|How I learned to fly aerobatics...|
Introduction to the
was midnight on July 16th when Ron Spencer and
I parked in front of my dark hangar at Orange
County airport in New York. We were both still
dressed in our airline pilot uniforms as we had
been flying all day long. He had been
The next day started early with a
cup of coffee and a couple of pancakes cooked
up by Ron's daughter, Sarah (excellent by the
way!). I stumbled in, ate and asked when we
were off to the airport. Ron gave me a grin,
told me to sit down and he opened up the books.
For the next four (4) hours I felt like I was
back in airline ground school. We went through
the flight manual of the Pitts S2-B. Every nut
and bolt was reviewed. The airplane was so
small that I couldn't believe there was so much
to learn about it. Center of gravity charts for
X-country's and another for aerobatic flight,
auxiliary fuel tanks, where to step and where
not to, canopy release, harness hook ups,
pre-flight....everything was gone over with a
fine tooth comb.
Ron took control of his airplane again as we entered the pattern at Orange County airport in New York. He showed me the "curved linear approach" to runway 26. We were abeam the numbers at 1,000 feet AGL when the throttle came back and we started a descending right hand turn. When I say "descending"...I mean we were going down fast...way too fast for what I was comfortable with. One second we were a thousand feet above the runway and less than ten seconds later we were rolling out after a smooth landing. I was not sure about what I had just seen...but I started to breathe again.
We filled up with gas and up we went again. Ron taxied out and lined up on the runway. He then gave me the controls and said the aircraft was mine…with the added verbiage of "And don't <deleted> it up".
I sat there for a couple of seconds…thought about it...and then applied throttle. Off we went! The first approach ended in a go-around. We had briefed that if I felt uncomfortable at any time…Go around!...so I did. I was impressed with the power of this aircraft…when I wanted to go I added power and we would GO!! The second approach was totally screwed up too but I somehow got it aligned with the runway and down in one piece, tailwheel bouncing and bouncing. Ron added power to save a crash and away we went again. My confidence was eroding quickly. Up and down, up and down we went. Sometimes Ron took the airplane to show me AGAIN how it was suppose to be done. The language describing my aviator skills coming from the back seat was colorful and descriptive. When the intercom cut out at critical times and he knew I couldn't hear him, the swats to the back of my head commenced....whack! whack!..."you almost ...<scratchy garble SChree>..Killed us all!...you <scratchy garbled>" I might be the only Pitts pilot who is most comfortable landing a Pitts leaning as far forward as possible....the visibility is terrible in this position but I quickly learned that he couldn't reach me. I finally accomplished a couple of approaches that were acceptable. Thinking that I was in the groove, I started the next approach...I brought the throttle back to idle abeam the numbers and heard the crack, and pop from the engine. Speed was 130 MPH...A little left rudder to compensate for the lack of torque and then right aileron and rudder for the base turn.... We are dropping rapidly but I can clearly see the runway numbers.... I roll to level quickly to look left for any traffic on final we might have missed and then a roll back into the right turn still descending rapidly.... Speed is at 110 MPH... I’m loading the aircraft up in the turn and I don’t want to….I see that I am slower than I have been on the other approaches.... I roll out on final and keep the descent going...speed is now at 90 MPH on this hot summer day with me up front and "Mr. Slightly overweight" in back….I hear his mumbling but the static overrides his "comments"… I cross the runway threshold keeping a slight crab in to see the runway ahead...a little slow as I go into the flare...and there is no flare...the airplane just keeps heading for the runway. I think "Power, power!!" but the throttle is already forward as Ron, having waited until the last second, took over. There is no doubt in my mind that I would have busted the aircraft. With all my flight time and experience, I didn't see this coming until it was too late...one second too late but certainly enough in this aircraft to have put both of us into a critical situation. I got too slow and this airplane just quit flying.
I landed once more (confidence builder attempt I think) and we returned to the hangar. I was a humbled man. I realized that this aircraft would do EXACTLY what you told it to do.... But it would eat your lunch if you told it to do something wrong. It was the most honest aircraft I had ever flown, but if your input was wrong, you would pay the penalty...garbage in… garbage out. I was soaked in sweat when I got out of that Pitts. Ron didn't say much as he started cleaning off the leading edges of the wings with cleaner. I walked into the hangar in my soggy flight suit with my flight helmet hanging from my hand wondering if I was going to be able to make the grade. I didn’t feel like a 12,000 hour airline pilot…I felt like a student pilot. I heard a voice and turned around. There was Ron Saglimbene. He looked at me as if he understood what I was going through. He said, "don't let it get you down...you're doing okay and even though it's going to take some time, you're going to do it...relax". I barely knew Ron but I had heard all the stories. He's one of the best Pitts pilots around in my opinion and there he was taking the time to let me know that what I was going through was not unusual. I really appreciated that… and it boosted my spirits. Spencer and I finally debriefed and went home to Spencer's house. After a lot of GOOD wine, cheese and a great dinner from Karen, I was ready to go to bed and go at it again the next day. My spirits were higher but in the back of my head I was thinking, "can I do this?"
The next day was hot and humid again. We went through another extensive briefing and then it was more flying. We started by going out and doing some spins. Ron was thinking that IF I ever did solo, he wanted me to have some idea as to recovery techniques for flat spins and changeover spins etc. Frankly, I had never seen anything like this before. The first crossover spin we did was totally confusing to me. The next one, I had to recover from myself as directed by Mr. Spencer. I did so but again, I saw how fast a pilot could get themselves in trouble with this airplane if they told it to do something wrong. As always, right at the most critical time, Spencer's intercom would blank out.... So there I was, hanging upside down with my eyeballs trying to bust out of my head, the terrain spinning in a blur...and no instruction from the back seat….mumbles and a lot of static…I mean I could hear that he was yelling something back there…but I couldn’t understand a word of it…Because we had extensively briefed every maneuver, I knew what to do and I recovered before Spencer took over.... I had a great time! For once the "G's" were powerful enough that he couldn't get his arm up to smack me in the back of the head and I saw aerodynamic flight characteristics I had never seen before. I quickly learned that G forces were my friend…Spencer couldn’t get his arms up high enough to whack me and although I could barely hear him screaming something in the background, the intercom always cut out under G’s and I could not understand the particulars. We eventually went back to the airfield to do touch and go landings again. The first couple were not good. We went back to the hangar to refuel and I told Spencer I needed another seat cushion under my butt. The visibility out of the Pitts was "the Pitts" and I still had room over my head so I wanted another inch under my bottom. We found some more padding and away we went again. The afternoon wore on and on…
We did touch and go after touch and go. Finally, on one approach, everything started to fall into place. The extra inch of height really helped. Spencer said he wanted to see ten consistently good approaches and landings where I didn't try to kill him or beef the airplane. I had to do these in a row. If I screwed up one, he started the count over. Visions of Spencer tied down in the sand with army ants crawling over his baldhead and me standing there with a Margarita laughing were going through my head. Up and down.... Up and down.... Intercom crackling… smacks to the back of the head and finally...4 then 5 then 6 good approaches and landings.... I was on a roll.... And that’s when the tail wheel disintegrated. Now I have never seen a tailwheel aircraft taxied to the mechanic at 15 kts with the tail in the air but I did that day. Lotsa power and lotsa brakes and we were there. I crawled out of the Pitts again, soaked in sweat.... Maybe it was the taxi experience...maybe it was the flying...dunno..But I was very disappointed. I only had four more landings to do and I could have soloed my own Pitts. I had been feeling pretty good about the whole thing.... Everything was coming together. I had 2.9 hours of flight instruction in the Pitts and suddenly this aircraft was really feeling good to me.... And now this. A tail wheel flies off the aircraft and into the weeds. Was it because of me?…or was it just it’s time to go?…I don’t know but I was really disappointed.
Ron got out, took off his parachute. I noted he was soaked in sweat too (maybe it was the taxi experience...maybe it was the flying….dunno). He went back and looked at his tail wheel. The smell of burned brake pads was in the air. He declared that his aircraft was not going to fly again that night...
He thought I could fly again if I wanted to solo my Pitts. Admittedly, I had to think about this for a bit. I wanted to solo my Pitts but I didn't want to screw it up. I thought I could but I had also been told that if I thought the S2-B was sensitive, wait until I got into my S1-T. I looked up at the light we had left as it was getting late and the sun was setting. I figured that we had enough daylight left. I felt the wind on my cheek and it was very slight with no gusts. I looked back at Spencer and said, "I want to do it". He looked back at me and said "Okay". Karen was suddenly there with a video camera and I wondered how she knew to show up at that precise time. I looked at Ron and he said, "I knew yesterday that you were going to solo today, I just didn’t want you to get your hopes up". He is a merciless fellow.
We went over to my hangar and pulled out my Pitts. Ron did a pre-flight on it and I backed him up. He had a hand held radio he was going to use to communicate with me during the solo. He seemed as nervous as a Mother Hen. He kept saying, "Now, if you get into problems POWER! POWER! And go around" I would say, "I know". "Don't load up the damned airplane when you are on base turning to final" he would say... I would reply, "I know"..."Go out and do the falling leaf, a couple of stalls, get a feel for the aircraft but for Gods sake don't do anything weird or something I have not taught you"...."I know"..."Make the first landing a full stop and then come back in to talk to me if you’re still alive. If everything is going okay I will clear you for another one"..."Okay". He stomped around as I put on my parachute and flight helmet..."And another thing!"...."I know, I know"....
So...it was time. I stood there in my pink $228 Nomex flight suit with my parachute on my back and butt and Spencer stood there with his purple nylon Speedo shorts... the setting sun reflecting off our respective presentations. We shook hands and I climbed in. It was impossible to strap myself in as Spencer's hands were everywhere, making sure everything was just so. I felt like a Blue Angel with a crew chief. Finally it was time to start the engine. The engine started, everything was in the green and away I went...Spencer was still clucking around...checking in on the radio as I taxied out…."keep turning right and left as you taxi out you moron"…."make sure you’ve secured the chin strap on your cloth helmet"…"if you screw this up I will kill you"…
I got to the end of the runway and did my runup. Over the radio I kept hearing "<Scratch> <garble> and make sure you <garble>...<scratch>...<Screeee>." I had turned him down to tune him out for a minute or two so I could collect my thoughts.
I finally lined up on the runway and suddenly there was silence. Spencer had quit talking.... It was just the airplane and me….and my good friends who were watching. I sat there for just a minute. I was totally confident that I was going to take this beast off and land it again without rolling it up in a ball….but I knew how easy it was to do just that if I relaxed or lost my concentration for even a split second. After the complete humiliation I had felt upon my first flight with this aircraft I sensed a feeling of understanding between my airplane and myself. It would do what I told it to do. It would be more sensitive that the S2-B. It would therefore be even more fun to fly. I was trying not to be intimidated by this airplane.... I was the boss or it was. I decided that I would be the boss and taking one more look to the left of the runway and noting Karen watching this scenario intently and the setting sun reflecting off Spencer's purple Speedo's, I applied power.
The acceleration was just as I expected. Within a couple of seconds I had the tail up. A couple of seconds after that, I let my Pitts take itself off the runway. Just as we got airborne I sensed how sensitive this bird really was...if I thought the S2-B was finger sensitive, MY Pitts was even more so. I did a couple of vertical warbles as I went down the runway and then up we went. Everything fell into place. Passing through a thousand feet I turned right to exit the traffic pattern. I looked out at those little tiny wings, moved the ailerons a little and thought, "Man, I'm flying this thing!"...What a thrill. I have to say that it is one of the top experiences of my aviation career. Gone were the DC-10's and B757's and any personal problems.... Gone were the whacks to my head and screw-ups and lack of confidence...everything took one pace behind what I was doing right now...this instant. I was flying a Pitts by myself and as the sun was slowly setting I exited the pattern and climbed to 4,000 feet staying in sight of Ron and Karen. I went through the briefed maneuvers and then Ron (who was watching) gave me a special treat..."go ahead and roll it"...I did…. and it was great.... A loop followed...I was in seventh heaven. After about a half-hour of flying my airplane, I turned back to the airfield and under the supervision of the LSO (Ron) I did my first solo landing in the Pitts. What a pleasure it was to fly this airplane. As I flared Ron was on the radio, "3 feet, hold it, hold it!!..2 feet, 1 foot….) I did two more and then we called it a night. My confidence was back and I was proud of having done something I didn't think I was going to be able to do a few days before.
I write this to all of you because I want you to remember your first experiences in the first airplane you owned or the first aerobatic airplane you could call your own….or your first solo in the Pitts. I'm 43 years old (birthday was a couple of days ago) but when I taxied my Pitts up to my hangar I was like a young kid. Karen was jumping up and down...Ron was standing there like the typical military instructor watching my every move thinking "yeah the kid did okay but he's got to screw it up somehow".... But I also saw the pride in his eyes because he had shown me a completely different world and the fact that I had not rolled myself in a ball gave tribute to the fact that the instruction he gave me was well done. I somehow missed the hangar and parked my Pitts….the hand shake I received when I got out was worth everything…and the hug I got from Karen was even better. That’s what this sport is all about.
Have any of you ever walked away from your airplane without taking a second look back at it? I have been flying airplanes for 27 years and I don't think there has ever been an airplane I have not walked away from without looking back at it and thinking "I flew that". After my first Pitts solo, we put her in the hangar after cleaning her up.... I put the canopy cover on...made sure the prop was vertical and everything was "just so".... And then just before I turned out the lights...making sure it was just her an I…I took one last look at my airplane and well… you know what I thought...It was great feeling.
My thanks to Ron Spencer and his wife Karen who put up with me through this whole thing. I also want to thank Ron Saglimbene (SAG) for his advice and his consideration to a neophyte when he (me) needed it. I also want to thank Ron Chadwick who watched some of my touch and go's and then took the time to give me advise on what I could do better. A short story on "THE FEARLESS LEADER <CD>"... Mr. Chadwick :) I had just come back from showing my "great prowess" in getting the Pitts on the ground after some touch and go’s with Chadwick and Spencer watching me. If you know Chadwicks’ life and experiences, you know that I was under a little pressure to show that I have the "stuff"…. I had refueled and was standing there with my pink flight suit talking with Spencer and Ron.... Hey...I was one of these guys now...I could fly a Pitts...just like them. Out of the blue, Ron Chadwick turns to me and says, "are you done refueling?"...I thought "Huh?.... Even this old guy can see that I am done refueling.... No fuel truck and here I stand making conversation with these veterans".... I said, "yes"...He glanced over at my Pitts. I followed his look and there in my guide wires was my fuel cap placed right where I had put it a half-hour before. Blushing, I went over and put it back where it belonged...at the top of the fuel tank. So much for showing I had the "stuff".
This has been a humbling experience for me but one of the best times of my life. It doesn't matter if you have thousands of hours of flight time or just a few.... Flying aerobatic aircraft opens a whole new dimension in the world of aviation.
But like Ron Chadwick told me in an e-mail…."We do it for the Women!"…For the guys, I bet there’s some truth to that.