Monday, August 3, 2009

Chapter 10: West Coast Apprenticeship

Flying the Pitts S.2A proved exhilarating, and challenging. Taxiing the Pitts was an art in itself with the broad white engine cowling blocking the view ahead, requiring me to weave slowly down the taxiway and out to the runway.

England was shivering under half a foot of snow when I first flew out to California to take up my new job in the aerospace industry. I had a one-year contract. The long hours of the non-stop flight from London provided ample opportunity to contemplate the myriad of flying opportunities available in California. Organizing my flying was certainly to be a challenge in between work and family commitments, but I looked forward to flying in year-long VFR weather. Rental costs of general aviation aircraft were only a fraction of that prevailing in the UK. In this optimistic frame of mind I was determined not to let any flying opportunities pass me by.

Once settled into work, I visited the local FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) Office at Los Angeles International Airport, presented my UK pilot’s license and a short time later walked out with an equivalent FAA Pilot’s license. With the family settled into an apartment, I started flying at weekends. As summer approached and daylight hours lengthened I was checked out on a Bellanca Citabria and started flying after work. The Citabria was a high-wing aircraft not unlike the Auster that I had flown at Cranfield. It was a tailwheel aircraft, so landings were more challenging than flying the nosewheel-equipped aircraft I had flown for the last year or two.

Over the Pacific, clear of the Los Angeles controlled airspace teeming with airliners and commuter jets, in our local practice area south of the Palos Verdes peninsula I started renewing my rather rusty aerobatic skills. It had been years since I had flown aerobatics. As I had previously flown Chipmunks, in which the engine would quit when you rolled inverted, the luxury of an inverted fuel system in the Citabria was new to me. Now I expanded my repertoire to include inverted maneuvers. During my aerobatic sessions, alone in the expanse of the sky, as the sun sank I often had exhilarating views of the most spectacular Pacific sunsets. It was breathtakingly beautiful, with the sky still glowing salmon pink above me in sharp contrast to the slate-gray sea below. With dusk already falling on the city, the lights twinkling on shore warned me to hurry home before the onset of darkness. It was all rather enjoyable.

In the fall the opportunity arose to fly a Pitts S2A, even though the hourly cost would be three times that of the Citabria. (My Californian friends raised their eyebrows at this, but from my point of view the price was only slightly more than I had been paying for the privilege of flying a Cessna 172 back in England. It didn’t take long for me to make up my mind.)
So one Saturday morning I drove the eighty miles up the coast to the ”Pitts Stop” at Santa Paula. The airfield at Santa Paula was a tiny paved strip nestling between mountains and surrounded by fruit orchards. The hangars were crammed with exotic vintage aircraft, homebuilts and a variety of unusual aircraft. Owners were without exception Enthusiasts with a capital “E.” I soon located the “Pitts Stop” where a small but immaculate hangar housed three aircraft: a Pitts S1S; a Super Decathlon; and the Pitts S2A which I was to fly, all shoe-horned into this confined space.

I met my instructor, Dan Gray, who was to introduce me to the Pitts and we discussed how best to spend my time. The school basically offered an extensive range of aerobatic courses up to competition standard. This syllabus could be tailored to the needs of individual students. So Dan and I agreed that my limited time could best be split between showing me the basics of competition aerobatics and an introduction to the art of taking off and landing the Pitts. This initial session would show me what the Pitts could do…and for Dan to see what I could do.

After Dan had given me a thorough briefing we pushed the Pitts out of the hangar and into the sunlight. The biplane,N 31512, sported a brilliant white paint scheme coupled with eye-catching red and blue sunbursts on wings and tail surfaces. This was definitely not your average club machine and I was somewhat daunted at this stage by the prospect of actually flying this hot ship. But Dan took me through a comprehensive pre-flight; we donned parachutes, strapped in and were ready to go.

I started up and taxied out. Taxiing the Pitts was an art in itself with a broad white engine cowling blocking the view ahead and I weaved slowly out to the runway. Once I had completed the checks and we were cleared to go I lined up carefully and opened the throttle. Things certainly happened quickly on takeoff in the Pitts. A blare of noise, barely time for a couple of quick stabs on the rudder pedals to keep straight and we were already airborne.
Once established in the climb I was pleasantly surprised by the stability about all three axes. This was not the twitchy machine I had been expecting. The Pitts felt a stable but very responsive machine even in my unpracticed hands. Performance and control response were superb. Dan’s expert coaching on this first flight left me with a healthy respect for the capabilities of the machine. Basic aerobatics were completed with much less physical effort than I had experienced before, so much so that I was initially over-pulling into buffet during maneuvers. The sparkling rate of roll given by the four ailerons was particularly impressive after the heavy ailerons of the Citabria.

Things happened quickly on takeoff in the Pitts. As I opened the throttle, there was a blare of sound, barely time for a couple of quick stabs on the rudder pedals to keep straight, and we were off the ground and climbing quickly.

After an exhilarating half-hour tumbling about a cloudless sky we returned to Santa Paula for the pattern work. But here I found a problem. The runway at Santa Paula is both short and narrow, lined on both sides by rows of parked aircraft. The west end of the runway was guarded by trees; the eastern end was edged by power lines. It was perhaps not the easiest field at which to master the art of landing a Pitts.

Dan coached me round onto a side-slipping final approach. So far, so good, but as I straightened out and started to flare I lost sight of the runway behind the cowling. Consequently my arrival on the runway was somewhat untidy and my feet were kept busy on the rudder pedals as we slowed. But when I managed to fight this spirited beast to a standstill on the runway only my pride was damaged. Subsequent landings that day were to come a little easier.
I dared even to be optimistic at the debriefing after the flight. Apart from the anticipated difficulties on landing, perhaps things had not gone too badly.

But it was not to be. I sat and squirmed inwardly while Dan patiently and impartially analyzed where I was going wrong in my aerobatics. Basically my aerobatics, learned Royal Air Force style over ten years previously, now had a distinctly “country” flavor and I was not utilizing anything like the full performance of the Pitts. If I wanted to proceed further I would have to relearn from basics, so that my loops were of the correct radius and were held circular, my aileron rolls would have a constant roll rate throughout; and my rudder technique would be refined to the required delicacy required for the Pitts.
Thoroughly humbled, I drove home.
The next weekend we tried again. I started with loops, concentrating on opening out the inverted section of the loop to a near zero-g trajectory to give the required constant radius as the speed dropped off. We proceeded through aileron rolls (delightfully light after the Citabria) and practiced Cuban eights and inverted flight before returning to base for another session of those side-slipping approaches. I felt a little happier after this flight.

As Christmas approached Dan was teaching me the finer points of hammerhead stalls and snap rolls. We explored spins of all types, including flat spins, and at the conclusion of this session we started using an alternative method for the approach into Santa Paula. Dan had me turn continuously from the end of the downwind leg as we descended. This kept the runway in sight throughout the turn and the trick was to judge the turn so that I rolled out of the turn just above the runway. I was learning.

Other business kept me busy for the next few weekends and it was not until early February that I was able to return to Santa Paula. But now Dan Gray was pursing his normal occupation flying an airliner at weekends and so Bill Cornick continued my education. After revision of the maneuvers already covered, we progressed on this flight to inverted spins. I found that these were definitely an acquired taste, being extremely disorientating and uncomfortable gyrations on this first acquaintance.

I had not been particularly happy with my approaches on this occasion so the next weekend I mentioned this to Bill. Reasoning that the difficulty may have stemmed basically from fatigue after the session of aerobatics, we switched the pattern work to the beginning of the sortie. But things did not improve. My difficulty now seemed to be that of assessing the point at which to flare, using only peripheral vision to pick up the white lines marking the edge of the runway. The harder I tried, the worse my approaches became. I was not relaxing at all and my tenseness was really showing up on these landings.

Bill had the answer, saying that trouble of this sort was not unknown at this field with its miniscule runway, restricted approaches and the proximity of all those parked aircraft. So the next weekend we hopped across the hills to the neighboring field at Camarillo, which sported 6,000 feet of deserted runway. There I had a completely uneventful and enjoyable session of take-offs and landings before we cleared the pattern and headed back to our aerobatic area.

Even as we climbed the weather around us was deteriorating as a winter storm moved in from the Pacific. Picking our way between growing clumps of cloud under a high ceiling of stratus, we found just enough room for our purpose over the valley of the Santa Clara River. In an arena distantly walled by gray mist my progression through inverted turns went well until I tried to put it all together into a rolling circle. My efforts met with little success initially, but with a patient instructor and some perseverance we continued and I was not too displeased by the end of the session.

It was with mixed feelings that I turned the nose of the Pitts towards Santa Paula. I knew that with the weather breaking and more storms promised, my crowded schedule would not permit me to complete my planned springtime flying in the Pitts. But in these few, too short flying hours I had already come to respect and even like the Pitts. I had come to terms with the rapid takeoff, touchy directional control and lack of vision on landing. After all, these idiosyncrasies were a small price to pay for the enjoyment of flying aerobatics in such a responsive machine. The Pitts was to be remembered as the most challenging and rewarding experience of that crowded year. I was later to fly other Pitts Specials, but these first few hours in N31512 left a lasting impression.

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