Atrophy: The Natural State
In another career, I once visited the big fusion research center at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where they were struggling mightily to get more energy out of fusion reactions than they were putting in. I should have thought to mention to them they were looking in the wrong place. All they really needed was a pair of bungees from the landing gear on a Piper Cub. These reliably return at least twice as much energy as you put into them; more than enough, for example, to bounce the airplane about five feet in a not-that-badly botched landing.
For no particular reason, this occurred to me the other day right at the apex of one those bounces in our Cub. After a short period of self-examination at the apex of the next bounce, I concluded that the only conceivable explanation was laziness. For months, I've fallen into the habit of making wheelies rather than three-pointers. They're just easier, especially on hard runways. Why exert all that effort lugging the stick back into your gut when you can just stab it forward a little in a level, bounce-free touchdown?
So the other day, I decided to re-introduce three-pointers as a basic skill exercise. What a fiasco. The bounces weren't the great, crow-hopping ballistic ones that send bystanders rushing for their video cameras, but the dainty little two-footers that signify a pilot new to taildraggers. But I'm not new. I'm just lazy.
After three tries with exactly the same results, I parked the airplane on the grass taxiway with the prop ticking and thought it through, realizing the problem could be only one thing. And it's always the same thing: too much airspeed.
Now normally, you don't think about that in a Cub. Who looks at the airspeed indicator? You fly the thing on the wing, but the wing sighting picture is perishable; if you don't refresh it, you're more likely to be fast than slow. And although it has the drag of a 60-pound watermelon, the ole bear will still float and even if it's not detectably floating, there's still just enough excess energy to excite those bungees on touchdown, hence the bounce. It takes three of them, usually, to beat the bungees into submission; four if you're a past national champion at crap taildragger landings. (I've got the medal, with oak leaf clusters.) The proper three-point attitude matters, but not as much, because if you three-point perfectly with too much energy, you'll still bounce. Those wings ooze with lift.
So back into the pattern I went and on final, I set the sight picture two fingers below level—you have to see it, I can't explain it. Call it more sky and less dirt. This slowed the approach speed, but I have no idea how much, since I don't use the ASI. You know it by look, by sound. This time, the touchdown was perfect. Poetry in motion. Rhapsody in yellow. A bystander would have been bored to tears by the utter, unremarkable normalcy of it. As an aside, I should mention that Cub partner Jack lives off the end of the runway and I fly base right over his driveway. I saw him standing there, so I know he saw the bounces, but ever the gentlemen, he demurred from sending me a wise-ass e-mail. By the time I achieved three-point perfection, he had gone back into the house for coffee. Or maybe Maalox and an aspirin.
The point of all this—I promise there is one—is that all flying skills atrophy, but taildragger skills, relying as they do on deft hand-eye muscle memory, rot like raw fish in July. Which is one reason people like taildraggers so much, I guess. So this time, I determined to slay the beast once and for all. For three days in a row, I went out and flew nothing but three-pointers. I even did some crosswind work in a 13-knot wind, gleefully tracking the upwind wheel along the runway in a pointless display of refreshed skill.
So now I've got it wired. I'll never bounce a three-pointer again, right? Oh sure, and I was runner up for Pope in that election last week. Sooner or later, the stone will roll back down the hill and the cycle will begin anew. And this, I have determined, is why we fly. It has nothing to do with the romance of the sky—bleech!—or slipping the surly bonds or the magic of seeing fleecy clouds from above. Nope. It's the ever-futile fantasy of defeating the natural state of atrophy, the vain hope that our skills will be cemented in a permanence that will define us as great sticks. Most of us never get there, so we keep grinding away, propelled by unfulfilled optimism and $6 avgas.
Either that or it's just a good excuse to screw around the airport on a nice day. There are worse things.