Unusual Attitudes: It Wasn’t My Time

Aerobatic maneuvers can be unforgiving, as the
author found out one day while having a little too
much fun in her Piper Cub. Fortunately, both pilot
and airplane were unscathed after the incident.

_"The Cub is the safest airplane in the world; it can just barely kill you." _

— Max Stanley, Northrop test pilot

A friend who recently launched into an RV-8 project sent me the video of an aerobatic performance by local RV guru Jon Thocker. Jon's routine was graceful, precise and beautifully filmed, so it was no surprise when my friend announced he "couldn't wait to get into that." Now, my friend Roy Schalk hasn't been flying all that long, and he's even newer to this airplane-building business, but I'm pretty sure his RV will be a masterpiece, and when he gets into it, he'll be an exceptional aerobatic pilot. Soon after Roy was badly bitten with the flying bug and licensed, he and his wife, Missy, bought a half share in a Cessna 182. They ride a massive, customized Harley around the country, scuba dive, farm a large property, and put up the fruits and vegetables they harvest. Roy is a Civil War expert and collector, and a master carpenter, builder and contractor; he keeps horses, raises and processes his own beef, hunts, is a sharpshooter, and makes an awesome elixir from the grapes he grows. But, at least at this point, I still know more about flying, so my unsolicited, but expert, professional, experienced and highly technical, advice was that if he plans to turn that airplane upside down, he should make sure the wings and tail are screwed on tight.

That's pretty much all I know about building airplanes, and what little I know about aerobatics is self-taught — learned through trial and (lots of) error. When I started flying, the magic of being airborne was enough, and I had no interest in anything that involved banks beyond 60 degrees or pitch attitudes beyond 30. (Interestingly, that 30/60 rule doesn't define aerobatics but refers to the attitudes beyond which occupants must wear parachutes.) Then one summer afternoon, heartbroken, grief-stricken and despondent over an impossible love affair as only a 20-year-old can be, I decided that since my life was over anyway I might as well kiss the world goodbye and turn myself upside down. Well, maybe it wasn't all that dramatic and impulsive; there had to be some vestige of self-preservation because I climbed to 4,000 feet before diving the little Cessna to God-knows-what airspeed, shoving in full throttle and pulling it up into a loop. Maybe I'd read about how to do a loop or, more likely, my guardian angel was hovering nearby because I pulled enough to get it over the top without stalling and didn't exceed redline on recovery — at least, not by much. The surprise was it was glorious fun; so easy, so quick and so delightful that I totally forgot about that dirty, no-good, slimy, two-timing, about-to-be ex-boyfriend and looped the 150 four or five times more — wondering afterward why the gyros kept spinning.

Not too many years later, I actually offered an introductory aerobatics course at "Miss Martha's Flying School." No, there was no expert on staff, only yours truly armed with a leased Citabria, Duane Cole's Roll Around a Point, determination, hours of practice and plenty of altitude. My repertoire included loops, aileron rolls, snap rolls, sloppy slow rolls and half-assed Cuban Eights. And, no, I wasn't very good, but as one awed fledgling who didn't know any better said, I looked like Amelia Earhart and flew like Betty Skelton (the post-war Patty Wagstaff).

Over the years, I've been upside down in lots of airplanes (even close in a DC-3 when an approach to stall demo had gone too far), but the only time I found myself in trouble came as a complete surprise — unintentional, potentially lethal and incredibly stupid.

It was a beautiful summer evening, and I was waiting for my friend John Schwelle to fly into Lunken for dinner at the airport restaurant. We were close friends, and on most evenings that summer when I didn't fly Cub '906 to his strip about 40 miles northeast, he'd bring an airplane from his "fleet" — including a couple factory-built Pitts biplanes — to Lunken. Sometimes after dinner, with the brand-new S-1 parked on the ramp, I'd saunter outside, strap myself into the tiny cockpit, pull on the helmet and fire it up to shoot a few landings — making sure everybody in the restaurant could see. It was pure, unadulterated showing off, but I didn't want anybody to know how terrified I was of that little monster — 260 hp on an airplane fewer than 18 feet long. We never did make friends. Every landing — and I made a bunch — took every bit of determination and skill and drained every ounce of adrenaline.

Waiting for John to arrive on a pretty July evening, I was out to the east in the Cub, monitoring the tower frequency on a hand-held. It was beyond perfect — with the air still warm but calm and smooth and a lowering sun bathing wispy high clouds with breathtaking color. And as always, the bin behind the back seat was stocked with three or four rolls of Scott toilet paper.

My routine usually involved climbing to around 4,000 feet agl and holding the stick between my legs while fishing a roll of toilet paper out of the bin. After some clearing turns, I'd unravel a couple feet from the roll, pull on carb heat and ease the throttle to idle. Gently pulling the nose up toward stall pitch just before it "paid off," I'd toss the roll out the wide open right-side window and door. Then I'd quickly lower the nose while rolling into a steep turn, wildly searching for that stream of white paper. When I found it, I morphed into Snoopy chasing the Red Baron and did whatever was necessary to get it in my sights and neatly slice the streamer with the prop or a wing. I would laugh (or curse if I missed), and there'd be another steep bank to reacquire the white ribbon and start the next run. The only rules were to carefully count the cuts (11 was my personal best) and to knock off this nonsense at 500 feet. But, oh, while it lasted, it was heaven!

Well, after a couple "sorties" and still no Pitts on the radio, I climbed for a final toss. But after throwing it this time, I couldn't find the damned thing and wondered if the roll didn't unfurl. After a few more turns, I saw it way up above and added full throttle, pulling the nose up rather vigorously (after all, it was just me in an 85 hp Cub). The airplane ran out of steam before it got there, and when I glanced out the open side, I was mildly astonished that I had pulled to an almost vertical pitch. I was about to go over the top and on the edge of a stall; I didn't know if a hammerhead was appropriate or even how to do one. So I chose to do the dumbest thing I've ever done in an airplane — and that's saying something. Assuming the airplane would "flop out" of this situation by itself (after all, it was "just me in an 85 hp Cub") I closed the throttle and neutralized the controls.

For a long moment, absolutely nothing happened followed by a weird sensation that the airplane was sliding backward — which was because the airplane was sliding backward. Then, instantaneously and with astonishing violence, the nose whipped down, and the airplane literally swapped ends. I had unwittingly performed a tail slide followed by a whip stall — violent maneuvers reserved for unusually robust, aerobatic airplanes stressed for high negative Gs. A J-3 Cub does not fall in this category — or anywhere near it. The weight of the engine pitched the nose forward so violently it snatched the stick from my hands, my head hit the top of the cabin, and everything inside — even stuff inside the bin — catapulted forward toward the front windshield. There were flying radios, charts, flashlights, a headset, pencils, cups, dust and debris — everything.

When I got what few wits were left together, I breathed and took a cautious look around. Then, very gingerly, I wiggled the controls, fully expecting to see a broken strut or tail brace wire. Incredibly, everything seemed to work. So I retrieved the radio and, with my tail firmly between my legs, called Lunken tower for landing clearance. My turns were shallow, and the landing was as smooth as I've ever made. Back at the hangar, I just sat in the airplane and waited for John.

John was an A&P with a repair station and, beyond that, a true "mechanic's mechanic." I told him what had happened and (deservedly) got holy hell for "playing games again." Instead of dinner, we spent the evening pulling inspection plates and going over my beloved Cub from stem to stern. Somehow, the only casualties were a dented fairing in the cabin — probably from a flying radio — a broken headset and a bewildered, tearfully repentant pilot with a badly bruised ego.

It wasn't my time.

We welcome your comments on flyingmag.com. In order to maintain a respectful environment, we ask that all comments be on-topic, respectful and spam-free. All comments made here are public and may be republished by Flying.

Martha Lunken is a lifelong pilot, former FAA inspector and defrocked pilot examiner. She flies a Cessna 180 and anything with a tailwheel, from Cubs to DC-3s.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Get the latest FLYING stories delivered directly to your inbox

Subscribe to our newsletter