Taildragger Training – Part 1

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[Audio 01]

We’re going to do a little time travel here. Last April, when I had scheduled the DC-3 type rating course, I figured that it would be a good idea to get some tailwheel training before going down to Griffin. It seemed to stand to reason that it would be a good idea not to have my first tailwheel experience be in an airliner.

I actually needn’t have worried. Other than taxiing (which was an exercise in humility), the ‘three behaved beautifully.

But my tailwheel training has since become a lot of fun and I’ve spent a lot of time in a Citabria since then.

My instructor is Barry Sutton of Sutton aviation at Oakland County International Airport in Waterford, Michigan, although it’s “Pontiac” on the radio. The ICAO designator is PTK, for those following along in their A/FDs.

Barry’s a DE and an amazing instructor. John and Martha King have nothing on Barry for cockpit chatter. Barry is polished and smooth and seems to have a telepathic sense for what you need to know and immediately begins telling you before you have to ask. But Barry also has a talent for being quiet when he senses that you’re working things out, which is a rare thing indeed. I think Barry is the best instructor with whom I’ve ever flown. And I guess that’s saying something these days, as many people who’ve occupied the right seat in airplanes I’ve flown.

Anyway, I got ahold of Barry and scheduled a time to go get an intro to taildraggers and to go do some pattern work.

The airplane today is an American Champion Citabria 7ECA Aurora, tail number N157AC. It’s practically brand new, with its airworthiness certificate issues in December of 2006. It’s powered by a Lycoming O-235-K2C that puts out 118 horsepower at 2,800 PRM and it’ll climb at 740 fpm at sea level. It’s 22 feet long, 34 feet wide, and has 165 sq. ft. of wing area, giving it a wing loading of 10 lb./sq. ft. at its max gross of 1,750 lbs. It’s also certified for basic aerobatics and is rated for +5/-2 gees. I

t seats two in tandem. I’m in front for these flights. It’s a little weird if you haven’t flown a lot in tandem airplanes. You don’t see the instructor directly, so his or her voice is just sort of there in your ears. Like a voice in your head that’s teaching you to fly. Note: If you still hear a voice in your head telling you how to fly when you’re solo, consider a precautionary landing and some rest.

As a note for future episodes, I’ve done a lot of aerobatic training in it and recorded a lot of audio and video that will appear in future episodes.

Flying a taildragger is different in many ways. Probably the most important is that the center of gravity is behind the main gear. If you think about it, that’s an important thing because, if it wasn’t, the airplane would simply rest on its nose with the tailwheel in the air.

The most important consequence is that taking off and landing in a taildragger is a little like pushing rope. If there’s any off-center drag or friction, the center of gravity is going to want to come around from behind you and get in front of you. In a taildragger, that’s called a ground loop and it’s embarrassing at best and can bend you and/or the airplane at worst.

Think of it like this. The nest time you’re in a grocery store parking lot, go grab a shopping cart. Turn it around backwards and put your forearms on the sides of the cart, rest your elbows on the front corners, and grab the sides with your hands. Now run really fast. The cart isn’t very graceful and it gets worse the faster you go. That’s a pretty good proxy for what it’s like the first few times you fly a taildragger.

One other thing as we get started. Barry talks a little about an imaginary nosewheel. He is, of course, addressing the fear by tricycle-gear drivers like me that pushing the nose over will result in a prop strike. The fact of the matter is that there’s a fair amount of downforce on the tail of the airplane and you’d actually be hard-pressed to have a prop strike. Even if you got pretty well beyond level, the prop would tuck under a bit before actually striking the runway.

For all normal operations, you can simply imagine that there’s a nosewheel in front and you don’t even have to imagine very hard. After a certain amount of forward force, the airplane will resist you pretty well and the nose feels pretty stable.

Also, this is my first time flying an aircraft with a stick. You hold the stick in your right hand. Push and the houses get bigger, pull and they get smaller. Left and right are as you’d imagine. The throttle is a knob on the left wall and the carb heat is a smaller knob just below it and you operate those with your left hand. Trim is also on your left, but it’s only marginally helpful for gross adjustments. It’s almost impossible to trim the airplane for hands-off level flight.

The transition from yoke to stick took ten seconds. I’m not kidding. It seemed completely natural immediately. And I love, love, love flying with a stick instead of a yoke. I’d have to get a different kneeboard if I was going to fly the Citabria IFR (and, by the way, it’s IRF certified), but I’d consider doing that. As it is, I fly it without a kneeboard and take notes on my right knee with a fine felt-tip marker. Right on the knee. A prouder tattoo one cannot imagine. In fact, I’ve often considered writing an ATIS on my knee before going out just because I think it looks cool.

The first order of business was to familiarize me with the feel of the rudder at high speed before rotating. To that end, Barry and I did two high-speed taxis down Runway 27L. Barry had the stick and the throttle and got us moving just fast enough to get the tail off the ground. I’m sitting up front with my hands in my lap and feet on the rudders.

Here’s the first high-speed taxi.

[Audio 02]

Not bad. We taxi back and do another one.

Barry and I talk about the first run and get ready for the second one.

[Audio 03]

Then it’s time to do the second high-speed taxi.

[Audio 04]

We taxi back to the approach end of 27L. this time, we’re going to take off. The wind is pretty heavy out of the south and I’m not ready to crosswind operations in this airplane yet. We’re going to ask for a right turn on takeoff and make right traffic around to Runway 17.

You can land a taildragger in two ways. The easier and more common is the three-point landing. As the name implies, you try to touch the mains and the tail all at the same time. A three-point landing is a little easier in the Citabria because the tailwheel is steerable and you have more directional control when the tailwheel is down.

The other kind is a wheel landing. In a wheel landing, you land on the mains and then let the tail fly until it can’t fly anymore. It’s much the same as takeoff except that you’re slowing down. It’s also a lot harder because (a) as a tricycle-gear pilot, you’re overly scared of nosing over and having a prop strike and (b) you don’t have that steerable tailwheel on the ground and you’re instead depending on the rudder for directional control, even though rudder effectiveness is decreasing all the way until the tailwheel makes contact.

All of the landings today will be wheel landings. That’s because the DC-3 almost always does wheel landings. Unlike the Citabria, the ‘three is very stable in a wheel landing. In fact, although the ‘three can and does do three-point landings, it’s discouraged because the tail could begin oscillating up and down and, when a tail that big with that much momentum starts to oscillate, you can have control departures, prop strikes, and other nastiness.

But the Citabria is a good platform for understanding what goes into landings of either kind and we’re going to do some wheel landings today.

Here’s the takeoff from runway 27L and part of the pattern over to Runway 17. You can tell that I’m really enjoying the way this airplane flies.

[Audio 05]

And here’s the approach and the first landing. There’s a lot of convection and other turbulence, so you’ll head Barry coaching me on the throttle until I get the approaches dialed in.

[Audio 06]

Not awful, but I can tell that Barry’s doing a lot of the flying on the landing. We taxi back to the approach end of Runway 17 and I get my second takeoff. I feel pretty good about the takeoff and do most of it myself.

[Audio 07]

We get through the thermals and it’s time to touch down again. I don’t keep the stick forward to keep the tailwheel off and Barry helps me out with that. I’m exhibiting ever reaction that you’d expect from a tricycle-gear pilot flying a taildragger for the first time.

[Audio 08]

We head around the patch again and I put in my worst landing of the day. I keep wanting to pull back when I need to be disciplined enough to keep it forward to keep it on the mains and keep the tail off the ground. This time, we have to play with the power and oscillate a few times before getting the aircraft down and stopped.

I should mention that Pontiac is a pretty big airport with parallel main runways in addition to the crossing runway that we’re on. It’s a rare time when we have the airspace pretty much to ourselves. Barry’s friendly with the guy in the tower and I take the opportunity at the end to try to cloak my landing in a PIREP.

[Audio 09]

We got something like seven takeoffs and landings that day. Here’s the last one. It was a little better than most, but I still didn’t push adequately and we had to play with the power in order to get the right attitude for touchdown.

[Audio 10]

Needless to say, about a month later I had a tailwheel endorsement from Dan Gryder in the DC-3. The ‘three was much easier to fly than the Citabria in many ways. Lots more on the checklist and much more technical to get her over the fence but, once over the fence, docile as could be.

My understanding with Barry is that I’m going to fly the Citabria with him until he tells me that he’d sign me off for a tailwheel endorsement in that aircraft. Then I’ll really feel that I’m a tailwheel driver. Most of the flights since then have been aerobatic for the first hour and then pattern work after that. As I record this in mid-January, I haven’t been up in the Citabria since November, but I’ll be back in the saddle as soon as I can get there.

I think the Citabria is my favorite training aircraft thus far. It’s yellow, it’s new, it’s clean, it has great visibility (including a transparent roof), you sit on the centerline, you have your feet up on the rudders, you have a four-point harness, and it’s a genuine stick-and-rudder pilotmaker. Captain Chris of Plane madness did an informal poll on Twitter a few months ago, asking, if money was no object, what two aircraft would you own. I responded with the F-86 Sabre and either a Citabria or the Citabria’s big brother, the Super Decathlon. It’s that much fun.

Stay tuned because there’s lots more tailwheel and aerobatic audio stored up from the last year. And I’ve shot a lot of cockpit video of the aerobatic stuff, so I’m planning to release some more video episodes, too.

Contact Barry Sutton at Sutton Aviation:

Sutton Aviation, Inc.
Oakland County International Airport
6230 North Service Drive, Waterford, MI, 48327

UPDATE as of February 2012:

N157AC is now on the line at FLight 101 at KPTK.  Contact information:

2121 Airport Road
Waterford, Michigan 48327
Ph: 248-666-2211
Fax: 248-666-1094

More Film Music Coming from Scott Cannizzaro’s Mixing Console

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I love it when I see that I have an e-mail from audio wizard Scott Cannizzaro. It usually means that he’s made progress on a mix of the audio for the show or for the soundtrack of A Pilot’s Story. I got just such an e-mail this morning.

Scott is re-mixing Theme From Milliways (Go for TMI) for use in the upcoming film, A Pilot’s Story from Wilco Films. Airspeed listeners will remember the music from the Airspeed episode First Solo from October of 2006. It was my first big sprawling narrative and I recorded the tune especially for the episode.

It had its genesis when I was in law school. I played a lot of guitar during breaks in studying and I had (still have) a Martin Backpacker that I used a lot. The Backbacker has no truss rod and the intonation higher up the fretboard is awful. So I tuned it DADGAD and played it mostly open. It sounded really good for playing Stan Rogers songs.

The piece evolved and is named for my law mentor Sam Simpson’s place up north, which is itself names for the restaurant at the end of the universe of Douglas Adams fame.

The “Go for TMI” part came when I decided that the piece (played up-tempo) would be the piece of my space-folk album that would cover the big burn from low Earth orbit to head for Mars. (TMI = “Trans-Mars Injection,” just like TLI or Trans-Lunar Injection was the big burn that Apollo missions used when leaving local Earth space for the Moon.)

Anyway, Scott has done a wonderful job so far and he’s still tweaking it. He has added some high and low string voices to the 12-string guitar, mandolin, and (really horrible) violin tracks that I initially recorded. He has also stretched out the last pause to allow the dramatic “Steve, Cessna 152, July 14, 2001” at the end. Close listeners to the episode could probably tell that I had to stretch it by brute force in post because I didn’t leave enough time.

Anyway, Will has been having his interview subjects for the film each say their first names, the aircraft, and the date of their first solos and he’s considering doing a part of the film on the first-solo experience. I’ve seen an early cut and it looks great. (USAF Thunderbird No. 5, Maj Samantha Weeks did hers in the Cessna T-37 Tweet!) If he does it, I think this is the music he’s going to use. And, if I manage to get into the film, that’s the part I most want to be in.

More recording soon, I hope. Jim Kreucher and I will likely go back into the studio for a couple of days for an album project and I have to get my second MacDowell piece written and the basic instrumental tracks recorded soon, too.

Stay tuned!

How CAP Does MLK Day – CAPFLIGHT 2028 Style

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I heeded the call to devote today to service by getting up and doing some currency flying with the Civil Air Patrol. Cross-country Ann Arbor (KARB) to Battle Creek (KBTL). 2.1 hours with ILS 23 at KBTL and VOR 24 KARB.

In the other seat was 1Lt Norm Malek. I flew with Norm late last year and had a good time and Norm had the excellent idea of taking this morning to get up again and knock some of the rust off. We launched into 2,000-ft ceilings with five miles and haze, but it cleared up shortly outside of Ann Arbor’s Class D and we headed up to 4,500. We got over the scattered to broken layer by 1,000 feet and it was CAVU by the time we got to Battle Creek.

I shot the ILS in to 23 and did a fair job of it. The runway had about an inch of packed snow on it, but it’s 10,000 feet long and I just let the aircraft roll out as long as it wanted to. The tower asked me about braking action and I confessed that I hadn’t touched the brakes. I’m willing to fly Citabrias upside down, but wasn’t about to touch the brakes on that runway until I was down to taxi speed.

Kind of interesting. The last time I was on 5/23 at Battle Creek was in the back of an F-16D.

It was slow in the tower and we made some chit-chat. I got a few shots of the Blue Angels going by the tower at the Battle Creek airshow in 2007 and sent a 20 x 30 blow-up of one of them to the tower crew. It turned out that the guy on duty had it in his office. Never, ever miss a chance to suck up to ATC.

My uncle, Dennis Reed, lives near Battle Creek. He flew air cav in Viet Nam and then flew the executive jets for Kellogg’s for decades. He’s retired now and I called him up last week to see if he might be interested in meeting up with us. We hooked up at Century Aviation, got a cup of coffee, and let him inspect the aircraft. When he was an instructor in the 1960s, he could fly the pattern in a Cherokee without touching the yoke. Throttle, trim, and rudder only. He’s thinking about going in on an experimental or light sport with a friend and I could see the gleam in his eye when he talked about it.

Uncle Denny is the only other aviator in the family. Our particular branches of the family don’t get together too much (not that we don’t like each other- it’s just a logistical nightmare), so most of my aviation has taken place in a vacuum as far as the family has been concerned. So it was really, really, nice to fly in and see Uncle Denny in an aviation context. He just pops a little more when he’s standing on the ramp. I think the sun hits him a little differently there as opposed to anywhere else. Let’s make no mistakes. I flew in, but I was standing on his ramp.

In fact, I stand on his ramp in a lot of places, and not just at Battle Creek and not just when he’s around. We all owe him and men like him our gratitude and respect. Showing up in a zoom bag as a pilot after flying across the state and greasing the landing brought a couple of things full circle today. Really cool.

The trip back was fine until just after Jackson (KJXN). We flew at 5,500 feet, about 1,000 feet over a scattered, then broken layer. The haze made the horizon hard to make out at times, although the ground was readily visible up until about 18 miles west of Ann Arbor. So we got a pop-up IFR clearance and shot the VOR 24 in to Ann Arbor.

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. If you’re a pilot and you’re not in the Civil Air Patrol, what the heck are you thinking? Cherry, well-maintained aircraft. Great people with whom to fly. And you get to serve your community and country while you’re at it.

Happy birthday, Dr. King. This CAP pilot is current and proficient. I stand ready to help CAP perform it missions for America.

And you can, too! Check out http://www.cap.gov/.

Cross-Country to Saginaw and Commercial Training

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Finally got up yesterday after two cancellations. Not bad for Michigan in January, really.

I have three regular flying sources these days. CAP (currency and mission readiness in C-172s and, soon, the mighty C-182T with G1000), Sutton Aviation (tailwheel and aerobatics in American Champion aircraft), and Flight 101.

Flight 101 is an FBO/school with lots of C-172s, a couple of DA-40s, and a C-172RG. It’s my “rent a C-172 and go fly” place since Tradewinds closed its pilot center. I decided recently to start looking at the commercial certificate. I can do a lot of that with CAP, but having access to an RG and qualified instructors form another source allows me to train more often if I decide to do that. And it’s nice because the RG isn’t in very high demand. (After all it’s primarily for advanced training.)

So, after being weathered out a couple of times earlier this month, I went up to refresh myself on the RG and knock off the rust. Most of my complex time is multi-engine and my only single-engine complex time is in this aircraft (about 1.4 before yesterday).

We went VFR to Saginaw (KMBS) to build some cross-country time. It was something like 5F on the ground and accordingly colder at altitude. The heater was non-functional. That’s not normally a big deal, but I’m a polar bear and usually wear only a light jacket in the cockpit because the instructor usually likes to keep it warmer than I like. I keep cold weather gear in the back in case of a forced landing away from civilization (I’d be teased roundly if my CAP brethren found me frozen to death after landing the plane uneventfully).

It was probably the coldest I’ve ever been in an airplane. Not unbearable, but pretty numb toes and we definitely went full-stop at KMBS in order to let me but on my MA-1 flight jacket. Much better!

I got 1.2 hood time on the way back, much of it in slow flight at around 75 KIAS with the gear down on a VOR radial fron FNT. We shot the LOC B/C 27L back into KPTK with a sidestep to 27R.

Both landings were actually pretty good (as, for some reason, is my custom on the first flight back after not flying since October or November). I like to be very tender on retractables. I know that the RG is built to withstand abuse from students learning to fly their first retractable, but the gear still looks a little skinny to me. So I carry a little extra power into the flare and touch it down like mom is in the back seat. A little crosswind on 32 on the way in to KMBS, but it was right down the runway at 9 on the way back in to KPTK.

I’m flying with someone new, namely Niketta Wyrick, a CFII at Flight 101 at KPTK who started at age 14 and is a pretty talented GA driver. This is her at KMBS outside the FBO. I got a good and fair workout on the flight, appropriate to returning to the airport with some acknowledged rust on my skills.

We chandelled up through a sucker hole on the way there to get above the scattered layer at about 4,000 and went most of the way at 7,500. I probably would have run scud (albeit well above the minimum safe altitudes and at least 500 feet below the clouds) if it had been just me because my last instrument approaches were in October and I would not have wanted to be stuck on top and have to come back through single-pilot IFR with that much rust on my scan. But I felt comfortable with Niketta there to assist.

Depending on a couple of other flight opportunities, I’ll probably get up with Niketta to do some work on the commercial maneuvers soon.

In the meantime, I’m planning to go to some CAP currency flying on Monday out of Ann Arbor (KARB). Pretty excited about that. I haven’t flown out of KARB since 2001 and it ought to be fun. Thinking KARB-KBTL-KAZO-KARB at least. Maybe with a stop at KJXN on the way back.

Aerobatics and the Super Decathlon with Greg Koontz

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These are the show notes to an audio episode. You can listen online right here by clicking: http://media.libsyn.com/media/airspeed/AirspeedKoontz.mp3.

Greg Koontz is a 22,000-hour pilot with 7,000 hours of instruction given. He performs aerobatics across the country every summer both individually and as a part of The Alabama Boys.

He’s a NAFI Master Certified Aerobatic Flight Instructor and Aerobatic Competency Evaluator (A.C.E.), and is also the proprietor of Sky Country Lodge in Ashville, Alabama.

Greg has been performing in airshows since 1974, when he joined Col. Moser’s Flying Circus and learned his trademark maneuvers from the best in the business. Greg has two outstanding acts that he brings to the show: A breathtaking aerobatic demonstration in the Super Decathlon, and a side-splitting comedy routine where Greg as Alabama redneck Clem Cleaver “steals” a Piper Cub and lands on the World’s Smallest Airport; a moving pickup truck.

I saw Greg twice last year (Battle Creek and Oshkosh) and was really impressed with his flying. No problem with the F-16s, F/A-18s or anyone else, but Greg flies an aircraft that I can actually go rent at Sutton Aviation and learn to fly – the American Campion Super Decathlon. I get to see the envelope of a plane that I can actually go explore when I get home.
Like I said – no flies on the F-15, but it’s hard to find one for rent.

Greg and I took 40 minutes or so to talk about aerobatics, the Super-D, airshows, training, and why we fly. Couldn’t ask to talk to a nicer, more regular guy. Truly an honor to know that guys like this can do things like that with airplanes that I can fly.

Contact Information for Greg:

Greg Koontz Airshows
and Sky Country Lodge
2546 Slasham Road
Ashville, AL 35953
Phone: 205-616-8176
E-mail: greg@gkairshows.com
Website: http://www.gkairshows.com/