Life is the greatest challenge of all
Published by LOOP
PART 1I couldn't believe my luck when I awoke to yet another day of bright sunshine, not a cloud in the sky and the breeze just moving the tree tops. Couldn't be much better for my first attempt at tailwheeling.
The morning dragged by as i realised just how much I was looking forward to this new challenge. Would it be as bad as some say, would I somehow have to find demi-god status in order not to groundloop, or would it prove to be something a mere mortal like myself could cope with?
After much deliberation I decided to wear my babygrower flight suit just in case it was going to be as oily an experience as some had suggested to me. Feeling a little daft as I wandered up to the hangar full of helicopters I spied the little red and white Chipmunk in the corner of the hangar, nestled in against the Stampe, almost as if they were both nestled together to ward off the cold.
A curiously warm feeling crept through my veins as I stood and stared, contemplating the next couple of hours.
It was 12.55, time to go and introduce myself. I walked into the reception area to a friendly greeting and a warm cup of coffee was in my hands before I knew it. After the necessary paperwork and checks of my logbook, medical and licence I was taken into the briefing room and spent an hour going over climb speeds, cruise speeds, best glide speeds, approach speeds.........but most of all what I, as a spam can driver should expect from this 54 year old machine.
Oh, and of course more than one reminder that the rudders are not footrests, they are there for a purpose!!
Out to the hangar and we spent the next hour going over the Chippy in fine detail. I was introduced to the canvas bag kept in the lockable rear baggage compartment and it's contents: a fuel strainer, a specially made tool to turn something on the oil filter (sorry forgotten the term for it at the moment), a piece of rope (to help to avoid trapping fingers in the cowling fasteners) and a lump of wood. Yes, a lump of wood.
Turning the prop over we listened for a click on the impulse magneto. It wasn't there. The cure? Tap it with the lump of wood!! It worked.
We pulled the Chippy out of the hangar, threading it between some very expensive looking heli's and the fuel bowser, before turning it into the wind.
I was instructed to insert myself in the cockpit and familiarise myself with the instruments.
Hmmm, ok, a little olde worlde in here, but charming all the same. Switches scattered randomly all over the place, levers with no name to my left and to my right.
And the smell........oily definitely but with a touch of pleasant muskiness about it.
Strapping myself into the harness I looked around at the canopy. Not the car like windscreen I was used to in my 152. Though not claustrophobic, it is definitely a cosy place to be. AerBabe's warning of watching out for bruises on the side of my head made sense now. The feeling of being in something from another era is very strong, the view out similar to my boyhood dreams of flying a fighter plane. OK, pretty cool so far then.
As my instructor came back out the snow started to fall, so the starting procedure was a little hurried, but basically consisted of pulling the priming ring gently to its full extent and using the manual fuel pump until fuel is vented onto the ground. Once that has slowed to a trickle, the propellor is pulled through half a dozen blades to prime.
The snow now falling heavily, my instructor arrived in the rear cockpit and the canopy slid forward, locking into place and keeping that cold white stuff outside the cockpit.
Check brakes on, Isolate switch and mags to on, stick back, and push the starter and the engine coughed into life. Set 1100 rpm and wait for the engine to warm as the snow shower passed over the field.
Techie stuff over, now to see if I could get this thing to move across the ground with any semblance of obedience!
Easing the throttle forward (which is right next to the mixture and the same shape!) we slowly eased forwards. Craning my neck to the left and right we managed not to hit any of the spam cans, nor the Harvard, nor the expensive blue Enstrom. Ok, that's a good start then!
Off the grass and onto the tarmac and things start to move a little quicker. I won't bore you with the details, but the brakes are operated by a lever on the left hand side of the cockpit and are actually very effective (as Vince promised me they would be).
It is possible to apply a % of brake which is connected to the rudder and so the braking becomes effectively differential braking. This I was to discover at the hold as I was shown and then rather effectively managed to do myself, turn through 360 degrees as if on a turntable.
Power checks are very simple and pretty standard. Back round we rotated thanks to our magical trolley wheel at the back and before I knew it we were lining up.
Now to a 250 hour nosewheel pilot, the view over the nose as we lined up was....well...... disturbing!! As the power was applied I was swiftly reminded that British engines turn the propellor the opposite way to the good old Yank's! Ooops!!
Now to a 250 hour nosewheel pilot, pushing forward on the stick just doesn't seem....... well....... right. But suddenly I can see the runway, well the left hand side of the runway..... oh no make that the right hand side....oh no the left hand side...bugger no not that way.........thank God, airborne!!
Climbing out at 60 knots, the controls are amazingly sensitive. The joy of a stick rather than a yoke came flooding back to me. Can you retrofit a 152 with a stick I wondered, I really do find a stick so much better to use.
Ah yes...... rudders......they need some pressure from them there feet don't they!?!
As I started to relax a little, so the plane relaxed with me. It's almost like wearing the wings. Even the rudder/feet relationship was falling into place, though would need some thinking about before it became totally natural.
We levelled off at 2500' heading west and immediately noticeable was the large change in pressure required on those infernal rudder pedals as we speeded up. This is really going to do me some good.
The trim wheel is as sensitive as a woman with PMT (sorry girls), but once settled at 2000rpm and 85 knots she flies as if on rails.
"Have a play and get used to it" says a voice over the headphones. Made me jump, very easy to forget there is somebody with you when you can't see them. Okeydokey, let's play......
Sudddenly everything I have read about this aeroplane began to make sense. Slick, light controls, responsive to every input, yet not so sensitive as to destroy any hope of a smooth flight. Back pressure was intuitive and a series of steep turns left and right resulted in a height loss of 100', not too bad for a beginner. If you turn without rudder it is pretty obvious as long as you have a seat in your pants, with rudder the turns are beautifully tight and natural. Keeping the ball centred was actually a lot easier than I had feared it would be.
Time for some instruction then. Maximum rate turns, keeping on the edge of the buffet all the way round. (Thank you flyguy for your invaluable lessons on this). Cool. This is way way way more fun than trying to do steep turns in a Warrior. With large control surfaces the effort required is surprisingly small, which makes flying this aeroplane on the limit far easier than the average Piper/Cessna I am used to flying.
Climbing now, arcing round in a big clearing turn whilst carrying out the HASSELL checks, which I now have to remember to add "BrakesOff" to (because of their link to the rudder movement).
I don't know whether it is just me, but stalling still has that feeling of dread behind it. Whether it is because I learnt in a PA38 Tomahawk I don't know, which scared me a few times. I needn't have worried.
Clean stall, power off was easy. Full flap, power off required a little more concentration. Full flap, power on required committed concentration but it was great balancing her level, whilst fluttering downwards at 500' per minute, stick pulled back into my groin.
Instructor happy he suggested we go back and try a couple of circuits. "Yep!!"
"Go on, have a play" came the voice from the back. "Shame to waste such a glorious day flying straight and level!"
And therein lies the problem.
You just could not fly a Chippy straight and level for very long.
Some gentle wingovers followed by a demonstrated loop and straight into a roll, then over to me and we go rolling the horizon around in front of us, over our heads, making the fields smaller, making them bigger. Swooping, turning, grinning, laughing, like kids at play, relishing in the clear cold air, left, right, up, down, who really cares as long as it's not straight and level.
Nearing home we thought we had better behave a little more, but as we approached the overhead I couldn't resist one last waggle, one last flirtation with those gloriously able wings. There is simply no way you can fly this aeroplane in a straight line, too much grin factor available to do that.
A steep descending turn from the overhead soon saw us on the downwind leg, the only difference to my normal checks being brakes 4 clicks (to aid in steering on the ground). Surprisingly she was a lot harder to slow down on base leg than I thought. First stage of flaps are allowable at a generous 93 knots but the second stage needs you to be under 70 knots, so tends to be put down on final.
Apprehension began to build as we approached short final, the words from the back seat moulding together. This is just like starting to learn to fly all over again.
As we were landing on tarmac, my first tailwheel landings were going to be wheelers, where the main wheels touch down first and then as the speed decays the tailwheel kisses the earth gently.
From 50' I followed through and of course the instructor made it look easy. He gave me control as the tailwheel met the ground and I applied full throttle and eased the stick forward. Again the runway went left, then right then left as the pendulum effect gathered momentum and I was glad to get airborne again. Must make the rudder inputs more gentle!!!
The second approach was better but I cut the throttle too soon and we made an elegant trio of bounces before settling down. Again my world went to pieces as we swayed from left to right down the runway before releasing ourselves back into the air again.
Determined not to be beaten, I nailed the speed on short final, cut the throttle at the right time and had the stick at full forward before the tailwheel met the ground.
Next lesson: NEVER EVER relax. As we sped forward again my brave instructor had to put in loads of rudder to keep us from exiting the runway and he managed to get us into the air before I could do us any more damage.
After another slightly better touch and go I decided my brain had taken enough punishment for one day and elected to land off the next approach. Managed it all by my little self. Amazing how good it feels.
Even taxying back to the hangar becomes more fun in a taildragger.
Weaving from side to side we managed not to hit anything yet again.
Climbing out from the cockpit we fuelled up (just adore the brass filler caps and the fuel gauges in the wings!!) and pushed her back into the hangar.
After a cuppa I found out another reason why flying a Chippy is unlike most other aeroplanes. The chipmunk loses around a litre of oil an hour and spreads itself all over the engine bay, along the bottom of the fuselage and the sides of the 'plane. Grabbing a rag we spent the next half hour getting intimate with my new lover and rather good it was too.
So, what do I think, what have I learnt??
The nearest I have come to flying a Chippy is the Bulldog. The Chippy is like a graceful ballet dancer, whereas the Bulldog is more of a ....... well, bulldog!! The Bulldog feels aggressive, happy to be thrown about the sky, always straining at the leash. The Chipmunk is altogether a more graceful beast, a little easier to fly and lighter on the controls.
Landing them is a different matter.
I am glad of the opportunity to learn exactly what the rudders are for and it gives immense satisfaction to get it right. I managed that in the air, also on the taxiways, but was not so successful on the runway.
A tailwheel is only really different on the ground, apart from the judiscious use of rudder required in the air. I am sure my nosewheel flying will benefit from a little more concentration on the rudders though.
Is the Chippy as good as people say it is? Well I loved every minute, even the ones where I was a little scared on the ground.
Would I do it again?
Booked in a week on Tuesday
Going to be doing 3 pointers on grass. Rather encouragingly, instructor reckons that when he can beat the over use of the rudders out of me (whilst on the take off roll) I will be OK.
The Sign Off
Ok, so the middle part is missing at the moment, but the final part is detailed below!
Waking to the wind blowing tunes through the roof tiles this morning, I felt a little dejected.
I had been looking forward to today, hoping for my sign off on the Chipmunk and my tailwheel differences training. The sun was shining brightly in a clear blue sky, but the trees outside my window were leaning rather too far for comfort.
Arriving at the airport a couple of hours later I was glad to see that the windsock, though almost horizontal, was at least blowing more or less down the runway. I may at least get some flying in today, even if not my solo sign off.
Taxying gingerly out to the hold, power checks were soon completed and we had the luxury of the circuit to ourselves. No bomber size circuits today then!
Wheelers again today, came the voice from the back. Remembering all I could from last week’s assault, I turned final. Not too bad, wind 20 degrees off the nose. May just cope with this! The first windy landing in a tailwheel still gave me a nervous knot in my stomach. Remembering my instructors’ words of advice to just use my toes on the rudders, we touched down with only the slightest of bumps and as I eased the stick forward to keep the tailwheel off the ground I actually managed to keep it heading down the centre line. At last!!! With a slight deviation as the tail went down and the swing set in, it was flaps away and full power for the next attempt.
With the wind varying between 12 and 18 knots and 10 to 30 degrees off the runway heading, the next few touch and go’s were interesting but becoming easier to handle. My feet had stopped trying to do the tap dance and looking further down the runway was helping me keep straight and over-compensate less.
As I eased the stick forward to its stop on the 6th landing, the tailwheel no longer able to defy gravity, my instructor took the radio and announced to ATC that this was to be our last one. It took me by complete surprise, as with the wind getting stronger as the session went on, I had figured I would have to wait for my sign off.
So when the words came through the headset “You can go off on your own if you reckon you can handle it” I thought I was hearing things!!
The instructor is also the owner of the club and the aeroplane and is justifiably very protective of his fleet. As he explained to me afterwards, though I was getting a little out of shape on occasion I was managing to correct the errors and land safely. Apparently an instructor likes to see a stude make mistakes and overcome them, rather than be perfect. Being perfect means he never gets to see what would happen if things go awry. Logical I suppose!!
As he jumped out he gave the thumbs up, my stomach went into butterfly mode and I remembered vividly my first ever solo. Strangely enough this meant more to me than the first one in some ways.
Calling for taxi clearance I felt a total novice once more; the wind behind me down the taxi way kept me busy and suddenly all nerves disappeared as concentration took over.
I was kept at the hold for ages behind another aeroplane until my turn came.
Lining up, the runway disappeared under the nose. “Clear take off”, power on, left rudder, stick forward and the world was again visible.
Before I knew it I was airborne.
In a Chipmunk.
Dreams do come true, I can do this, it’s not just wishful thinking,
I really am up here, on my own, flying this sensitive soulful craft…. The grin crept to the corner of my mouth.
Downwind, checks done, relax. Grin. Wider now. But hang on; I have to land my dream now. Onto base, adjust for wind, don’t worry about flaps yet or this will take forever. Final and bleed off some speed, 1 stage of flaps and stabilise at 70 knots. Gradually reduce to 60 knots, keep some power on and fly it onto the runway. Well I never, it works!! Mains on, power off, ease the stick forward, bit more, a little more and counteract the swing as the tail finally drops.
Grin got bigger.
Flaps away, full power and away we go again, even keeping it tracking straight. As I call downwind I can’t resist a waggle of the wings, tipping the world one way and then the other in my delight.
There was more crosswind on this landing and I discovered the power of the ailerons on the landing roll as I held the stick over too far and actually lifted the wing. Shame as it was a lovely wing down landing!!
Crosswind to downwind was a steep turn and I played with the wings, dipping them into the fields and then piercing the sky, loving every minute. If someone had said to me that I would still be enjoying circuits after all this time I would have laughed. But, this was fun. OK, not orthodox for downwind, but good clean fun!
After a controlled bounce on landing I proudly kept the tailwheel in the air until the ground roll had almost stopped and vacated the runway grinning from ear to ear. Can’t believe it myself how much I enjoyed that time in the circuit today.
Apparently being able to fly tailwheel aircraft opens up the world to lots of exciting and challenging types.
For now I will be happy with the couple of hours planned in the Stampe and the conversion to the Starduster. Mind you, I’m up at Ultimate High in September and the Extra is tailwheel………….
For those who are interested:
6 hours 20 minutes
14 three pointers
4 barrel rolls
4 aileron rolls
And the usual stalling and conversion to type exercises.
Lots and lots of grin factor. Yes I could have gone and done the conversion at Clacton and saved myself nigh on 4 figures, but this was fantastic fun, I can still go and hire the Chippy whenever I feel like it and there are other interesting types to try as and when.
I’ve kinda fallen in love with the red and white beauty too.