Monday, October 10, 2011


Last week I was running around town on a day off, checking items off my "honey-do" list. My route took me right past Flying Cloud Airport, where my club's 1949 Cessna 170 is tied down. It was a nice day with a high overcast and a light breeze from the north. I was sorely tempted to drop in and go flying, but I had stuff to get done. I drove past.

On my way back, I couldn't resist. I was making good work of the list, and figured I had enough time for a half-hour hop. The last few times I'd flown the C-170, I made pretty ugly landings. There weren't any big directional excursions, but I kept misjudging my height in the flare - bane of airline pilots flying little planes! The result was typically sinking in the last few feet for a plop with a bounce or two afterward, or worse yet driving the mains in hard to set up a crow hop. The ugliest of these took place with a NewCo First Officer in the right seat when we were playing hooky from work on a four-hour "productivity break." That was embarrassing. I figured the problem was that I wasn't flying the 170 often enough given my relatively low time in the airplane, and most of my flights were focused on sightseeing or going somewhere instead of practicing landings.

As I untied and preflighted the plane, I resolved to practice wheel landings. These require a pretty precise idea of how far your wheels are off the ground, as you need almost zero sink at touchdown to prevent a "crow hop." The 170's spring steel landing gear is fairly unforgiving of bad wheel landings, especially on pavement. The usual technique is to come in a bit low, power-on, with no flaps. Over the threshold, you begin a very slow easing off of the power, cutting it completely at the moment of touchdown. Meanwhile you don't really need to flare, as ground effect will slow your sink rate. You ease the wheel back just a smidge when you're about to touch down to bring the sink rate to virtually nil, then at the moment of touchdown you bring it forward an inch or so to eliminate any tendency to crow-hop.

This being my first 170 flight sans passengers, it leapt off the ground and climbed like a scalded cat. I didn't know the old girl was capable of such performance! I was at pattern altitude before I turned downwind and was cleared for the option. My first landing was almost an exact repeat of my performance with the NewCo FO. I flared for what seemed like forever, and was convinced that my tires were only an inch or two off the pavement. I was spring-loaded to push the yoke forward on touchdown, and must have got tired of waiting because I jumped the gun. It turned out my wheels were feet, not inches, off the ground, and my premature push drove them right into the pavement. The impact pushed the tail down, increasing the wing's angle of attack, which sent me airborne, where my nose-down elevator input drove the mains back into the ground again. This is what I mean by crow-hopping. It is the taildragger equivalent of a Pilot-Induced Oscillation, except it's physics-induced. There's nothing the pilot can do to stop it but go around or pull up and convert the landing to a full-stall three-pointer if the runway is long enough and directional control isn't a problem. I went around.

On the second pattern, I reminded myself that the ground was a lot lower than I thought it was, and to not put in the forward yoke until I felt myself touch down. This time it worked out perfectly. I timed the flare perfectly, felt the upwind wheel squeak across the blacktop, nudged the yoke forward to keep it planted, then the downwind wheel came down. I held the tailwheel up as I slowed, then gently lowered it and used aft elevator to keep positive traction as the rudder lost effectiveness. Perfection.

By the time I had a half-hour on the Hobbs meter, I'd made five landings. Only the first was awful, two were beautiful, and the other two involved a bit of skipping but nothing horrible. I felt a whole lot better about having the right picture in the flare. As I tied down the old bird, it occurred to me that my thirty minutes of simple pattern work were more challenging - and more fun - than any flying I had done at work in months. It's a shame so few airline pilots fly on their days off. Too many associate the very act of controlling an aircraft with workaday drudgery.

This Friday, I landed the JungleBus on Minneapolis' Runway 12L in a sixty degree crosswind that was gusting to 36 knots. There was moderate turbulence most of the way down final, and the airspeed was bouncing around plus or minus ten knots of my approach speed. The autothrottles kept trying to alternate between unspooling the engines and firewalling them, so I overrode them to keep the thrust in a reasonable range. As I flared, I kicked in nearly full left rudder to swing the nose around to runway heading, while putting in enough aileron to drop the right wing and keep the plane from drifting. I touched down smoothly on the right wheel, lowered the nose just a touch, then increased aileron deflection as the left wing came down, the left main touched, and I derotated. The wind gusted mightily as I deployed the thrust reversers and braked, but quick work on the rudders kept us right on centerline. I got quite a few handshakes, thumbs up, and "well done"s from the passengers as they deplaned. It was a pretty beautiful landing, if I say so myself.

Truth be told, virtually every airline pilot out there can land well in those conditions and far worse, and does so on a semi-regular basis. That said, I've noticed a definite improvement in my JungleBus landings since I started flying taildraggers. I notice drift a lot earlier and am a lot less tolerant of it. Most modern airliners, by design and by sheer mass, will tolerate a certain amount of hamfistedness. Most old light taildraggers will not. I'm not saying I'm ready to take on a Pitts just yet, but it sure is nice to occasionally fly something that taxes - and builds - my stick-and-rudder skills a bit more than the JungleBus.


Tim G in MN said...

Remember the Cessna ads of the 1950's? "Drive it into the sky, drive back onto the ground" Glad to hear about an airline pilot who likes to fly! You, Rand Peck, Capt. Dave at FL360 and Aviatrix are all great examples of this and prove it with the enthusiasm in your writing. Thanks all for sharing your lives through your blogs!

Tim G in MN

Tim G in MN said...

Excuse me, that's Fl390 for Capt. Dave... oops, good thing I don't fly for a living. :-)

Anonymous said...

Great post - about flying no less! (I enjoyed the Alaska posts, with a fair amount of jealousy, but I like to see a flying post every now and again)

Ron said...

I've been saying for years that tailwheel airplanes are not only some of the most fun aircraft you'll find anywhere, they're also some of the most cost effective AND they do more to improve airmanship than anything else I can think of. I wish every pilot would learn to fly in one!

Dave Starr said...

I've been directly associated with General Aviation since I was 6 years old, and a private pilot since 1965. I also worked for the USAF for more than 38 years. So it's safe to say I have seen/flown with my share of airline pilots and military aviators.

I've seen those who were great, the majority have been highly competent, and, of course, the occasional dud.

Looking back I can't remember any of the "exceptional" category who didn't have tail wheel/basic airplane time and who weren't actively interested in flying ... often instructing in ... grass roots aircraft.

You certainly CAN be a competent big iron pilot flying only big iron, but there's something about going out there every so often in something light, responsive and fun to help hone those skills, keep that edge, and keep the spirit alive.

If I owned an airline (well, everyone can have dreams, can't they), I think I'd equip each pilot base with a couple good learning aircraft ... a 170 would be an excellent choice, and I'd require a few hours every month or so in them from my pilots.

Do you think I would have many who would balk at that requirement?

Ignacio said...

Hi Sam! great post! You left me with an idea rumbling in my mind: I'm actually training to be a Commercial Pilot, and while I do IFR stuff just like VOR corssings, flying in controlled airspace, I always wish I was doing touch and go's with the Silvaire Luscombe or C-140 I fly, instead of flying unders strict supervision from ATC in a boring C-150. My idea has always been to become an airline pilot; and since you mention this too.. i was wondering: Am I doing this right? Should't then consider doing other job and having an old taildragger with which to do som hops and why not some crow-hops also in my local airfield?

Sam said...

Tim G - easy to scoff at those 1950s Cessna ads but not sure they're much different from, say, Cirrus ads today. They, like Cessna circa 1957, are not marketing to pilots; they're marketing to affluent non-pilots. Can't say the strategy was particularly wrong in either case given the popularity of the 172 and SR20/22.

Anonymous - Sorry to keep you waiting for the aviation content! Was so busy enjoying the summer that I didn't do much writing, am finally doing some catching up now. It's sometimes hard finding something to write about work flying because it all kinda blends together for me these days. When things that might be interesting to the layman happen, I have to make a note of them to remember to write about them later. I'm more enthusiastic about flying the 170 these days and that makes it easier to write about.

Sam said...

Ron & Dave - As taildragger instructors get harder and harder to find, I've been toying with the idea of finding an affordable LSA-qualified classic taildragger (Luscombe 8A for example) and starting a "grassroots aviation" instruction business. I think it'd be a good niche for flying on the side. Not sure it'd work at my current company though, they fly us so many hours that there aren't many left over for other commercial flying. Maybe I'll save this idea for my first furlough! /tongue in cheek, sorta.

Dave, I like your idea immensely but it would put you in the very distinct minority of airline owners, managers, or even chief pilots who still believe stick and rudder skills are still important. Most see zero business value in having above-average pilots. Even among line pilots, you very rarely hear someone described as a "good stick and rudder guy." It's a bit of an archaic concept in the airline world, I'm afraid.

Sam said...

Ignacio- the C150 might have the third wheel on the wrong end but I don't consider it a boring airplane! Learned to fly in one and still have a soft spot for it. So far as hour building goes, the airlines will consider an hour in a 150 the same as an hour in a 140 or 8E or 172 or PA32. It's all single-engine piston time. So the question really becomes, what are you getting out of it as a pilot *other* than the time in your logbook? IFR cross country time is good experience, you learn how to work within the system. That knowledge will be useful immediately upon going to an airline. That said, there is great value in learning a number of different types of airplanes that handle differently, it will help as you transition to other planes down the road. I would try to get some experience in various types of flying, including some good seat of the pants flying in an old taildragger. It won't translate directly to airline flying but it will improve your skills, you'll have fun, and you might even gain some cool flying stories to use in an airline interview some day.

Anonymous said...

Hi! Long time reader, first time commenter (I think!) I flew into MSP on Friday from MEM and can certainly vouch for the bumpy approach! Kudos to you, or whomever was piloting my flight! I didn't have a chance to say thanks in person as I was shepherding my two-year old son out from the back of the plane!

Michael said...


Happened across this infographic today, and would love to hear your musings on the subject. It's a visual map of the geneology of the airline business. Here is the link:

Best Regards,

Mike said...

Well, how about've got one regular reader that's about 5 minutes down the road from KFCM. I've been stopping by your blog on weekends for a couple years and when I started, I think it was just because your stories provided the best insight into a career I might have pursued and enjoyed in another life - being in the Minneapolis area was just a coincidence. Small world I guess! One of these days I'll get myself over to flying cloud for one of those spendy joy rides they advertise out by the the meantime, as always, keep up the great work making posts that continue to be fresh and interesting, even to the relative layman!

Sarah said...

Great post. I've been learning with the club's Citabria and can relate to that rare "perfect" landing .. the less perfect ones keep you working on it.

I did pass on flying it this weekend - a bit too windy in MSP for a new TW pilot. Did fly my glider Saturday. Nice day, if you don't mind hovering in one spot into the wind.

KC310R said...

Sam, flying tail wheel airplanes has made my landings better in every other airplane I fly. One of my Decathlon partners, a captain at SWA, has seen improvements in his landings as well. Now you need to get checked out in a Cub!

Sam said...

KC310R- I did! Flew a 1946 Cub for my TW endorsement back in February or so, you'll find the post under "Yellow Cub."

Sarah- Dawn and I were supposed to take the 170 to Duluth that Friday night. Would've had a 45 knot tailwind on the way up (!) but then a 30+ knot crosswind awaiting us in Duluth. We drove. Have had the 170 out in 20+ knot gusts before and dislike the idea of relying on the brakes to stay on the runway!

Mike- Cool, we're neighbors! Thunderbird at FCM is good but expensive, I suggest Inflight Pilot Training. I've flown their Cherokee, they also have a C150 and Citabria, nice planes and rates are reasonable, and they're a very friendly, laid back operation. If you're just looking to take a ride (vs instruction) shoot me an email, I'd be happy to take you up in the 170 sometime.