Thursday, June 15, 2017

Dragging Tail

Idyll

N6114H, Andover Flight Academy's 1946 Piper J-3 Cub

A few cumulus clouds provided crisp contrast against a deep blue sky. Below, surface breezes barely stirred. My right shirt sleeve fluttered in the slipstream from the open door at my side as I guided the 1946 J-3 Cub off the grass runway and out over Lake Aeroflex. Our shadow touched a a pair of kayakers whose faces lifted to watch us pass overhead. From the front seat, Damian waved and they returned the gesture as we continued to climb over the lush countryside of rural New Jersey.

Though I was in the midst of training, I allowed myself to dwell briefly in the moment, on the view of our shadow flitting across the sparkling water, the feel of the wind from the open door, and the honest simplicity of stick and rudder flying.

Quest for the Tailwheel Endorsement

I took my first light aircraft flight with Dave in this American Champion Citabria.

I got my start in taildraggers, tandem-seat tube and rag airplanes designed in the World War II era or earlier. When grounded, they lean back on their tails, noses perpetually lifted skyward. [Purists may point out that modern taildraggers (e.g., anything built after World War I) are more properly called tailwheel airplanes and that true taildraggers were earlier aircraft built only with tail skids. Nonetheless, the taildragger term persists as an affectionate nickname for tailwheel airplanes, which is why I use it here.] Despite the fact that I have stick time in a number of taildraggers (e.g., Citabria, Super Decathlon, Stearman, Champ, Travel Air 4000), I have never performed a take-off or a landing in one. There is a good reason for this.

Aircraft constructed with the third wheel on the tail and the center of gravity aft of the main gear lack directional stability on the ground. Any tricycle gear airplane (e.g., a "nosedragger"), like Warrior 481, can be nudged into taxiing the proper direction with easy rudder inputs; hold until pointed where the pilot desires, then relax. But tailwheel airplanes must be actively and assertively managed. Once a rudder input is made, the airplane will continue to yaw until the input is deliberately neutralized. There is no relaxing unless the pilot wants to become a passenger. Additionally, the taildragger stance means that forward visibility on the ground can range from poor to nil depending on the airplane. Both of these factors complicate the acts of taxiing, taking-off, and landing. As a result, a tailwheel endorsement is required before anyone can act as Pilot in Command of a taildragger.


For several years, I have wanted to earn a tailwheel endorsement. I craved the experience and wanted an opportunity to sharpen my skills as a pilot. Additionally, I have an odd affection for the venerable Piper Cub and specifically hoped to do tailwheel training in a J-3. This may seem strange considering that I have never even sat in one, let alone flown one. After several false starts, I finally scheduled time with Damian DelGaizo, tailwheel Jedi Master and owner of Andover Flight Academy at the Aeroflex-Andover Airport in northwestern New Jersey. I have read about Damian and this destination for tailwheel training many times over the years in various aviation publications and decided that, if I was going to pursue the endorsement, I might as well go to the best.

Outbound Folly

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
13 June 2017 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - N30 (Honesdale, PA) - MSV (Monticello, NY) - 12N (Andover, NJ) 2.4 1644.6

Perhaps the less said about my outbound flight, the better.


I departed from Sodus at 7:45 am on an IFR flight plan, logging 0.2 hours of actual IMC along the way.


My goal was to stop at the Cherry Ridge Airport (N30, Honesdale, PA) for a late breakfast so that I would be well-fueled for my first tailwheel lesson at 11:30 that morning.

Cherry Ridge Airport, N30, Honesdale, PA

My arrival at Cherry Ridge epitomized the word "ungainly". I was too high, too fast, and landed long.


The ramp has a definite grade to it and I awkwardly managed to roll the Warrior to the edge of the pavement and used the towbar as a temporary wheel chock while I set the parking brake. This probably sounds pretty straightforward in print, but the reality was awkward and probably did not reflect well on my ability to problem solve.

On top of it all, the restaurant was closed. Though ForeFlight indicated summer hours on Tuesday for the restaurant, ForeFlight's information did not match reality. Lesson: always check the actual website of the destination rather than relying on third party data. On the bright side, my clumsy arrival and parking antics did not occur in front of a large restaurant audience.

I knew that Sullivan County Airport (MSV, Monticello, NY) was nearby and also had a cafe, so I hopped over there (airport #175). It was closed, too.

Lacking lunch, it is a good thing that I always fly with water and peanuts.

Aeroflex


The Aeroflex-Andover Airport is famous for its relatively short runway (1981' x 50' of parallel asphalt and grass) and "aircraft carrier" approaches with both ends bounded by water. My mentor, Dave, used to speak fondly of this airport and did his tailwheel training there. While certainly not too short to land a Warrior, Aeroflex is known as the local short field airport. Joe, the assistant airport manager, told me about a Skyhawk that came in earlier that morning. It made four attempts at landing, was high and fast on all of them (Joe should have seen me at Cherry Ridge), and all four ended with a go-around. "At least he was smart enough to do the go-arounds," I told Joe.


I saw comments on ForeFlight warning about power lines on the runway 21 approach and expected something low and close to the threshold. The reality is that they are high tension wires over a mile from the threshold (out of frame past the bottom of the above photo). My pattern was well inside them. Another ForeFlight user warned that folks at Andover were prickly about where people parked their airplanes. Joe offered me several parking options, including leaving the Warrior right on the main ramp in front of the New Jersey Forestry office where I parked in the first place. You can't believe everything you read, even from other pilots. The only real caution that I would raise about Aeroflex is that the road into the airport crosses the runway 21 threshold. Watch for vehicular traffic on final.

Super Cub and Ordinary Cub


Joe gave me a brief tour of the airport. We examined this beautiful, freshly restored Cub tied to the ramp. Seeing that I had a keen interest in old airplanes, Joe also showed me a Stinson project in one of the hangars.



On arrival, there is no mistaking that Aeroflex-Andover is a haven for taildraggers.


In addition to Joe, I also met Orville, Aeroflex's seventeen year old feline mascot.

Accommodations

My stay in the Andover region made me realize that there is a lot more to New Jersey than what I had experienced around Newark. Manageable traffic, a beautiful landscape of wooded hills and ridges, and really friendly people. Everyone at Aeroflex-Andover Airport was friendly, welcoming, and talkative. It's the kind of airport where people just drop in to chat and to see what's happening. The Enterprise office in Newton, NJ will pick up clients from the airport to get their rental cars. My driver was a young woman who was both a biologist and a former student pilot.

The Wooden Duck Bed & Breakfast

The Andover Flight Academy webpage highly recommends The Wooden Duck Bed & Breakfast, which offers a "corporate rate" for students from the school and is located within a ten minute drive.

The Carriage House at the Wooden Duck Bed & Breakfast

I booked a room in the Carriage House for $124/night, which included the corporate discount; the rooms get fancier and pricier from there. Jason and Maryann, owners of the B&B, were friendly and helpful. Jason is a lapsed pilot and seemed to enjoy having a kindred spirit in the house. Maryann excitedly told me that they watched part of my lesson on my second day of training. When she described a biplane, however, I knew that they had actually been watching John in the Stearman (probably a more interesting sight anyway). They provided recommendations on a number of excellent restaurants in the area: Sheridan's Lodge, Stonewood Tavern, Thai Nam Phet II, and Cafe Pierrot. The latter was a small bakery and sandwich shop near the airport at the intersection of highway 206 and Limecrest Road where I bought sandwiches in the morning to eat during lunch breaks while training.


Each morning, Jason and Maryann prepared a fantastic breakfast for their guests. On the second day, I explored a trail that departs the west edge of the property and eventually connects with the Paulinskill Valley Trail in a former railroad bed.

My stay at the Wooden Duck was wonderful and my only disappointment is that Kristy was not with me to enjoy the experience.

Back to Basics

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
13-15 June 2017 N6114H 12N (Andover, NJ), local, with flights to 13N (Andover, NJ) 7.0 1651.6

Andover Flight Academy provides a range of flight training options including basic private pilot instruction, tailwheel training in the J-3 Cub and Stearman, and bush training in a modified Super Cub. My homework prior to arriving was to watch Damian's "Tailwheel 101" DVD, which provided a terrific overview of the training that I would receive from him.

Andover Flight Academy's Stearman

As an instructor, Damian is bluntly laconic. When I did a good job on something, Damian would tell me so. When I screwed up, he would explain it directly and specifically. His insight as an instructor came from a talent to diagnose what I was doing wrong, despite sitting in front of me in the J-3 (the J-3 is soloed from the back seat). "You weren't looking in the right place and you over flared," he would declare each time I'd drop the airplane to the ground. This apparent clairvoyance was born from many hours of tailwheel training. Make no mistake; the phrase "Cherokee landings" is definitely derogatory.

The front office of  N6114H. It's way easier to see those instruments when there isn't a person sitting up there.

I spent 7.0 hours flying a 65 horsepower Piper J-3 Cub, N6114H. It was in excellent condition, particularly considering that its use as a trainer. My training took place in 1.0 - 1.5 hour blocks that alternated with other students. On my second day, for example, Damian was also working with John, who was sent to Andover Flight Academy by the Owls Head Transportation Museum for a Stearman check-out.

My first attempt at climbing into the back seat of the Cub was awkward at best. "Well, that was ungainly," Damian deadpanned once I managed to pull my legs into the Cub.

He should have seen me at Cherry Ridge, I thought at the time.

Actually, it's probably just as well that he didn't.

It's not often that I capture a picture containing multiple airplanes that I've flown

We started with taxiing and S-turning. The latter allows the pilot to clear the area ahead of the airplane while taxiing to compensate for the lack of forward visibility; turn left, look right, turn right, look left and so on. Next, we did a few fast-taxis down the runway to teach me the sight picture and rudder inputs needed to keep the airplane straight. Those went well and we moved on to three point landings on the grass at both Aeroflex and the endangered airport at nearby Trinca (13N). We also did some steep turns and stalls with the Cub for me to get a feel for the airplane. The stalls were docile and the Cub showed no inclination to drop a wing like the Cessna 150 from my original training. Within a couple of hours, I was consistently doing three point landings with the Cub on the grass without significant coaching.

"You're doing better than average," Damian informed me at the end of the first day. "Good job." Not bad considering that it had been a grueling day owing to no lunch, temperatures reaching 93°F, and the dehydrating effects of a constant wind blasting at us through the open Cub door.


On the second day, we started on wheel landings where the Cub was landed on the main gear and forward stick is used to keep the tail off the ground. Before I did it the first time, I was concerned that pushing the stick forward during the landing roll-out would require finesse, a delicate balance between failing to keep the tail up and putting the airplane over onto its nose. That was not the case and, in fact, the whole process felt surprisingly natural. We varied between slight forward stick for tail low wheel landings and using enough forward stick to put a negative angle of attack on the wing, useful in gusty conditions to keep the airplane on the ground. My wheel landings went very well right from the first try, one of the few things that did.

Success with wheel landings meant that my three point landings immediately went to crap because the landing sight pictures are so different. Wheel landings look and feel more like how I land the Warrior and it was easy for me to slip back into old habits. I was also surprised by the amount of force required to go full aft on the stick while three-pointing the Cub and would occasionally stop flaring prematurely. "All the way back. Put it on the tail," Damian would prompt. Failure to flare sufficiently would result in the mains hitting the ground first. When that happened, momentum carried the tail down, which increased the angle of attack on the wing and resulted in a balloon back into the air. Though not technically a bounce, it felt like one. I felt terrible every time I "bounced" Damian's Cub.

We spent the rest of my training time on the second day alternating between wheel landings and three point landings until Damian was satisfied that I could switch back and forth.


Between lessons on the second day, I talked with Dave, current president of the Paramus Flight Club and John from the Owl's Head Transportation Museum in Maine. We overheard John ask Damian about training Harrison Ford on tailwheel flying while Ford was preparing to film Six Days, Seven Nights. Damian is not one to gossip and stuck to the facts. He praised Ford's skill in executing an engine out landing to a golf course in Santa Monica in 2015 and avoided speculation when asked about Ford's mistaken landing on the taxiway at John Wayne Airport in 2017.

On the third day, we went back to Trinca Airport and practiced crosswind landings. Compared to the Warrior, the Cub slips like a dream. The distraction of managing crosswinds led to my three point landings going to crap again. I will probably hear Damian's voice saying "keep it flying" every time I flare an airplane from now on. Back at Aeroflex, I did my first landing on pavement. A wind gust swung the nose to the right, I caught a glimpse of the runway center line in my peripheral vision, fixated on it, and dropped the airplane on. "Forget the center line. No Cherokee landings," Damian admonished. He decided that we should stop for a break at that point. I suspect that he knew I was tired.

I was sitting outside on a bench, head down while devouring a sandwich, when a passing shadow stopped and a woman's voice exclaimed, "Are you from Sodus?" Ginny was from the East Hill Flying Club in Ithaca and noticed my Williamson Flying Club shirt. While I ate, she flew the Stearman with Damian.

Damian and John with the Stearman

As I waited for them, I scratched Orville's head between the ears. Purring immediately, Orville climbed up on the bench to lay next to me. "Not very cat like," Ginny observed when she returned.

"Nope," I agreed. I carried a significant amount of Orville fur home on my clothing that night.

On my last flight with Damian, I successfully made some decent three point landings on the pavement. I had one minor swerve, but managed to get on top of it to keep the airplane straight. When geese began congregating on the grass runway, Damian took control of the Cub, throttled up aggressively, and we literally chased the geese around with the airplane until they grudgingly retreated back to the water.


Next, we did about five simulated engine out landings from different parts of the pattern. The most memorable occurred while still climbing on a crosswind leg for runway 21. I was slow to get the nose down and initially did not bank steeply enough. "Steeper bank or we won't make it," Damian cajoled. I rolled the wings somewhere well past 45°. I don't know how steep the bank was, but I am certain that I have never cranked an airplane around that steeply ever before and I would not be surprised if the side of the fuselage was providing some of the lift during that maneuver. When we rolled out over the pond at the departure end of 21, I could see that we did not have enough altitude to reach the runway. I kept the airplane on course at best glide speed, expecting Damian to rescue the approach with throttle and provide coaching on how to do it right next time.


Instead, he told me to dive for the water. I did and the windscreen filled with blue. "Level off," Damian instructed. I leveled just slightly higher than the weeds separating the water's edge from the runway and we floated right over them. I was stunned that we made it. We had gained kinetic energy in the dive, then reduced drag in ground effect just enough to stretch the glide to the runway. It was an impressive demonstration. On top of it, my landing was excellent. When I told him that I was most pleased with the good landing after the distraction of the engine-out procedure he said, "That's why I'm doing this with you, to see if you go back to old habits when distracted with something new. That was a good landing. Good job."

Wrap-Up

After the final engine out landing, we returned to the Aeroflex ramp and I switched the Cub's mags off for the last time. Damian endorsed my logbook for tailwheel PIC and for a flight review. As he shook my hand, I thanked him for letting me bounce his airplane off the runway (for bounce it a few times I did). To my surprise, he actually cracked a smile. "Well, thanks for coming to bounce my airplane off the runway."

Damian encouraged me to apply what I'd learned to my regular flying. "You can fly a trike like a taildragger, but you can't fly a taildragger like a trike," he noted.

I finished the training very pleased with the experience. I was pleased to have done something new, pleased to have sharpened my skills, pleased to have benefited from Damian's excellent coaching, pleased to have finally flown a Piper Cub, and pleased in general because the entire experience was so much fun.

I found the people of northwest New Jersey to be very friendly and welcoming, from Joe at Aeroflex-Andover Airport, to the women at Enterprise, to Jason and Maryann at The Wooden Duck. Heck, even my interactions with the world's clumsiest waiter at the Stonewood Tavern were pleasant. I kept thinking to myself, is this really New Jersey?

As I prepared to depart Aeroflex-Andover, I powered up the avionics in Warrior 481 and realized something else. In seven hours of flying with Damian, I did not use a radio once. The Cub does not have an electrical system and there was no radio available to use.

I found that I did not miss it.

4 comments:

  1. Great read as always Chris. Congrats on the signoff - earning a new endorsement in aviation always keeps it interesting, and your skills sharpen up for sure. I earned my tailwheel endorsement in a 1947 J-3 Cub at Van Sant Airport near Doylestown, PA - another idyllic, tailwheel-friendly, grass runway airport within your range ring. They even have movie nights under the stars all summer long. Having moved back to Chicago from PA 5 years ago, I miss easy access to those kinds of places. Flying without a radio here underneath the ORD Class B wedding cake is not advisable... Tailwinds and thanks for the post!

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    1. Thanks, Kevin. I've certainly heard of Van Sant from my tailwheel friends, though I've not been in there myself.

      And, yeah, I can't imagine that flying around ORD while NORDO would be particularly wise. I imagine that Aeroflex would have a completely different vibe were it not just outside of Newark's Mode C veil.

      Thanks for commenting!

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  2. CONGRATS!!!

    Excellent write up and pictures. Always expanding the envelope, that's what makes a good pilot.

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    1. Thanks, Gary! This was too long overdue.

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