Airplane! Tales From The Aerodrome: The Steam Roller
I’ve been a custom painter for many years. I’ve also been a pilot for a very long time. Years ago when I was painting cars for a rod shop in the Phoenix area, a friend asked me to paint some airplane components for him. I accepted, and that led to more requests, and ultimately to opening an airplane custom refinishing facility near Casa Grande Arizona. I painted mostly home-built and racing/aerobatic airplanes, and test flew most of the airplanes I painted before returning them to service.
I’ve been flying for nearly forty years. I have flown a lot of different machines from small trainer airplanes to high performance aerobatic airplanes and even US Army Apache helicopters. I have about three thousand hours in the cockpit. Anyone who flies can tell you that you don’t spend that much time in the cockpit without seeing some crazy stuff.
Over the next few weeks, I’m going to attempt to chronicle some of my flying adventures in a series I’ll call “Tales From The Aerodrome.”
One day while I was in my shop working on an airplane, my good friend (we’ll call him “Ed”) who owned the hangar behind mine came by to ask if I wanted to take a break, and go for a ride in his beautiful vintage Piper Cub. For those who are not familiar with general aviation, the Cub is basically the face of general aviation; the very essence of what the Wright brothers envisioned when they set out to create a manned flying machine. It is as bare-bones as flying gets… What folks in aviation refer to as “stick and rudder flying.”
It is long and narrow, with only two seats arranged in tandem. The wing is set high on the fuselage, and there are no hydraulic systems or fancy digital whatchamahoozits. It rests on its tail, and always reminds me of an old hound dog sitting on a porch when it sits dormant. The Cub is essentially an extension of the pilot, unlike so many newer aircraft that seem to fly themselves with very little input from a human. When you fly a Cub, you make the Cub fly.
Although it was only produced from 1937 to 1947, there have probably been more pilots trained to fly in Cubs than in all other types of trainers combined. And Ed’s Cub is as nice as any.
STICK AND RUDDER AROUND A WHILE.
Like most airplanes, the Cub has two basic means of control. A center “stick” which extends from the floor between the pilot’s legs and when moved left or right causes the airplane to “roll” left and right; and when moved forward or aft causes the airplane to climb or descend. And then there’s two “rudder pedals” under the instrument panel which steer the nose left or right when the respective pedal is pushed; hence the term “stick and rudder.” The rudder pedals are also used to move the tail wheel left or right to “steer” the airplane while on the ground.
Take that in for a minute.
The pilot steers with his feet. It’s an airplane that sits on it’s tail thus severely restricting forward visibility from even the front seat.
A LACK OF INTIMIDATION. OR SIGHT. WHATEVER.
I had flown many “tail dragger” airplanes before, so I was not at all intimidated by Ed’s Cub.
I climbed into the back seat expecting a nice leisurely ride. Ed climbed into the front seat and we established communication on the headsets (Cubs are not quiet airplanes). He suggested that I do the flying. I thought ” I haven’t flown from the back seat in a long time, this’ll be fun!” However, we agreed that Ed should taxi the airplane to the runway since I couldn’t see where I was going.
When we got to the runway, Ed completed all of the required pre-takeoff checks and lined the airplane up on the runway.
Before I continue, I should mention that there is an aerodynamic principal that occurs specifically in tail dragger airplanes when the engine is revved and the propeller is turning very fast. It is called the “P-factor,” and it has to do with the angle of the propellor relative to horizontal. Without getting in to too much detail, suffice to say that it causes one side of the propeller to pull twice as hard as the other, causing the airplane to steer left on takeoff. The pilot must anticipate this condition and steer the airplane slightly right for the first part of the take-off. Typically with a tail dragger airplane, if the take-off doesn’t begin perfectly it is best to abort the take-off, return to the end of the runway and try it again.
I HAVE CONTROL, YOU HAVE CONTROL.
With the airplane idle at the end of the runway, we used the traditional method of transferring control from one pilot to the other when the two cannot see each other: “You have control, I have control, you have control.” I placed my right hand on the control yoke and gave a slight wiggle to let Ed know that I did in fact have control, and I saw his hands reach up and grab the overhead hand holds.
Ed is a retired military fighter pilot, and I of course am the very image of a fighter jock… Fit (at the time) and dripping with confidence, and as two fighter jocks will always do, we have supreme confidence in one another. I placed my feet on the rudder pedals (which in the aft seat of a tandem airplane are positioned on either side of the front seat), and my left hand on the throttle lever. My first thought was “I can’t see s%*t” but my finely developed fighter pilot ego overrode rational thought and whispered to me “do you want to be known as the guy who couldn’t do this?!”
“HELL NO!” I thought.
“Ain’t no airplane gonna get the best of me. I’m a pilot!”
A CONFIDENCE GAINED BY BEING SHOT AT BY STRANGERS
And with the confidence that one only gains from flying dozens of different types of aircraft on several continents. And from maintaining a cool demeanor while being shot at by total strangers, of course. I smoothly advanced the throttle to full power.
The little flat four sprang to life and the propeller disappeared as it spun faster and faster, and the airplane made it’s usual left turn as it began to roll forward. I applied a little right rudder to compensate, maybe a little too little rudder, as she was still pulling left, so I pushed a little more with the right foot.
This is a good time to note that with most tail-draggers, there is a critical point in attempting to recover control with the tail wheel on the ground. That point represents the line between control and no control, and it can be rather abrupt. If an airplane is drifting slightly to one side and you catch it quickly, you can maintain control easily, but just slightly more drift and slightly too much correction and you are out of control.
THE AIRPLANE BALLET: NOT NEARLY AS GRACEFUL AS ONE MAY EXPECT.
At this point in my take-off roll, I was still in full control (on the inside), and the little Cub responded to my correction and began to drift to the right side of the runway. (DAMMIT! over corrected). Now if there is one thing that fighter jocks are really good at, it’s maintaining an appearance of complete calm in the absolute worst situations.
As if it was just another routine take-off at any other airport, I pushed the mic button on top of the Cub’s control stick and calmly said “drifting a little right.” Much like Captain Sully who landed in the Hudson with an airliner full of passengers and said calmly on the radio “we’re going into the Hudson.” as if landing in the Hudson were just another day at the office, I then began to apply some left correction which resulted in an even more pronounced drift to the left edge of the runway. All the while the little Cub was moving faster and faster down the runway, but so finely honed are my fighter pilot skills (and so well developed is my fighter pilot confidence) that I never even consider reducing the throttle to abort my take-off and return to the starting point for another try.
MAINTAINING, WELL, “CONTROL.”
By midway down the runway, the drifting left and right has become so pronounced that every correction results in the airplane rolling up on a single wheel and nearly dragging the wing tip on the ground which must have looked from the outside like a deranged circus clown bounding stiff-legged from one foot to the other. I maintain “control” and continue my graceful ballet on the runway as Ed sits quietly confident in my ability to keep both of us alive with his hands hanging casually from the overhead hand holds as if this is the way every take-off looks.
STEVE HAYES, FUTURE LEGEND.
As we pass the center point of the runway and I steer the airplane yet again to the right edge of the runway precariously balanced on one wheel, I think to myself “one day in the future kids will read books about two brothers who flew on the beach, some dude named Yeager who went really fast, and Steve Hayes. Steve Hayes commanded a Cub from the rear seat. Children will dream of flying like their hero… Steve Hayes (I swear I heard angels singing). My mind is working like the ignition system in an F1 car, not thinking, just doing, and with the precision of someone trained to make split second tactical decisions which leave the enemy stunned and air show crowds amazed, I develop a plan to save this airplane. “PULL UP!”
“This is a Cub, these things will fly at ten knots and we have to be going faster than that!” Of course I have no idea exactly how fast we are going. I can’t see any of the gauges from the back seat.
DEPARTING BETTY CROCKER STYLE: A PIECE O’ CAKE.
I can’t see anything in front of me including where I am going, but I have a perfect unobstructed view to either side of the airplane. The right edge of the runway is approaching quickly yet again. I make one last correction to the left which results in a forty five degree left turn; the left wheel rises into the air and the airplane departs the left edge of the runway. This time I pull back on the control stick and the airplane rises gracefully into the air!
We climb over the hangars and parked airplanes in what can only be described as an unconventional departure.
Ed finally breaks his silence, commenting calmly that “that was the coolest take-off I’ve ever seen! I’ve done one wheeled landings, but never a one wheeled take-off!”
I reply as calmly as I can with something cool like “piece o’ cake!”
YOU SHOULD SEE THE OTHER GUY.
Then Ed says something I never expected. “I thought for sure you were gonna hit that steam roller.”
After a short silence I ask “what steam roller?” To which Ed replies “the one that was directly in front of you when you took off. You went directly over the top of it. You missed it by no more than ten feet.”
I finally squeaked out “are you kiddin’ me?!”
“No,” says Ed. “I was enjoying the ride… I thought you were just showing off.”
“SHOWING OFF?! I WAS CRASHING! WHY DIDN’T YOU HELP ME?”
Throughout the entire ordeal Ed maintains his keen fighter pilot composure. After a few minutes of flying silently Ed chuckles and says “you shoulda seen the guy on that steam roller.”
“THERE WAS SOMEONE ON IT?! I COULDA KILLED ALL OF US!!”
And with typical fighter jock confidence Ed says “aah, you did fine.”
Yeah, I guess I did Ed…. I guess I did.