Around the Airport

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Don't Hate the Media if You're No Different

Will fly for nuts.
A few years ago, I was promised the chance to fly an extremely rare bird.  Due to the nature of the opportunity, I went to great lengths to make it happen.  When the day came, I was high on anticipation.  Then came the flight.
The person delivered the plane to the place where I would fly it was a known quantity.  He never liked how most old planes flew, had banged up a few, and was generally grumpy.  No problem there, I’ve met my share of them.  But, I had talked to this guy in the past and the impression I had was that he was very protective of “the seat”.  “The seat” is the right to fly somebody else’s plane and many of the people who are “given seats” get very protective of it; often going to the point of doing whatever it takes to keep others out of it.  And, sure enough, that’s what I got.
I would not be allowed to fly the plane after all.  I would only get to take the controls for a few minutes in the air.  Unfortunately, that just doesn’t give you a full picture of how a plane flies.  Yet, having cashed in a lot of time and energy I went anyway (I do not like being a passenger/not above it, just don’t like it).
When it came time for me to take the controls, I asked my usual questions.  Included in this list is perhaps the most important one of all, “How does it stall?”  The pilot didn’t know.  Not only did he not know, but to his knowledge nobody else had stalled it either because they were “afraid of it”.  Well, I stalled it.
Guess what.  It stalled simple and easy.  Dropped one wing a little and that was it.  Scary.
"She flies like a big Cub"
Around the same time, I was invited to fly a Staggerwing and jumped at it.  We took off, flew around, did some stalls, slow flight, steep turns, a few high altitude slips, and came back to land.  Lining up I couldn’t believe how easy it was.  The plane just put itself where it needed to be and I found it to be one of the easiest planes to land I had flown in some time.  According to others though, they’re somewhat of a pain to fly.
Congruously, a lot of time in a PT-22 time was going into my logbook.  Everyone has heard the stories about the Ryan but I found none of them to be true.  So untrue were they, it became the big joke.   Oooh, the scary 22.
Of course, the list goes on and on.  Plane after plane I fly turns out to be nothing at all like I’ve been told.  Take the accepted knowledge on the machine and throw it out the window.  Most of it qualifies as rubbish. 
Naturally, there have been some planes that got the best of me.  The flights may have been successful but they were not wonderful.  And without fail, I flew all of them when I was tired, or rushed, or unfamiliar with the airport.  Never do this.  These things will kill you before any plane.
She flies great!
Yet, with each plane I didn’t fly perfectly, I never found the plane to be the problem.  It was always me.  Wait, there was one time I thought about the plane when I tried to figure out why a flight did not go smoothly.  The aircraft's behaviour was bizarre and only recently (years later) did I figure out the issue (I had flown others and found them to be great fliers).  It turns out it was me.  I was tired and rushed and if you ask me in person I’ll tell you the specifics. Whatever the case, it wasn’t the plane.
Today though, it’s becoming more and more common to see any old plane, even tricycles, described as very hard to fly, requiring a lot of skill, and sometimes even scary.  Why is that?  Statistically speaking, it’s impossible that I have always earned “a seat” in the most perfectly rigged example of each type.  But, that’s almost always what I get from pilots when questioning their sketchy report on any aircraft.  So common is their rebuttal, I now often cover the subject up front with, “It’s an older restoration so I don’t believe it was rigging”, or “Maybe I just flew the most perfect example on the planet.”
If you’ve read to this point, you’re probably curious why I insist on questioning the reports of others.  If not, you’re likely asking yourself, “It is possible that by chance he has flown the best rigged planes?”   The answer to the first one is easy.

I do not want the pilots of tomorrow to be afraid of these planes and in turn quit flying them.  If they were to quit using them, it would be a crime to base those decisions on the likes of pilots who have made these machines out to be dragons only the manliest of men can slay.  That’s garbage.
He's wearing the uniform so he must know what he's talking about.
But what about that second one?  How do I keep managing to fly the best planes?  That answer to that too is simple; I don’t.
You see, there is a simple trick to flying old planes.  It doesn’t matter what you fly, small to big, slow to fast, or cheap to expensive, as long as you aren’t afraid of it.  Even subtle unrecognized second guessing will make anything difficult to fly.  But again, it won’t be the planes fault.  It will be yours.  And that’s the trick.  Don’t fear the plane*.  If you do, the shadows of trees outside your window will quickly turn to monsters.
If that’s too philosophical, here’s something practical.  You have to understand the difference between respect and fear.  There is no plane on the planet today, which was originally built in any substantial numbers (more than 20) that is dangerous or difficult fly.  If the make or model received enough funding or orders to make a run of them, and they were good enough for the fliers of the day, there’s no reason to fear taking them up.  Respect is another thing.
You must respect the plane.  To do so, you must also understand why it was built and for what purpose, how planes of the day flew, and that today’s definition of good flying characteristics is irrelevant.  If a plane hunts for altitude in flight that does not make it difficult to fly. It’s a common characteristic of planes built before the thirties. If landing a specific plane requires you to be on top of your game, that does not mean it should be feared. And finally, there is no plane on the planet that I know of which goes uncontrollable when it stalls. 
They each fly differently and yet they all fly better than you.
Sure, some old planes may wear you out on a cross-country, others demand more attention near the ground, and some will drop a wing on you if stalled.  Yet, each and every single one of them are easily controlled if you respect it and fly it the way it was intended to be flown.  Respect leads to purposeful control.  Fear breeds reaction.  That's the critical difference.
So there you have it.  Old planes aren’t scary or difficult.  They’re just different.  And, if you’re flying old planes and telling everyone they’re no fun because they hunt for altitude, don’t have balanced controls, are difficult to land, or they’re dangerous to stall, then you should not be flying them, owners should not be allowing you to fly them, and you should quit doing history a great disservice.

This thing may not fly pretty but it does the job it was designed for.
Addendum:
Bent gear, a bent airframe, or bad rigging on an old airplane is fairly common.  I won’t go into the reasons why but I will reiterate that you should be on the lookout for them BEFORE you fly.  Once you’re operating the plane, these things can and will make the flight characteristics unpleasant.  Yet again, that is not a reflection on the design of the airplane but the owner, mechanic, or restorer.   In relation to the discussion above though, a bent airplane is rarely the reason people describe a specific flying machine as being poor in nature.

*Never fly a plane you fear

4 comments:

Mike Lambert said...

Great article, but I can think of one plane that goes uncontrollable when you stall it: The Cirrus.

N5740C said...

Great article, Rich!

I remember one day I was pre-flighting my Cessna 170 and a guy walked up and started talking to me. After a few minutes he said:

"Tail Dragger, eh? Those things are tough to land"

I puffed up my chest, put my thumbs in my collar and said:

"Ya, you pretty much have to be a Superman to fly these babies"

He didn't think it was so funny

TOGWTCO said...

Well said.

Rich Davidson said...

Mike,

The Cirrus does not go out of control when you stall it. They merely did not want to change the plane as much as would be required to make the stalls as incredibly benign as the FAA requires. Therefore, they went ballistic.