July 1, 2001
The shiny yellow Piper Cub sat up expectantly like a puppy. It was dwarfed on one side by a Stearman's huge radial and on the other by a spit-shined Beech Baron. Across the gleaming gray floor were a Hawker jet and a sparkling new Aviat Husky painted in Cub yellow, looking for all the world like the Cub's young grandson. Yet the old Cub looked right at home with its famous relatives in the mercury-vapor-bright hangar as I strode in for an airport meeting and saw it for the first time.
The seats were so small, and the cloth that covered the fragile tubes so flimsy, it hardly seemed it could fly at all. I leaned through its open door to find only six dials. No radios, no starter, no electricity! How could anyone actually fly this thing with so little information? I had never actually looked closely at a Cub before, owning an intercooled Piper Turbo Saratoga with digital engine instrumentation and a panel-mount GPS.
My friend Keith appeared at my shoulder. "It's in great shape, isn't it?"
"Yeah," I said. "It's obviously taken care of. Looks like it's always hangared. Any idea how old it is?"
"I think it's a '46," he said.
"Wow — even older than me."
"I heard it's for sale," he said. (Uh-oh.)
"Are you kidding? You know how much?"
"No, but it belongs to Milt. You can ask him."
I wanted to take it home with me, like when I was smitten by a three-month-old bloodhound mix named Dox at the dog pound back when I was in college. There was no way I could let anyone else fly this thing. It had personality. It seemed to be prancing back and forth on its big round front feet, just dying for me to scratch behind its ears, like Dox used to do. In my mind we were already dawdling over the countryside with the big side door open to the wind, talking to each other with the stick and rudder.
Jeez, I would have to learn to land a (gulp) taildragger. And owning two airplanes? What would I tell Alison, my wife? My accountant? My mother?
But it was talking to me. "Take me home," it seemed to whisper. "Come on — spin my prop! You know you want to!"
I had to wait sleeplessly until the next morning to hunt down Milt, a white-haired, crusty old guy who started flying Douglas DC-3s shortly after Lincoln was assassinated. He runs a flying school and charter operation with his wife and daughter, and owns a piece of the Stearman that loomed over the Cub. His first flight had been in this very airplane in 1947, when he was 16 years old, which was also before I was born.
We pulled it out into the sunshine, the first time I had seen it outside. I climbed into the rear seat and put my right hand on the stick and my left on the throttle while Milt rumbled on about brakes and mags. He hand-spun the prop and the Cub barked. It was tough to see out the sides while taxiing back and forth across the tarmac, so I twisted my cap around backward and stuck my head out through the open door to straddle the centerline. I pushed the throttle forward and added a little forward stick to get the tail up. The spinning McCauley pulled us about 200 feet upwind and I eased the stick back. The huge ribbed wings climbed onto the rushing air and the thing seemed to jump off the ground — and we were flying.
In 14 pilot years it was the first time I had ever looked out an open door at the ground, the wind whipping my face. With no crazed plastic in the way it was better than I had ever imagined.
We flew at 1,000 feet and 75 miles an hour over the hills and lakes of central Connecticut until my face actually hurt from the stupid grin plastered on it. This was flying! My feet and hands were using the stick and rudder to feel the air, like gulls riding the currents. It was the sort of thing the old guys who hang out in the airport lounge all day talk about.
The first flight was over, and I reluctantly stepped out onto the ramp.
I hemmed and hawed a while. I knew I should not even be thinking about buying another airplane.
I thought up every reason in the world why buying — er, investing in — the Cub was a stupid thing to do. And irresponsible. Maybe a little romantic. I went back and flew it again. Twice. And looked over the logbooks.
Who was I kidding?
It did not take long to reach an agreement. I made insurance arrangements, dependent on instruction and a tailwheel signoff. I did not tell my wife.
I called AOPA. With the help of its escrow and title service I owned the Cub in three weeks. Then I told my wife. She did not throw me out of the house. Two airplanes and an understanding wife. I'm a lucky man.
I went out to the airport every few days to fly with Milt. He knew taildraggers like the back of his hand, and a tiny little bit rubbed off on me. Soon he signed me off to solo.
I neglected the Saratoga, except for traveling, and flew the Cub every chance I got. I made dozens of touch and goes at a time, wheel landings and three-pointers. I did runway flybys, sweeping the entire 5,000 feet at 45 miles an hour, 10 feet over the centerline. I could do it in a stiff crosswind with barely a correction the whole length, my eyes on the back of the front seat, the runway lights a blur in the periphery of my vision.
We were connected, me and my Cub. I felt the wings flying like never before in any of the other planes I have flown. I knew the air like I always wanted to. I was getting good.
From the pilot's seat I cannot quite reach the carburetor heat lever, low on the sidewall to the right of the front seat. To pull it on for landing or slow flight I have to loosen my belt and lean way over, letting go of the stick. So, to push it off again, I got the bright idea of using my right foot.
I had just made a really terrific wheel landing with a right crosswind, and I lifted my right foot off the rudder pedal to close the carburetor heat, while my left foot was still on its pedal. And then it happened. Remember p-factor? It's why we use right rudder on takeoff. Even more so in taildraggers, with the center of gravity behind the main wheels. The Cub swerved left, and off the runway we went.
Even though I could not see over the nose, I thought I would get away with a quiet ride through the grass, until I heard a sickening crunch and the Cub stopped in its tracks. I hauled myself out and saw a PAPI light poking through the cloth underbelly, like a spear in a fish. Ten feet farther down the runway and I would have been clear.
I was not hurt, the damage was not bad, and my insurance had no deductible. But all the airport regulars knew by now what I had done. Back in the hangar I said to Milt: "Mostly, it's just plain embarrassing."
He glanced over his shoulder surreptitiously. "Once," said he in a barely audible tone, "when I worked for Capital, I ground looped a DC?3 full of passengers."
"That's terrible!" I blurted, awestruck. "Then what did you do?"
"I lined it up and took off," he exclaimed. Obviously. Stupid me.
Remember the old saying about falling off a horse? Well, I could not immediately resaddle my Cub because there were the small matters of the landing gear, the holes in the fabric, and the propeller. And some things in this world just cannot be rushed, like airplane mechanics.
But in the back of my mind was the nagging fear that I really did not have the stuff to fly that old rag taildragger. A thousand times I relived the trip off the runway, my right foot on the pedal.
Finally, on a gloomy Sunday six weeks later, I was helping to put together the brake lines as sundown approached and the clouds moved in. The ceiling lowered as we bolted on the prop and Milt pronounced the Cub in one piece again.
"Milt," I said, "I know we've been working all day and the ceiling is coming down, but I really want to fly this thing."
I could have taken it myself, but Milt would not have been happy, and with my limited experience and the PAPI light incident as my last memory, it was smarter not to.
"Well, hell," he mumbled to no one in particular. "Let's go."
I taxied the Cub and a silent Milt out under the gray sky. I lined up, pulled my right hand back, and pushed my left forward. As the ancient cloth flying machine started to roll, I nudged the stick forward to raise the tail and the runway popped into view. Where the airspeed indicator should have been, all I could see was Milt's bald spot, so when it felt just right, I squeezed the stick back and the air rushed into the open door to hit me in the face as the Cub leapt into the air. I don't know who was happier, me or the little old airplane, both of us with our wings again.
After that, I worked even harder at perfecting both wheel- and three-point landings. I never wanted to make a mistake like that again.
And then I got a call from the FAA. If I had never touched a taildragger, I never would have heard from them. They wanted to "reexamine" me for my "pilot certification, with special emphasis on taildragger techniques." It's called a CFR 44709 checkride ("709 ride" for short, and previously a Part 609 checkride or "609 ride" until the regulation was renumbered a few years ago). I had flown more than 1,700 hours and obtained commercial and instrument tickets without a single black mark. I had flown many AirLifeLine missions and had articles published in aviation magazines. Would my decision to buy the little Cub now come back to haunt me?
My certificate was on the line. I had to nail this checkride. And it was not just landings. I would have to show a government-authorized stranger that I could perform to commercial standards, since I hold a commercial ticket. Steep turns, stalls, questions about airspace, and questions about commercial pilot privileges and restrictions were all fair game.
I redoubled my efforts. On cold, clear mornings I went out to the airport in winter clothes. In the morning calm I could do two or three touch and goes in the time it would normally take to do just one. Best of all, I could be all alone with the Cub when the sun came up in its solitary red October glory.
It's not so bad that someone at the FAA decided to reexamine me. It forced me to become tailwheel proficient to a degree I probably never would have attempted without the sword of Damocles over my head. The basic signoff took 10 hours of dual. Now, I had to be good. If you want to enjoy something that you have learned with difficulty, like skiing the bumps, teaching a class, or flying a low instrument approach, then you must get good at it.
On the Saturday before my checkride, I went to the airport to begin serious final practice (I was well into the overkill area by now). At 6:30 a.m. I cleaned the windows, added some oil, and hauled it out onto a dark ramp. I wanted to see the sunrise from the air, but above me was solid fog. After a frustrating hour I went home and got back in bed.
I finally got airborne as the north end of the runway cleared at 9:30. By the end of the day I could have put those fat wheels on a tennis court at midnight.
I spent Thursday going over the logbooks in excruciating detail. Nuts and bolts were tightened. I checked the registration, airworthiness certificate, pilot's logbook, and medical. Fresh batteries went in the portable intercom and handheld radio. I fueled the Cub and parked it right in the front of the hangar ready to roll. My briefcase was packed, and my notes were in order.
I met with my assigned flight standards district office examiner at 8:30 in the morning. Marilyn Pearson is an experienced career pilot with aerobatic credentials, and does the tailwheel work for the Bradley, Connecticut, FSDO, as well as safety seminars. She went through my paperwork and everything was in perfect order. Do not even think about going to a 709 ride without that stuff done — you will have wasted your time and the examiner's, and will have set a very bad precedent.
Her questions were extensive but she did not ask me anything I should not have known anyway: How does the ground handling of taildraggers differ from that of nosewheel airplanes? Flight characteristics? Regulations? (A signoff, and three landings to a full stop every 90 days.) Talk through a landing. A takeoff. A stall. What's the difference between an accident and an incident? When are they reportable?
It was clear she was not out to "get" me. She was there to assure herself and her FSDO that I am a competent tailwheel pilot, that my incident was an unfortunate mistake that will not be repeated. She even told me that she had "turned a few around herself." That's the fundamental problem with taildraggers. The center of gravity behind the main wheels makes them inherently unstable on the ground, especially in a crosswind.
I did a thorough preflight check and briefed her as if she were an inexperienced passenger. I taxied perhaps a bit more carefully than usual, and we were off.
We flew to the nearby practice area where I demonstrated a 360-degree turn at low speed (50 mph). The turn having sufficed for clearing, she asked me to do a couple of stalls. Steep turns, slow turns, and a simulated engine failure followed, and we headed back to the airport.
I made a perfect wheel landing, and then she showed me how to do a three-point takeoff, something I had not done before. Then around the pattern, where she cut the power on downwind to see if I could make it to the runway. A flawless three-pointer finished it.
I felt good.
If you make a mistake, the FAA wants to know why. All of us have heard horror stories, but mine is not one of them. In a way, I'm glad I had to go through it. Despite some anxiety, I learned a lot. I never would have practiced to the standards I did if not for the checkride. I'm completely at ease with my tailwheel abilities. If all FAA examiners can provide the kind of friendly atmosphere that Marilyn did, and teach me something to boot, then they have my vote.
My first Cub trip after the checkride was to Igor I. Sikorsky Memorial Airport in Bridgeport to meet my parents for lunch. It was a beautiful fall day, calm and warm. I felt cool on the way over. I felt free. I absorbed the scenery and used the wind. Handling the Cub was second nature. We were talking to each other, just as I had imagined we would the first time I saw it in the hangar four months before. My feet played an organ tune on the rudder pedals as they swung the old rag wings through the invisible updrafts, syncopating with the mechanical beat of the 54-year-old pistons.
My Uncle Percy had taken lessons in a Cub at Bridgeport 58 years before. I have his old logbook on display in my office with a bunch of medical antiques. The irony was that I was wearing Uncle Percy's shoes. I think my father got a little thrill of pride from that. My mother, however, was appalled when she saw the aging fabric flivver — but that's another story.
Brian Peck is a medical doctor specializing in arthritis, osteoporosis, and pain management in Waterbury, Connecticut. He is an instrument-rated commercial pilot who has accumulated more than 1,800 hours in his 14 years of flying. Dr. Peck is also the author of The Baby Boomer Body Book, a general health reference for the layman, which was released in April.
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