Saturday, November 13, 2010

My Dukakis moment

NOTE: For those arriving from the Van's Airforce web site, I need to clarify that I am not an RV-6 builder. I am an RV-12 builder, but I bought my RV-6 already flying.

Who remembers this:

Some say this picture cost Mr. Dukakis the presidency of the United States. Me? I hope that's not true or my own chance to occupy the big chair is ruined for, as luck would have it, I now have a picture of your's truly that's even worse. But we'll get to that...

Here we are in the middle of November and I was presented with a completely unexpected quandary. After all, no one expected the terrific weather we've had all week, and even less expected was that it would continue into at least one day of the weekend. But there it was in all its glory: a forecast for clear-ish skies and reasonable temperatures. I would simply have to fly somewhere. I checked the schedules of the usual suspects that accompany me, but it looked like I'd either have to go somewhere alone or see if I could still fit my ever-expanding puppy pal Cabot into the plane.

Nagging at the back of my brain has been the idea that I'd really like to get out to Red Stewart airport and get a ride in their Stearman. Having failed to find an open spot on the schedule last time I tried, I didn't think it was very likely that I'd be any more successful when calling on a Friday afternoon with the very public promise of good weather on Saturday to entice others into the same idea. I called anyway. The woman that answered the phone sounded as if she didn't expect to find any openings as she asked me to wait while she consulted the schedule, and actually sounded apologetic when she told me that the only opening was at 3:30 PM. I leapt at it! I figured that would probably be the warmest part of the day and that seemed to me to be a quite desirable detail when booking a ride in an open cockpit biplane. In November.

Still, that left most of Saturday for me to pace about in barely contained excitement. I finally gave up and headed for the airport a little after 1:00. Red Stewart is only 50 miles away and I knew I'd be horribly early, but I just needed to go. I took one last look at the forecast and spent a few moments pondering the warning of 14G20 winds before deciding that those winds, while close up against my personal maximum, were still within the bounds of flyable. The were pretty much out of the southwest, too, so I'd only be dealing with a fractional crosswind component of them anyway.

The winds hadn't yet picked up as I climbed out of Bolton Field and headed towards the southwest, but it wasn't long until we started bumping through a light but frenetic chop. It was the kind of sky that just won't allow the plane to settle into any kind of relaxed, hands-free flying. I had to keep a tight hand on the reins for the entire trip. Dialing in the frequencies of some of the automated weather reporting systems in the vicinity of my destination proved what I already knew: the promise of 14G20 winds had been kept. Well, at least I knew that it was going to be an interesting arrival!

I had no idea how interesting! Red Stewart has a grass runway and those are notoriously difficult to pick out of the surrounding farm fields, but that's what GPS is for. With only three miles remaining before the GPS would start counting how many miles the field was behind me rather than in front of me, I caught sight of it. It was the field with a high-powered plane doing aerobatics just to the north of it. Or, in other words, right where I was headed. The radio was mostly quiet with the exception of a couple of planes entering the pattern at Waynesville, wherever that was. Oddly enough, though, there were also a couple of planes entering the pattern at Red Stewart. An idea started to tug at what little attention I had remaining as I concentrated on not being speared by an aerobatic plane descending straight down out of a hammerhead stall. Oh, and there was also what looked like a Piper Cub rolling down the runway on takeoff.

Not counting the aerobatic guy, there were four airplanes in the general vicinity of the runway. One was not talking on the radio at all; he was on final and thus not much of a factor. One was on left base, but he, as with the third guy who was busy making a right 360 degree turn out of the downwind leg to increase his spacing behind the guy on base, was reporting his activity as being at Waynesville.

BING! The light came on.

Oh! I get it now! "Waynesville" is the name of the airport, not "Red Stewart!" Or they're synonymous. Whatever. It was time to cast aside all of the nagging details and get busy with landing my plane. I slowed down and dropped flaps to keep myself behind the guy that had finished his 360 degree turn and was back to flying a normal pattern. I extended my downwind to give him a little more room. I could feel the crosswind from the left as I came down final and compensated for it by keeping my left wing low. I made a fairly decent touchdown but fell victim to the oldest grass runway trick in the book: if you don't make a full stall landing, the humps and bumps in the runway will bounce you right back into the air. There's only one result to that: an embarrassingly bumpy arrival. Which, after having very publicly embarrassed oneself, leaves only a single path of recourse: park far away from the spectators.

Unfortunately, I parked with the gusty wind at my back. The wind was strong enough that it was slapping the rudder from stop to stop, a situation that I simply cannot tolerate. It's horribly hard on the hinges and can even result in small dents in the skin of the rudder if it bangs hard enough to contact one of the screw heads protruding through the fiberglass fairings. I had to dig around in my just-in-case kit to find the rudder lock that I use to immobilize the rudder in situations like this. I don't like to use it because I'm afraid I'll forget to remove it before trying to taxi out to the runway. I'd know if I had forgotten it pretty quickly since I wouldn't be able to turn the airplane, but it would be terribly embarrassing to have to shut down and go back out to remove it. Worse, even, than forgetting to remove a chock. And, well, my local reputation as a competent pilot wasn't all that great anyway, what with the preceding landing and all.

With an hour and a half to kill, I entertained myself by walking around soaking up the ambiance of the rustic airport. I even managed to talk to a few folks with none of them making any mention at all of my landing. Maybe it wasn't all that bad after all. Or maybe they were just being polite. Either is fine with me.

At about 3:15 I was approached by a guy that asked if I was Dave. "Well, yes I am!" I replied. "I'm Dave too. Are you here for the Stearman ride?" Ah, early! What a stroke of luck! I was more than a little afraid that they might be running late and that I'd run into a shortage of daylight at the other end of this little adventure. We walked over to a pair of hangars, between which the Stearman was hiding.

Dave went through the preparations for starting the big radial engine. It was apparent that pilot/cadets of the late 30's were horribly spoiled because the airplane had obviously been designed for an external crewman to start. Note from Dave's efforts that the engine is primed from outside the cockpit. And if that's not evidence enough, note that right next to the primer knob is a slotted orifice that a crank handle inserts into. After priming the engine, the poor crewman would be forced to turn that crank in order to spin up a massive flywheel under the cowl. When the pilot/cadet hollered out that the magnetos were live, the crewman would pull a knob that would transfer the rotational energy of the flywheel to crank the engine over. If he was lucky, the engine would start on the first or second try.

Dave didn't make me do that, although he did relate the story of an aspiring Stearman pilot that had wanted to try it himself, ostensibly for the "authenticity" that's in it.

He only asked once.

With those preparations out of the way, I was invited to alight. And given my status as a pilot (Dave had been up flying when I arrived, and who was I to disabuse him of the notion that I had done it well?) he insisted that I sit in the back seat. Oddly enough, that's considered to be the pilot's seat. It probably has something to do with weight and balance when flying solo. In any event, I jumped at the chance. He gave me a quick description of the contortions I'd have to go through to climb all the way up there and into the seat before heading on up to the front seat himself. Luckily he was still facing to the front as I clumsily crawled over the side coaming and ignominiously plopped down into the seat.

As I was in the official pilot's seat, I'd have some duties not normally entrusted to uncredentialed goundlings. First, once he was belted in and ready to start the engine I'd have to flip the battery switch to "on." Once the engine had started, I'd have to flip the radio switch to "on." That particular operation seemed kind of gratuitous because I could quite plainly see the void where the radio used to be installed, but I suppose it had something to do with the intercom.

All that was left to do was to fasten and snug down the safety belts which, considering the complete lack of any overhead structure to keep me in the airplane, was a task that I paid particularly rapt attention to. Oh, and I had to put on the cloth helmet/headset thingy. And it was at that precise moment that any thoughts and dreams about attaining high political office were dashed forever.

As surely as Napoleon had his Waterloo, I had finally had my long-dreaded Dukakis moment.

And you know what? Within just a couple of minutes I wouldn't care! Not in the least!

Radial engines don't seem to roar into life all at once like the little four cylinder bangers that I'm accustomed to. Rather, they bang and splutter and spit out flames and noxious clouds of smoke as they seemingly reluctantly come to life. Frankly, that is a great deal of their appeal. As I've often said, the primary function of airplanes like the Stearman is to convert large quantities of expensive petroleum products into noise. Sweet, wonderful noise, of course, but noise nonetheless. And I'm here to tell you, it sounds just as nice from inside the airplane as it does from the outside.

I sat there for a couple if seconds in awe of the momentous moment. This was, after all, the very first time I had ever even sat in a venerable classic like a Stearman, and now here I was getting ready to fly in one! Surprisingly, I even remembered to turn on the second switch!

What? Did I hear him right? It seemed that Dave had just said that he would taxi us out from between the hangars and then I could take over. Really?? That was not what I had expected at all! And I was completely unprepared for it; I had cameras spread out all over the place back in my little cubbyhole, ready to record every moment of the ride. I started trying to find places to put all of the cameras where I'd still be able to get at them later. That proved challenging since in my zeal to not fall out of the airplane I had snugged myself down very, very tightly. I couldn't get to any of my pockets!

I managed to get everything tucked away through the simple expedient of sitting on whatever I could get under my thighs and tucking one of the thinner cameras underneath one of the shoulder straps. As I took over the steering of the plane (and asking Dave to make sure that if I was going to hit anything to please make sure it was anything other than the little gray airplane over there by the runway) I quickly realized one very critical difference between sitting in the back seat of a Stearman versus sitting in an RV-6: you can't see a blooming thing from the back seat of a Stearman. It steers pretty well, although I don't think the tailwheel does anything other than freely swivel around. It seemed that I could make gentle turns by using full rudder throw (and man, do those pedal travel a long way!) and could encourage tighter turns by stabbing at the brakes. It was actually pretty easy to taxi once I got in the habit of making frequent S-turns in order to see what was out in front of us.

I managed to get us to the end of the runway without running over anything, although I did exhibit a tendency to taxi faster than Dave was comfortable with. The problem is that my airplane is very small and light compared to a behemoth like the Stearman and I'm therefore used to being able to stop quickly. The Stearman, on the other hand, weighs 3,000 pounds. It doesn't do anything quickly. There are a lot of people and little bitty airplanes moving around at Red Stewart, so a walking pace while taxiing is the way to go.

When we reached the end of the runway, Dave had me point the plane into the wind and do the engine run-up. That was performed in a similar manner to the way I do it in the RV-6 with one notable exception: the tach rotates counter-clockwise, as opposed to just about every other tach in the world. With the run-up done, Dave had me position the plane on the runway. He then told me we'd do the takeoff together - he'd man the rudders while I did the rest. He asked me to be gentle with the throttle until reaching 1,500 rpm since there is a notable burble right around 1,300. "Notable" is a generous description. "Startlingly abrupt" seems more apt in the event.

I actually did pretty well with the takeoff, although I was surprised at how long it took to get up to flying speed. This is, by the way, another area in which grass runways try to trip you up. The same humps and bumps that kept me from landing smoothly also try to throw the plane into the air before its truly ready to fly. After a few false takeoffs with resultant bouncy returns to the runway, I got us into the air and climbing out at a sedate 60 mph.

Did I say "sedate?" Well, when viewed from a distance I'm sure it looked that way. When sitting in an open cockpit biplane, though, no speed over 10 mph can be described as anything other than "unremittingly loud." The first thing I remember is the wind getting under the lip of the cloth helmet/headset thingy and making it feel like a hat that's getting ready to blow right off of your head. It took a couple of frantic grabs at it before I fully internalized that it wasn't going anywhere. As we accelerated to a blistering 75 mph for our excruciatingly slow climb to 1,500' AGL, I started to notice that the buffeting from the air was getting more than a little abusive. It only took a couple of minutes to realize that my eyebrows were going to hurt for the rest of the day from my eyelids flapping up and slapping them. I'm not complaining here, mind you, but I have to say it: a pair of goggles would have been nice!

I was desperate to take some pictures but I couldn't bring myself to relinquish the controls. Years of practice in the RV-6 came to my rescue, though. If there's one thing I can do, it's fly with one hand and take pictures with the other.

We eventually reached our desired altitude and I put the camera away. I don't know how long it took to get to altitude since there's no vertical speed gauge in the panel. I suspect they had it removed because they considered it to do nothing but taunt them as they struggled for altitude. And really, who needs an instrument to tell you that your exact rate of climb is "lethargic." Actually, I'm not sure why they even have an airspeed indicator either. With the wind buffeting my eyelids, I cast a glance down to the panel to see how fast we were going, fully expecting to see 120 or 130 mph. Nope.

80 mph.

It seems like no matter what I did with the throttle, no matter what position I put the airplane in, every time I looked at the airspeed indicator we were doing 80 mph. It is truly the one-airspeed airplane! Climb at 80, cruise at 80, land at 80. I have yet to figure out why it has a throttle at all - it seems like an on/off switch would suffice.

Anyway, once at altitude Dave told me I could play around with the plane if I'd like to. He only had to offer once! I started with some shallow banked turns to get a feel for it, eventually working my way up to wingovers and steep turns. I found the plane to be responsive in the things you need it to do such as normal, routine flying, but very heavy if you asked it to hurry things along. In other words, it would willingly roll into a turn with very little stick force, but you could heave as hard as you wanted to move the stick further over and still have very little effect on the rate of the roll. The rudder was the same way - it was much lighter than I had expected it to be, right up until I asked it to force the nose down while we were in a steep bank at the top of a wingover.

I also discovered that the Stearman will not pick up speed willingly, but it will gladly shed it like a Husky dropping coat in August. When I toss the RV-6 around I have to be very careful to keep it from picking up great gobs of speed; with the Stearman I had no such worries, but I had to make sure I didn't lose too much. I also noticed that I started to learn a few moves that I could use to avoid the worst of the air blast. For example, I soon learned that you can duck your head into the inside of a steep turn to avoid the blast of hard air you get if you haven't coordinated the rudder and ailerons correctly. Still, even with the ability to score a few brief calm moments I wouldn't want to fly a long cross-country in one of these things.

Right around the time I had had enough of flinging the plane around (to the degree that a plane that heavy can be flung, anyway), Dave asked me to climb higher. It was his turn to fly! We had briefly discussed my appetite for advanced maneuvers like loops before takeoff and I had blithely answered in the affirmative. Yes, please, let's have some! What I hadn't fully considered was the difference between me doing loops and me riding with someone else doing loops, particularly in an airplane with no top! It was too late to back out, though, what with the enormous investment that had been required to put another thousand feet between us and the cold, hard earth. I pinched the seat cushion just a little tighter and gave him the go-ahead.

In the RV-6, I can pull a loop from straight and level cruise. And I can make them big and lazy, too, since the engine doesn't have to fight a bunch of drag to get us up to the top of the loop. Not so with the Stearman. It took a long (well, it seemed long. It was probably no more than five seconds) steep dive followed by an abrupt pull-up to get us through to the other side. It was fun, though. Dave followed that up by slowing us into a stall and kicking the rudder over to drop us into a spin. We made a two or three turn spin and pulled out when we got back down to our original 1,500' altitude.

Our half hour was just about up so he asked me if I'd like to try landing. I shared that I thought that was asking a bit much since I had completely lost track of the airport in the spin and simply couldn't see it anywhere. That should have been a clue - there's only one blind spot in a Stearman: straight ahead. It's the definitive "he never knew what hit him" airplane; you could hide a mountain out in front of one of these planes. With that navigational problem solved, I agreed to give it a try.

We entered the pattern directly over the center of the runway and heading for a left downwind. I timed the turn to downwind well enough, but every time I tried to start bringing the plane down lower, Dave stopped me. We ended up on what I thought was short final at 600' AGL. I say that I "thought" we were on short final because the entire airport was blocked by the front of the airplane. That's when I found out why Dave had wanted to keep all of the altitude in the bank; he rolled us into a left-wing-low forward slip and voilĂ , there was the airport.

I'd like to be able to say I made the landing, but I have to confess that after the first bounce I was just along for the ride. Once Dave had gotten us settled onto the runway, I took over and got us slowed down to taxi speed. I taxied us back to park right by Papa. Shutting down the engine was the same as in most piston engine planes: mixture to cut-off and magnetos off. The only difference was the abject relief that the noise and wind had stopped.

And that was it. All done.

I'm going to do it again next year, I think.

We had done pretty good on time and I didn't have to worry about getting back before dark after all. Still, it was nice to sit in relative quiet and calm of my own plane while cooking along at a more reasonable speed, even if I did suddenly have a disconcerting tendency to over-control it.


  1. Very jealous. Sounds you had a grand time.

    One question. In the photo where Dave is priming the engine, what's the gadget on the left forward strut, just above his head? It looks like it's attached to both the strut and the bottom of the top wing.

  2. Great Story! I went over to Waynesville (Red Stewart Field) for my first tailwheel lesson. The day kind of turned in to a fiasco, but it was a fun time.

    (summary: starter failure, stuck in cinci, beers in the hanger garage while sitting next to the above stearman. Read about it here: )

    Ben Lauer

    p.s. i guess it is kind of rude to link to your own blog in someone elses. sorry. If it makes you feel better, i've been following yours for a quite some time and it is half inspired me to build an RV. now i just need to save up.

  3. Bob -

    That's a Bernoulli tube. Air running through it creates a vacuum. That vacuum is tapped off through hoses that run to the gyro instruments (attitude indicator and directional gyro, typically) in the instrument panel.

    Ben -

    No problem at all. Just let me know when you're ready to start on an RV - I'll talk you into an RV-12.

  4. Glad you finally got to experience the unique awesomeness of Stewart! Loved the photos and video. Dave was my primary CFI there - great guy and looks like you had a blast with him. I've still never flown in the Stearman (sacrilegious, I know) but really hope to do that next year.

    I also appreciated your comments about the traffic on your way in. Sounds like an average day of NORDO traffic at Stewart. And yeah, I probably should've mentioned the Waynesville thing with the radio calls. I usually call "Stewart Waynesville" or something like that myself.

    This post is like the culmination of all the bloggers I've convinced to visit Stewart - I just need Gary and Rob to pop in and comment. :)