Flying Classics and Antiques

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Pilots trained on modern airplanes sometimes do not realize how easy they are to fly and experience culture shock when they discover that older airplanes require more work and finesse to fly well.

In its March 2017 issue, our sister publication Aviation Consumer ran an article with guidance on the interesting challenges of buying and owning antique and classic airplanes—and will be following it up in the next few months with a similar piece on warbirds. We have been watching the process of old airplanes changing hands and being flown by a younger generation of pilots. We think that is a good thing, because antiques and classics have a certain panache to them and are literally flying pieces of history—we are glad they continue to be loved. Of associated concern is that we are also observing that pilots trained on modern airplanes sometimes do not realize how easy airplanes built from the 1950s on are to fly and experience culture shock when they discover that older airplanes require more work and finesse to fly well.  Sadly, some don’t catch on fast enough and yet another classic is written off to an avoidable oops.

We have spent some time flying older airplanes, and much more listening to the wisdom of our betters about those machines and have boiled down what we’ve learned into a series of suggestions.

The most repeated theme in all of our interviews with operators of classic airplanes and instructors who were checking us out in them was that old airplanes have quirks, behaviors and systems that simply do not exist in modern airplanes. We agree with what we were told repeatedly: 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 the machine.


We’ll look at legalities 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 or the insurance claim. For your peace of mind, make sure you jump through the legal hoops with older airplanes.

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, 1991.

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.

Things may start to get interesting about now. The Beech 18 is one of the sweetest flying airplanes ever built; however, when the wheels are touching the ground, they have ways of keeping their pilots humble.

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 a series of AVweb Features over the last few years including an introductionthe checkout and three-point versus wheel landings

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. Some older airplanes 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. Rule of thumb if you stall an older airplane and a wing drops—pick it up with the rudder, keep the ailerons neutral.


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. For example, not knowing which valves to move and when on something as modest as an Aeronca Chief can result in dumping several gallons of fuel on the ramp. Flying without first doing one’s homework and knowing the airplane's systems cold—especially the fuel system—can be asking for trouble. The well-known, experienced warbird pilot Jeff Ethell apparently made his final error with a fuel system of the P-38 of a model that was different than the one he was used to flying. He unwittingly ran a tank dry under conditions in which he could not restart the associated engine. Before you get in, know where all the fuel tanks are in the airplane and how to get at all the fuel in the airplane, where any return fuel from a fuel-injected engine goes so you don’t 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 that is unfamiliar and very 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.

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. It can be difficult in antiques and classics as they may not have quick drains in tank and fuel system low points and getting water out may require dedicated effort. 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. Be sure you know how 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 1910s through the 1930s 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. Believe it or not, a lot of those airplanes were not designed 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—and in some cases impossible.

One of the reasons the Cessna Airmaster series airplanes were fast was a small vertical stabilizer and rudder. The tradeoff was neutral yaw stability and challenging crosswind handling.

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 tried to write the phrase "heel brakes," 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 propeller.

The little pedals below the rudder bars are heel brakes. Using them effectively is an art.

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 couldn’t see anything directly forward and he couldn’t "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 ‘Cat.

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 didn’t 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 can’t 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. It’s wise to be hesitant to take such instruction from a guy justifiably named "Stumpy."

Make sure the airplane isn’t going anywhere. That almost always means having two people for the process so that one can hold the brakes. Yes, there are 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.

Author Rick Durden props a J-3 Cub on skis, something that must be done with respect for the destructive power of the prop.

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 don’t work or he doesn’t. If the brakes work, I suggest you decline the pleasure of swinging his prop because you can’t 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 it’s 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 didn’t 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 isn’t 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.

Fuel Gauges

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 don’t 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.

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.

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 has been known to sell 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.

Instrument Locations

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, and was a major safety improvement. Before then, instrument installation seemed almost random. This creates problems, particularly on takeoff, when you try to glance at the airspeed indicator and you can’t find it. It also means more head-down time in the cockpit in airplanes that may have poor in-flight visibility, something you don’t 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 doesn’t cost anything and it will make your flight much more enjoyable.

Pre-1968 panel in a Piper Apache. In addition to an almost random instrument layout, the engine control levers are not color-coded and have identical shapes.

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 (it may require briefly inducing negative g, otherwise the airplane will stall.

The published best angle of climb speed for older airplanes is usually 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.

Rick Durden holds a CFII and ATP with type ratings in the Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation and is the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vols. 1 & 2.