Pilotage: Second solo

October 1, 2008

Mark R. Twombly is a Cessna Citation charter pilot who lives and writes from southwestern Florida.

A few years ago my brother Gerry reported that he was thinking of selling the Piper J-3 Cub he has owned for at least 25 years. He had taken each of his three daughters to EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh in it and he and his wife, Faith, had each enjoyed flying it, but it had become a hangar queen while they pursued their busy lives. Besides, he said, they could use the money for other cash-intensive pursuits, including horses. (Unlike a Cub, the only time a horse doesn’t eat is when it’s being ridden.)

Gerry suggested that maybe my brother Steven and I could prevent the loss of a potential family heirloom by buying shares of the airplane. It seemed like a good idea, despite the fact that Gerry lives in Memphis, Steven is an hour northeast of Atlanta, and I’m in Southwest Florida.

Heck, no problem. I’d just hop on an airliner to Memphis, then fly the Cub on down to Fort Myers for my four-month stint as the possessing owner. Same with Steven. It was a plan. We posted our checks to Memphis. We were Cub owners.

Two years later, here I am in Memphis, finally checking out in my Cub. Only it’s staying put. I’m in town because there was a good chance Hurricane Fay was going to affect the Fort Myers area, so we evacuated the Citation to Memphis. I’d be flying back home at Flight Level 410 doing Mach .82 instead of enjoying the view at 500 to 1,000 feet doing 80 mph.

The Cub’s yellow paint is faded but the Ceconite covering is in good shape, and the wing leading edges look great—no dimples from hangar rash or too-tight fabric. It’s got a metal spar and a complete Cub avionics suite consisting of a battery-powered headset intercom and an internally mounted antenna for use with a handheld radio, which we won’t be using today.

I got my seaplane rating five years ago in a J-3 on a pair of straight floats, but it’s been a lot longer than that since I’ve flown a Cub on three wheels. That dry spell was about to end. Gerry, who is a flight instructor, is circumspect in his critique as I taxi out to the runway. His only comment is to ask how I have positioned the controls in the quartering tailwind. In other words, I have positioned them incorrectly. He explains the proper technique (stick forward, upwind aileron down).

Following the pre-takeoff checks I line up on the centerline, then pour on the coals. The Continental purrs, the tail rises, the wing takes over. The door is down and the window is up and I can see the fat right main tire float off the runway. We are Cub flying.

Gerry says I can land on the paved runway or the grass between the runway and taxiway, but the grass mitigates sloppy technique. In other words, use the runway so he can see the full extent of my rustiness.

I get it down and stopped without any damage and not too much embarrassment, and Gerry asks if I intended to do a wheel landing or a full-stall three-pointer. He couldn’t tell because the stick was wobbling at the decisive moment. I remind him of the difficult conditions—that quartering headwind.

I try again, this time making it evident that it is a wheel landing. Gerry asks if I want to go it alone. I say I’d like to do one more with him in the airplane, this time on grass. Gerry seems satisfied with the results and asks me to drop him off so he can clean the hangar. “You go play,” he says, and then adds, “after the run-up, you don’t need to touch the brakes again.”

Suddenly, the front seat is empty. I can now see the panel and a big inclinometer that has been graphically displaying my sloppy footwork.

I taxi out, take the runway, and advance the throttle. The tail rises immediately, and in an instant I’m flying. Wow, what a difference the weight of one guy makes. The Cub levitates to pattern altitude, and I look out the open door at the ground below. It has been 41 years since I soloed, but the same feelings of anxious exhilaration come rushing back as if carried by the slipstream buffeting the narrow cockpit.

I barely remember my first solo landing that day. It may have been a three-pointer, and if memory serves it was a pretty good one—hardly a bounce. I did seven more, some good, some not so good, some on the grass, some on the runway. I tightened up my early Boeing 747-size patterns to something more J-3-like, and loosened up my nerves.

It was a blast, more fun even than my first solo—maybe because I was in the Cub. After the last landing I taxied back to the hangar, hooting all the way. Gerry was just finishing up. I shut off the mags, leaned out the cockpit, and in my best Cub-pilot voice said, “You were right. No need to use the brakes.”