Low and Slow in New Jersey

Taildragging over a bucolic countryside

November 1, 2005

As a student pilot, I was drilled in the perils of flying low and slow. So it's a guilty pleasure to be following this nameless river at 55 mph, below the level of the treetops, turning with each meander. This is what bush pilots do when the only place to land is a sand bar, with every other approach blocked by trees.

Bush airplanes are more commonly associated with Alaska and Maine. But here on New Jersey's northern edge, tucked between interstate highways 80 and 84, there's a countryside as bucolic as any you'll find in the northeastern United States. Here are working farms, pretty lakes, two ski resorts, and a quantity of tiny airstrips, many of them serving crop dusters. And here Damian DelGaizo wears a gray sweatshirt boasting "Andover Flight, College of Taildragger Knowledge."

On the ground, a tailwheel airplane suggests a dog sitting on its haunches. This nose-high attitude enables its wings to carry much of the weight when the airplane is moving, for shorter takeoffs and landings. The big tires in front help soak up the bumps, especially in the case of DelGaizo's Aviat Husky, which is equipped with 31-inch tundra tires inflated to a mere 8 pounds of pressure. (He has since switched to a Piper PA-18 Super Cub, also with tundra tires, and the option of skis in the winter.)

DelGaizo acquired his bush-flying skills in the Moosehead Lake region of Maine, flying supplies and customers to remote hunting and fishing camps in a float-equipped de Havilland Beaver. Now he's passing those skills along to other pilots who want to negotiate the backcountry out of necessity, for sport, or just to hone their flying skills. I fall into the third category. As a friend of mine explains the process of becoming a pilot: The neophyte brings two buckets to this task, a full one containing luck and an empty one containing experience. I'm anxious to fill the second bucket before I empty the first.

Andover Flight Academy's most notable graduate is movie actor Harrison Ford, who came here to prep for the movie Six Days, Seven Nights, co-starring Anne Heche and a de Havilland Beaver like the one DelGaizo used to fly. (The movie was panned, but at least Ford, an active pilot, got to do some fun training.)

Whatever the motive, the student undertakes a course that typically involves six hours of flying, plus homework and whiteboard instruction, over the course of three days. DelGaizo likes to diagram landings in advance, like a coach with a new football play. If my setup is good, he explains, my landing has a better chance of happening the way I want it to.

In this fashion, I learn the J takeoff, in which I make the most of a short runway by starting off in the wrong direction, then reversing, so that the airplane is moving at a good clip by the time it actually begins the takeoff roll. I learn how to negotiate a canyon that rises faster than my airplane can climb, and how to flee if the walls close in regardless. New Jersey has no actual canyons, of course, but the cliffs of the Delaware Water Gap make a convincing substitute.

And of course I land the Husky — on short fields and on soft fields, over trees, uphill, and on the diagonal — on three wheels, two wheels, and once on a single fat tundra tire — over and over, while the wind blows and the sun steams the cockpit and DelGaizo in the backseat talks me through the motions. (And keeps two fingers on the control stick, as he later admits.) "Give me 18 inches of manifold pressure," he will say. "Now two notches of flaps." It's easy to fly well when someone else makes the decisions.

My graduation ceremony — or student recital if you prefer — is the riverine approach. I feel like a great blue heron going home at dusk, navigating the waterway with grace and the occasional croak, banking from side to side as the terrain requires. The flaps are down, adding lift and thereby allowing the Husky to fly slower than it otherwise could: flaps down and power on, the stall speed is about 50 mph at a 45-degree bank, which we round up to 55 mph to be on the safe side. Like spin training and aerobatics, this sort of flying has built-in hazards, but they are mitigated by an airplane in good mechanical condition, a conservative approach, and an instructor in the back- seat. I won't try this at home.

Swoop first to the left, then to the right, and now the river makes a 90-degree turn, threatening to end our flight against a wall of trees. However, we have rehearsed this moment on the chalkboard: I put the stick over to the left, swing into a cul-de-sac, and jump the trees at its far end. No need to add power; the Husky's momentum carries us over, and now we are in another clearing with a rambling building on our left. I turn toward the building, then right over a pile of stones, and touch down on a flat green field, 500 feet long. Brisk work on the brakes enables me to stop the airplane in half that distance — a B+ at the very least.

(Full disclosure: There's an asphalt runway beyond the patch of green grass, so even if I overshot the landing, I'd injure nothing but my pride.)

"That was fun," I say, immensely proud of myself.

"It's all in the setup," DelGaizo says.


Daniel Ford, AOPA 1417957, of Durham, New Hampshire, is a pilot and freelance writer.


The Details

Andover Flight Academy
Post Office Box 239
Andover, New Jersey 07821
973/786-6554
www.andoverflight.com
e-mail: bushflying@earthlink.net
See the Web site or call for current rates


Links to additional information about flying taildraggers may be found on AOPA Online ( www.aopa.org/pilot/links.shtml).