I Learned About Flying From That: It Couldn’t Happen to Me

Complacency’s grip takes hold.



** To see more of Barry Ross' aviation art, go
to barryrossart.com.**

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!

I knew that what I did next was a mistake as I was doing it. The Buhl doesn’t have nice, natural toe brakes, but rather heel brakes — small round pads, aft and inboard of the rudder pedals, that are anything but easy to use. There’s only one rule about using them during landing: Don’t. On top of being difficult to use, they are also quite grabby.

With the edge of the runway coming ever so close, and full right rudder and aileron just not being enough, I hit the right brake. It kept me from going off the left side of the runway — but now here comes the right side! Then left, then right, left, right — for what seemed an eternity. Somehow, miraculously, the little Buhl stopped listening to me and decided to slow down to taxi speed before I could do any more damage.

I taxied in with many people waving and cheering to me — the ones who had not seen or did not understand the abomination I had just performed. I felt sick inside, embarrassed and ashamed. And they were waving and cheering — the last thing I wanted or deserved!

I’ve spent much time in thought and discussion about this event since it happened. Like every incident, accident and near-disaster, there are circumstances that helped predestine the eventual outcome.

I had just finished a week of helicopter review training, in which I practiced autorotations. When you lose power in a helicopter, one of the responses required is immediate right pedal input to compensate for the sudden torque change. It so happens that the anti-torque (foot) pedals in the Robinson R22 are similar in size, feel and “throw” to a Buhl’s rudder pedals. I had been developing the muscle memory required for autorotation. As it turns out, this is a completely disastrous muscle memory to carry over to a Buhl.

But the largest contribution to my near-disaster began Thursday afternoon, before my flight from Torrance to FlaBob. I'd been busy. (Hey, everyone is, right?) Even though I was legally current, I had only flown the Buhl once this year. I believed I could put on this little airplane like a suit and wear it whenever and wherever I wanted. Ha!

Even with nothing else going on — let alone taking the Buhl to a relatively tiny airport with a huge event taking place — I should’ve given myself the gift of time. Time to get reacquainted with my old friend. Time to go out and do some airwork — stalls, steep turns, chandelles, lazy eights. Time to come back to Torrance’s big runway and shoot a half-dozen full-stop landings, then another half-dozen touch-and-goes. Then, when arriving at FlaBob, time to do another half-dozen, and get used to the tighter pattern and smaller runway.

Many times the aviation gods warned me. Small tingles on the back of my neck? Ignored. The lack of recent Buhl entries in my logbook? Ignored again. The loudest shout-out to me (which I also successfully ignored) was my bad landing at FlaBob on Thursday, after my flight from Torrance.

What was I thinking? At first, I believed that I wasn’t thinking at all. But that’s just not true.

I was thinking of my years of experience. I was thinking of my licenses and ratings. I was thinking about how many years and how many hours I have in the Buhl. I was thinking it couldn’t happen to me.

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