In mid-January, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released some cold, hard facts. “Between 2001 and 2011, over 40 percent of fixed wing general aviation fatal accidents occurred because pilots lost control of their airplanes.” You might be surprised to learn that when The Boeing Company studied commercial jet accidents around the world between 2004 and 2013, the cause that resulted in more fatalities than any other – by a 2 to 1 margin actually – was Loss of Control Inflight (LOC-I). What we don’t know of course is why this keeps happening?
While the relationship between LOC-I precursors and actual loss of control is still being investigated, it’s clear that pilots of all categories are, at times, simply unable to fly their airplanes out of situations in which they find themselves. Cockpit automation has often been pegged as a likely culprit. Today, we’re going to do our part to slow the advance of LOC-I by turning off all the cockpit automation and hand-flying the airplane more often. Two ways I learned to be more closely tied to my airplane was to check out in a taildragger and earn my seaplane rating. Both require all hands on the controls from the moment you turn over the engine until shutdown. While flying both can be challenging at times, I’ve found the skills they build have truly made me a better pilot and instructor.
Dragging My Tail
I learned to fly a 7ECA Citabria many years ago after I bought it. I thought it was just an airplane with the steering wheel on the wrong end – although it used a control stick and not a wheel. Wrong again. For starters, the view out the cockpit window was different from the tricycle gear aircraft I’d flown because the taildragger’s nose sits high on the ground. That makes taxiing … interesting. Lots of rudder and brakes to turn the aircraft, or even keep it heading straight, especially when a strong breeze starts blowing. My first few hours with an instructor produced a great logbook entry … “N8300V 1.5 of crash and dash,” he wrote. I was mortified. After all, I already held a commercial pilot certificate. I’d pour the coals to it on takeoff and of course, with P-factor, torque and everything else, the Champ would head to the left side of the runway. Then I’d kick right rudder which brought us back toward centerline. Unfortunately, I waited until the nose began heading to the right edge of the runway to kick in left rudder and hence many zig-zag takeoffs were started and stopped. The key turned out to be calm days of partial power on takeoff, just enough so I could raise the tail and learn to steer before I pulled the throttle back and taxied back for another try.
It took me awhile to realize I needed to lead the nose around rather than allowing it to lead me. But of course during takeoff, the airplane is also trying to accelerate and I couldn’t see much over the nose. I also learned to raise the tail once there was enough airflow. But you have to do that gently or you’ll put the airplane on it’s nose. You might remember something in ground school called gyroscopic effect … well maybe not. Point is, when the tail comes up, that movement also makes the nose want to swing so you really need to be on the rudders there too … positively, but gently. During my first landings, all seemed normal until I realized this was simply a reverse crash and dash … keep on the rudders to keep the nose straight. Add a crosswind and it becomes a tad challenging until the tail comes back down.
Worst case scenario in my Champ was the inability of the airplane to turn downwind after landing in a 25-knot headwind. Too much brake and power and I could feel I’d put the thing on its nose. The solution turned out to be impossibly simple. Shut the engine down, get out and lift the tail myself to turn the airplane around. Then I restarted and moved it to my tiedown. While all of this sounds tough, after 10 hours or so, I was no longer zig zagging. I used my rudders often and cross winds no longer seemed to bother me as much. I’d become not only coordinated, but finely tuned.
Last fall I realized I craved a new learning challenge. That evolved into earning my seaplane rating in Traverse City, Michigan. The first hour in that Cub on floats reminded me of a few things from my days as a taildraggers student. When the pitch and power of the instructor’s voice is high and loud, danger is near. I also realized the airplane started moving the minute the propeller spun up and of course, there are no brakes. Like the Champ, the Cub had a control stick which I thought made aileron and elevator movements easier to plan and water rudders for improved steering on the surface. I just needed to remember to retract them before takeoff and landing. The seaplane rating is all about learning to taxi, takeoff and land on the water. The rest is like any other airplane, except that when the instructor pulled the engine on me at 1,000 feet AGL, those floats acted like barn doors that pegged the vertical speed indicator pretty fast. On takeoff, it’s all about finding a place on the water called, “the step.” It’s a spot where you have just enough forward pressure on the stick to raise the back of the floats out of the water, but not so much that you put the airplane on its nose. Like the taildragger, it was all about learning to fine tune my movements. I learned this piece of fine tuning the hard way however.
On takeoff, I shoved the stick forward in the Cub like I did to raise the tail in the Champ. WRONG! I learned that fine tuning means too much forward pressure on the stick and the floats bog down in the water. After a few takeoffs, I absolutely began to feel it. Too little back pressure on takeoff and we just mush along in the water like a boat. Finding the takeoff sweet spot meant power, a bit of forward pressure and after about three or four seconds, the airplane accelerated … no it actually jumped ahead. Then I had to finely oscillate the stick to keep the floats in the same place until liftoff speed. Then a bit of back pressure and I was climbing just like a regular bird. By the second hour or so of instruction I thought figured it out. My silent instructor in the back seat confirmed it. There is of course the issue of docking the airplane to contend with too, but I’m still working on that part.
The point of convincing you to give a taildragger or a seaplane rating a try is of course, both are fun. But both also require the pilot to control the aircraft very precisely at times. The first few hours will be real work, but after that you’ll be surprised at how much better you’ll fly these and any other airplane. BTW, when you see AOPA President Mark Baker at AirVenture this year, tell him you’re thinking about a seaplane rating. He has more great seaplane stories than any half dozen other pilots I know.