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I Learned About Flying From That: Take Some Home for Mom
Mr. Burr was still flying the airplane as we leveled off at 1,500 feet, arriving overhead of “Burr’s International,” as we called the narrow, short farm airstrip. “Ever fly a glider?” came the question from the front seat. “Nope.”
“Do you want to?”
Mr. Burr reached over and turned the magneto switch from both to off. The nose of the Cub came up until the relative wind stopped wind-milling the propeller. It all seemed surreal as we hung in the air in total silence. Then came a surprise.
“Your airplane!” he called out just above the whisper of air rushing outside. I took the controls and did exactly as he instructed. “Keep your approach high until you are sure you can make the field,” he said. “Once over the pine trees at the end of the strip, put her into a sideslip to lose altitude and control your speed to landing.” I followed his instructions, and we made a dead-stick landing.
Years after that, I was flying with a student out of Richards Field, still in South Florida, in my Citabria. After the flight, we walked into the hangar where I kept my red Pitts Special with its standard white Pitts stripe down the side. The single-place Pitts was equipped with 150 hp. My student said he had never seen a Pitts fly. That was all of the encouragement I needed.
Opening the fuel cap during preflight in the dim hangar light, I rocked the airplane to visually check the fuel for my short 15 minutes of fame and aerobatic flight. The small plastic sight gauge for fuel showed that it was full as it curved back into the bottom of the tank. I pushed the Pitts out of the hangar, and soon the roar of the engine shot the airplane into an almost vertical climb. Leveling off at 3,000 feet the aerobatics began — the sequence of a loop, roll, Cuban eight and vertical reverse to head back for landing.
Suddenly, the roar of the 150 hp turned into dead silence, leaving me with only the whisper of the wind. I rocked the wings, suspecting a fuel problem. There was a short burst of power as the remaining fuel in the tanks made it to the engine. Then, once again, only the silence of the wind.
The Pitts Special is a wonderful airplane capable of many things, but with biplane wings, bracing wires and small lifting surfaces, gliding is not one of them!
Looking below from 1,000 feet, I saw a smooth field. Richard’s Field was absolutely and definitely out of range. A steep half circle had me lined up into the wind, high between the small rows of tomato plants that were just showing above the ground. A voice from my past told me to keep the approach high until I was sure I could reach the field. Then a slip would dissipate altitude and control airspeed. As the small plants passed by during the landing flare, I reached up and slid the Pitt’s canopy open. Again, a voice seemed to come from nowhere, saying, “Take some home for your mom.”
There was no damage. My student had seen me go down and was running across the field to meet me. We put the tail of the Pitts in the bed of my truck and sheepishly towed it out of the field, down the street and to Richard’s Field’s gas pump. Charlie Burr’s lessons of a dead-stick, high approach and slip to landing were good lessons indeed. The lesson re-learned was never to rely on fuel gauges or even sight looking into the tank. Always use a fuel dipstick, even for a 15-minute flight!
Perhaps there is another lesson to be learned from my experience. That lesson, taught by Charlie Burr, is to take care in how you affect the lives of others so that what you have taught will live on from generation to generation.