I Learned About Flying From That: It Couldn’t Happen to Me
My family has owned a 1931 Buhl Bull Pup single-place, open-cockpit “flying bathtub” since 1969. I was 16 when I won the youngest-pilot award at Merced’s Antique Fly-In in 1970.
I’ve been flying this little antique airplane all my life. A few weekends ago, I came as close as you can to rolling it (and myself) up into a ball right in front of about 2,000 people (and 2,000 cameras) at the FlaBob Flying Circus — as close as you can come, that is, without finally doing so. The little Buhl, thankfully, is unscathed. Not so my ego.
This is a classic tale of complacency, i.e., “It’ll never happen to me.” It is a case of little mistakes compounding, in which I ignored all the oft-repeated cautionary maxims that I have personally espoused to flying students of mine for years.
Here’s my story: I’m 59 years old, with more than 43 years of flying experience. I hold single- and multiengine (land and sea) ATPs. I am a CFI A-I-R, with commercial helicopter and glider licenses. I have more than 14,000 hours in everything from 820-pound Buhls to 820,000-pound 747s.
FlaBob is a little jewel of an airport, a throwback to the golden years of aviation. It’s the home of EAA Chapter One, and it’s what I’ve been looking for since the closing of my FBO at the behemoth San Bernardino International Airport. And FlaBob was holding my kind of event — an old-fashioned “flying circus.” No airshow, no performing, just kindred spirits sharing their love of antique aircraft among themselves and with the interested public. I was in.
The flying circus was to be held Thursday to Sunday, with the main event, the Cavalcade of Flying, to occur on Saturday. I flew the little antique from Torrance to FlaBob on Thursday afternoon. My landing in FlaBob was bad. I chalked it up to the gusty crosswind and buttoned the little jewel up for the night.
Saturday was glorious — a perfect day for flying — with beautiful blue skies and wind right down the runway at 5 knots. Perfect. The Cavalcade was well organized and loved by all, with a Wright Flyer replica taxiing, and everything from a real Jenny to a DC-3 flying. Some were landing on the runway, others on the grass. Three fly-by patterns at 200 feet above the runway, then land. What could be easier?
Now, the Buhl is not difficult to fly. It has its idiosyncrasies, however. Probably the most important to the new pilot (remember, it’s a single-seat, so no dual before your first flight) is to grind into your mind just how sensitive the rudder is on landing. You have to tell yourself to hold your feet completely still, and move the rudder pedals mere fractions of an inch. During landing, it is easy to over-control the rudder pedals, which can result in a significant pilot-induced oscillation.
I’ve taught this to my son and nephew, prior to their first flights in the Buhl. We’ve talked about it time and again during debriefs after their flights. This is something I know about.
Except Saturday, when I landed in front of crowds of admirers, I forgot. My touchdown was fine — even good. It was a tail-low wheel landing, as the Buhl likes best (especially for forward visibility on skinny runways). Then it happened. I put in too much left rudder, and whoops — here comes the left side of that skinny runway!