Un bere racconto, una storia, una ASSOLUTA verità ........
Dalla documentazione dei Piper Cub di A2A simulation ......
The 747 Captain Who Forgot How to Fly
Sometimes during our lives, the familiar things that we think we know best and which we therefore take most for granted are, for that reason, forgotten. A good friend of mine who is a flight instructor, told me about a student he had a short while ago. This student of his happened to be a 747 Captain with twenty-five years flying experience and with over 45,000 hours of flight time, much of it in heavy, commercial jet airliners, as Pilot-in-Command. The Captain came to the flight school where my friend worked because he felt that he needed to re-connect to his flying roots, he wanted to reacquaint himself with and enjoy the more basic and personal flying experience that he fondly remembered. Most of all, he was curious as to just how much he still remembered about flying.
Now, to some, it may seem somewhat strange that the experienced Captain of a commercial airliner might wonder if he could still fly. It sounds a bit peculiar, yes? Not at all. You see, flying commercial airliners like the 747 is not exactly a seat–of-the-pants, hands-on, “stick and rudder” affair. No, it is more like a “program the computer, turn the dial and, push the button affair”, done strictly by rigid, unwavering procedures and routines, and by exact numbers. During a typical flight of an airplane of that kind, very little of what we might call “flying” is involved; even the landing is often automated. Accordingly, as our erstwhile Captain’s heart, mind and soul was distinctly dedicated to aviation, not unlike we devoted flight-sim pilots, he was concerned that he had backslid somewhat in the flying-skills department. As a good and diligent professional, he wished to address the deficiency and to employ whatever means were necessary to cure it.
The appointment was made, and a two-hour block of time was reserved for the Captain in the school’s 1945 J-3C-65 Cub. This was reputed to be a completely “stock” airplane with nothing more or less installed in it than was there when it left its Lock Haven, PA birthplace on November 14, 1945.
Sure, all of the dozens of FAA ADs (air directives) which apply to J-3s had been performed on it; its fabric had been recovered three times, the last one a really nice Stits job with the latest in chemical preservatives and paint applied. A new Hartzell metal propeller replaced the old Sensenitch wooden one in 1964 and another new metal prop was installed in 1995. More recently a new wooden prop replaced the metal one. The original Continental A-65-8 had only 50 hours on it since it was completely re-built. This Cub was on its seventh set of landing gear bungee cords. The tires and brakes had been replaced quite a few times over the years as well. Of course, periodically, magnetos, sparkplugs, filters and screens were replaced as needed. A few of the original control cables and their fittings had been replaced with new ones, and the original Piper factory lift struts had recently been replaced with Univair sealed units that did not require frequent inspections. The tail flying wires had also been replaced. Some rusted-out metal in the fuselage frame under the rudder had to be replaced, the new metal welded onto the original tubular-steel frame, which was mostly in remarkably good condition. The original “whiskey” compass had gone dry and had been replaced a few years ago, and the original altimeter having gone to its eternal reward a while back, was replaced with a brand new one which sat in the old one’s place in the instrument panel. The original rear, left-side window and the windshield, having become crazed and scarred beyond any reasonable use, had been replaced. At some time, the original glass gascolator had been changed for a newer and safer brass one, and it now sported a fairly new Maule tailwheel assembly and wheel. Except for these things, it was as ‘stock” as most of the Cubs in the FAA registry.
This reminds me of the story of “daddy’s ax”: the handle had been replaced four times and the blade had been replaced three times, but it was still “daddy’s ax”.
So the Captain and my friend did the walk around, checking the tires, the oil level, pulling and shaking everything to make sure it would stay attached during the flight. They generally eyeballed every part of the airplane that might have worked loose or which might have broken during or since its last sojourn “up, up the long, delirious burning blue”. Agreeing that the Cub looked like it would once more take wing without adverse incident, they got on board. My friend, a slim and fit young man of modest height, squeezed into the little 14” front seat. The Captain, a tall man of substantial middle-aged heft and not at all recently accustomed to gymnastic exercises, painfully twisted and folded himself through the hexagonal opening in the side of the Cub, which passes for a “door”, into the narrow rear part of the cabin, and awkwardly enthroned himself in the far more capacious, but still only barely adequate canvas-sling rear seat. As the Captain settled into this cramped but cozy space, he could clearly smell gasoline fumes emanating copiously from the Cub’s sole 12-gallon fuel tank which sat just in front of the instrument panel a few feet in front of him. He could see the stained, grey, corrugated metal of the tank peeping out below the panel.
It being a warm spring day, my friend slid down the left side window, to improve the air circulation in the cabin. He checked to see that the fuel handle was in the “on” position, and primed the engine with a few squeaky strokes because it had not yet been started that day. One of the flight school’s mechanics, who had received the usual fifteen minutes of training necessary to safely perform his forthcoming task, took his position at the front of the airplane and the time-honored, sacred ritual of aviation’s call-and-response began:
“Brakes.” The mechanic called out.
“Brakes”, my friend replied, pushing his heels forward and maintaining pressure on the tiny metal brake tabs sticking out of the wooden floor, inboard of the rudder pedals. The mechanic pulled forward on the once highly varnished and polished wooden Sensenitch propeller to see if the Cub’s brakes were engaged, thereby preventing it from lurching forward when and if the engine started.
“Switch off?” came the call.
My friend reached back and up to the left wing root and put his hand on the large magneto switch to ascertain that it was indeed off.
“Switch Off”, he called back.
The mechanic briskly pulled the prop through eight blades counter-clockwise from his position looking at the front of the plane. Everyone could clearly hear the loud click of the magnetos as they engaged and released at each compression stroke. Satisfied that there was, at last, sufficient fuel in the carburetor and in the cylinders by the squishy sound and feeling when he moved the prop up and down between compression strokes, and by the distinct smell of gasoline dripping from the carburetor, he called out,
My friend reached up and back again and turned the hefty magneto switch three quite audible clicks clockwise to “both” and called back,
“Switch on.” Holding the control stick fully back, he opened the throttle just a tad, and pushed his heels against the little brake tabs a bit harder.
The mechanic pulled forward on the prop again to see that the brakes were still engaged, and satisfied that they were, he smartly pulled it down through the lower compression stroke, quickly stepping back and to the side. The reliable little air-cooled Continental A-65-8 caught immediately, and ticked over gently. That the engine started on the first try was a bit of luck; that certainly didn't happen every time. My friend pulled the throttle back to its stop, checking to see that the oil pressure was reading in the green.
The temperature being on the high side of 70º, little warm up was necessary. During the slow, s-turning taxi to the active runway my friend went through the checklist which he had memorized using the mnemonic, CIGAR. He first made sure that all the controls were free and moved correctly (C); checked that the altimeter was reading the field elevation (I for “instruments”); glanced at the fuel indicator rod which was standing up at its full length (G for “gas”); checked the trim tab control for neutral (A for “attitude”) cranking it back a half turn to give it some nose up trim, because there were two people in the airplane which moved the Cub’s center of gravity a little forward in that configuration. Coming to a stop near the side of the runway, he performed the runup (R), which consisted of a magneto and carburetor heat check at 1,500 rpm.
Satisfied that all was well with the airplane, my friend performed a 360 degree turn at the end of the runway to check for incoming traffic, closed and secured the double doors, left the side window partially down for cooling in the cabin, opened the throttle, and with little fanfare or fuss, the Cub was in the air in a little less than 400 feet.
In a little while, my friend leaned against the left side of the narrow cabin and turned his right shoulder toward the Captain, looking back towards him. He did this so that he could be heard over the rattling, clacking and clamoring of the engine earnestly and busily churning out all of its more-or-less 65 horsepower only a few feet in front of the cabin, and so that he would clear that part of the instrument panel where the altimeter and the compass were located so that the Captain could see them. He shouted,
“Alright, climb her at 55 M.P.H. indicated and hold a course of 150 °.”
Thinking that this would surely not be a difficult chore for the international 747 Captain, he relaxed and absently observed the painfully slowly receding ground outside the right window. No more than a few seconds later he had to hurriedly turn forward and take the controls as the airplane was in a steepening left bank and was beginning to stall. My friend put the Cub back on its course, returned the nose to the correct angle so that the airspeed indicator read 55 M.P.H. again, and handed the controls back to the Captain, with the admonishment to hold it steady at that speed and course. After a few minutes, the airplane began to gyrate once more and took a strange attitude as if there was no one in the back seat at all.
My friend looked back and saw that the Captain was trying with great effort (but alas, in vain) to keep the airspeed at 55 and the wings level. He was over-controlling the plane badly and was growing more and more frustrated every second. Finally, the Captain gave the controls back to my friend and shouted over the engine,
“Boy, am I rusty. I guess I really did forget how to fly after all these years pushing automatic pilot buttons. You had better give me some instruction and let me practice the basics until I get my feel back again.”
Truth be known, if the Captain had simply released the controls, the Cub would have settled down and flown perfectly well all by itself. Properly trimmed out at full throttle, hands off, it will continue to climb in a gentle left turn until it reaches its maximum ceiling. If trimmed for level flight, it will fly hands off all day…well, at least until the fuel runs out anyway; and then it will glide perfectly calmly and silently, with only the soft swish of the air passing over its frame, and quite possibly might land itself and come to an easy stop. The fact is that the Cub, which has neither an auto-pilot nor any need for one, knows how to fly better than we know how to fly it. Sometimes I think that we pilots, for all our valiant efforts, are just interfering with it most of the time.
My friend then took the Captain through all of the basic piloting routines and exercises designed to cause his mind and body to fall into the graceful cadences of flight. Like a dancing master patiently leading a potentially talented and capable, but delinquent pupil, my friend gradually brought the Captain back into the groove that he had once known well, but had left neglected in a dark corner of his memory until it had become a distant and all-but-forgotten echo.
By the end of the second hour, by the resolute agency and expert tutelage of my friend, the Captain was flying much better. His “feel” was, indeed, coming back to him, although his earnest, but flawed, attempt at a three-point landing was just short of a catastrophe. Back on the ground at the post-lesson de-briefing, my friend and the Captain discussed what had happened during the flight. My friend later told me that the Captain was humiliated, but sobered by the revelation that he had allowed himself to have completely lost his touch and faculty for flying an airplane. My friend explained to him that for all its seeming crudity and simplicity, the Cub was a perfect device for informing you as to what you really knew about flying. It was not that it was demanding to fly, it just demanded that you fly it.
The Captain, much abashed, but also much enlightened by this experience, continued his lessons and eventually befriended the Cub, soloing and checking out in it after four more hours of dual. He never let his basic flying skills become so tarnished again, and he never forgot the lesson that the humble little Cub had taught him: even the simplest airplane must be flown with skill; and that precious skills once mastered, must be maintained through practice and diligent execution, lest they become lost over time.
-Written by Mitchell Glicksman
I-SNAK: Andrea Reani. Skype: andreaernesto.reani OVT0601