. Swing your left leg into the cockpit and stand on the seat. Place one hand on either side of the cockpit and ease yourself down. Keep your feet on the metal rails because there is nothing in front of the seat but fabric, a couple of tubes and the feet rails.
As Jim described the flight, “we will take off, fly to the aerobatic box, clear it and then do some light acro. I am thinking a few rolls and loops and we will see how it goes from there. If you feel good, I will show you a hammerhead and a ½ Cuban and we will come back in and land. Given our combined weight, we will have about an hour’s worth of gas on board. The flight should last about 25 minutes. If you feel sick, let me know and I will get us back pronto. If you throw up in the airplane you get to clean it.” With that, Jim was off to take a “nervous pee”. I would come to find out that this was a classic piece of Jim's humor, but I just thought it odd at the time.
When Jim returned, he told me to grab the “i-strut” on the left wing and help him get the airplane out of the hangar. The i-strut is the steel strut that connects the upper and lower wing of a biplane. I grabbed the strut on my side as instructed and we carefully pulled the airplane out of the Pitts hangar. Once we cleared the door, Jim told me to push while he pulled and the airplane pirouetted toward the gas pumps. At 1200 lbs, it doesn’t take much effort to push a Pitts S-2A .
Once we reached the gas pumps, Jim unlocked the “baggage” compartment, a space behind the pilot’s head that would hold a football and two t-shirts. Inside was piece of clear vinyl tubing about 24 inches long by 1½ inches in diameter. Jim took the nozzle from the gas pump, stuck the tubing on the end, opened the gas cap and proceeded to “fill” the Pitts. Eight gallons and about 45 seconds later, we were done. Jim grabbed a clipboard on the top of the gas pump, filled out his name and the amount of his purchase, replaced the tubing and locked the baggage compartment and said "let’s go."
Jim opened and held the canopy as I began the process of mounting up. I took the parachute from the front passenger seat and put it on as instructed. I grabbed the handhold on the top center wing, placed my left foot on the abrasive strip that marked the “wing walk” and tentatively lifted myself up on the wing. I then swung my right foot over into the cockpit and onto the seat. I leaned to the right to swing my left leg in and Jim strongly admonished me to watch the canopy. Yes, that $1500 canopy. I eased myself down until I was seated in the front seat.
I am mildly claustrophobic and found myself wondering exactly what I had gotten myself into as I took in the cramped front cockpit of this tiny little airplane. Jim put the two shoulder straps over my shoulders and watched as I strung together the 5-points of the harness (2 shoulders, 2 laps and a crotch strap) and clicked the latch shut. Jim reached down and pulled the lap belts tight enough that I could not move from the waist down. I then put on the second safety lap belt, tightened it and snugged the shoulder straps. Other than putting on the headsets, I was ready to go.
Jim asked me to hold the canopy while he got into the airplane and effortlessly shoehorned his 6’ 7” frame and parachute into the airplane. Down came the canopy with a small thud and then the earphones came to life as Jim turned the master switch on the airplane. “Hey ole buddy, do you read me?” I answered in the affirmative and took stock of the situation as Jim readied the airplane for start. The front instrument panel was Spartan – an airspeed indicator, altimeter, huge “g” meter, tachometer and inclinometer (think carpenter’s level). I had little to no visibility forward – partially obscured by the upper wing, cabane struts and the fact that the we were sitting in a tail low position. I had decent visibility out the sides. I wondered how Jim could see to land and innocently asked the question.
“Visibility is better from the back, but you still have to kind of feel your way down.”
The whir of a motor snapped me present – a fuel pump I surmised and then Jim yelled “clear” out a tiny vent hole on the side of the cockpit. The engine turned through five or six revolutions and then caught life. Once running, Jim reduced the throttle to about 1000 rpms. Even with headsets, it was loud. The airplane rocked like a funny car straining against its front brakes during a burnout or a thoroughbred that just can’t wait to go.
I heard the engine increase a bit and then felt the airplane ease forward. We started a series of “s” turns, back and forth and began to meander our way towards the runway. Jim came on the intercom and explained that the “s” turns were necessary for him to be able to see forward.
As I explained before, Sussex is a small little airport with one runway and one taxiway. Within a minute or two we were situated at the end of the taxiway on the departure end of runway 21. Jim began a pretakeoff checklist by asking me if my two seatbelts where on and locked. I replied affirmative. The engine then surged to 2100 rpms as Jim cycled the constant speed prop and checked the magnetos for function. I heard the radio crackle as Jim announced on the radio “Sussex traffic, Pitts 419AP departing running 21 towards the north east.”
Jim advanced the throttle and the Pitts began to roll onto the runway. Once the airplane was lined up down the centerline of the runway, Jim moved the throttle to full power. The noise was deafening. A Porsche 911 will do 0-60 in about 4 seconds. A Pitts goes from 0 – 100 in about the same. The acceleration is exhilarating. I felt the tail come up, noted how bumpy the Sussex runway was and then we were flying. The ride instantly became smooth. My view forward was all blue sky as the Pitts carried us skyward at an incredible rate. I looked to the left and saw that we were passing the end of the runway and had already climbed past 1000 feet.
Jim reduced the power and reduced the propeller rpm’s and the noise subsided slightly. We did a climbing turn to the left until we were heading parallel to the runway we had just departed in the opposite direction. At that point, Jim said “your airplane” and asked me to climb to 3000 feet on more or less the same heading. He also instructed me to continue with “s” turns in order that we be able to clear the airspace in front of us.
I grabbed the stick and immediately over controlled the airplane. “Light touch” the Captain instructed. So with two fingers, I began to get acquainted with a Pitts. A little pressure to the left and the airplane was almost instantaneously in a 30 or 40 degree turn to the left. A little back pressure and up we would zoom. A little forward pressure and I could feel the harness restraining me as we hit 0 G’s or even slightly negative. Turns required active use of the rudder or the airplane would skid or slip across the sky.
If you have ever heard the expression “seat of your pants”, it is a flying term. Without going into too much detail, the act of generating lift also creates drag. Simplistically, airplanes turn when ailerons (control surface on wings) create more lift on one wing than the other and the airplane begins to bank. Because the lifting wing has more drag than the falling wing, the nose of the airplane moves opposite the direction of roll. The technical term is adverse yaw. As an example, if you begin a turn to the left by moving the control stick to the left, the nose of the airplane will move to the right. If the pilot adds a correct amount of left rudder (back at the tail end of the airplane actuated by pedals at the pilot's feet), the nose of the airplane will move back to the left. We would call this a coordinated turn and the forces experienced by the pilot thru the turn would feel centered. If the pilot doesn’t add rudder or adds too much, the airplane will skid or slip thru the sky and the pilot will experience the turn as wanting to either throw him to the outside of the seat or let him fall to the inside.
Novice pilots typically have a hard time understanding what they are feeling, but with experience, one develops a very good sense of the degree of coordination of your flying. There is an instrument in many airplanes called an inclinometer which is a level of sorts with a ball in a tube full of liquid that lets a pilot know how he is doing with coordination. Instructors tell us to “step on the ball”, which means apply rudder on the side of the ball to force it back into the center. There are times in flying when slipping and skidding are desirable, but as a general rule coordinated flying is good practice and keeps a whole host of demons at bay. In aerobatic flying, this practice is imperative and becomes second nature with experience.
I leveled off at 3000 feet on our way to the practice area. I did a series of turns back and forth, playing with the rudder and trying to get a feel for the airplane. Some airplanes feel plodding, others are solid like a Cadillac that are deliberate in their activity but in no hurry to do anything. A Pitts is like a martial artist – balanced and coiled, ready to spring the moment it is called to action.
Jim announced that we were entering the aerobatic area, also known as the “box” and took control over the airplane. His clearing turn started with a 70 degree pitch up and about 75 degrees of bank. The airplane described a sweeping arc across the sky. The turn cleansed the view of wings and cabanes and we could clearly scan the practice area for other airplanes. The turn also got my blood flowing. As previously mentioned, I had very little aerobatic training. If you think for a second about what a 70 degree climb looks like, realize that the big hill on most roller coasters is about 45 degrees. 70 degrees feels more like straight up than not.
Once we cleared the box, Jim leveled the airplane and said we would start with a roll. He talked me thru the first one. “Pitch up 10 degrees, center the stick, stick to the left, a little left rudder, a little forward pressure as the airplane gets inverted, more rudder at the 270 degree point and your done. Let me show you one.” And he did. And I smiled – BIG. And then I did my first roll. And I smiled bigger. The second, third and fourth rolls weren’t much prettier than the first, but I started getting a little feel for what was happening.
Jim took the airplane back and said he would demonstrate a loop. “Dive to 160 mph, gently pull back on the stick, look out to the left to watch the horizon as you pass through vertical, relax back pressure as the airplane begins to get inverted and let it float across the top, throw your head back and catch the ground and pull back to level smoothly. Don’t pull too hard and pinch the bottom of the loop. Let me show you”. And he did. He gave me the same speech as we traded 160 mph worth of forward energy for a zoom toward the sky, floated weightlessly upside down across the top of the loop and then got jammed into the seat as the airspeed raced back up and we pulled 4 g’s rounding the back side of the loop. “How ya feeling there good buddy”. I felt fantastic. Alive and high on nothing but pure Pitts Special. I was hooked.
Jim talked me thru a bad loop, but my first loop nonetheless. One more loop and we were “bingo” fuel as they say in the Navy and we needed to get back to the airport. How could 20 minutes go so quickly? Jim let me do a couple of rolls on the way home and then it was time to get serious about spotting other airplanes and getting back safely on the ground. Jim took control of the airplane and I kept my eyes peeled for traffic.
Landing any airplane is fun. It isn’t rocket science, but it does take relentless discipline. I always tell people that 95% of the landing is the approach. Good landings happen when the pilot flies the airplane using the right airspeeds and right approaches and a little bit of seat of the pants to accommodate the countless variables that happen when you fly around in an unstable and constantly change sea of air.
At uncontrolled airports like Sussex, there is no control tower to give an airplane clearance. There are procedures and a “traffic pattern” that help ensure that many airplanes can operate out of the same airport at the same time with a high degrees of safety. In a nutshell, imagine that the goal is arrive at path heading opposite the runway direction at or about 1000 feet above the ground. This is called the “downwind leg”. Fly a little past the end of the runway, reduce your power and take a left onto your “base leg” as you begin your descent. Take another left turn to line up with the runway and touchdown on the first third of the runway.
So Jim and I are barreling back towards Sussex International Airport at 150 mph in the Pitts. We take a little right to enter the downwind leg and Jim makes his first radio call. “Sussex traffic, Pitts 419AP on a 45 to enter left downwind for Runway 21 at Sussex”. The runway appears quickly and Jim turns and makes another call. “Sussex traffic, Pitts 419AP left downwind for 21 at Sussex”. The power comes back, its gets noticeable quieter and we start a turn towards base. “Sussex traffic, 419AP base to final for 21 at Sussex”. We roll out slightly to check for traffic on long final and then keep on turning to the left.
At this point we were getting close enough to the ground, to hills and trees and other inanimate objects for me to perceive that we were falling out of the sky. Not literally, of course, but we had one hell of a descent rate. Normal airplanes descend around 500 feet per minute in the approach to landing. Power off approach descent rates in a Pitts are about 1500 feet a minute give or take. I remember seeing the edge of the runway coming up along the side of the cockpit, feeling the descent rate slow as the runway rushed up to greet us. Then I couldn't see forward anymore. I was no longer a pilot. I was a passenger. I felt a slight bump. I felt a little something left, then right in the seat of my pants and it was over. Jim taxied off the runway.
“How ya doing ole buddy?” Jim asked.
How the hell did you just do that Jim? I asked.
“A little practice”, he replied.
Yes sir, a little practice indeed.