Atrophy: The Natural State

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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.

Comments (30)

My philosophy is that any fairly competent pilot can land a taildragger perfectly every time but it takes a great pilot to recover from some of mine.

Posted by: Richard Montague | March 17, 2013 1:40 PM    Report this comment

Lovely post! Sounds like like you had a good time even if the Cub didn't fare as well. On a serious note, I believe this "atrophy" is a concern for GA. Pick your reason, but the fact is we are flying less. My hope is that doesn't drive accident/incident rates up in our near future, causing more government sponsored "help."
Keep flying guys and gals!
Brent from iflyblog dot com

Posted by: Brent Owens | March 18, 2013 4:02 AM    Report this comment

I think you are being a little hard on yourself, Paul. You are constantly flying different airplanes, but most of us just fly the same one all the time. I just watched your demo flight in a jet and now read about your lack of perfection in a Cub.

If you want to have enduring high class landings you should give up your job in aviation journalism and just fly the same plane all the time. Then your only problem will be removing some of the rust each Spring when the rains stop - if you live in the Pacific NW like I do.

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | March 18, 2013 5:19 AM    Report this comment

What makes you think that this applies to tail draggers only. Land too fast is a tricycle aircraft and you can damage the nose wheel attachment to the firewall on a 182.

Sure, you can cheat a little more in a trike but the same concepts apply to all GA singles.

Thanks for an excellent analysis.

Posted by: Charles Lloyd | March 18, 2013 8:37 AM    Report this comment

Yeah, but it takes a lot more work to wind up in a ditch in a tricycle-gear airplane than it does in a taildragger, where it can happen before you even reach the runway for takeoff.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | March 18, 2013 9:10 AM    Report this comment

Atrophy can also be complemented by routine. I commute almost everyday to work using my planes and I exercise three different planes by using each one in a weekly cycle. They are a Cub, a Swift and a Beaver. Routine is as bad as atrophy. You can get sloppy. You have to slap your face once in a while to bring your concentration back. Daily routine requires regrouping and discipline as atrophy does. Nice article.

Posted by: Guido F. Perla | March 18, 2013 9:13 AM    Report this comment

I pride myself on my consistently great landings. To do that, I have to ignore those landings which are less than great. But if I don't ignore them and instead analyze them, nearly always it's because of excess airspeed. Being the great stick that I am, I have thus far, in 40+ years of flying, recovered from every one of those less than great landings with no damage to anything but my ego. Soldier on, Paul--you are not alone! :)

Posted by: Cary Alburn | March 18, 2013 9:14 AM    Report this comment

Funny you should mention this as I had the same issue in my Cessna 140 yesterday: too fast and too lazy. But, because I don't get to fly all the time, I was also very aware that I'd lost the "edge." There's only one thing for it and that's more time with air between me and the ground. Fortunately, I can burn $3.85 a gallon auto gas. But I burn it in an O-200, so I guess it comes to about the same cost. Still, I could do (and have done) lots worse.

Posted by: Kim Elmore | March 18, 2013 9:15 AM    Report this comment

I was towing gliders in our Piper Pawnee this weekend after about 3 months of not flying. After my 3 stop-and-go's I proceeded to tow about 6 times. Of the 9 landings, only the last 3 were decent. I didn't have good sucess until I focused better on speed control and remembered the proper sight picture for the high-seating position in that aircraft. Going between low, on-your-butt position of the glider to the "above everything" position of the Pawnee is quite the transition. Knocking the rust off is definately necessary and preferable without an audience!

Posted by: Scott Thomason | March 18, 2013 10:50 AM    Report this comment

"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."

I love that! And so true, too.

I'm not the world's greatest stick, but I certainly do aim to get there. And at least as basic airmanship goes, I have been getting better over the years (helped by the fact that I've managed to log around 120 hours in the last 12 months, which is a lot for someone paying their own way). However, my weakness has been, and still is, landing. They've always been ones that the plane is still usable as-is, but I never really feel at-one with the plane. I always feel that even with my best greasers, I'm only at best 80% of the "perfect" landing.

I know, I'm the harshest critic of my own flying, but if no one else is criticizing my flying (and landings), what other excuse will I have to improve upon it.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | March 18, 2013 10:53 AM    Report this comment

Well done Paul great article.
One gets better in landing when the aircraft is your own. Tend to look after it better methinks

Posted by: Bruce Savage | March 18, 2013 11:49 AM    Report this comment

Well done Paul great article.
One gets better in landing when the aircraft is your own. Tend to look after it better methinks

Posted by: Bruce Savage | March 18, 2013 11:49 AM    Report this comment

You must have the bad landings to recognize the good. You always measure your landings againt the best you've ever done. It's harder to win the longer you fly.

Posted by: Robert Mahoney | March 18, 2013 11:53 AM    Report this comment

Paul, your writing was excellent, as always. You didn't say anything about 'ground loops.' (tail wheel aircraft seem to try to do that when you get behind on the landing) Atrophy was on my mind when I returned home from Flight Safety at age 67. I had just passed a first class physical and was feeling good. In the simulator, I found that I was either too slow, or forgot part of memory items during the many emergencies they throw at you, or was I getting old?? I got my recurrent ok because my flying skills were still good enough (according to the instructor) I was just upset with myself regarding my memory. Because our aircraft required two pilots I wondered if the simulator instructor passed me for that reason. I talked with several pilot friends and my wife and then the Boss. I was lucky as I stayed in aviation as the Company Safety Officer and started flying a desk. Flying for 46 years seemed enough for this 67 year old stick. Truth be told, I am looking at a LSA that I flew and like. Don't forget Paul, send your Resume to AOPA. They are looking for a new stick to replace Fuller.

Posted by: Bob Leonard | March 18, 2013 3:38 PM    Report this comment

For some reason pilots never offer the act of bouncing the respect it deserves. It simply indicates a bit of excess flying energy remains.
On the other hand, the much worse alternative to a nice leisure bounce, would be a failed full stall landing attempt from 10 feet above the runway. In that case, the plane doesn't bounce much because the lower longeron tubes absorb the impact.
So I much prefer the lovely "saved bounce " when it comes time to relearn landings every spring.

Posted by: Bill Berson | March 18, 2013 7:33 PM    Report this comment

Gary, I know what you mean about never feeling at-one with the plane. Most of my training was the usual "first step toward an airline job" style typical of 99% of flight schools. This is all flying the numbers stuff that inhibits what we are after as recreational pilots.

Posted by: Jim Lo Bue | March 19, 2013 11:03 AM    Report this comment

I am fairly well convinced that taildraggers were never meant for asphalt anyway. The Monocoupe dislikes asphalt and concrete and never fails to let me know. But on grass, every now and then it allows me a landing to be proud of; the buzz of tires in the grass, the almost imperceptable transition of weight from the wings to the gear and a rollout straight and true.

Posted by: Richard Montague | March 19, 2013 1:36 PM    Report this comment

You always measure your landings againt the best you've ever done'

I never have, and never will. I'm a freaking wild-eyed rebel, a life-long renegade when it comes to trying to not repeat some concept of robotic perfection from my fading memories of the misty past. Call me what you will, ban me from the inner sanctum, but the minute someone says they wish they could find perfection in their flying skills, I'm zoning out and wondering where the refreshments are.

I have great sympathy for those in pursuit of perfection - whether growing the perfect beefsteak tomato, finding the perfect beach for vacation, or executing the perfect landing. But it's like reversing aging, you'll never attain it. Everything changes and is in a constant state of flux, atrophy or routine will always be our companions. Better to pursue excellence in the here and now, with your best efforts, release yourself from the siren of perfection, and you'll relieve mountains of unneeded stress and open up reams of creativity you were heading away from by chasing the horizon.

Posted by: David Miller | March 19, 2013 1:41 PM    Report this comment

Try this little example to help break free of limited thinking. Transfer these nine dots, and draw four straight, continuous lines connecting all the dots, keeping pencil on paper. Just a fun exercise if you have the time.
. . .

. . .

. . .

I'll take that sky, those clouds, and the etheral suspension in air over the earth every time, yeah. Great blog.

Posted by: David Miller | March 19, 2013 1:42 PM    Report this comment

The nine dots were supposed to form a square....

Posted by: David Miller | March 19, 2013 1:44 PM    Report this comment

Our forum software does not allow squares. Only ovals and trapezoids.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | March 19, 2013 4:19 PM    Report this comment

Ok, thanks, Paul.

Posted by: David Miller | March 19, 2013 6:22 PM    Report this comment

If this flying thing becomes too easy, I'm going to quit!

Posted by: Josh Johnson | March 19, 2013 8:28 PM    Report this comment

"Yeah, but it takes a lot more work to wind up in a ditch in a tricycle-gear airplane than it does in a taildragger, where it can happen before you even reach the runway for takeoff."

...or a pesky berm on the side of a taxiway!

Posted by: Jordan Nations | March 20, 2013 12:16 AM    Report this comment

I believe we need to define what a good landing is. I generally have the best landings when the wind or the weather is not cooperating and it is demanding the best of you. Maybe is phycological and they feel good because you are expecting the worst. It is one of the best pleasures of flying, when you plant it right and control that plane all the way to the tiedowns. Sometimes on those conditions, the taxing is more difficult than the landing (if you fly a tail dragger). For me the best landings are just after a long cross country flight and you end the trip with a greaser at your destination. I always try to do that. The other one is after heavy difficult day at work and I take my plane back home. The pleasure of flying and then grease it at your home airport takes the edge off you and you arrive home as a new man. That is what a good landing does for you, does not matter how you define it. It is the best feeling of accomplishment. The golden button in aviation besides poping out of the clouds right on the extended CL of the runway.

Posted by: Guido F. Perla | March 20, 2013 12:35 AM    Report this comment

OMG you fly a Cub, Swift and a Beaver!!! That's it. It's official. I want to be Paul Bertorelli.

Posted by: JOHN KAZICKAS | March 20, 2013 8:18 AM    Report this comment

Soloed on my 16th birthday...over 46 years ago. Still look forward to the day when that perfect landing is not a surprise! Do a lot of flying with other pilots, have been blessed with an airplane partnership of two for over 30 years. It's a lot of fun to have someone beside you to congratulate you on the greasers - and make fun of you on all the others!

Paul, always enjoy your blog, this one is pretty special. Shows that regardless of the craft we get to fly, we all respect those last ten feet of altitude.

Posted by: Ron Horton | March 20, 2013 9:31 AM    Report this comment

"OMG you fly a Cub, Swift and a Beaver!!! That's it. It's official. I want to be Paul Bertorelli."

I have jumped out of Beaver, but never flown one. Never been in a Swift. That was Guido with the tri-fleet.

And even on my best day, you don't want to be me. It's not easy being me.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | March 20, 2013 11:55 AM    Report this comment

I always thought a good landing is one you walk away from

Posted by: Bruce Savage | March 20, 2013 4:19 PM    Report this comment

I'd say that's still true, Bruce. Don't let my anal retentativeness to point out what is folly to me of trying to find or re-create that always elusive, perfect landing or first kiss euphoria again with entirely new conditions and circumstances change your mind.

For a solution to the nine dots, think of an open umbrella lying on the ground.

'When my wife has sex with me there's always a reason for it. One nite she used me to time an egg.' RD

Posted by: David Miller | March 20, 2013 6:35 PM    Report this comment

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