"As cute as a speckled pup" was cousin Leon's response to my "How'd it look?". That was my first description of "Punkin".
Like pilots everywhere, I suppose, both Leon & I read the "Aircraft For Sale" listings in every paper we pick up. And, like pilots everywhere, we manage to bring airplanes into each conversation. We were visiting on the phone last fall and I commented that I had seen a Bi-Fly Baby advertised and had called on it. "So did I." said Leon.
The thought of flying an open cockpit biplane was intriguing but it was something that neither of us needed. Nonetheless, Leon decided that he would go and take a look. After all, just looking didn't cost anything. Hence, the speckled pup report. (He also said it was red.) We talked some more and decided that talking was as far as we were going. Neither of us had any business even thinking about a one seat, open cockpit, homebuilt biplane.
Then the call. The owner was wanting to sell and would entertain any reasonable offer. Reasonable? If we were reasonable we wouldn't have called in the first place. But . . . here comes cousin Leon and off we go in a rainstorm to take a look. He was right, it was cute and in the dark hanger did appear to be a somewhat faded red. A deal was struck.
Neither of us had taildragger time and the little plane had not been flown in years. A call to an A&P/CFI solved our problem and a few days later a pilot with Bi-Fly Baby time was dispatched to take it to be checked out.
My wife & I went to watch the take off. That was the first time seeing it in the sunlight. It wasn't red after all, it was pumpkin orange! But she sure was cute, so she was dubbed "Punkin".
As Punkin has only one seat, the search was on for a CFI with a taildragger. That is not as easy as it would seem. Leon located one within a week or so and checked out. I was waiting on a gentleman to call me back after his plane received a fresh annual.
I went to the library, checked out "Stick 'n Rudder" and read it from cover to cover. I also quizzed every old timer I knew about flying a taildragger. Everyone I asked told me the biggest problem in changing from tri-cycle gear to taildragger was controlling the thing on the ground. "Ground loop" was a word that I would hear over and over.
Thus, one Saturday morning in November the adventure began. Why pay for a plane and instructor to teach me to taxi when I can taxi Punkin for nothing? So, we crank up the Skylane and fly to the strip on our family farm where Leon had taken the plane after he and it were both checked out.
I got a short course on how to start it and how to get in and out without causing any damage and off I was to practice taxing. My plan went well. I taxied the length of the runway three times, stopping each time for a critique. I purposefully went slow and kept the stick all the way back. Weren't that bad, I could make it go where I wanted, when I wanted.
Time for lunch. During lunch I decided to implement phase two of my plan. That was to taxi a little faster and let the tail come up so I could get the feel of it. The plan was simple. I would give it just a hair more throttle, relax the back pressure on the stick until I felt the tail raise, roll on the main gear for a short distance, ease the power back, let the tail settle and return the stick to the all the way back position. A few times of this, I thought, and I'll have a feel for the way it handles on the ground. A few hours with an instructor in a two seater would give me the feel for how it would handle in the air. Then I'd be ready to take her up.
The plan was progressing well. I taxied to the North end of the runway, made sure I was in the middle and headed South. I eased the power in with the stick full back. I didn't know how much power I needed but figured about 1/4 throttle or less would do it. Sure enough, I released the back pressure and right on cue the tail came up. Neat, I could see straight ahead and felt in control.
Then, several things happened at once. First, the wind was blowing harder than I thought. Second, I hit a little bump and third, I must have pulled back on the stick at the bump. Suddenly, I'm airborne but, still level. No problem, just ease back the power and settle down on the runway I tell myself. As I start to pull the throttle back I look down so I can watch the left wheel touch down. Green! The ground was green. What happened to the dead brown grass I had been taxing on?
There I was, flying 10 feet above the wheat field. Don't set it down here, you'll groundloop and tear it up, was my first thought. Low and slow won't last very long, was my second thought. Although I had well over 1,000 hours this was the first time that I had even sat in a taildragger or a plane with a stick. I knew I needed to go faster and higher. Faster was not a problem. Full forward with the throttle and I quickly had the needed speed. Now, I needed to trade some speed for altitude. Pull the stick back, I told myself. Back it came . . . too far. Suddenly, I was headed straight up. Now I'm 30 feet off the ground, and still headed across the wheat field. Quick, push the stick forward, my brain told me. So, I pushed forward . . . too far. Straight down was not good either. Back on the stick, but not so far. I had it, I was in a nose up attitude, the engine sounded great and I could tell by the wind rushing by that I had enough speed to keep what I had.
I passed over the high lines and a stand of trees at a respectful distance and glanced at the panel for the first time. 100 MPH on airspeed and plenty of altitude. I was out of trouble!
Throughout the ordeal, fear was never a factor. I felt disgust at myself for getting into the situation, but never fear. Hey, what is that thumping? Although I wasn't scared, my right leg was. It was pumping up and down and it took awhile before it would stop.
What now dummy? Well, I have lots of gas, altitude and airspeed. All I lack is experience. If I don't panic, I can figure it out. I remembered what my instructor told me some fifteen years earlier. "Once you have a problem, you have exactly the rest of your life to solve it."
Again a plan. Do everything a little bit at a time. A little right stick and a slight bank to the right, a little left stick, the same thing the other way. Back a little, forward a little. It didn't take long to figure the stick out and realize that a little went a long ways. I used this new found knowledge to ease the little plane around a five or six mile circle coming around to a Southbound final. After convincing myself that I was in control, I found the flight incredible. I loved it.
Several times I had asked Leonard Eaves, a homebuilt expert and long time taildragger pilot about landing the little plane. His response was always the same. "Young man (Well 50 is young.), if you've been landing that 182 the way you are SUPPOSED to land it, you'll have no problem at all.". Armed with Leonard's scant words of wisdom, and confident that the good Lord would respond to my plea for help, I decided to make an approach and initiate a go around the moment I became uncomfortable.
I had a brisk headwind on final (the primary cause of the whole ordeal) and brought Punkin in to a perfect 3 point landing that I'll never be able to duplicate. The roll out couldn't have been 200 feet. So, back where I started, I put the stick in my stomach and added power to taxi to the other end.
I was pleased with myself. I had gotten out of a bad situation quickly, without incident and in the process discovered the wonderful world of open cockpit flying. As I taxied, I saw my wife standing in the wheat field near the South end of the runway beside my sister. (My brother, believing a crash inevitable, had gone for a truck to pick up me and the pieces.) Wasn't she in the house when I left? As I got closer, I noticed she had no shoes and her socks were full of stickers. (I later learned that she almost took the hinges off the door when she heard me take off.) When I got closer I noticed a stream of mascara down both cheeks. I was so proud and pleased with myself that I didn't realize the gravity of the situation. Then I saw her eyes. They weren't the soft blue eyes I have looked into every morning for the past 30 years. They were cold, hard and fixed on me. I taxied up and shut it down. I said something like "Well that was fun." and she said "A hole!". "I didn't do it on purpose.", I replied quickly. "A hole!" she said again.
This time my plan needed no rehearsing. I knew precisely how to handle this much more dangerous situation. Shut up and stay out of reach!