After several years of flying a variety of contemporary “spam can” (all metal and plastic contemporary production aircraft) aircraft from the C-150 that I first soloed in, to multi-engine Pipers and Cessnas, I discovered the world of classic, mostly tube and fabric construction vintage aircraft from the 1930′s through the early 1950′s. With taut fabric stretched over wooden and tubular metal frames creating the shapes of wing airfoils and fuselages, these are flying machines born less of production lines and rivets, and more of hand craftsmanship. My log books are filled with adventures in these extraordinary planes. Any real stick and rudder skills I have, I learned from hours in these classic aircraft.
One commonality to these beautiful planes is the location of the small wheel which allows you to steer while on the ground, being located in the rear versus in the front of the aircraft. To the uninitiated, this may seem a minor distinction; but while they both fly the same in the air, they are two distinctly different animals on the ground. The nosewheel aircraft, with the steering in front of the center of gravity ,wants to track docilely straight down the runway when taking off or landing. But put that wheel behind the center of gravity, and any inattention to correcting the slightest deviation of the planes direction while moving on the ground will quickly allow the plane to swap ends 180 degrees, in an often disastrous manner. This yields the fabled “ground loop,” the mother of many bent props, broken gear, and bent wing tips, not to mention deflated egos. Correctly named conventional gear aircraft, they are also referred to as taildraggers. From the simple cubs to the beautiful Beech 18 twin engine, from the premier fighters of WWII such as the Mustang and the Spitfire, to the beginnings of modern airline travel like the DC-3, the common denominator was the tailwheel. While many pilots fear their ground handling based on stories of mishaps they have heard, (repeated often mostly by pilots that have never been taught their proper management), the tailwheel is just another acquired skill that takes practice to master, and every landing requires your complete attention until the plane comes to a stop.
From open cockpit Stearman bi-planes that taught our pilots of WWII their basic skills (including my father who went on to fly B-17 bombers over Germany) and after the war dusted our growing agricultural fields with fertilizers and pesticides, to time logged in quintessential Piper cubs that lead lives as bush planes in the otherwise unreachable wilderness of Alaska, and spotted for our WWII artillery units, flying low and slow over enemy territory, my skills were built in a variety of these machines. Flying in these planes has taught me more about the “art” of flying than all the time under an instrument hood, or navigating from point A to point B.
After training in the average contemporary aircraft, the stoic panel in a classic plane can be almost disconcerting. I mean there isn’t much there. And in that fact lies the beauty of it all. It’s about flying outside the cockpit with your eyes on the world around you, not at a bunch of instruments. Needles pointing at directions, miniature planes behind glass – tilting left or right or moving above or below a line that represents the horizon characterize the modern airplane. They are epitome of a video game….. and not part of classic aviation. But in most classic aircraft a panel with an altimeter, a tachometer, an airspeed indicator, and an oil pressure gauge, and you are good to go. Besides the absence of instrumentation, toss out those auto pilots, and the fancy GPS or digital panels that reveal more information than you can possibly digest, or to a degree so finite that it boarders on the absurd – Oh my God! I’m flying at 3,005 feet and not 3000!!! The world is outside your windshield, the attitude of the airplane revealed to you by sight, feel, and sound
In a world of control towers and tarmac, with airspace invisibly filled with protected altitude defined spaces of control and individuals trained to separate you from others, these classic aircraft are born of an era of landing in a open field, a freshly harvested farmers land, and being free of being told what altitude, what direction, or what speed you must fly, or for that matter communicating with anyone at all.
Story in progress…………..