Dave Hirschman Archive

Cannibal Queen

Friday, October 17th, 2008

Stephen Coonts, the author of Cannibal Queen (I’ll always remember him for Flight of the Intruder), writes nostalgically in this month’s AOPA Pilot about revisiting his old biplane. As Koonts points out, the Queen has been pressed into biplane ride service ever since he parted with her in the early 90s, but still looks good despite the hard duty.

Coonts’ story prompted some memories of my own about the old girl. I used to fly the Queen in my former weekend job as a scenic ride pilot/instructor in Atlanta–but my memories aren’t so fond. The Queen had much better performance than a stock Stearman. It’s engine and prop (a 300-hp Lycoming and constant speed prop) gave it a lot of pep compared to a standard 220-hp Continental and a fixed-pitch prop. But the Queen could be cantankerous. The engine sometimes refused to start on sultry Atlanta afternoons, and it had a tendency to backfire, run rough, and belch fire intermittently. On the ramp one evening, I watched an orange flame shoot about six feet out the single exhaust pipe. The backfire was a common occurrence, but the dark surroundings made this one particularly memorable.

The Queen always looked great with her raised turtle deck, sleek cowl, and wheel fairings–but she was never my favorite.

Steve Collins, the business owner, never shared my suspicions. He loved the Queen and flew her at every opportunity. When we’d fly to air shows or other events, he took the Queen, and I’d usually fly something else.

The Queen was also somewhat unusual for a Stearman in that it had a two-passenger front seat. But the passengers had better be friends because they’d have to sit awfully close. On one cross-country trip, two brawny guys had to share the front seat, and they were practically fused at the hip when it was finally time to get out . . .

Anyway, Coonts’ story brought back some fun memories, and I couldn’t resist sharing a few of them.

The most inspiring pilot . . .

Monday, September 15th, 2008

The most extraordinary thing about Logan Flood is that he doesn’t see himself as extraordinary at all.

In his mind, he’s just a regular, work-a-day pilot from the middle of the country who knew what he wanted to do and was lucky enough to get to do it.

But Flood, who was nearly killed in a 2001 aircraft accident that left him with disfiguring burns covering most of his body, has overcome unimaginable obstacles to reach his life goals of becoming a husband, a father, and–perhaps most astonishingly–an airline pilot.

I met Flood several months ago at a hotel near Washington, D.C., while the new first officer was on an 18-hour layover. It was hard, at first, not to stare at his scars or become distracted by them. I’m sure he’s used to seeing people study him. It happens whenever he’s in a public place.

But it doesn’t take long to see beyond Flood’s appearance to the sparkling character that lies beneath it. His colleagues recognize it, as do family members, friends, and an ever growing number of passengers. I’m sure fellow pilots like you will see it immediately.

Aviation has been blessed in its short history to have attracted more than its share of determined, visionary, courageous participants. Inventors, aviation pioneers, and warriors have all accepted risk and overcome obstacles to advance the science and art of flying. Listening to Flood tell the story of his loss, heartbreak, dedication, and triumph makes me believe that same spirit is alive and well, and that flying has a bright future.

Who is the most inspiring pilot you’ve known? And what have they taught you?

Please share your stories here . . .

The timeless appeal of flying . . .

Tuesday, September 9th, 2008

The aviation crowd has always been a forward-looking bunch. We’re always looking ahead and trying to anticipate what’s next. But a colleague, Craig Spence, recently brought a copy of a letter from Van B. Foster (his wife’s grandfather), then a young Army flight student in California, and some of his descriptions and motivations are as true today as when the words were put to paper on June 25, 1918:

My Dear Mother,

The red letter day of my life has come and gone–I have driven an airplane through the sky. I have done banks, spirals and straight flying. It is great and glorious and worth all the efforts I have (made) to attain it, and when I cross the great divide, I will do so knowing I have toyed with the clouds and frolicked in the skies; that I’ve raced through space with a joystick in my hand.

I know now what “pockets” in the air are, how they make you skip, toss and rock, and I want you to know that, sitting there 5,000 feet above ground, nothing matters much; you feel as secure as if in a rocking chair. You ride easier than the most luxurious limousine. I repeat, it’s great!

Driving an airplane is more like a combination of swimming, steering an auto, scenic railway riding, and roller skating than anything else. You have three controls: directional, longitudinal, and lateral, and the first time an instructor turns them over to you some 3,000 feet above the earth, you love so well a strange and lonesome feeling that comes over you. But there you are. He signals what to do, say it is for a bank, your heart comes up into your mouth, and then if never before you realize you’re helpless–and all you have learned seems one tremendous pile of ignorance, but dauntlessly you lower your right wing and shove your right rudder–then, mother of mine, that right wing goes to the bottom and your machine turns practically on its side, your left wing nearly straight up and you seem to turn around in the length of your ship, which you don’t.  Then still alive and happy at your success, you bring her out, and once again you’re tearing through great gobs of atmosphere at 75 m.p.h. And you’ve done your bank.

About my commission, I’m not terribly interested in it. It’s a secondary thing, not the primary. The great and only thing is to fly. Being a flyer naturally brings a commission, but you’re not a flyer until you’ve done 75 hours in the air. I have been up four times, each time with an instructor, so you see I am not just on the verge of being haled as an “ace,” but just the same, an accident is the only thing that can keep me from being a pilot . . .

Fortunately, no accidents were in store for Foster, the enthusiastic young writer. But the end of the war cancelled his military flight training less than five months after he penned this letter–and that brought an end to his flying.

Does the joy of discovery Foster described so vividly 90 years ago still exist today?

If you’ve got insights or artifacts that relate to the fliers who preceded us, please share them here. Flying has changed so much through the years, but pilots, evidently, have not . . .

Where do we get such men (and women?)

Monday, July 28th, 2008

An airline maintenance technician in Baton Rouge, La., said she intended to spin the airline compressor blades slowly on one engine of a parked RJ during a routine washing.

But the engine started and went to nearly full power. The CRJ 700 surged forward and slammed into two other parked jets. No one was hurt during the early morning mishap that took place on July 7. About 14 workers were in the hangar at the time of the accident.

ASA officials declined to put a dollar value on the amount of damage.

In praise of single-seat airplanes

Friday, July 25th, 2008

I’m not anti-social and truly enjoy sharing the cockpit.

I’ve done thousands of hours of flight instructing and like the personal interaction and teamwork.

But aesthetics, economics (and maybe even selfishness) have almost invariably led me to choose single-seat aircraft for personal ownership. And that’s likely to remain the case in the future. Here’s why.

First and most obviously, single-seat airplanes just look and fly better.

A Pitts S-2B is a fine airplane–but an S-1 is more proportional and has lighter, more harmonized handling characteristics.





The same is true for the Sukhoi 26/29, or Extra 300s/300. 




Sure, those are all highly specialized aerobatic planes. I can’t comment on the flying qualities of military planes, but an F-5 looks better than a T-38, an F/A-18C is cooler than a D, and so on.




Single-seaters just look so much more right than their two-headed step-siblings.

On to economics:

A single-seat sport plane typically costs about half as much as a similar airframe with two seats. A good Pitts S-1S costs about $35,000, and a comparable S-2A (with a similar four-cylinder, Lycoming engine) sells for $70,000. An S-2B with six cylinders is even more. A Vans RV-3 with one seat can be had for the low-to-mid 30s. Double that for two-seat RV-6s, 7s, and 8s. Double it again for a four-seat RV-10.

In terms of performance and handling qualities, single-seat planes are usually better because they’re lighter. My single-seat RV-3 weighs 800 pounds, for example, and it’s powered by a 150-hp engine. It’s rate of climb, cruise speed, ceiling, range and fuel economy are as good or better than most two-seat RVs with larger engines because those planes typically weigh at least a couple hundred pounds more–and that’s before a passenger straps in.

Insurance in single-seat planes costs less, too, because there’s no risk of harming a passenger.

But what about dual instruction? How does anyone get checked out in a single-seat airplane?

Usually, similar two-seat planes are available for this task (Pitts, RV, etc.).

But aviation history is full of examples showing an instructor may not be necessary to have in the cockpit on a first flight. Every World War II-era student pilot flew solo the first time he or she got in a P-51, P-47, P-38, Wildcat, Hellcat, Bearcat, etc. There were no two-seat trainers for those airplanes. Even now, first-time F-22 pilots fly solo from day one. Sure, they get lots of simulator time.

But when was the last time an instructor had to physically intervene when checking you out in a new airplane?

Finally, the selfishness question: Isn’t owning a single-seat plane selfish? Especially for a guy like me who has a wife and two kids (one of whom really likes flying).

This is a tough one.

But I rely on the experience of my friend Eddie Ruhl for guidance. Eddie owned two planes, a single-seat Pitts (which he loved and flew as often as possible), and a four-seat Piper Clipper (which had room for his wife and two kids). He decided one plane had to go and, selfless guy that he is, Eddie said goodbye to his beloved Pitts. The result: he flew much less frequently. It turns out Eddie’s wife and kids really didn’t like flying all that much, and the Clipper sat unused for weeks, sometimes months, at a time. Eddie (and his family) agreed that he sold the wrong plane.

The downside to single-seat planes is that they can make flying a solitary activity–and we all know it’s shared experiences that make flying so special.

But I’ve found a remedy for this in formation flying.

The RV community has been particularly active in teaching this dynamic and demanding art form to civilian-trained pilots like myself. And being in a single-seat plane doesn’t seem like a drawback when you’ve got similar planes and like-minded pilots nearby . . .


The “Vision” thing . . .

Friday, July 18th, 2008


Take a close look at Cirrus Design’s prototype SJ-50 “Vision” jet–and then glance at Alan and Dale Klapmeier’s original VK-30 from the 1980s and the similarities are impossible to miss.

The sleek, five-seat, low-wing, composite airplanes are true to the same design philosophy with technology that’s 20 years apart.

“This is the natural maturation of the same exact idea,” said Mike Van Staggen, Cirrus Design’s vice president for advanced development, a leader in Vision design and testing. “Both airplanes were meant to be the ultimate in personal transportation machines.”

There are plenty of differences in the planes, too.

The Narwhal-like Vision has wider curves for more interior space, a thicker wing with greater area for a slower, 61-knot stall speed, and a distinctive V-tail to accommodate the biggest difference: a single, top-mounted, Williams FJ-33 jet engine.

Cirrus CEO Alan Klapmeier said he and brother Dale first met with engine designer Sam Williams in 1989 seeking a jet to power their kit-built VK-30. But nothing was commercially available at the time that was small or fuel efficient enough to fit their airplane. (more…)

Jailed pilot story: How pervasive is low-flying?

Thursday, June 19th, 2008

Last winter, a short news item on AOPA.org about a Wisconsin biplane pilot being sent to jail for a fatal accident got a lot of attention from members.

Mark Strub had survived a low-flying accident that claimed the life of his passenger, and then he pleaded guilty to reckless operation of a motor vehicle and disorderly conduct. News of the first U.S. pilot jailed for an aircraft accident nearly set a record for hits on AOPA.org. That evening, I wrote Strub a letter and mailed it to the Wood County Jail in Wisconsin Rapids. I wanted to know more about the accident, and I wanted to learn about Strub. Was he a perennial screw-up with a history of reckless conduct, or a solid guy who made a terrible mistake?

How pervasive is low-flying among general aviation pilots? YouTube is full of video images of GA pilots behaving badly, and NTSB accident statistics show it’s been a common theme over many, many years.

Strub had been following the Wisconsin River in his Stearman at tree-top height on a summer day in 2004 and struck powerlines. He escaped, but his passenger, a 39-year-old wife and mother who had hoped for a thrilling but safe jaunt in an open-cockpit plane, died on the spot.

I met Strub at his rural home and found him candid, forthright and brutally direct. He doesn’t hide from his actions or make excuses. He lives with the life-altering consequences of his accident every day. And he would do anything to go back to that summer day four years ago and alter the outcome.

Among the AOPA publications staff, we had a rigorous debate about whether to tell Strub’s story at all. It’s sad and sobering, and publishing it is a stretch for an organization chartered to promote general aviation. But low-flying accidents have plagued aviation for generations–and we concluded that Strub’s bitter experience has a better chance of actually improving pilot behavior than all the preaching, accident statistics, and dry recitation of federal aviation regulations ever could.

It was a tough call–but I believe it was the right one.

And when you read about Mark Strub, do you shake your head and conclude he got what he deserved? That his punishment should have been more severe? Or do you close your eyes and think, “There but by the grace of God go I?”

Read the story online.

Future pilot sightings

Wednesday, June 18th, 2008

The National Air and Space Museum hosted its annual Family Learn-To-Fly Day at the Udvar-Hazy annex at Washington-Dulles International Airport on Saturday, June 14,  and the results left me more optimistic than I’ve been in a long while that the dwindling pilot population doesn’t have to dwindle in the future.

We all know the discouraging economics having to do with avgas, new aircraft, hangars, insurance, flight training, etc.

Well, here’s what I saw on Saturday: Scores of bright-eyed, extremely well-behaved kids entranced by flying machines ranging from hot-air balloons and hang gliders to warbirds and bizjets; parents asking detailed, informed questions that showed a real appreciation for flying, and enthusiastic aircraft owners willing to stand on a sweltering ramp and share their knowledge and expertise.

There’s a reason the Air and Space Museum is perennially the most visited of all the Smithsonian’s attractions. Americans are as interested in aerospace as ever. We just have to find a way to help them get involved.

A colleague, Pat Haller, and I, brought N208GG, the AOPA’s Sweepstakes plane, to the event. And visitors were impressed by the level of detail and craftsmanship in the restored, 1976 Archer. One visitor, Greg Harrison of Winterset, Iowa, was almost at a loss for words.

Harrison used to fly and maintain the plane when it was known as N22ZT.

“It was nothing special to look at,” he said. “In fact, it was pretty rough.”

The plane had had a hard-knock life until AOPA acquired it last year and launched an extreme makeover. The details of its transformation are chronicled, in detail, in AOPA Pilot, and the articles will continue until the plane is delivered to our annual sweepstakes winner in January. It was gratifying to see Harrison’s disbelieving reaction to the plane, which has gone from a sow’s ear to a silk purse.

It was a new experience for me to fly behind the Archer’s Aspen primary flight display on the way to and from the event.

The flight was great, but the taxi was taxing. In fact, taxiing from Runway 19C to the museum took longer than the short flight from Frederick–and the radio got a real workout. In a 30-mile flight, I spoke with three controllers (two approach, one tower) and four on the ground (two ramp and two ground). That doesn’t even count ASOS and Unicom at Frederick, or ATIS at Dulles.

Thanks to the museum staff for allowing AOPA to take part in such a worthwhile event. I look forward to the hard but rewarding work of preserving and expanding our flying heritage for the next generation . . .

What’s Hot at AOPA Fly-In (Everything, Everyone)

Saturday, June 7th, 2008

With temperatures forecast to touch 100 degrees in Frederick today, AOPA Fly-In visitors seemed prepared.

The smell of SPF-50 wafted by as crowds dressed in sun hats, shades, and shorts started to arrive about 7:30 a.m.

A few early aircraft arrivals were stymied by low clouds and fog. The visibility at 7:30 a.m. was about a quarter-mile, and ceilings were down to 200 feet. I heard at least two single-engine piston planes attempt the ILS approach to Runway 23 and execute the missed approach. (OK, maybe it was the same plane twice.)

But the clouds parted by 8:30 a.m. and the forecast was VFR, but hot and hazy throughout the rest of the day.

My first assignment was dolling up the Sweepstakes Archer–and N208GG was getting plenty of attention.

AOPA members were full of questions about “their” airplane. The most common inquiries are:

1) Why black seats? (Because they look great.)

2) What are those sharp things on the leading edge? (Vortex generators.)

3) Do they work? (Yes. Stall speed is reduced about 4 kts.)

4) How do you like the Aspen Avionics PFD? (We love it.)

5) Do you have to get special training or a sign-off to fly with the PFD? (No.)

6) When can I pick it up? (January–and we’ll deliver it to you!)

Character-building birthday lessons

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2008


Hard Lessons from Anti-Crash Technology

For better or worse, my 9-year-old son has inherited the aviation gene.

It’s recessive. (His big sister doesn’t have it.)

But Nathan Robert (a.k.a. “Natbob”) has pointed at passing airplanes since infancy. And for his birthday last week, the one thing he wanted more than anything else was a remote control airplane. Not the kind you fly on a string, mind you. He wanted a “real” RC airplane.

If he’d asked for flying lessons, I might have been able to help. But I know next to nothing about RCs, except that they’re hard to build and easy to break.

I took Nathan to a hobby store here in Frederick, Maryland, a few weeks ago and we did some research. I made no promises to buy him one, but a knowledgeable store employee recommended a Super Cub by Hobbyzone, and I thought that made sense.

Nathan counted down the last 10 days until his birthday by marking Xs on our kitchen calendar each morning. And when the big day arrived, he wasn’t disappointed.

The Super Cub was in the living room.

We put it together and, even though it’s not my custom, I actually read the manual. More than usual, I really wanted to avoid doing anything dumb that would ruin this prized possession. The package included a computer CD with a RC flight simulator, and Nathan practiced flying on our home PC.

More Perfectly

The weather and Nathan’s school schedule allowed for a brief flight on Saturday morning. We took his plane to an open, grassy area and fired up the electric motor. Nathan made the first takeoff and my heart soared as the plane circled high overhead.

By prior arrangement, I took over before landing. To our great relief, the plane was reusable afterward.

Nathan flew four times that morning, and he had the plane perform several (intentional) loops. They were egg shaped, but he kept the wings level all the way around.

“How come the engine cuts out whenever I do a loop?” he wanted to know.

“That’s the anti-crash technology,” I said. “Whenever the plane senses an unusual attitude, the motor stops and you can glide.” (Sort of a primitive version of Cirrus Designs’ new LVL button.)

Nathan made the rest of the landings himself. Then the wind picked up and the rain started and we went home. Things could hardly have gone more perfectly.

I Think We Can Fix It

That afternoon the sun came out again, the wind stopped, and Nathan wanted to fly again–and so did I. This time I brought my camera and planned to make the best of the golden evening twilight.

Nathan took off again and the plane began circling.

But instead of climbing over the grassy field, it was headed toward a metal storage building.

“Climb, buddy!” I urged him. “Full throttle and climb!”