Dancing with the Cub

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Spring will soon be upon us in North America, and with it will come the gentle sounds of tires skimming over newly-mown grass, props quietly ticking over at idle and the muted drumming of doped fabric. Yes, it will soon be time to drag that Cub out of the hangar. Many pilots never look beyond the tricycle-gear

The playful bounce of a taildragger landing on a grass strip is now a sense memory for me, not just something I have read about and seen at the airport or on a video. Wood, fabric and all of 65 horsepower took to the air, and for a few moments, I was a Hurricane pilot slicing through the air. I did it! On Sunday, August 20, 2000, I flew a Piper J3 Cub, and things are different now. I finally flew by seat-of-pant and view-of-horizon, and loved every minute of it.

When I commenced my flight training for the Private Pilot's certificate, I did it at a busy metropolitan airport, where one cannot stand too close to the runway. This had always been a frustrating thing to accept. The intimate moment where aircraft becomes ground vehicle has always been intriguing for me, especially when I realized I was not particularly good at negotiating a smooth transition between the two. I have since moved my home base to a smaller airport, which affords a better view of the air-to-ground proceedings, and where there are at least a few older aircraft, including some taildraggers. I had heard all about how these beasts were harder to fly and land, all the clichés. I was so intrigued, I bought a book, "The Compleat Taildragger Pilot," before I had even finished my primary training and had no idea where to obtain taildragger training. I was intrigued. I subsequently learned the geometry of why taildragger flying is different, and quietly resolved to fly one, someday.

Taildraggers And Trikes

Finding The Field...

A couple of years had almost elapsed since my Private Pilot checkride (which is another story altogether), so I was due for my biennial flight review. I decided to combine my BFR with a little taildragger instruction. Via the Internet, I had recently struck up an online conversation with John Tremper, a CFI at nearby Trinca Airport (13N), in Andover, N.J., so I inquired about getting an intro to flying the Cub. John said he would be happy to oblige, rolling the BFR in with the taildragger instruction. I was excited, because in addition to never having flown a taildragger, I had never even been to a grass strip before. There were lots of firsts on order for this Sunday.

Just arriving at the airport I was struck by how different things were out here, compared to the busier, towered airport where I had learned to fly. I should have known, here's a highlight from the directions John gave me:

"Bear right at the yellow flasher, and follow that road for about a mile or so. Then you'll see a telephone pole on the left. Get ready, because that means the driveway to the airport is coming up. With the corn this high, you'll drive right past it if you're not ready for it."

Corn? Drive right past the airport?

I'm used to seeing the airport from a mile away, because you can see the control tower from that distance. Endless chain-link fencing and rows of neatly parked single- and twin-engine aircraft usually signal the impending entrance to the airport for me. My visual cues today were a yellow flasher, a telephone pole and an opening in a cornfield. I made this transition without incident, and found the airport without a problem. Upon arrival, I was greeted by "Propwash," the airport cat. Apparently the poor feline was blown clear across the ramp one day, having been in the wrong place when a Super Cub performed a run-up. He seemed none the worse for the wear, and his friendly greeting was encouragement enough for me to feel right at home in this entirely new airport environment. Looking around, I saw a collection of single-engine airplanes resting on the grass, ready to go fly. They all seemed to be saying, "Where have you been? See what you've been missing?"

A gentleman in a bright yellow T-shirt and a matching bright yellow Piper Cub baseball cap strolled up and introduced himself as John Tremper. He was wearing the team colors of a die-hard Piper Cub fan, and this guy was going to teach me how to fly all over again. I couldn't wait.

After a lengthy preflight, there was an actual demonstration on how to insert oneself into the Cub. This is no small feat for a 6'2" 195-pounder, and getting out is even more hysterical. Once you're actually installed in the seat, it's a comfortable place to be. There are tubular objects projecting from the floor, which are familiar enough to recognize as rudder pedals. But then there are these aluminum mini-pedals located a few inches in front of those, closer to your feet. These are the brake pedals, I'm told. Apparently, we won't be needing those today, and it's best that I forget they're there at all. Apparently, if the Cub's wing had as bad a track record as the Cub's brakes, I'm afraid aviation would have taken a sorry turn somewhere in the 1940s.

As I sit in the pilot's seat (which is the rear seat, by the way...), John talks about the airplane while I stare out the windshield, trying to absorb the sight picture. Unlike in a trike, where the landing attitude is vastly different from the static, three-point (level) attitude, in the taildragger you can sit in the plane, tied down and what you see is what you get at touchdown. I figure I'll take a good look at things now, while all is well and calm.

...A Simple Matter...?

Now, we get to the heart of the matter. We talk shop, specifically about this whole taildragger business. Briefly, the reason taildraggers are trickier to fly than tricycle landing gear aircraft is a simple matter of geometry and physics. The center of gravity in a taildragger is behind the main gear versus in front of the main gear in a tricycle-gear airplane. Entire books have been written about why this is troublesome, but the best demonstration I ever saw was in a Barry Schiff video. He took an ordinary child's tricycle and pointed it down the driveway and gave it a push. The trike tracked basically straight, and rolled along happily until it ran out of momentum. Then, he converted it to a taildragger, by simply turning it around 180 degrees. He pointed the little pair of wheels down the driveway and gave it a push, the single swiveling wheel and the center of gravity behind the pair of fixed ones. You can imagine what happened. The trike became interested in darting off in one direction, then the other, then back the other way, each time getting more and more interested in going in the opposite direction. Eventually, this zig-zag course was too much for the force of momentum, and the trike flopped over on its side. Now, this all happened in about 2.5 seconds. It's a fascinating display of how the CG works against you in a taildragger, and can appear to have a mind of its own.

This is where Taildragger Rule Number One comes up: Never Let An Outside Force Affect The Airplane. You are the boss, and you MUST keep the thing straight. If you give the plane an inch, it will take a mile, or at least as much distance as it needs to perform the ancient pilot humbler, the ground loop. This is where CG wins the battle and forces the aircraft to "swap ends," performing a rapid 180-degree turn, much to the pilot's chagrin.

...Float Like A Butterfly, Sting Like A Bee

John has a great analogy for the dance your feet need to be doing when flying a taildragger. Think of the boxer, who has his hands up, ready to defend. He makes quick jabs -- left, right, left-left -- whatever it takes. Your feet should be doing the same thing in the plane, countering the jabs the CG is making. You don't throw in a footful of right rudder and wait for something to happen. You make small corrections and "look for trends" as my primary CFI once told me when I was zig-zagging all across a VOR radial. I guess the takeoff roll in a taildragger is like the last moments of an ILS approach, where everything is real sensitive. I sense that my moves will be largely defensive at first, but by the time I'm ready to solo in this thing, they should be offensive.

The Dance Begins

Start The Music ...

Convinced he's loaded me up with about 700 items too many to remember, John decides it's time to get started. After engine start -- the aircraft is equipped with a human starter, the John Tremper model -- we begin some taxi practice. My head is hanging out the window, craning around the engine cowling just to make sure I don't run over the "movable runway marker" (ground hog) that is frolicking about at the approach end of the runway. This is definitely crawl-before-walk-before-run time. John adds some throttle, and gets the Cub going as fast as it can go while still maintaining a three-point attitude, so I can get a feel for the plane's reactions at the beginning of the Interesting Speed Range, or ISR. John had told me before we began that at low speed, taxiing, the plane pretty much will do what you tell it to do. Additionally, at high speed, in the air, it will do the same. It's just in that middle range, the ISR, there are all kinds of things that can go wrong. So that's where we are right now, at the low end of the ISR (low ISR?) and at the base of my learning curve. I'm jabbing away, trying to do my best Oscar De La Hoya imitation on those rudder pedals. After a few runs like that down the runway without incident, I have graduated to tail-up taxiing.

Then John raised the stakes. We're now going to practice that transition from three-point attitude to mains-only. The view out the windshield improves, but of course now you're traveling faster and so your reactions have to be faster. Now all directional control comes from airflow over the rudder, as the steerable tailwheel wheel is up in the air (at least it gets to fly...). When you raise the tail, the propeller, in concert with gyroscopic forces, momentarily throws you a curveball, literally, as there's a slight shift in rudder pressure required to Keep The Plane Straight. As the tail comes up, I'm suddenly riding higher, and I can finally see straight ahead. It dawns on me that I'm doing something I've wanted to do for a long time, and I smile, if only briefly; the rudder pedals need my attention again.

...Being Committed...

After a few more tail-up taxis down the length of the runway, we're ready to make a serious commitment. Back at the approach end, we do a run-up, and now I know we're really going to do this. Compared to the Piper Archer I've been flying, there's less to check here, but the real important things are still present. Dual magnetos, carburetor heat, oil pressure and temperature gauges - the givers and maintainers of thrust -- so we check them. They all seem to be operating, telling us good things. Control surfaces are free and correct, the pattern is clear. John reviews pattern altitude, traffic flow and local procedures with me. We review the hand signals he'll be using during flight. Communication will be relatively simple, since there is no electrical system and no headsets. No radio for that matter. No VOR, DME, or GPS. The compass will tell you you're flying any heading within a 60 degree arc, depending on where the control stick is placed, because of magnetic deviation. There is no turn coordinator, no attitude indicator, no directional gyro, no curtains on the side windows, no strobe, navigation or landing lights, yet everything you need is here. We're about to fly stick and rudder, and I can't wait.

We swing it around, and line up. "You ready?" John asks. "Let's go!" I respond. "Okay; remember to keep it straight, keep it level. After about two Mississippi you can raise the tail. Keep it straight. You'll know when it's ready to fly," John reminds me. A push of the throttle lever and the 65 horses roar to life.

...Going Steady

Waaaahhhhhhhhhh, right, right, one Mississippi; left, two Mississippi; right, right, bumpitty-bumpitty, stick forward; left -- whoops -- right-left-right-right-left, bumpitty (wow, this is so cool...); whoops, left, stick coming back, right, stick back more, more, right, left aileron, we're crabbing ... we're, we're FLYING!

The smile on my face at this point would have been painful had I not been having too much fun to notice.

Ups and Downs, Lefts and Rights

The grass fell away, and that right main was right there, where I have become accustomed to seeing it. A thumbs-up comes into view over the seat in front of me, and I realize I have not broken anything yet. The altimeter begins its painfully slow crawl clockwise, and now I realize that I have yet to look at the airspeed indicator. The plane talks to you, you know when it's time to act. Maybe the consequences for not listening are so great that it makes you listen better, but in this aircraft I felt much more in tune with it than in the other trainers I have flown.

The View...!

And the view! The view! The Cub has a little door that folds down and a window that hinges up, creating a large opening in the right side of the fuselage that you pull yourself through to enter the aircraft. Once inside, one can elect to leave these open, making for a nice-sized air vent on a hot day. But once you insert a few hundred feet between this opening and the ground, it becomes this fantastic interface between what you are doing (in the plane) and where you're doing it (the sky). I was so much more aware that I was hundreds of feet above the ground, yet I was also able to view the ground with much greater freedom and clarity. The wonder of flight just got a little bit more wonderful.

We pointed the plane away from the airport, toward the practice area, and waited a while. Eventually, we arrived at the practice area, where we did some slow flight, stalls, steep turns and lazy eights. I had never done a lazy eight before, and John was explaining the maneuver to me in flight, not the best of classrooms. He did a few, and then I tried a few, as John added some hand signals to move the proceedings along. After a few of these, I was starting to really feel like the plane was more of an extension of me, rather than a machine that I was pointing around the sky. I was a bird! For a brief time, the wire fuel gauge in front of the windshield became a gun sight, the Cub became a Hawker Hurricane and I was defending London against the Luftwaffe. I just pretended the swimming pools were oil refineries or something. The visibility was spectacular that day as well, and I could see the Manhattan skyline clear as a bell, from 2,000 feet and 40 miles away. I felt like I could reach out and grab the Empire State Building.


But I had yet to attempt a landing. I was anxious to head back and try a few, so back we went. We pointed the plane at the airport (which never got too far away), and waited some more. A little while later, we were closer to the airport. A little while after that, I contemplated setting up my 45-degree entry to the pattern. A little while after that, we were in the pattern. Nothing happens fast in a Cub, I thought to myself. Of course, I had yet to attempt a landing.

Settling in on the downwind leg, I thought, "Okay, I can do this." Most of the stuff is the same as I had become accustomed to. Abeam the touchdown point, it's carb heat on, throttle back. Fly the remainder of the downwind, base and final legs, slow, flare, bleed airspeed, land. John helped me out with the sight picture and the revised pattern that needs to be flown. You keep it tighter, and stay high until you're almost home. Again, instruments have not been too much of a factor here. Except for monitoring the altimeter on downwind and the tach at the power reduction, they have not been looked at. The windshield gives you pitch (and therefore airspeed) and bank information quite nicely, thank you very much.

Leveling out on final, the windsock enthusiastically points across the runway. John tells me to think like Luke Skywalker in the final scenes of "Star Wars," where he's piloting his craft through those canyons of the Death Star. Keep it straight; use the force. At least no one's shooting at me. As we near the surface, John does a great job of protecting his aircraft with a few choice, well-timed words and hand signals. With them, I get advance notice on such Nice Things To Know as:

  • We're about to impact at a high descent rate;
  • We're about to head off into the corn; and,
  • We're about to impact at a high descent rate (again).

Somehow, I translate these gestures into actions on the stick and rudder pedals. Surely, John provided some assistance on the controls, but I was too busy to notice. The wind noise dissipated, replaced with that bumpitty-bumpitty noise again, and as we bounce along on the grass, slowing, I realize we're safely back on the ground, and I'm holding the stick full aft, as I was told. I've become conscious of that grin I've been wearing for the last 30 minutes.

...Let's Do That Again!

We did a few more circuits, and I tried a few more landings. The last one was particularly jarring, but I'm told that it was my first three-point landing. The only problem was it began 18 inches above the grass. Okay; next time I'll do the same thing, but lower. If only I could remember exactly what it was that I did that time...

John tells me I'll be able to pick this up fairly quickly and I want to come back next week for another try at the C.G. hustle.

The C.G. Hustle

A friend of mine holds his Commercial certificate and an instrument rating, and his response to my telling him I was going to go fly a Cub was, "Why?" What can I say? I just used a bunch of words to give you a blow-by-blow account of how I spent a few hours at the airport and to try to answer his question. I hope that I was able to instill a sense of wonder about these taildragging creatures in those of you who have not experienced this type of fun.

Flying a taildragger is only slightly more difficult than flying a tricycle-gear airplane because it makes you pay attention. But this is a valuable skill that translates nicely into any aircraft you choose to fly. As pilots, we can always be a little bit better. Going back in time, flying an aircraft that is less-forgiving and less well-equipped, forces you to clarify your relationship with these lovely machines. And, you get to take that heightened awareness with you into the cockpit of your regular aircraft.

What are you waiting for? Go find yourself a taildragger and a CFI and do the dance: Do the C.G. hustle!