Can’t Teach Airplanes A Thing

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Squeaking through my 1975 private pilot checkride in a Cessna 150, I suspected the examiner displayed the quality of mercy if not judgment, because my landings were pitiful. Not crash/burn/fail but hardly the stuff of pilot-lounge braggadocio. And I loved pilot lounges where my heroes dunked Pepperidge Farm Braggadocio-Milanos into EAA coffee mugs while thrilling us junior bird-droppings with tales of Twin Bonanza glory. I knew I could never equal them and would one day crash and unmask myself as the fraud I was.

And crash I did in 1977. More of a crappy touchdown in a tri-geared homebuilt (Stitts Skycoupe). Bent the nose fork and shredded the fairing into fiberglass confetti. A learning moment wherein I realized why the examiner, after signing my temporary certificate two years prior, had sighed, “Your landings are flat.” And I’d nodded respectfully, although too embarrassed to ask what he meant but figured that getting the One Fifty stopped in 5000 feet after three bounces was acceptable. Smashing the Stitts all to pieces was not but did inject clarity: “Oh, land on the mains, not the nosewheel …”  But despite being an aerodunce, I wanted more.

Having mastered tri-gear in my mind, I yearned to join those elite pilot loungers who dissected tailwheeling intangibles with the fervor of bishops at the Synod of Whitby (664 CE), arguing over who guarded the gates of heaven. To me it was clear. Thaddaeus Maximus, an esteemed lounger, opened those gates when he gave me my first tailwheel lesson in his 1947 Cessna 140.

Prior to 1984, additional training was not required to act as PIC of a tailwheel airplane but is now under 61.31(i). It was a simpler time, nostalgia for which lies mummified beneath a gauze of Joni Mitchell tunes that mute the polyester embarrassments of the 1970s. True, the home-schooled tailwheel pilot might self-destruct while self-educating, but that’s the price we paid for freedom back then. That said, tailwheel flying isn’t any tougher than tri-gear, although I was slow to transition.

The difference between tricycle and conventional (tailwheel) gear is largely academic. In the air, they’re both airplanes. Tailwheels just look better. Landing either is never in question, because gravity guarantees any airplane will find the ground; we’ve yet to leave one up there. That last bit is also the ATC motto.

Takeoffs are theoretically simple in either type. Line up, mumble nonsense on CTAF (“Traffic in the area, please advise”), add power, and the airplane does the rest. The secret to success was proclaimed in 1929 by mythical pilot lounge hero Jake Hollow: “The airplane already knows how to fly; you can’t teach it a thing.” (Boeing may have gleaned that for its 737-MAX POH, but that’s unconfirmed.) The pilot exists merely to tell the aircraft where to go, which on takeoff requires understanding rudder input to keep the spinner pointed down range.

Transitioning to an unfamiliar aircraft can be intimidating, especially if—like me in 1977—one hasn’t mastered the basics in anything. When you add power to a tri-geared Cessna or Cherokee, chances are you’ll depart without clipping too many runway lights. Tailwheel types require nuanced footwork to track straight but not too much, as I discovered on my first takeoff, when—with the tail up—we swerved left, then right in S-turning slaloms across the runway.

The airplane was a pinball and the runway lights bumpers as I tallied points without achieving liftoff, until a remarkably calm Thaddaeus suggested, “When everything’s going to pot …” and it was, “the airplane’s telling you she’s ready to fly so pull back on the yoke.”

“Huh?!”

“Pull back.” And he mimed smoothly pulling back on the control yoke, which I did, although somewhat abruptly. Of course, if he’d signaled to plow into the nearby trees I would’ve complied in my panicked state. As we lifted and swerved further left, all tailwheel demons vanished, and the Cessna became just another airplane.

One of the things instructors see when we transition pilots from nose-pushing to tail-pulling is timidity of footwork. On the introductory lesson, pilots often approach the rudder pedals with suspicion, having possibly never understood their purpose. After persistent calls from the CFI to keep ‘er straight, students overcompensate by stomping rudders from stop to stop.

I certainly did, and yes, we’re taught to say, ‘er, in CFI school (Part 91 only). When bracketing these inputs on about the third (or tenth) flight, the shimmer of tailwheel bliss is glimpsed as the student senses a new relationship between airplane, body and soul. Bliss, though, demands recurrent humiliation.

Decades after that first tailwheel lesson, a friend asked me to retrieve his newly acquired 1946 Funk. OK, that’s the name; it’s real so get over it. I’d never flown one, and there wasn’t a Funk instructor available this side of the 20th Century. Since the airplane came from an estate sale, and the previous owner was … well, inactive, I’d have to teach myself.

But how different could this stubby, tailwheel airplane be from the Chiefs and Luscombes I’d flown? My ego was answered on the first takeoff as I added power and, anticipating the normal left-turning tendency, I countered with way too much right rudder, followed by an overdose of left and so on until, reenacting my first pinball lesson, I heard the disembodied voice of Thaddeus fill the tiny cabin in a Star Wars moment: “Luuuuke …”

Weird, so I answered, “Name’s not Luke.”

“Whatever.”

“Should I feel The Force?”

“The what? Hell no, just get your feet off the Funkin’ rudders! The airplane already knows how to flyyyyy …”

So, I did, and the airplane reminded me that I couldn’t teach it a thing. The moral being that if you haven’t thoroughly humbled yourself in an aircraft, then you haven’t earned your place in the pilot lounge. So, go fly, shred your comfort zone, and when you return, bring your own Braggadocios. Meanwhile, may the Funk be with you.

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12 COMMENTS

  1. My DPE told me just before endorsing my private pilots cert back in ’66. ”Well, you can teach a monkey how to fly but you can make him smooth.” After 54 years of flying I still keep this in mind and emphasize on smoothness from day one.

  2. How about this one, a training department crew of instructors took off in a B757 out of KFLL, had to shut down an engine, asked to return to the airport, came in hot (read FLAT), too hot (flat) to flare, jammed the nose gear onto (into) the runway, and managed to get it stopped. Bill?, TEN MILLION bucks. A tail dragger pilot would NEVER do anything like that.

  3. “It was a simpler time, nostalgia for which lies mummified beneath a gauze of Joni Mitchell tunes that mute the polyester embarrassments of the 1970s.” Now that my friends, is some excellent writing.