Sunday, January 12, 2014

An Unfortunately Memorable First Flight

One of the things I like best about owning the Cub share (and being in the C170 club before that) is taking people flying who don't normally fly in small planes. This has included a number of coworkers, friends, members of my extended family, and even strangers who my family or friends put me in contact with. I advertise fairly vocally that I'm more than happy to take anybody flying who wants to go up. It provides a good excuse to fly, and gets me in the air more often than I would on my own. Seeing the spark of discovery on a neophytes' face - especially a kid - rekindles some of the enthusiasm of my own youth. And flying really is more enjoyable as a shared, social activity.

Honestly, the C170 was quite a bit better for this sort of thing than the Cub. The metal construction, larger size, side-by-side seating, more modern look (!), greater power, and an engine you don't have to hand-prop all put nervous flyers more at ease. I was able to fly sets of kids at the same time as their parent, which I can't do in the Cub. It was quite a bit more comfortable, and warmer in the winter. The Cub is a more adventurous airplane, which is great for Dawn and I and also for taking up fellow airline pilots who haven't flown small planes in a while, but not ideal for introducing someone to flight unless conditions are perfect. Nevertheless I've taken a few relative newcomers flying in the Cub, including my young nephew Dylan, who now rather likes it but still says he preferred the Cessna.

A few months ago I got a call from Katie, a good friend and NewCo First Officer. She told me that a mutual friend of ours and NewCo flight attendant, Anabel, was interested in learning to fly, and Katie suggested that we get in touch. Anabel and I talked a few times, I gave her some advice, and promised to take her up in the Cub  as she'd never flown in a small airplane. After that, though, our schedules refused to line up for weeks, and when they did the weather was poor. We had an exceptionally cold and snowy early winter. 

Finally, in mid-December, we were both off on a snowy Monday with a forecast for clearing skies and a balmy high of 21F. I figured that if I waited for any nicer of a day that fit our schedules, it wouldn't be until springtime, so I called up Anabel and suggested we go flying. Well, it turned out the forecast was a little optimistic: by the time we arrived at Airlake, the snow had just tapered off and the ceiling was still overcast at 1500 feet, the temperature was barely 15, and a brisk north wind made the wind chill considerably colder. I'd still fly under those circumstances myself, but I probably should have scrubbed it for an intro flight. After picking up Anabel and driving all the way to the airport, though, I went against my better judgement.

It took a while to preheat the engine and shovel all the snow from the front of the hangar, by which time our toes were thoroughly frozen. And then once we pulled the Cub out and Anabel was all strapped in, I couldn't get the damn thing started. Anabel had been looking at the uncowled little 75 horse Continental with a rather skeptical eye, and now she looked even more dubious as I fiddled with throttle, primer, and mags in between each futile throw of the prop. Finally it fired, but wouldn't stay running for more than 20 seconds. It likely didn't help that the plane hadn't flown in over a month. Rather than admit defeat, I dragged the preheater back out and gave the engine another 10 minutes of heat while our toes lost all feeling. That and an extra few squirts of primer did the trick: the little four-banger sputtered to live one cylinder at a time, and stayed running in spite of itself.

I gave the engine plenty of time to warm up before runup and takeoff. Once we were off the ground, we turned southward, following I-35. I flew for a few minutes, demonstrating climbs, descents, turns, and straight & level flight, then asked Anabel if she'd like to try her hand at it. She did so very gingerly, keeping her turns to about 15 degrees of bank, but was quite smooth and good at finding the right sight picture to hold her altitude. I suggested that she try a descent, and so she put the nose down a hair and reduced throttle by maybe 100 RPM. "You can bring the throttle back a little more than that," I told her.

Sput-sput-sput-silence! The engine quit completely; with my encouragement, Anabel had cut the throttle a bit too fast for the Continental's liking. "My airplane!" I said in what I hoped wasn't a terribly panicked voice, and pushed the nose well below the horizon. The Cub is an extremely draggy airplane, and with no power you have to be aggressive about getting the nose down or your airspeed will decay dramatically. Besides the threat of a stall, you don't want to let the prop stop, or you won't get another chance at reviving the engine until you've landed on a road or in a field.

I pulled the throttle to a bit above idle, then fiddled with it until the engine caught and came roaring back to life. We were down to about 600 feet above a snowy field that probably would have provided a decent landing surface, but it would have been a chilly half-mile walk to the nearest road. "We're fine now. You ok?" I queried, leaning forward from the back seat. Anabel turned halfway around and gave me a weak chuckle. We'd only been without power for a few seconds but it definitely caught both of our attention, and she was obviously uneasy.

I climbed to a higher altitude than we'd been at, explained that in cold weather you had to be pretty ginger with throttle changes, & said if it hadn't started we had a perfectly good field to land in and would have been just fine. I asked if she'd like to fly again and she said no, she'd rather just look around now. So we flew around for a bit looking at lakes and icehouses and mansions with hockey rinks in their backyards before heading back to Airlake.

The Cub wasn't done acting up yet. On landing, I was just about to turn off the runway at midfield for the fuel pumps when the engine quit once again, and wouldn't start when I got out and threw the prop a dozen times. So Anabel piled out of the airplane to help me push it off the runway and to the fuel pumps. How embarrassing. By the time it was fueled and back in the hangar, we were both frozen through and through. Our teeth stopped chattering about the time I dropped Anabel off back in Minneapolis.

I really hope I didn't kill Anabel's interest in learning to fly. Our flight was uncomfortably cold, getting the plane prepped and started was a pain in the butt, the engine cutout gave her a scare, and the second one on landing probably had her guessing that it happens all the time. I felt pretty bad about it and told her so, and said I'd take her up again when the weather was nicer and it'd be a lot more fun. Anabel's a pretty gutsy girl - she travels more often than I do, to more out-of-the-way places and sometimes solo - so I think she'll take me up on it. But I should have waited until a better day in the first place. We get a pretty limited number of opportunities to share the joy of flight with would-be pilots, and it's important to make a good first impression. I think that in the future, Cub flights with first-timers will have to wait for the open-door days of summer.


Colin said...

Okay, have Anabel ping me when she has a bit of time on her next LAX turn. I'll take her up in some warmer air. That sounds like a VERY memorable first flight. colin [at]

Joaquin Espinoza said...

I'm curious whether the engine's poor performance that morning was something that could have been expected in those conditions. I'm not trying to judge or assign blame - I'm just trying to extract out a learning point from your story for the benefit of myself and other pilots on here. Does the cub POH say anything about a minimum operating temperature? And does the fact that the engine is uncowled contribute to a sensitivity to cold temperatures? I've never been overly cautious about operating in cold temperatures and have always thought that the engine would run normally as long as I warmed it up thoroughly before taking off. I wouldn't want to operate in conditions that reduced the reliability of my engine. Would appreciate your thoughts. Thanks!

Shawn Holstein said...

Memorable would be an understatement. I’d be scared myself if that was my first time flying and the plane suddenly acted up. I’m glad you and your guest was alright. But I guess this is more of a lesson; never fly on a Cub with a first timer in winter. I think you’ve made the right preparations; it’s really the cold that’s to blame. You can always make it up to her in the summer, I think. Stay safe and may the winds favor your next flight!

Shawn @