Driving along Interstate 280, the wind is really buffeting the car. It's actually difficult to keep it pointed in a straight line, and it has four tires glued to the pavement. This is what I'm thinking about as I head for the airport. As I get further west, leaving the urban sprawl of New York City behind me, the brick buildings and smokestacks give way to rocky ridges and rolling plains. Looking up, I see some birds, their wings spread wide, riding the wind. Focusing on one bird gliding along a ridge, I use the old "one eye on the aviator, one eye on the road" trick to track its progress, and grow jealous. The bird seems so adept at defying gravity, intuitively bending his wings, flexing every muscle to maximize lift and minimize effort. Then a gust hits him, and suddenly he looks like I do on short final half the time. For a brief moment, I derive a smug pleasure from the lifetime aviator's ineptitude. Then it occurs to me that I'm about to get into a Piper Cub and launch into the very same wind which caused this feathered fellow such embarrassment and I begin to fret just a bit.
You see, recently I decided it was time to seek taildragger instruction. I had heard all about these eccentric flying machines, even bought a few books and done some reading on the topic. It seems that until you could land one of these in a crosswind, you are not much of a pilot. Considering myself not much of a pilot to begin with, I figured I had nothing to lose.
I have been driving out to a little grass strip in Tranquility, N.J., for the last few weeks, bouncing down its grass runway in a 1945 Piper J-3-65 Cub, and my progress has been steady. The time had arrived to test my skills in higher winds, and today was perfect. The winds were forecast to be at 15 knots, gusting to 30, right across the runway.
Upon arrival at the airport, my initial glance at the windsock confirmed
the forecast and then some. Aviation orange was in full bloom. The conical
shape of the windsock pointed straight out, perpendicular to the runway
toward my car, in fact. Perhaps the sock was offering some friendly
advice: Get back in my car, go home and watch television.
Go No-Go: I'll Go If You Go
John Tremper, my CFI, wears a wry grin on his face as we discuss whether or not to fly today. Sounding like a pair of twelve-year-olds contemplating the upcoming school dance, he says he'll go if I go. A subtle blend of pride, ego, masochism, and curiosity convinces me to go through with it. I'll go if he goes.
One clue the winds are exceptionally strong is when your CFI has to physically hold the airplane while you conduct a preflight, lest the little craft blow away on its own, unattended. John was hanging on the port wing strut and urging me to get on with the preflight; he was cold. I was apparently staring at him and watching in disbelief as the plane wriggled about on its own, in response to each blast of wind. This served as a valuable lesson. The plane is ready to fly in this kind of wind, even while standing still. The old saw about flying the taildragger until it's tied down went from cliché to Golden Rule in about five seconds.
I must say, I'm used to having more weight as an ally to combat the wind.
The Piper Archer I usually fly weighs over a ton with full fuel and just me in
there, affording a certain advantage against a wind gust on short final.
Compared to that, the Cub looks like the protagonist in those Jack La Lane
ads, the 98-pound weakling who gets sand kicked in his face. It's going to be
a challenge, and I can't wait.
Snapping Sticks, Smartly
Taxiing out for departure, I can see that John is just a little more alert than usual this morning. Turning downwind while taxiing for takeoff, I was slow on the draw placing the stick where it belonged for the crosswind, and he snapped the stick smartly into position. He reminded me that today we're flying the Cub in conditions that are pretty close to the limit of its capability certainly far beyond mine so I really need to be on top of things. "Roger," I said. I used the term "roger," opposed to "okay" or "right you are," because this makes me sound more like a pilot, more like I actually belong out here, in this contraption and in these conditions.
Trinca airport is a grass strip, its runway basically a clearing carved out of a cornfield. By this crisp fall morning, the fresh Jersey corn had all been harvested, and the remaining stalks had recently been cut, and dried out in the sun. Today's vigorous wind has the dried cornhusks flowing, circling and whipping across the runway, and it serves as a fantastic, full-runway, three-dimensional wind indicator. In one sweeping glance I can literally watch the wind, watch it undulate and vary in direction and velocity over the length of the runway. I have been keeping a close eye on the windsock too, watching it wave and snap about. As a matter of fact, I don't think I've ever been quite so aware of the wind before. Every turn is visualized prior to execution. I can envision the J-3's control surfaces drinking up all the lift that the wind is offering, and I formulate a plan each time to make sure the little bird behaves itself. Suddenly, between the picture I've been getting from the cornhusks and the Cub's eager responses to every little change in the wind, I can see the air. I see this three-dimensional, ever-changing, invisible mass that we pilots ask our airplanes to perform in. I realize that this is why I've been coming out here. We haven't even left the ground yet, and I already got my money's worth today.
Swinging around for my first attempt at a takeoff, my right hand guides the stick through the same arc the plane is tracing, keeping the ailerons and elevator in the best place they can be for the now-changing wind conditions. As we turn, the quartering tailwind becomes a direct crosswind, a quartering headwind, a direct headwind and then a quartering headwind from the opposite direction. Nothing new really; this little wind vector pirouette happens all the time in an airplane, but now that the wind and my current airplane are on a more level playing field, I'm a little more aware of it.
Advancing the throttle, I unleash all the fury of 65 horsepower. Now, I have become used to the takeoff roll in the Cub, I can anticipate the time things take three seconds or so, and bring the tail up, a few moments later, pull the stick back and commence yet another magic carpet ride but today, the tail is flying sooner than ever, and I'm riding high, looking straight ahead, and I don't like what I see. The stick and rudder skills I thought I had been acquiring by flying the Cub were failing me. The plane was yawing and sliding about as I tried various things in rapid succession; a little aileron here, a lot of rudder-pedal dancing there, and yet I could sense my CFI's unhappiness. I can tell he wished he had donned a crash helmet prior to joining me in the cockpit today, or stayed home altogether. We hit a dip in the runway and it was enough to launch us into the air briefly. We have not yet reached proper flying speed, but I've had enough of this wretched takeoff roll, I want out. Holding the stick back we begin a mushy crawl away from the grass. John shakes his head it was ever so slight, but I see it plain as day. I don't care, I'm a pilot again. Away from the ground at last, I have things under control.
But looking out the windshield, I realize I have absolutely nothing at all under control. We were climbing like a rocket, bucking and weaving all over the sky.
I had always held the belief that a good pilot was a smooth pilot, and I
took this to mean that control inputs were to be smooth. The problem was, the
wind's inputs were anything but smooth today. When a gust would toss us into a
40-degree bank, I would slowly and smoothly right us again, just in time for
another gust to flick us into another uncomfortable borderline unusual
attitude. After a few moments of this, John started smartly snapping the stick
again. I suddenly realized that smooth piloting is about making your
passengers believe the air is smooth, regardless of its actual disposition,
and not just smoothly recovering from each and every disturbance. I already
got my money's worth on the ground, back there at the departure end; this was
gravy. I was starting to see the wind as a partner in a dance, not some unseen
and uninvited intruder cutting in on an otherwise smooth flight. Today we were
boxing, fencing, yes. But I now looked forward to the next calm wind day where
we could dance together, instead of me simply stepping on the wind's toes.
Settling in on the downwind leg, I have to add about 45 degrees of crab in order to remain parallel to the runway. In order to glance at the threshold while abeam it, I am actually looking over my left shoulder. A smile stretches across my face; I see this as an airborne Indian-Wrestling match. The wind pushes me towards the airport, and I nudge back at the wind in kind, with whatever it takes. The wind decides to push back a little harder, and the turn from downwind to base turns into one continuous 180-degree turn to final, as the wind has me aligned with the final approach course in no time at all.
Sliding down final in a serious sideslip, John begins to explain why this is not the proper technique to use. He tells me to keep the crab in, and sort out whatever slipping will be required as I begin the flare. Before he's finished with the explanation I'm crabbing again, and looking at my touchdown point off to the right side of the glareshield at this stage of the game, I'm quite open to advice.
With the grass fast approaching, the windsock is telling me bad things. It's still vigorously pointing at my car. Cornhusks are twirling about, but the strip of land I'm supposed to guide this little plane to is not moving. This entire scenario seems to run counter to a smooth landing. As the grass approaches, I concentrate a little harder:
Airspeed-attitude, straighten the nose, level the wings, left stick, keep the nose straight, whoa what was that, LEFT stick, keep it straight, level the wings, stick back, OK we're slowing, more left stick, keep it straight, level, whoa, we seem high, level, ooh we're slow BAM! Bumpity, bumpity, bumpity. Just like that, we're down, and stopped.
My first thought is that I'm going to need a lot more practice.
A few more trips around the pattern unfold similar to the circuit I just described. Bucking and weaving, wind flicking. Beads of sweat forming, pilot ability questioning. Bouncing. Worrying.
Then John takes the controls for a takeoff.
He's just gonna "show me something"; I already know better. This is the guy who has been unfolding all the mysteries of the airplanes with the small wheel in the back, and I am already jealous of his piloting skills. I am looking forward to this ride, if not for anything else than I finally get to relax and enjoy the view. He advances the throttle, and we roll down the runway. The tail comes up, and a few moments later the airplane levitates off the ground. As we climb out of ground effect I begin to wonder what happened to all the wind that was raging about when I was at the controls.
Now I realize that I can only see the wind in fleeting glimpses. John seems to have some kind of deal worked out on the side with the wind, always anticipating the fickle ebbs and flows of the wind in time to counter with control inputs, such that the passenger never knows what's going on inches outside the cockpit.
On the crosswind leg we begin to pitch up, and up and up. Seated tandem as we are, I cannot see John's face, but I have grown accustomed to his shoulder and cheekbone positions as he registers such emotions as happiness, disgust, pride, and terror. Right now they indicate sheer joy, and I see why. I'm about to get a live demonstration of airspeed versus groundspeed. As we approach pattern altitude on the crosswind leg, we're flying right into a 40 knot headwind, but the Piper Cub stalls slower than that; we are hovering. Looking straight down, I can confirm that we are in fact "standing still." The little farm that usually slides slowly by on the left is staying put. So is the aroma of cow manure, but that's OK, I'm learning something here. We're moving through the air at about 40 knots, but so is the air across the ground, so we're not actually going anywhere. Once again I see that medium we pilots operate in, more vividly than ever. Our magic carpet is suspending us a few hundred feet above the earth, and despite the aggressive pitch angle, it feels quite comfortable. I could hang out here all day, but I have work to do. I need to learn how to land this thing in this wind.
Pitching forward we slowly begin to resemble an airplane again, and I commence trying to behave like a pilot of an airplane. Wheel landings are on the agenda, and around we go for a try.
A Study In Opposites
A wheel landing in a taildragger is a standard item on any taildragger syllabus. The idea here is to roll the mains on to the runway, and keep the tail in the air. The higher approach speed has more air flowing across the rudder giving you more yaw control to Keep The Plane Straight in a crosswind condition. In order to keep the tail in the air on touchdown, the pilot pushes the stick forward to keep the mains rolling along. This prevents gravity from tugging at that center of gravity, which would pull the fuselage down, increasing the angle of attack of the wings. This in turn would cause the aircraft to commence flying again, especially with the extra speed you're already carrying so yes, once on the ground you push the stick forward, toward the ground, to reduce the angle of attack on the wings and keep the mains on the runway.
Flying an airplane close to its performance limits is a study in opposites. In order to recover from a stall, where one feels the plane wanting to get intimate with the earth on its own schedule, you must push the stick forward, at a time when you want to pull the stick back with all your might. The same antithetical motif applies to the wheel landing. The first time you ignore your gut and push the stick forward it feels as though you're going to plow the fields with an expensive propeller. I took comfort in a demonstration I had seen on a Barry Schiff video, where an Aeronca Champ was lifted by the tail to the point where a prop strike would occur; it was pitched so far forward that by the time my Cub got there, I would have already let go of the stick, using my hands to cover my eyes. But I still looked out the windshield with saucer-wide eyes when I tried my first wheel landing, in disbelief that I was pushing the nose over toward the earth, at a time when I was so close to it.
Once settled in to this strange control input, you get used to it in a hurry. I was slowly pushing the stick forward even more, as our speed dissipated and more elevator was required to keep the tail up there. The idea is to keep the tail in the air until there is simply not enough lift to keep it up there until the tail falls to the earth on its own accord and then you snap the stick back to keep it pinned to the ground.
Perhaps all the new sensations of the wheel landing technique kept me distracted enough to not notice the fact that I was holding my own against the bully. The 98-pound weakling was getting sand kicked in his face, but he was not backing down. But after an hour or so my stomach had had enough; my juvenile rudder inputs had taken their toll, and I was done for today.
Getting The Prize
Encouraged by my experience I came back the following week and did some more wheel landings, some more emergency approaches, and lots and lots of three-pointers. On that day I got it, "the logbook endorsement." The combined experience of that day and several other trips out to Tranquility, N.J., resulted in a new signature in my logbook, one that I am especially proud of:
"Blah, blah, blah, Robert Guglielmetti, blah, blah, blah, 'competent', blah, blah, blah, 'tailwheel', blah, blah, blah." There's a CFI signature and number and everything.
And just ask my CFI, if there was ever a need for a pilot to master the "attempt a wheel landing, screw it up, think about trying a three-point landing, realize it's not a good idea and transition to a wheel landing again" and pull it off, I'd be the guy to teach it.
Flying the Cub has been a great experience for me, a low-time pilot who learned to fly in tricycle-gear aircraft. The limited instrumentation and performance have been eye-opening, but mostly it's the difference in ground handling that forced me to get a little more intimate with these things we love to play with; the dance about the center of gravity that happens in all airplanes is presented to you a little more boldly in a taildragger. I still have two left feet, but I look forward to getting out there on the floor and strutting my stuff some more!