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Inner circle

Rebuffed again by the Skywagon

My affection for the Cessna Skywagon is one-sided. The 180/185s are guarded, selective with who makes their inner circle, and I’m not in it. I first approached the rugged taildragger formally, as you would a debutante.

I had proper introductions from pilots warmly accepted in the Skywagon’s strata: AOPA’s Mark Baker, Dave Hirschman, Katie Pribyl, and most recently aerobatic pilot Jim Peitz. Still, the beast of the backcountry greets me unpredictably. It plays favorites.

Cessna 180/185s are notoriously difficult airplanes to land well, consistently. The Skywagon insists on a tender touchdown with precise fuselage alignment, and active flight controls for crosswind deflection. The large vertical stabilizer catches even the slightest crosswind, and the springy Cessna landing gear will push you right back airborne if you’re even slightly firm on touchdown. Once the heavy tail starts to swing, it gains momentum quickly and requires active, sometimes large rudder input to control. It’s a heavy airplane, and it feels heavy with large flight controls that take a lot of control movement, especially at slow speed.

Skywagons are stunning performers, however, known as the “big iron” in the backcountry. Nothing can match their durability and versatility. Large useful load; good climb power; decent cruise speed; and excellent short-field performance. You can load four people, luggage, and enough fuel to cruise at more than 150 mph for three hours or more, then land on a 1,500-foot gravel bar. A 185 at takeoff power echoing through the canyons of the backcountry is one of the most distinctive sounds in all of aviation.

I get the chance to fly a Skywagon occasionally. I was caretaker of one, which I flew for 43 hours and landed 97 times, three of which were good landings. Most recently I flew Jim Peitz’s handsome 180. I met Jim late this summer, bumming for a seat with a group of pilots flying the island airstrips in the San Juan Channel off the Washington coast. Jim and Cathy Peitz took me on, and Jim offered me the left seat for the day. I accepted, without admitting to Jim that I loved the Skywagon much more than it loved me.

My first landing at Friday Harbor (FHR) was decent. So now I had four good landings in a Skywagon. Next, we flew to Roche Harbor (WA09). Landing to the west, the 30-foot-wide runway slopes downhill. Fast on final, I elected to accept it and just work off the excessive speed in the flare (seasoned Skywagon pilots are beginning to snicker). The Skywagon made me pay for the sloppy approach. We bounced and yawed a couple of times, and I wrestled the persnickety airplane under control. Jim burst out in a loud laugh. He saw it coming. The Skywagon will not accept sloppy speed control on landing. Our third landing was on Olympic Field (WA45), a 2,500-foot grass runway with a canal uncomfortably close to the west edge for seaplane operations. Decent landing. Being on speed makes a difference. Grass is easier. The canal along the right side was a big motivator for precise landing control.

We finished the day at Jefferson County International Airport in Port Townsend (0S9). I lined up beautifully, perfectly on speed with a nice long final. In the flare, I ballooned a little, then a slight bounce on touchdown, the right wing raised and suddenly it was all I could muster to get the fuselage straight, get the right wing down, and bring the impetuous brat back under control. I paused for a second. Silence. Poor Cathy, I thought. She’s not used to such landings. Her husband is in the inner circle.

I taxied in, bewildered at what went wrong. Jim and I sat on the deck of the Spruce Goose Café, sipping a beer and admiring what was a splendid day. Good flying, great people. But I was brooding a bit, still bothered by the last landing and embarrassed. On the day, I was two for four on Skywagon landings. The demanding 180 rightfully punished me for landing too fast on the second landing. Fine. I accept that. But I couldn’t figure out the last landing. Jim departed, and I sat on the deck looking out at the Skywagon and in the distance behind it, the runway approach end—scene of the crime. Then I noticed the windsock: a small, right quartering headwind with some gusting component. Not large, but definite. I didn’t notice it setting up for arrival. That would cause it. A small gust to initiate a balloon, and not enough aileron and rudder input quick enough to keep the fuselage straight and the upwind wing down. A bounce, and without enough upwind aileron, the wind pushed the right wing up and yawed the nose upwind.

I’d attempted a fast landing and then a crosswind landing without diligence on the controls. The Skywagon would have none of it: “Don’t bring your unrefined manners around here,” it seemed to say, as it pushed me back out of its esteemed circle.

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Richard McSpadden

Senior Vice President of AOPA Air Safety Institute
Richard McSpadden was appointed executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Institute in February 2017 and was promoted to senior vice president in July 2020. He currently leads a team of certified flight instructors and content creators who develop and distribute aviation safety material –free of charge— in order to advance general aviation safety industrywide. ASI distributes material through a dedicated YouTube channel, iTunes podcasts, Facebook, and a dynamic website. ASI material is accessed 12 million times annually. A native of Panama City, Florida, McSpadden started flying as a teenager and has logged over 5,000 hours flying a variety of civilian and military aircraft. McSpadden is a commercial pilot, CFII, MEI with SES, MES ratings and a 525S (Citation Jet Single Pilot) type rating. He taught his son to fly, instructed his daughter to solo in their Piper Super Cub, previously owned a 1950 Navion that was in his family for almost 40 years, and currently owns a 1993 Piper Super Cub. McSpadden holds a degree in Economics from the University of Georgia, and a Master of Public Administration from Troy University. He is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Air War College. Prior to joining AOPA, McSpadden had a successful career in the information technology industry, leading large, geographically dispersed operations providing business-critical IT services. McSpadden also served in the Air Force for 20 years, including the prestigious role of commander and flight leader of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds flight demonstration team where he led over 100 flight demonstrations flying the lead aircraft. Additionally, McSpadden currently serves as the industry chair for the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee.

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