Sooner or later, every pilot gets the chance to fly an antique or older airplane. And, just as inevitably, problems arise. In The Pilot Lounge, AVweb's Rick Durden explores the many considerations a successful transition to one of these older aircraft can require. Step into the Lounge for more on making your transition a successful one.
March 15, 1999
|About the Author ...
Rick Durden is a
practicing aviation attorney who holds an ATP Certificate, with a type rating
in the Cessna Citation, and Commercial privileges for gliders, free balloons
and single-engine seaplanes. He is also an instrument and multi-engine flight
instructor. Rick started flying when he was fifteen and became a flight
instructor during his freshman year of college.
He did a little of everything
in aviation to help pay for college and law school including flight
instruction, aerial application, and hauling freight. In the process of trying
to fly every old and interesting airplane he could, Rick has accumulated over
5,400 hours of flying time. In his law practice, Rick regularly represents
pilots, fixed base operators, overhaulers, and manufacturers. Prior to
starting his private practice, he was an attorney for Cessna in Wichita for
He is a regular contributor to Aviation Consumer and AOPA Pilot
and teaches aerobatics in a 7KCAB Citabria in his spare time. Rick makes it
clear he is part owner of a corporation which owns a Piper Aztec because,
having flown virtually every type of piston-engine airplane Cessna
manufactured from 1933 on, as well as all the turboprops and some of the jets,
he cannot bring himself to admit to actually owning a Piper.
Well start this month's activities at the virtual airport with a classic jet
trivia question: Boeing Aircraft Company numbered all of its jetliners with the figure
"7" at the beginning and end of a three-digit number. With the purchase of
McDonnell Douglas, Boeing is now reusing its designator "717" for what
historically was the DC-9/MD-8X series of jets. What airplane was originally designated as
the Boeing 717 and is still in widespread use today? The answer appears at the end of the
Old Versus New
We are lucky here at the virtual
airport because, as with many moderate-size airports, we have an interesting cross section
of older airplanes. We have noticed that as the pilot base evolves, more and more pilots
who trained on contemporary or "modern" airplanes (built in the late 50s
or later) are buying or at least having the opportunity to fly older airplanes. John
Deakin discussed the need for warbird pilots in his column. Here at the lounge, we see the
other end of the spectrum; the little old airplanes are changing hands and being flown by
a younger generation of pilots. We think that is a pretty good thing, because these
antiques and classics have a certain panache to them and are literally flying pieces of
history. What we are also seeing is that pilots trained on modern airplanes do not realize
how relatively easy the new airplanes are to fly and they experience some culture shock
when they discover that older airplanes require some work to fly. A few get discouraged
and quit while a few bend airplanes.
One evening, some of the instructors got together to talk about procedures to help
pilots used to flying modern airplanes make the transition to the fascinating world of
older airplanes. They came up with several points a pilot should keep in mind when getting
ready to fly older airplanes and I copied down as much as I could. Interestingly, the most
repeated theme was that old airplanes have quirks, behaviors and systems that simply do
not exist in modern airplanes. The worst thing a modern airplane pilot can do is try and
jump into an old airplane and fly without spending some time with an instructor who knows
Well get those out of the way up front. It is a simple fact that a pilot may have
to have flight instruction and receive a logbook endorsement before acting as pilot in
command of an older airplane. This little requirement is too often overlooked, until the
ramp check. Thats when I get a new client. For your peace of mind, make sure you
jump through the legal hoops with older airplanes.
Flying a tailwheel airplane like this Citabria may
require a logbook endorsement.
Does the airplane have a tailwheel? Under FAR 61.31(i) the pilot must have a checkout
from a flight instructor that includes specific pilot operations and get a logbook
endorsement unless he or she has flown as PIC of a tailwheel airplane prior to April 15,
The World War II primary trainers such as the Boeing Stearman or Waco UPF-7 were built
to teach people how to fly, were pretty forgiving and cruised at less than their cockpit
decibel level but still have a minimum of 220 horsepower up front. That means the pilot
must have a high-performance checkout under FAR 61.31(f) or have flown as PIC of an
airplane with more than 200 horsepower prior to August 4, 1997. (The grandfather date for
tailwheel is not the same as for high-performance or complex aircraft.)
A technicality? I wonder whether your insurance will cover you should you have an
accident when you were not legal to fly the airplane as PIC. Few policies penalize minor
FAR violations anymore; however, not meeting FARs to be PIC might cause some claims
handler to raise his eyebrows at you.
The complex aircraft checkout requirement of FAR 61.31(e) may affect you if you have
not flown as PIC of an aircraft with retractable landing gear, flaps and a constant-speed
propeller prior to August 4, 1997. You may need some dual and an endorsement.
What about recent experience to act as PIC? If the airplane has a tailwheel, the
landings in the previous 90 days must be to a full stop per 61.57(c), not the
touch-and-goes allowed for nosewheel airplanes.
A large proportion of classic and antique aircraft have tailwheels. It was cheaper to
build the airplane that way and it allowed operations from unimproved fields. As a result,
tailwheel airplanes are the ones with "conventional" landing gear. Some of the
considerations involved with flying these machines were addressed in "The
Pilot's Lounge #2: Why Not Fly Tailwheel?."
Get A Checkout From An Instructor Who Knows The Airplane
Okay. Recommending a good checkout does not exactly require deep thought. It is also
ignored far too often and the accident rate for pilots new to a type of airplane,
particularly an old one, is painfully high. It is more than a matter of switch placement.
Many older airplanes are difficult to fly, have "quirks" which may be
distinctive to the type, and may have performance peculiarities that can kill you if you
walk into a corner of the envelope ignorant of their existence. For example, on any number
of older airplanes, attempting to use the ailerons to pick up a low wing at close to stall
speed may result in aileron reversal. That is, applying left aileron will cause the
airplane to roll right. Sometimes vigorously. The reason is the simple lack of aerodynamic
knowledge at the time the airplane was built and the descending aileron stalls that
section of the wing. Not being aware of that fact can result in an attention-grabbing
event for the pilot new to old airplanes.
Points To Ponder
Anyone attempting to fly this P-40 should first get a
thorough checkout on its systems and quirks.
Older airplanes do not follow modern certification rules on switch positions or
operation of their systems. For example, fuel systems can be incredibly complex on even
small, single-engine airplanes. Flying without first doing ones homework and fully
understanding the airplane's systems is too often fatal. Even a devoted warbird pilot such
as Jeff Ethell apparently made his final error with a fuel system of the P-38, running a
tank dry under conditions in which he could not restart the engine. [EDITOR'S
NOTE: AVweb includes the NTSB's final
report on the Jeff Ethell P-38 crash.] Before you get in, know how to get at all the
fuel in the airplane, where any return fuel from a fuel-injected engine goes so you
dont overfill a tank (early Bonanzas return fuel to the left tank, Cessna 310s
return fuel to the mains only), and how to shut off all of the fuel to the engine(s)
should you desire. Does the fuel selector handle function by pointing the long or short
end at the detent? Is the electrical system 12- or 24-volt? Does it matter? Why? How does
it work in an emergency? How much oil does the engine hold? What is the minimum amount?
The older the airplane, the more likely the systems are to have a design philosophy
which is unfamiliar and probably counterintuitive to you. It is wise to have a good
working knowledge of the systems when something goes south in flight rather than to try
and puzzle things out under stress.
Stick Versus Wheel
Have you ever flown an airplane equipped with a stick? You will find you are now using
your left hand on the throttle rather than your right. It is not a big change, but it
still takes from 30 minutes to three hours to become comfortable. This is not one of the
big challenges in transition; however, it does add to the workload and must be considered
when checking out in that lovely old Super Cruiser you just bought.
Draining Water From The Tanks
Figure out how to go about it. The most common cause of water in the fuel is leaking
fuel caps (not condensation in the tanks, as that is so minor as to be almost completely
ignored). If the airplane is parked outside and it does not have "umbrella"
style fuel caps or caps that do not seal well, every rainy day is doing your fuel quality
a disservice. Make sure it is possible to drain the low point of your fuel tanks. All of
them. If there is a tank you cannot drain completely, keep that in mind when deciding to
select it. Pick a portion of flight where you have the altitude to deal with a balky
engine should that tank have a slug of water in it. If you have any doubt about being able
to get the water out of a tank, get a mechanic involved before flying the airplane.
A number of the airplanes built in the 20s and 30s had very small rudders
and vertical stabilizers. The idea was to reduce drag as much as possible. Take a look at
a picture of a Fokker Trimotor and the tiny rudder available. Manufacturers could get away
with the practice because very few airports had runways, simply being open fields, so
takeoffs and landings were made into the wind. The airplane did not have to handle
crosswinds. It also made many of the airplanes neutrally stable in yaw. While flying along
the pilot can push a rudder pedal until the ball is completely to one side of the race. On
letting go of the rudder, the airplane will continue to fly sideways, making no effort to
straighten itself out. The concept that the pilot must take action to keep the tail behind
the rest of the airplane in flight takes a degree of adjustment. It also means that
crosswind landings can be more than a little exciting.
Poor Control Harmony
While the principles of lift, thrust, drag and gravity were figured out fairly early,
the idea that the controls could be harmonized took more advanced aerodynamics than many
of the designers could muster. The Beech Staggerwing was one of the first airplanes to get
rudder, aileron and elevator harmonized reasonably well. Before that, the rudders were
often terribly light, the ailerons heavy, and the elevators somewhere in the middle, with
control effectiveness varying in some other fashion. Of the light aircraft, the Aeronca
C-2 and C-3 were the first to have something approaching decent control harmony. The
elevator and rudders are quite nice, but those airplanes set the stage for the Champs and
Citabrias to have terribly heavy, relatively ineffective ailerons. For the pilot who gets
to fly a C-3, keep in mind that this airplane which does not fit between the covers of
any "Joy of Flying" book was still far better than those that preceded it.
After Richard Bach flew some of the World War I airplanes for a movie, he wrote that he
was honored to fly the historic aircraft but he had to keep reminding himself of the honor
because they were such awful pigs to fly.
Find out what kind of brakes the airplane has and what level of effectiveness to
expect. Early airplane brakes were spotty at best. They would heat up and fade when you
most needed them, particularly if you had to taxi any distance in a crosswind. Some would
seemingly do nothing during much of the pedal travel, then suddenly grab and risk tipping
the airplane up on its nose. Part of your checkout involves asking the person who knows
the airplane about using the brakes. Part of the joys of owning some of these airplanes,
such as the Boeing Stearman, are endless brake problems.
As I first wrote that phrase it came out "Hell brakes." Freudian slip. (Ok, a
Freudian slip is where you say one thing but mean your mother.) Heel brakes are
approximately one inch square each and are found beneath their respective rudder pedals.
For the first-time pilot they shrink to one millimeter square. They take some getting used
to. Do not wear hard dress shoes, high heels or cowboy boots when flying heel brakes.
Appropriate footwear means being able to feel those little pedals and apply pressure to
them, so sneakers or deck shoes are best. Heel brakes also vary widely in effectiveness
from almost nonexistent to stop on a dime, tip the airplane up on the nose and shatter a
Ground Visibility In Three-Point Attitude
While working summers at an airport during my high school years, a friend of mine
taxied a Grumman Ag-Cat into a pickup truck. He was moving slowly up a narrow taxiway on
which someone had parked the truck. He couldnt see anything directly forward and he
couldnt "S" turn to assist the process, plus he was busy just trying to
keep the airplane on the pavement. He realized something was amiss when the engine began
to run more slowly and developed a peculiar roughness. Shortly after that someone can
running around a wing tip frantically signaling him to shut down. He had torn the
bejabbers out of the truck bed, but only caused relatively minor damage to the prop. The
problem was being unable to see around the large radial engine on the front of the
Forward visibility from this Aeronca while on the ground
is much better than with other taildraggers.
Visibility on the ground varies widely on older tailwheel airplanes. The Champ, which
is soloed from the front seat, is great. The Boeing Stearman, soloed from the rear seat,
and sporting a radial engine, is quite blind forward. In fact, the fuselage has begun to
taper toward the tail at the point where the pilot sits, so there are no lines on the side
of the airplane which can be kept parallel to runway edges when seeking visual reference
points to try and determine what direction the airplane is traveling. The solution? Spend
some time sitting in the airplane while it is parked and get a sight picture. Park it on a
taxiway, directly on the center line, then get in and see what you can see and what you
can use for references. Pilots have flown airplanes that were completely blind straight
ahead such as the Spirit of St. Louis and the Gee Bee Racers, so you can as well. Just
take some time to sit in the airplane before you go.
While taxiing, it is perfectly acceptable expected, in fact to weave along the
taxi route so you can see what is in front of you. Before takeoff, position the airplane
so you can see down the runway before lining up. If you have any doubt about what is in
front of you, take action to allow yourself to see. After one landing during his flight
training, my father realized he didnt trust the guy in the airplane ahead of him to
turn off the runway, so he popped the tail up so he could see ahead. He was right. A cadet
ahead had turned his Cub around on the runway and was blissfully, and blindly, taxiing
back. By looking, Dad was able to take some evasive action and reduce the ensuing crash
from very serious to one where he just lost his upper teeth. On takeoff, if you cant
see ahead, position the airplane at an angle so you can look over the area before lining
up, then, once rolling, get the tail up so you can see. On landing, touch down as slowly
as possible, then get the speed down to where you can start to "S" turn and see
what is out in front.
Many older airplanes, particularly the smaller ones, do not have electrical systems and
therefore lack "self-commencers." Someone has to use the Armstrong starter
method to spin the propeller. Physically, it is not difficult. However, there are so many
things that can go wrong that a good bit of instruction from someone who knows what to do
and what to watch for is essential. Its wise to be hesitant to take such instruction
from a guy justifiably named "Stumpy."
- Make sure the airplane isnt going anywhere. That almost always means having two
people for the process so that one can hold the brakes. Yes, there are EXTREMELY rare
circumstances where only one person will be involved in this process. There is never,
ever, under any circumstances any reason why this process is done solo without the tail of
the airplane being tied down and the main wheels chocked in some fashion. Every year,
someone props his airplane by himself and it roars away to hit him or other airplanes or
actually takes off. In the last two years, Ive been aware of one meathead who did
this. His airplane went down a taxiway between two rows of parked airplanes and destroyed
a Glassair with less than 10 hours on it since construction had finished.
- Make sure you and the other person have a working agreement as to how the process will
go and that you understand each other clearly on terminology. If you are swinging the prop
and the pilot wants you to pull it through a few times with the switch off, have the pilot
put the keys (if it has keys) on top of the panel where you can see them. Even then,
assume the mag switch is bad and the engine is going to start. When you are ready to move
the prop, call for brakes. Make sure the pilot clearly says the brakes are applied. Then,
push on the prop to see if the airplane will move. If it does, you need to have a serious
discussion with the pilot. Either the brakes dont work or he doesnt. If the
brakes work, I suggest you decline the pleasure of swinging his prop because you
cant trust him.
- Make sure you have a good place to stand. The ground should not be in any condition that
causes you to question your footing.
- Do not wrap your fingertips around the back of the blade. If the engine kicks back
its going to hurt like crazy and you risk losing the ends of your fingers.
- If you want to kick a leg up and then use its leverage as it drops to help spin the
prop, fine. Just make sure that your motion is away from the airplane when the propeller
is moving. A good wrist snap will help get the prop through at least one compression
stroke. (There are some airplanes that require that you swing the propeller very, very
slowly, so get a briefing from someone knowledgeable.) Continue moving away from the
airplane until the prop stops turning. If it didnt start you can start moving back
into position only after the prop stops. If it starts, you are moving away, which is good.
Continue doing so. If the engine is balky, avoid the mind-set that it isnt going to
start as you could come walking back, hands reaching for a blade, when the engine decides
it is in a reciprocating mood.
- Once it is running, if you are going to get in, walk around the wing and approach the
door from behind. Give the propeller a very wide berth, since it is much more resistant to
impact than you.
A large number of older airplanes with multiple fuel tanks do not have a gauge for each
one. Often a gauge only reads the quantity of fuel in the tank selected. This means that
you need to know how (if it is possible) to get a fuel quantity reading for tanks that are
not in use. Many times, this means moving a toggle switch or actually changing tanks.
Changing into an empty tank causes that loud silence we pilots love so much, so a careful
preflight should include figuring out how much fuel is in each tank.Of course, keeping
track of what has been burned from where in flight is a must.
If the FAA were to enforce the regulations that are on the books, we would spend a
fortune trying to make fuel gauges work (if it is in the airplane it is supposed to work).
In real life, we dont generally trust the gauges, which is wise. With older
airplanes, pilots who have survived, look in the tanks before takeoff to see how much fuel
is really there. They also know that if a gauge starts moving rapidly toward empty during
flight, it does not mean the gauge is faulty, but that they are losing fuel from that
tank, and they act accordingly.
Part of learning the systems on the airplane is figuring out how to use the fuel gauges
so that you can keep track of where the fuel is and how much you have.
The ability of older airplanes to withstand a crash varies greatly. Shoulder harnesses
are the single most effective add-on you can make to them. If you chose to fly airplanes
that have the fuel tank directly behind the engine, do not wear nylon clothing. The
post-crash risk of fire is high on those airplanes. Being in or near fire in nylon
clothing means your clothes will melt onto your body and greatly exacerbate any burns you
receive. Look over the airplane from the standpoint of how it can be expected to withstand
impact and plan accordingly.
If you are buying an older airplane, one of the biggest safety favors you can do for
yourself and family is to install shoulder harnesses. Research the parts catalogue for
your airplane to see if they were offered as an option. Few people seem to be aware that
Cessna offered shoulder harnesses as an option for all seats (not just the front) for
virtually all of its single-engine airplanes from about 1946 on. It sells the kits for
installation of the harnesses at cost, with no markup. I watched rear seat shoulder
harnesses being installed in a Cardinal. It took about 15 minutes, since the hardpoints
were already in the aircraft structure when it left the factory.
The panel layout of this early 172 may differ greatly
from the latest versions.
The standard "T" instrument panel arrangement we are accustomed to with
the airspeed indicator in the upper left-hand corner and the attitude indicator in the
center of the top row did not come about until 1968. Before then, instrument
installation seemed almost random. This creates problems, particularly on takeoff, when
you try to glance at the airspeed indicator and you cant find it. It also means more
head-down time in the cockpit in airplanes which may have poor in-flight visibility,
something you dont need.
The solution is to go back to a technique that was used when these airplanes were new:
Sit in the cockpit with your eyes closed and make sure you can touch each switch, knob,
lever and instrument from memory before you fly the airplane. It works, it doesnt
cost anything and it will make your flight much more enjoyable.
Some older airplanes are drag incarnate. With flying and landing wires, struts, braces,
a flat frontal area and other delights, they come down like greased sewer covers when an
engine quits. This means additional work in your checkout to get a feel for how they
behave after an engine failure. It also means you may need to get used to lowering the
nose very abruptly if the engine quits in a climb, otherwise the airplane will stall.
The published best angle of climb speed for older airplanes is quite accurate. It is
often also so slow that if the engine quits below 50 feet above the ground, it is
physically impossible to get the nose down and flare without breaking the landing gear.
Newer airplanes allow for this and have a published Vx that allows for a successful
landing if the engine quits. You may want to add 5 mph or so to Vx to give you a little
extra margin of safety on your short field takeoff practice.
Ask a lot of questions about any older airplane you are going to fly. For example, the
Cessna 195 has a long-period phugoid (nose up and down) oscillation in level flight which
you cannot damp and will drive you nuts if you do not expect it. Also, the Ercoupe will
not stall because the elevator cannot be deflected up enough to reach the critical angle
of attack. This means the airplane has a "minimum speed." At idle power and full
aft elevator, that is the slowest the airplane will fly. It is usually around 60 mph. If
you come down final at minimum speed, power off, you simply cannot flare the airplane. You
will do serious damage to it unless you add power or, if altitude permits, accelerate. A
final example: The Seabee has some of the loveliest manners on the water of any flying
boat, but it is allergic to boat wakes. In addition, any side load on a sponson will take
it off the airplane right Johnny now.
So, ask about the quirks. Learn the systems and you can have a ball flying some
delightful older airplanes and even drawing a crowd at the next fly-in breakfast. If you
know the systems and respect the airplane, the crowd you draw will be the admiring kind.
If you just jump in and go, the crowd may be drawn to your wreckage.
Ill close with the answer to the classic airplane trivia question. In addition to
referring to the DC-9 series, the Boeing 717 is the KC-135. The KC-135 was not the same as
the Boeing 707. The fuselages are different sizes (the 717 has the original width fuselage
which the airlines rejected as too narrow because it could not accept six seats and a
center aisle. It was widened for the 707). The 717 and 707 have a number of other
differences primarily in the engine pylons and wing-to-fuselage juncture.
Jeez, Im getting old the 707 and 717 now qualify as classic aircraft.