A Different Point of View

Lane flies in her Cheetah to check an old Piper taildragger and gets a little nostalgic for the good ol' planes.

FL0604_FlyingLessons_lane

FL0604_FlyingLessons_lane

"You need to keep 80 miles an hour," Kimberly admonishes me as we climb away from Rancho Murietta's runway.

I lean way over to the left and strain to raise myself in the seat a bit to try and peer over her shoulder at the airspeed indicator. It's no good. I'm just not tall enough.

"What's my airspeed now?" I ask, settling back down into the back seat.

"90," she answers.

Right. I raise the nose a bit and look out the side windows of the tandem-seat Super Cruiser we're flying in an effort to get a peripheral fix on the horizon angle that equates to 80 mph.

This is bizarre. I've flown tailwheels where you couldn't really see much beyond the nose before. But sitting in the back seat of the tandem Super Cruiser, I can't see much of anything beyond Kimberly's back. Including the instrument panel.

"Now pull the power back to 2100," Kimberly instructs as we level out. Once again, I try to look over her shoulder at the rpm gauge, but it's no use. How on earth does Kimberly see what her students are up to when she's instructing in this thing?

"Well, you make a better door than a window," I hint.

Kimberly laughs as she leans over to one side. "Yeah, and most of the students I fly with are guys with big shoulders and big heads," she says with a laugh. "Now do you see what I was talking about?"

One flight, as they say, is worth a thousand words.

Not too long ago, my friend Kimberly started giving tailwheel instruction at an airport just southeast of Sacramento, and she kept telling me what a big change it was from the other instruction she'd done. Well, yes, I told her. Of course. Tailwheels were more of a challenge.

"No, Lane, it's not the tailwheel part. It's the can't-see-squat-while-your-student's-trying-to-kill-you part," she answered with a mixture of laughter and no-kidding seriousness. "You really ought to come see for yourself. It's pretty eye-opening." She even invited me to bring along my friend Jeff, who's an experienced pilot but had never flown a taildragger before, so I could see what rookie tailwheel instruction was like.

Truth to tell, it was a perspective I'd never really considered before. The plane Kimberly uses for her instruction is a lovingly restored, pale yellow and cranberry red 1947 Piper PA-12 Super Cruiser with tandem seating and a 150-hp Lycoming engine. It's a beautiful classic from what I typically view as a more golden era of flight, when planes were artistic as well as functional, and the skies and landscape were far more open and free. I often found myself thinking wistfully, in fact, about how wonderful it would have been to fly in those times.

"Unless," I now find myself adding, "you were a flight instructor."

Flight instructors have never been adequately recognized or compensated for the job they do, of course. But most modern-day civilian instructors teach in side-by-side cockpits with full dual controls, a decent view of the flight instruments and good outside visibility. Clearly, that wasn't always the case.

Early tailwheel airplanes didn't have great visibility to start with, even from the best seat in the house. And the instructor never gets the best seat. Training airplanes are also generally pretty simple machines, which means that early designers weren't going to burden a light, low-powered airplane with extras like a second set of instruments or, in some cases, "non-essential" things like a second set of brakes, magneto switches, flaps or trim knobs.

In the PA-12, which is designed to be flown from the front seat, the back seat has a stick and throttle, as well as a second set of rudder pedals. But my arms are too short to reach the trim knob, and the visibility from the back-especially with someone in the front-is something akin to Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, without even the instruments to guide by.

And yet, flying without instruments or forward visibility is actually the easy part. It's in trying to taxi, take off or land from that position that you really get an appreciation for the particular talents or instinct that all those early flight instructors must have possessed.

At first, taxiing the Super Cruiser, it feels a bit like being back in my old Cessna 120. Well, maybe I didn't have to lean my head quite so far out to the side, or S-turn a full 45 degrees to the taxiway, in order to see in front of the Cessna. And there's a whole lot more airplane out in front of me here. I'm not used to sitting this far behind the center of gravity.

But then I turn onto the runway for my first takeoff, and the entire runway disappears. Not most of the runway, like in my old Cessna 120. All of it. Even getting the tail up only improves things marginally, because Kimberly is still blocking my forward vision. With no forward visibility, even keeping a docile plane like the PA-12 headed straight down the centerline is a bit challenging.

"Now imagine a student going 'Whoo! Whoo! Whoo!' right now," Kimberly says as she gestures careening turns to the left and right with her hand. Hmmm. Well, I can, but it's not a pretty picture.

We lift off and things improve, although I soon notice yet another difference that comes with backseat flying. In the Cheetah, where I sit directly on the center of gravity in a nicely molded bucket seat, I can get the ball a little out of center and not really notice it. In the back of the Super Cruiser, however, I don't need a needle-and-ball gauge to tell if my turns are coordinated. Being behind the center of gravity means I feel each slip and skid with far more impact. If I get the plane even a little out of balance, my tail starts sliding all over the PA-12's bench seat.

"That's the worst part!" Kimberly says with a laugh. "I get green sometimes, sitting back there with a student who doesn't know how to use the rudder pedals."

After a while, we head back to Rancho Murietta to practice some landings. I put the Super Cruiser in a slip on final-not only because it doesn't have flaps, but because that's the only way to see the runway.

But as I round out to touch down, it's just like the takeoff again - except worse, because the only target I had to hit on takeoff was the sky. I'm not accustomed to having only the back edges of my peripheral vision to gauge my direction and height. But I hold 60 mph and feel for the runway, the way a blind person might feel for a curb. I know it's there, somewhere nearby, as the seconds stretch out in a timeless breath of waiting, until finally, with a startling "bump-bump," I'm down and just trying to determine what "straight" is without actually being able to see ahead.

It's not too bad, though-until I imagine attempting a similar landing in a gusty crosswind with a student at the controls, while I tried to judge if or when or how to intervene. And what if the student pulled back the mixture knob instead of the throttle? Or went lock-kneed on a brake?

The answers to some of those questions become clear when Kimberly climbs into the back of the airplane to give Jeff his first tailwheel lesson. In a really calm, reassuring, and clear tone of voice, she goes over each knob, procedure, and caution-slowly, and more than once, until he can repeat them back to her easily. Jeff is a CFI himself, and the Super Cruiser is a very simple and docile airplane. And yet he and Kimberly spend more than 15 minutes talking in the plane before they even start the engine.

I concede Kimberly the point. Compared with this, even wrestling a ham-handed, flat-footed novice in a Cessna 152 would be a piece of cake. And yet, because I, too, have a very special place in my heart for beautiful old tailwheel flying machines, I know at least part of the reason she's doing it. There are, after all, far worse ways to make a living than flying a heart-meltingly lovely Super Cruiser through the afternoon skies, with the sun splashing across its pale yellow instrument panel and its delicate, red wing struts framing the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains against a sharp blue winter sky.

Another reason becomes evident when she and Jeff return from their flying, both of them full of laughter and smiles. Clearly, Jeff has done really well, and I can't tell which one of them is prouder. In an hour's flight, Kimberly has opened a door to a whole new world of flying for him, with all the fun, learning, laughter and possibilities that world contains. Few people get to leave the office with that kind of satisfaction.

On the way home in the Cheetah, I ask Jeff what he thought about the Super Cruiser. He looks around my Cheetah's spacious, modern cockpit. "Well, don't get me wrong," he says. "The Cheetah's a great airplane. But it's kind of like, this is a car with wings." An enthusiastic grin spreads across his face. "That's an airplane."

Somewhere out in the evening sky, I sense a few generations of intrepid, back-seat, PA-12 flight instructors breaking into gentle, satisfied smiles.