Posts Tagged ‘Dave Hirschman’

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 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 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.

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!”


Mustang Rodeo

Monday, May 19th, 2008

Some of the best minds in aviation training have been focusing on VLJs with a goal of improving pilot performance and reducing insurance rates. A Cessna Citation Mustang accident in California last month shows there’s still lots of work to be done.

A Mustang suffered extensive damage at Carlsbad’s McClelland-Palomar Airport on April 19 when it landed long and fast and ground-looped at the departure end of the Runway 24. The NTSB said the airplane operated by California Natural Products was about 15 knots fast when it touched down about halfway down the 4,897-foot runway, and the pilot/owner intentionally ground-looped to avoid going down a steep embankment.

The pilot had reported a flickering primary flight display during the flight and failed electric trim that required using the manual trim for approach and landing. The pilot descended through clouds from about 5,000 feet to about 2,600 feet and made a visual approach. The pilot also said he was fatigued by the demands of hand-flying the airplane for 45 minutes leading up to the accident.

See the NTSB brief for more information.

Liberty Belle’s European Vacation

Tuesday, May 13th, 2008

“Liberty Belle,” a beautifully restored B-17G, is headed to Europe (and back) this summer–and the nearly 8,000 mile odyssey is likely to mark the last time a Flying Fortress ever stretches its wings across an ocean.

Don Brooks of rural Douglass, Georgia, started the Liberty Belle Foundation to honor his dad, a B-17 crewmember, and other veterans. Now, the airplane that flew as part of the 390th Bomb Group in England is making a final trip to the site of its wartime service. It should be interesting to see the reaction it gets there.

Getting the airplane across the Atlantic and back is going to be a major logistical and financial effort. The longest leg is less than 1,000 miles–less than half the airplane’s maximum range of 1,850 miles. But avgas can be hard to find in Greenland and Iceland, and high prices combined with unfavorable currency exchange rates will make U.S. pump prices seem like a bargain. At economy cruise, the airplane’s four Wright 1820s burn about 250 gallons of fuel (and about five gallons of oil) an hour. The foundation estimates the trip will cost at least $275,000.

Brooks knows what he’s getting into, though. He flew his DC-3 to France to drop parachutists over Normandy for a D-Day anniversary, and he’s flown to Greenland many times as part of the team that recovered “Glacier Girl,” the P-38 that had long been buried under the ice cap.

For a detailed schedule and more information about the Liberty Belle’s upcoming adventure, visit the foundation’s Web site:

   For a map of the Liberty Belle’s route:

   Good Luck!

Where do we get such men?

Friday, May 9th, 2008

 The story unfolded something like this:

Dead battery; mags on; throttle open; hand-prop plane; engine starts; plane surges forward; prop smacks post; crankshaft breaks; prop lands on hangar far away.

Fortunately, there were no casualties, other than the now-deceased Piper.


Otherwise, the pilot/Armstrong starter would deserve a nomination for next year’s Darwin Award.

(Whoever thought of putting barriers in front of self-service fuel pumps was a genius!)


Web posts make us invulnerable! (We hope . . .)

Monday, April 28th, 2008

An ongoing thread on the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association (COPA) Web site points out a remarkable correlation between aviation accidents and Web posting. Evidently, no one who has ever posted a comment on the COPA site has been involved in a Cirrus accident. COPA members have never been reluctant to share their thoughts, and there’s a vigorous difference of opinion about whether pilots who post on the Web are better informed, or just lucky blowhards.

The AOPA Air Safety Foundation (ASF) has an ongoing, internal discussion about how best to get ASF online courses onto the computer screens of the pilots who need them. There’s no empirical evidence to back this up, but I’ve got to think the pilots who take the ASF interactive Runway Safety course, for example, are probably less likely to mistakenly cross the yellow lines than those who don’t. And that’s true even before they heighten their awareness by taking the online course.

Anyway, I’m not a Cirrus owner, and I’m not superstitious. But I’ll try to post something on the COPA site just to hedge my bets . . .

Impressive Gadgets at AEA

Friday, April 25th, 2008

In case anyone hasn’t got the memo yet, the era of steam gauges is over.

During a visit to the Aircraft Electronics Association’s annual convention in Washington yesterday, there was a lot of buzz about Aspen’s “Evolution” PFD and Garmin’s “Synthetic Vision Technology.” AOPA Pilot, and this blog, have had a lot to say about both products recently, and their popularity at Sun’n Fun has been well documented.

But the final nail in the coffin of steam gauges appears to be coming from the steam gauge manufacturers themselves. RC Allen Instruments, for example, was showing off a digital artificial horizon meant to replace traditional vacuum attitude indicators. RC Allen’s “RCA 2600″ doesn’t require a separate air data computer or additional instrumentation. It just drops into the 3 1/8″ hole left by the departing attitude indicator and plugs into the electrical system. It’s got a battery backup, and at around $2,000, will cost the same or less than the instrument it replaces. A test model also contained heading information, so it could replace the directional gyro, too. The company is also building a 2″ model, and it expects to begin selling experimental versions this summer while it pursues certification . . .

Also overheard at the show:

* Bendix/King is planning a hand-held GPS “Aviator” to challenge Garmin’s dominance in the portable GPS market. Expect to see an announcement this summer.

* Synthetic vision won’t be limited to G1000s. The technology will migrate to hand-held GPSs — but it will take a couple of years to make the jump. Garmin’s high-end 496 doesn’t have enough processing power to handle the demand of so much graphics. But Garmin, and others, are working on it.