Proficient Pilot

In pursuit of 488

July 1, 2010

Several years ago I wrote about my desire to fly as many different types of aircraft as possible. My initial goal was to reach 300. After passing that mark in a Lockheed Electra Junior, I targeted 400 and eventually 488—even though I recognize that I will not survive long enough to get that far. The journey itself, though, is worth the effort.

Why 488 types, you ask? According to Guinness World Records, Capt. Eric “Winkle” Brown has flown 487 aircraft types and is considered the holder of such a record. Brown was a pilot in Britain’s Royal Navy and became chief test pilot at the Royal Aircraft Establishment during World War II. He flew almost everything built by the Allied and Axis powers plus a plethora of other aircraft. Such unusual circumstances make it unlikely that anyone will ever break his record.

My column about “collecting types” resulted in heartwarming responses from many readers offering to let me fly their airplanes (“ Proficient Pilot: The Good, Bad, and Ugly,” September 2000 AOPA Pilot). I’ve often thought since then how much fun it would be to dedicate a summer to flying around the country and accepting these kind invitations. Sigh. So many airplanes; so little time.

Jerry Griggs was one of those readers. He invited me to fly his Wichita-based Aeronca K. When I recently found that I would be making a business trip to Wichita, I contacted him to see if the offer was still open. “Unfortunately,” he replied, “the ‘K’ needs new fabric, and I’ve removed the wings.

“However,” he volunteered, “my friend, Nick Mardis, has a Krier Clipped-Wing Cub that you can fly.” (Mardis also owns what might be the world’s fastest Cessna 180. With a 300-horsepower engine and numerous drag-reduction modifications, it cruises at 175 knots.)

Lake Waltanna (SN65) is a residential airpark that is a pleasant 25-minute drive west of Wichita. There Griggs introduced me to the Clipped-Wing Cub, which not surprisingly has much shorter wings than a standard J–3 Cub. “Each wing is shortened by 40.5 inches, and the number of wing ribs is doubled,” he said. Griggs also mentioned stronger wing struts, an increase from 65 to 100 horsepower, and gap seals at the leading edges of the flight-control surfaces. “You’ll discover that the controls are much more effective and sensitive than those of a conventional Cub, and you can do any aerobatic maneuver in this airplane that you can in a Citabria. However, with so much less wing area, the glide ratio is not like it used to be. It descends rather steeply, more like a Tri-Pacer.” He then swung the prop and sent me on my way.

His briefing was accurate. While recovering from a practice spin, full opposite rudder was so powerful and immediately effective that I almost transitioned from a spin in one direction to a spin in the other before having a chance to push the stick forward.

With so much less wing span, the airplane exhibits much less roll damping, so that the almost full-span ailerons are both touchy and effective. Roll rate is spritely. The aircraft is a joy and nothing like any Cub I had ever flown (except that it still must be flown solo from the rear seat).

That afternoon I had to shift mental gears. Griggs is the director of standards at the Learjet Learning Center operated by FlightSafety International in Wichita. His friend, Allen Goodwin, a retired Lear test pilot, had access to a Lear 45 and graciously offered me the left seat for a couple of hours. (Thankfully, Griggs had prepared me for this by providing two hours of simulator experience the day before.)

It is one thing to fly a Lear with an instructor, but quite another to do so with a test pilot. One maneuver he had me do was a stall at 13,000 feet agl over the west Kansas plains. When the stick shaker grabbed my attention, and I was about to lower the nose, he told me to continue applying back-pressure until I felt the stall buffet. Then he said, “Continue applying backpressure until the yoke reaches its aft limit, and hold it there.” I did as instructed and silently uttered a prayer to the Sky Gods.

The 45 buffeted and shook while maintaining a nose-high attitude. Transient rolling was easily controlled with highly effective spoilerons, spoilers that act differentially through the control wheel like ailerons. After this maneuver became boring, Goodwin had me lower the nose, add power, and establish a rocket-like climb. I was grateful to escape the noisy stick shaker.

At FL430 Goodwin had me perform steep turns. “Watch the airspeed indicator as G-load increases,” he advised. The upper band of the vertical indicator on the primary flight display was red, indicating the Mach airspeed limit. As bank angle and G-load increased, the lower limit of the indicated airspeed began to rise. It, too, was red and represented the increasing stall speed. The range of airspeed between the upper and lower red airspeed limits represented a narrowing band of allowable airspeed commonly referred to as coffin corner. The wide margin separating the Lear 45’s upper and lower buffet boundaries is impressive.

These were maneuvers you would never attempt in early generation jets (and many modern ones).

Flying a new (to me) type of aircraft never fails to be instructive, which is what I relish most about my pursuit of the impossible 488.

Barry Schiff has flown 319 different types of aircraft. Visit the author’s website.