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The Pilot's Lounge #119: Sunshine, Round Engines, Tailwheels ... Life Is Good

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The Pilot's Lounge

The Pilot's Lounge at the virtual airport was days and many miles away from the chair to which I was affixing myself with a seat belt and shoulder harness. I had foolishly started my travels via a ground conveyance that had proven its utility by breaking down rather spectacularly in rural Missouri. I managed the intervening 200 or so miles to this spot through a combination of less-than-optimal transport, fortunately making it in time to attend the International Cessna 190/195 Club's fly-in, which was convened to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the first deliveries of that most-distinguished series of round-engined airplanes. The festivities were ending and I found myself incredibly lucky to be offered an airplane ride back to the small town where my car had reportedly responded to the ministrations of skilled mechanics. Making the offer even more attractive, I was told to get into the left seat, sit down, shut up and fly. I was doing my best to comply. Going through the checklist to convince the Cessna 310R to make the appropriate noises and then rise off the ground from the where we sat on the pristine Stearman Field at Benton, Kansas -- just a bounced landing northeast of Wichita -- I was jarringly aware of how it felt to be a distinct minority within a group. Of the 60 or 70 airplanes I could see, the one in which I was strapped was one of only five or six with horizontally opposed engines. The rest, 63 or 64, depending on who was counting, were possessed of most exquisitely curved cowlings surrounding gracefully symmetrical, radial engines. As I watched, some were coming to life with swings of long, glittering, Hamilton Standard props, puffs of oil smoke and the rumbling idle that, once felt deep in the gut, is never to be forgotten.

Wheel Landing

To my right was my benefactor and old friend, Mike Pratt, ostensibly an airline pilot from Louisville but one who long ago lost his soul to all things aeronautical. Behind us was his family, for he had brought them to the warm winds and plains of Kansas to introduce them to the almost regal world of Cessna 195s and people who own them. Mike had intended to make the trip in his own 195, but he could not finalize the purchase of his intended in time. (I learned a week later that he had indeed become an owner.) Although he was attending the gathering in a noticeably faster airplane, I had the distinct impression that he would much rather have arrived in a 195. We climbed away into a sky that could not have been any better had it been special ordered. It was the fourth day of the nearly perfect weather that had graced the fly-in, the kind a Chamber of Commerce claims, but rarely delivers. We stayed at 1,000 feet AGL to a point about 50 miles northeast, in the Flint Hills, the distinctly rolling, nearly treeless expanse of prairie grassland that bisects the state from north to south. There we surprised Mike's wife by showing her scores of wild Mustangs running free in what we had been told was a huge private preserve. We slowed and lingered, banking gently over a spectacle not seen in this country for perhaps a hundred years: Herds of horses everywhere we looked, each lead by a stallion, manes streaming as they sped through the deep grass, moving from one lookout point on high ground to the next. We stayed high enough to avoid spooking those magnificent animals and feasted our eyes on the scene for several minutes, then climbed away to the northeast and set the airplane for cruise. Autopilot engaged, I found myself thinking that the wild Mustangs gathered in a special place were an apt metaphor for the four days I had just spent among a certain breed of airplanes and those special folks who cherish them. Few people now living have ever seen herds of wild Mustangs; their appearance in that spot in Kansas was obviously the work of some very dedicated individuals. No one had ever seen 64 Cessna 195s in one place, at one time, and that special gathering, too, came about because of the work of some very dedicated folks.

Organized From The Heart

Jack Pelton's Cessna 195

Marvin and Stephanie Huckins organized what became the largest gathering of Cessna 190s and 195s in history. Throughout each day they seemed to be everywhere, so much so that I thought there must a secret cloning lab somewhere nearby, as they made the event run flawlessly. Co-hosting were Cessna 195 owners Jack and Rose Pelton. Jack's day job is as president and CEO of the Cessna Aircraft Company. It was truly refreshing to learn that he is extremely proud of the line of piston airplanes and jets that flow from Cessna's factories today. He is also so mindful of the rich heritage of the company that he owns and flies the second-to-last 195 ever built, which had been previously owned by one Dwane Wallace (the very special genius who rescued Cessna from bankruptcy in 1933 and ran the company through the mid 1970s). Jack has also caused displays relating Cessna's dramatic history to appear throughout the various company buildings. The 195, and the slightly smaller-engined 190, debuted in 1947 as part of Cessna's contributions to the post-war aviation boom. As my friend and west-coast Cessna 195 guru, Jeff Pearson, describes it, the 195 was the last of the old Cessnas and the first of the new. At the time it was the last high-wing Cessna to have a cantilevered wing, for Cessna never put a strut on a wing from its first airplane in 1927 until it did so on the 120/140 series in 1946. (Cessna would return to its cantilever wing roots 20 years later with the 1967 model of the 210.) It was also the last to have a radial engine; 275- or 300-horsepower R755 series Jacobs engines were offered in the 195 and a 240-hp Continental W670 in the Cessna 190. It was the first all-metal airplane Cessna ever built. Everything before had been a steel-tube structure with wood formers and fabric skin.

Time Warp

Cessna 195s as far as the eye can see ...

Arriving at Benton's Stearman Field and walking away from the parking lot and around the comfortable office building, I suddenly had no idea what year it was. Stretching to the south was an unbroken line of 190s and 195s. Across the runway, banished to the cheap seats, were parked the lesser members of society: a couple of Cessna 170s, Mike Pratt's 310 and some other airplanes with the third landing gear wheel placed, oddly, under the nose. Getting nearer the 195s and their glistening paint made it clear that no time portal existed: No paint from the 1940s and '50s ever had the luster of the polyurethane that adorned most of those assembled. As I walked slowly down the line of airplanes, I found myself turning down offered rides in golf carts that were hurrying about, populated by volunteers busily attending to the dozens of matters essential to making such an event run smoothly. Over the course of the weekend I walked everywhere, often slowly, feet scuffing through the grass, wanting to savor the moments as long as possible. Summer weather in Wichita can be hideous, with three-digit temperatures combined with the ever-present wind creating a blast furnace effect only interrupted by thunderstorms that, once experienced, will make one a true believer of the story of Dorothy and Toto being flung to Oz. Yet, at this calendar junction of summer and autumn, the temperatures were perfect and the winds had subsided to far less than their usual gale force. While baseball's heaven and field of dreams may be a little to the northeast in Iowa, for four days aviation's version was at Stearman Field in Kansas. By the way, Stearman Field is a residential airport. Some people truly live well.

"Rescue" Flight

Panel - Traditional Style

Not long after I had taken my first walk among the airplanes, I found Jeff Pearson on his cell phone, hurrying toward his airplane. Jeff uses his 195 almost exclusively for his business of selling aircraft parts. (Makes sense. Cessna did name it the "Businessliner.") It seemed a club member had landed some 70 miles southeast for fuel and could not get his airplane started. Parts seemed to be needed. Of course Jeff had parts and was going to fly over to see if they might help the local mechanic return the stricken airplane to life. Did I want to go? Silly question. The main door on a 195 opens on the right side of the fuselage and admits you to the wide passenger seat, where three may sit cozily and two with great comfort. Once amidships, a right turn leads up the aisle between the front seats. Ensconced in a command chair, there is plenty of room, for you sit high, with the back of your head resting against the front of the wing spar. Depending on modifications and the owner's whims, the instrument panel may be anything from a seemingly random array to the most sophisticated layout. I doubt it has happened, but with the care and consideration some owners lavish on their steeds, I fully expect to see a 195 with a glass panel in the near future. Visibility is not great; despite sitting high; the engine obliterates the right-hand quadrant ahead, although one can see pretty much straight ahead, with a little effort, while in three-point attitude. More than one 195 pilot, while solo, has hit a car or pickup truck with the right side of the airplane when taxiing in an alley between hangars, so unless there is someone in the right seat who may be trusted to be vigilant, taxiing should involve a bit of weaving to assure you are not about to use a Ham-Standard prop as a blender. Starting the Jacobs is not exactly like firing up your Cherokee 235. The prop control is pulled out, to the low rpm/high pitch position, to keep as much oil in the engine as possible and allow oil pressure -- and with it, lubrication -- to build early. The ignition switch is set to the "battery" position. A 195 does not have dual magnetos; one set of plugs is powered by a magneto, the other set by the battery, through a distributor, as in a car. The magneto's timing is fixed; the distributor's timing is retarded for the start, hence using the battery position for light off. Once you are convinced there is no one near the propeller, the starter is engaged and the Jake should commence reciprocating within two or three blades, accompanied by a general shudder as it emerges from slumber and belches out some smoke so the hearing impaired can enjoy the experience as well. Once the cylinders begin to fire, the ignition switch is turned to "BOTH" and you watch to assure that oil pressure climbs to an appropriate level. As the engine warms -- yes, a radial engine must warm for a bit -- the prop control is pushed full forward to high rpm and it's time to taxi.

Not a Tricky Tailwheel

Three-Point Landing on the Grass

Provided the landing gear is properly aligned, the tailwheel-steering correctly rigged and it has brakes that do not drag or grab, a 195 is one of the easier tailwheel airplanes to handle on the ground. It has a very long moment arm from the landing gear to the tail, there is a lot of weight on the tail and the rudder is big and directly in the prop blast, so control is effective. The horror stories of difficult-to-handle 195s are almost invariably tracked to something wrong with the gear alignment, tailwheel-steering rigging, a brake problem or a pilot who does not know what he or she is about with tailwheel airplanes. It is demanding on the ground, and relatively unforgiving, as are all airplanes with their center of gravity aft of the main landing gear. But it does not have a tendency to dart one direction or another absent a gusty crosswind, as does a Pitts, and does not respond so rapidly to control inputs that it invites overcontrolling as may, for example, a Luscombe. Those who know such things rate the 195 just slightly easier to handle on the ground than the Cessna 180/185 series but more challenging than the Citabria/Decathlon ships. Once lined up for takeoff, the power is brought in smoothly as the satisfying rumble of the radial grows to a growling roar and the rpm reaches 2,200. The tail is initially pinned with full aft yoke, then lifted when you feel so inclined. The 195 isn't picky ... you can whistle along, tail low, and let it fly off on its own, or pick the tail well up to a level-attitude, balancing on the mains until you decide it is time to fly, a good technique in gusty crosswinds. Aloft, you'll climb at about 750 fpm at 23 inches of manifold pressure and 2100 rpm, even if loaded to its max. gross of 3,350 pounds. With most having a useful load of about 1,200 pounds and 76 usable gallons of fuel, the cabin will hold about 734 pounds, or four folks and baggage. You rapidly discover that the 195 is a fingertip airplane, impressively light on the controls for its size, yet absolutely solid in behavior. It stays where you put it, by and large, although in cruise you may notice a long-period phugoid -- a pitch oscillation with a cycle time of a few minutes. Cruise power is usually with the rpm as low as the engine will run smoothly -- about 1,900 rpm -- and manifold pressure as desired. Once things settle down, plan on an honest 140 knots, or a little better than 160 mph, at 13-15 gph. Should you wish to maneuver, the 195 will respond with alacrity: Control harmony is excellent and it is just plain fun to toss about the sky. Nevertheless, with the visibility limitations, it does mean making a constant effort to assure the airspace in the immediate area is free of other airplanes.

Elusive Perfection

On Approach

On landing, plan on 100 mph in the pattern (these are old airplanes; the airspeed is in mph), slowing to 85 to 90 on final. The unique split-wing flaps are not on the trailing edge, but rather about 2/3 of the way back on the underside of the wing. Depending on the model, max. extension speed is either 130 or 110 mph. They are almost purely drag devices, reducing stall speed about 2 mph, at most. However, every 195 pilot worth his or her salt uses them, for the airplane is remarkably clean and any drag is welcome as the energy of a big tailwheel airplane must be managed after landing. I have flown Jeff's airplane with him off and on for 25 years and I still wish I could match his landing technique. He comes into the roundout at 85 mph, power off, flares tail low until the mains start to roll, then simply relaxes the back pressure on the yoke, allowing the tail to come up a bit, reducing the angle of attack of the wing and putting the airplane firmly on the ground. There is never any shoving forward of the wheel during his wheel landings, nor any sort of hamfisted attempt that one associates with the uninitiated who seem to try to drive the main gear through the surface of the runway to "pin it on" while flying at near cruise speed. Pearson's touchdown is as a landing should be: slow, almost as slow as a three-point landing, so the speed to be dissipated is at a minimum. This vastly reduces the risk of loss-of-control on the ground, the most common cause of 195s being struck from the active register. He then starts to apply the brakes gently while the tail is still up, knowing they will be very effective because he has maximum weight on the wheels. The airplane slows smoothly and he lowers the tail while still braking only moderately. Over the course of the weekend, he invariably stopped shorter than anyone else. Some folks are artists. The field-of-dreams atmosphere continued throughout the weekend; many retired Cessna employees were welcomed to the airport. The weather was perfect, allowing owners to swap rides in their airplanes. Many cautionary runway inspection passes were made and all present good-naturedly assigned grades to landings. While a 195 is a nice flying airplane, it has a tailwheel and does demand a sure touch, so we were treated to some landings that probably left a few pilots red-faced as they again proved the adage that the quality of one's landing is inversely proportional to the number of people watching. I saw some exercises of excellent judgment as pilots decided to go around when the landing was not progressing favorably. As a result, not a scratch was put on an airplane all weekend, something that is sadly not always the case when tailwheel airplanes congregate.

Fun Even On the Ground

Mort Brown

The star of the gathering turned out to be a man revered by every 195 owner on the planet, Mort Brown. Now 99 years old, Mort was a test pilot for Cessna from the late 1930s until he retired in the 1960s. He made the very first flight of nearly all of the production 195s. Mort was treated as royalty, with owners showing him their aircraft logbooks containing the signature he affixed over a half century earlier. He was offered more rides than he could possibly have accepted, but did go flying in a few of the airplanes, notably one of the very rare 195s that had been modified with a 450-hp Pratt and Whitney R-985. Such modifications proved to be excellent high-altitude photo platforms and changed the nose profile from lovely compound curves to an aggressive, fists on hips, "You want some of this?!" look. We were treated to an excellent maintenance seminar, where owners shared problems and solutions they had experienced and knowledgeable mechanics gave guidance. Even though I'm long used to it, every time I see someone take advantage of the design of the engine mount of a 195 and cause the engine to pivot about 30 degrees so that it's easy to get at the accessory case on the back of the engine, it still amazes me. It was one of the most mechanic-friendly designs of all time; yet it was not copied on later airplanes. There was plenty to do if one were not content to simply enjoy the atmosphere on Stearman Field: the maintenance seminar, dinner at the aviation-themed Savute's restaurant, a fly-out for a specially arranged, small-group tour of Cessna's production facility on Mid-Continent Airport. And then there was another fly-out to Beaumont, Kansas, population about 25, where you land on the grass airport on the east edge of town, taxi your airplane on one of the few paved streets right into town and park in the airplane parking lot at the Beaumont Hotel. Then you go inside and experience their superb steaks. At the dress-up dinner on Friday, we were treated to a presentation by Mort Brown's wife of a history of Cessna as seen by someone who had lived much of it. Each person attending was given a DVD of the show, something I saw people carefully stowing where it would not be lost.

Refreshing Camaraderie

Maintenance seminar, and an engine that pivots 30 degrees.

The 60th anniversary 195 fly in was one of those rare events that are not only carefully planned but where things absolutely click and just plain go well. There was a magic in the air; good people brought very special airplanes in large quantities and were there to enjoy the airplanes and each other. Nothing and no one was judged. There was no sense of backstabbing one-upmanship or competition to see who had the shiniest gizmo. On the contrary, parts were offered to others, ideas were shared, problems solved and encouragement given. This group seems to understand at a visceral level that to keep these old airplanes alive means they must reach out to others and make time with the airplanes a truly enjoyable experience. They did precisely that. . I could not get enough of my time at Stearman Field and kept wondering whether the location, the airplanes and the people could possibly be real. To make matters almost surreal, on Saturday afternoon a B-2 bomber made two passes over the airport (nope, not down low; those guys aren't that foolish). I had to look around and make sure others saw it. Fortunately, they did. I figure if the CEO of the largest general aviation manufacturer in the world can spend his weekend hanging out with pilots of 60-year-old airplanes and for a while even wear a hat that had a pony tail on it, I shouldn't be surprised if some B-2 pilots knew about the gathering and decided to take a look as well. I didn't want it to end. See you next month.
Want to read more from Rick Durden? Check out the rest of his columns.

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