CEO of the Cockpit #87: Fly the Biggies by Starting with the Smallies

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CEO of the Cockpit

The quiet home I expected to find when I returned from my last trip was not as serene as I might have hoped. My nephew Kermit was there and was going to stay for at least a few days while his parents vacationed in Vegas. The first indication I had that he was in the building was the wreckage of my radio-controlled model airplane in the entryway of our house as I came in and dropped my suitcase and "brain bag" (flight kit). His presence was also announced by my lovely, long-suffering wife, who was on her way out the door to celebrate my homecoming by playing tennis for a few hours with her friends. "Oh, by the way," she said, "Kermit is here. Go easy on him -- he just accidentally broke your toy airplane." She never did respect my dedication to all things aeronautical. Sure, the RC model in question was a styrofoam Cub, powered by a small, electric engine, but it was still an aircraft and deserved all the respect and awe that such a machine should engender. Not a toy! I yelled out to her as she climbed into the Camry. "You bought it at a toy store!" she shouted in reply.

Kermit Realizes That It Isn't Easy Being Green

Radio Control Cub

"I thought it would be easy to fly," said Kermit. He was slouched all over my black, fake-leather La-Z-Boy recliner in the den. "I mean, how hard could an electric, toy airplane be? I guess I should have asked your permission, but you were on a trip." Don't worry about it, Kermit. I don't usually have my cell phone turned on when I fly and you probably did me a favor. With my model-airplane flying skills, it was only a matter of time before I totaled the damn thing myself. "I know what you mean," said my nephew. "I thought that a little, electric, flying model like that was pretty cool and would be easy to fly, not to mention the fact that it was a totally 'green' aircraft and all. Did you buy an electric one to minimize your carbon footprint?" Naw; I fly 767s and rip big carbon trails in the stratosphere every day. I bought an electric model because those little gas engines scare the crap out of me and they are really noisy. My friend Rick, a big RC enthusiast who has been trying to teach me how to fly this model, told me that if I ever want to move up to the heavy models, I'd eventually have to transition to gas. I thought I'd stick with electric power plants.

The CEO Fears .049s

I think my dread of Cox engines goes all the way back to my youth. I always bugged my dad to buy me gas model airplanes and, when he did, I was always afraid of the engines. He tried to help me over my wimpiness and helped me start the engine when I started out flying control-line airplanes ... "You mean those ones that make you spin in a circle?" Yep. Those are the ones. Even when my dad and I managed to get the airplane started and in the air, I usually got so dizzy I tipped over and crashed the thing before it ran out of gas. Flying control-line model airplanes for me was like a very noisy game of dizzy-bat. I always ended up falling down and my models never fared well. Also, that fuel smelled weird; and if it got on your hands and the weather was the least bit cool, your fingers would freeze. Then, your now numb fingers would slip on the prop, resulting in the thing whanging you when you tried to start the engine for the next flight.

Jets Are OK, Though ...

Control-Line Airplane

"I don't understand," Kermit said as he climbed out of the recliner and helped me pick up the pieces of my model Cub. "You are scared of little .049 engines, but jet engines, big radial engines, and even rocket engines don't bother you in the least." Fears aren't based on logic, Kermit. I am terrified of those flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz, but have enjoyed many an afternoon watching wingless simians at the local zoo. I think you fear what has bitten you. Oily .049 propellers have definitely bitten me, so I still am a little afraid of them. Pilots who have had a bad experience in a crosswind landing tense up even during the mildest of conditions, and philandering pilots deserve what they get if the phone rings because that flight attendant from last week is calling him at home. Jet engines are things I've always loved to be around. I love their sound, their smell, the charred feeling you get if you follow too closely behind them in a golf cart. I like all of it. Same thing applies for big, radial engines.

Size Matters only to Pilots

"I've flown with you in the Champ and in the 172," Kermit said. "I thought flying a model airplane would be easier because it was smaller and cheaper. Is flying big airliners the same kind of leap? I guess I'm asking if an experienced 172 pilot could safely fly a 767. Are they the same thing or are they as different as a champ and a RC model? Kermit sat back down because he has known his favorite uncle long enough to know when a long-winded rant was coming on. I stepped out but soon returned after grabbing a diet drink out of my office fridge and I began my soliloquy. Nephew, it is an unwritten, but nevertheless valid, law of aviation that every pilot thinks that every other pilot's airplane is a piece of cake to fly. Guys who fly the big iron with me and have flown little else in their lives assume that the pilot flying the Cirrus on final in front of us has it really easy. Gals who fly the 172 or Champ with me assume that all ATPs do is watch the autopilot fly all day. Believe it or not, my friends in the model-airplane club look down their nose at both groups of pilots. Nothing to them is more complex in aviation than flying a radio-controlled model aircraft. After all, you aren't sitting in the thing and aren't really oriented to flying it, as you probably learned today when you turned the wrong way and crashed. All three groups of fliers are as right as they are wrong. I have flown GA flights that would drive a big-jet pilot totally nuts. Fixed-card ADF approaches and holding, underpowered climbs through weather that my GA ride couldn't climb above or have the speed to go around, passengers sitting right behind you, spitting their comments directly into your ear. All of these things make "little airplane" flying much harder than navigating your average fan-jet transport. On the other hand, GA jocks don't have 300 litigious and angry people riding behind them. They don't get the constant scrutiny airline pilots enjoy from the Fuzz and, in terms of stress and fear, I'd stack up my last Cat IIIb in a turbulent snowstorm up against any crosswind landing they have ever done in their GA spam cans. Model airplane people? Well, nobody much cares if they crash except them. Many of them are actual pilots of both the airline and the GA world, and as you have learned, it takes a lot of skill to pilot even the simplest RC bird.

Systems -- Feel -- Nerds!

Boeing 767 MCDU

Big airplanes are all about systems knowledge and operation but require just as much feel as your average Skyhawk to fly properly. It is true that big-airplane pilots fly on autopilot a lot. You would too if you had it available and had a nine-hour leg in front of you. Airliners are very sensitive in pitch, especially at altitude. GA pilots would have a lot of trouble with that. Light GA airplanes are getting to be more and more about systems but they still lack the resources that an airline pilot takes for granted. When I fly the 767, all I need to do to get an answer to a question is to ask my copilot or datalink my query to hundreds of company experts. GA pilots have resources but they tend to have to be more self-sufficient. Airline pilots would probably overestimate what their GA airplane could do and that would get them in trouble. They would also tend to flare 60 feet in the air, which can cause a 172 to land really hard. Model airplane guys sometimes put dolls into their models. They spend hour after hour in their basements, totally ignoring the cable television and their families, both available above their heads, and concentrate instead of getting that cowling detail just right. Let's face it: Model airplane people, including this one, are more than a little nerdy at times.

Kermit Sees His Mistake

"So," said Kermit as he looked over the wreckage of my styrofoam flying dream, "I should probably get some lessons from a good model airplane pilot before I try this again." Yes, I said. The good thing about this crash, aside from nobody getting hurt, is that this will not appear on your future-pilot permanent record. The bad news is that you will have to buy me a new model airplane. In the airline world, we call this "accountability." In our little world, we call this $129. At the five bucks an hour I pay you to cut our lawn, I see a lot of lawn mower piloting in your future.

Want to read more from AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit? Check out the rest of his columns.