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Enjoying The Classics

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Published Mon, Mar 26 2012 1:00 PM

I like this photo. As far as I can see, it could have been taken any time in the last 40 years. A man in jeans and a jacket prepares a 1970 Bellanca Citabria for a Sunday morning flight.

I like ths photo because I took it within the last month. The aviator is Frank Bober of Middle River Aviation and he is preparing to take me up for Primary flight instruction in the aircraft.

There was a time when all primary flight instruction was performed in an aircraft with conventional undercarriage. To put it in other words, people used to learn to fly in tail-wheel aeroplanes. These days, tail-wheel undercarriage is far from conventional and a nose wheel layout has become the much more pervasive. There's a good reason for this. When a nose wheel aircraft touches down on the runway and applies the brakes the centre of mass being ahead of the main wheels acts to keep the aircraft in a straight line. With a tail-wheel aircraft the main wheels are ahead of the centre of mass and the effect of braking is for the centre of mass to try to overtake the main wheels. If the aircraft is not perfectly aligned with the direction of travel it will ground loop, that is to say the tail will overtake the nose. Ground looping is not considered good form and invariably ends badly for the aeroplane if not for the pilot.

Most General Aviation aircraft are nose wheel aircraft. Most training aircraft are nose wheel aircraft and most tail wheel endorsed pilots take their primary training in a nose-wheel aircraft and then take tail wheel training. I feel that this is a shame.

I am progressing with my flight training even though, for reasons previously stated, I have made slow progress. I recently checked my logbook and I have 42 hours logged in six aircraft types with instruction given by five instructors in two countries and two languages. It should be said that the fastest way to a pilot's licence is to stick to one aircraft and one instructor and get to know them both as well as you can. There are no points for breadth of experience when it comes to the exam(s) and the check ride.  I have not travelled in a straight line to this point, however.  I have most time in a Piper Archer PA28-181 and a Robin DR400, a handful of hours in a Cessna C--172 and one in a Diamond DA-20. I have even got logged time in a Pilatus PC-12NG. But, far and away the most valuable time I have spent is in the Bellanca Citabria 7ECA.

Flying the Citabria has caused some delay to the progress towards my check ride. I always expected an extra-long preparation for what will be my third first solo. From the moment the engine is started my concentration is so much more focused than it was in the Piper Archer or the Cessna 172. No longer am I driving the aircraft around with the pedals with no more respect for wind direction than which runway to head for. Now I am flying the aircraft on the ground. Ailerons and elevators are positioned and adjusted from the off. Turning into and away from the wind on the ground is an exercise in balance and prediction. Throttle, stick, pedals and HEEL brakes are constantly required and taxiing out from behind the hangars needs a keen touch when the wind grabs your tail as you clear the obstruction.

In the air, coordination is the key. Feet and hands work together making a mockery of the skill I thought I had. My horizon is no longer artificial and my navigation aids are roads and rivers. I have broken the habit of using my instruments to control the aircraft and the using outside for reference. The Citabria has RPM, altitude, airspeed, turn & slip and a compass. You are seldom missed, my helpful guardian GPS.

Landing, especially with a crosswind, has become a heightened experience. Gone, the crabbed approach with last minute correction that would surely end in ground loop spectacular. Now I practice a wing down correction that aligns me with the runway from the beginning of my approach. If I land on one wheel then so be it and if I can't hold enough wing down to correct for drift at the start of final approach, then it's time to find another runway and I've not just found this out as I flare above the tarmac or grass. Cross controlled slips have become my friend as I no longer have flaps to steepen my approach.

Think of it this way... you can learn to drive and take your test in a car with an automatic gearbox and, if you do this in the UK, you will get an restriction on your driving licence that prevents you from driving a manual gearbox / stick-shift vehicle.  Your skills will safely get you where you need to go. You might even be a great driver and you will have a seemingly endless collection of vehicles to choose from.  Learn to drive with a manual gearbox and now you need to learn clutch control. You need to understand how clutch plates separate the engine from the driven wheels and how to use your feet and hands in coordination as you change from first to second, second to third. All this must be done without thinking as your concentration needs to be outside the car to see and avoid. You can still drive the myriad of automatic vehicles, but now your world is opened up to old MGs, Austin Healeys, classic Lotus and Ferrari. If that is too much, you can still just connect to whatever you are driving much more keenly than moving a lever from “P” to “D”.

Now, I can't do everything in the Citabria, I'll admit. To obtain a US (FAA) licence I am required to perform three hours instrument flying. This isn't so easy when you have no instruments. I am also required to fly three hours at night including ten full stop landings and a 100 mile night dual cross-country. I'd rather not do that in an aircraft that is short on dials. So after five and a half hours of intense tail wheel practice (that has not yet included a solo), this week I stepped back into a 172 for some night / instrument practice and I immediately noticed my touch had improved. Speed and altitude control were more accurate, approach and manoeuvres were more precise.

I don't mean to claim that I am a great tail wheel pilot because of the training I am receiving, only that I will be a better pilot for it. I didn't expect to be working on a tail wheel endorsement to a licence I haven't got yet, but I am really glad that I am. I am having a blast learning in the Citabria. From the tail lifting as I start down the runway to the jab of brake that causes us to swing round outside the hangar. Everything about it feels like real flying and I find it a great source of joy.

If you are a pilot that flies to get places, or revels in the procedures or equipment of flying then I am glad to be sharing the skies with you. If you are flying small aircraft as a stepping stone to a career with the airlines, then I wish you God Speed and clear skies.

If you are flying because you love flying and have never tried the most conventional of layouts...., then you might just find it is what the little boy or girl was imagining when they first dreamed of aeroplanes.



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    • General Disclaimer: These thoughts are my personal opinion. If I am factually incorrect please correct me. My opinions should not be taken to be representative of fact or opinion from anyone or any enterprise I am connected with professionally. Should Any information posted prove to be sensitive commercially, operationally or subject to Export Control, please contact me immediately and the information will be removed without hesitation.

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