Lesson 90
6 November 1998
0.5 hour

Biplane doing slow roll
Fourth Aerobatics Lesson

It was chilly this morning--about 40 F--and Greenwood suggested that I might want to wear gloves because there's no heat in the Pitts S-2A.  We got strapped in and he taxied out to 34, ran it up, rolled onto the runway, and opened the throttle.  I'm always amazed at how he's able to make the Pitts go where he wants it to on the ground.  The fuselage is so short and the prop so large that the nose is far above your horizontal line of vision.  From the front seat, I can never see what's ahead, no matter how sharply he zigs and zags while taxiing.  So when we start the takeoff roll, all I can see ahead is engine cowling.  Today, for example, the wind was about 10 knots straight down the runway, so we hit 60 knots and lifted off in only a few hundred feet, and the first time I saw the runway was when Greenwood hung a sharp left turn at 800 feet and I looked back at it.

Except for a couple of times when Greenwood wanted to demonstrate something and twice when there wasn't enough time to speak and he nudged the stick to correct me, I did all the flying.  This was important to me because I've come to believe that I learn best by doing, not watching.  Besides, it's so much fun!

He wiggled the stick to let me know I had the airplane, and I climbed to 2500 feet while lining up on the powerline.  Once we were level, he took over for a few seconds to set the trim, which can be done only from the rear seat.

"ALL right," he said.  "Let's do a slow roll.  Do you want to follow me through, or do it yourself?"

"Let me do it myself."

"Okay, let's go."

Wow.  Well, okay, I've been doing this in my sleep all week.  I'm still hardly awake--ten a.m. isn't ordinarily my finest hour the morning after a late evening class--but here we go.  Right on the stick about three inches or so and we're rolling and left rudder and we're knife-edge and rolling on over forward stick, Don, more forward stick and there's the ground above the cowling (below it, actually) the horizon is too close to the cowl and he says it again more forward stick and I push the stick more forward and the nose comes up enough and we're still rolling and it's time for left rudder now and we're upright again, and I can still see the powerline, but we're down to 1600 feet and he chuckles into the intercom.

"I don't what we can call that, Don, but we did get all the way around.  Turn around, back up to twenty five hundred, and let's do it again."

The next time goes a lot better.  I manage to lose only about 100 feet and to stay pretty much on the powerline.

"ALL right," he says, now let's try it upside down.  Roll it over and then do a slow roll.  Let's go."

Yikes!  Okay, I roll upside down and get stabilized, wings level, horizon just above the top wing (that is, between the wing and the cowling--because up is down).  Come on, roll!  Okay, okay, this shouldn't be any harder, but it is, and I get sloppy, but manage to get all the way around to inverted again.

"Okay, recover."

Right stick, left rudder, stick back a little, and we're upright again.  I want to take a deep breath, but--

"ALL right, let's turn around and do a loop.  Look, turn, and climb to twenty eight hundred feet."

I look and climb and turn--but I'm a bit disoriented by this time and turn a little too tight for the climb angle, and suddenly feel him nudge the stick forward.

"You're too slow!" he yells into the intercom.  I pop a look at the airspeed and sure enough it's down to about 80.  I didn't feel the stall--or impending stall--because the wings were almost knife-edge and were "lifting" horizontally--so the stall was sort of a horizontal mushing.  But of course, John knew what was happening.

"ALL right" (he likes to stress that "all") "wings level and one seventy.  Remember to add just a touch of right rudder after the vertical.  Let's go."

I take a breath and squeeze my stomach muscles.  Forward stick, watch the airspeed 150 160 170 pull up, vertical, lean head back to the rest, just a touch of right rudder, relax the stick ever so slightly, we're over the top, heading down, the ground is in front, pulling up, pulling harder, I don't notice the g's at all, and we're back to straight and level.  Whoo.

We do it again.  And then he says, "ALL right, this time let's do a loop and go right into a slow roll."

And this time as we're pulling out the left wings suddenly go BD-D-D-D-D.  I can hear it and feel it in the stick, and I know it even before Greenwood says, "There's our prop wash, that's a perfect loop!"  I go right into the roll and he's not quite as enthusiastic about it, but it turns out reasonably well--considering that I'm already close to experiencing the condition he keeps talking about--braindeath.

(I think it was about here that he did a hammerhead--which I can probably expect to try myself next week--but the truth is, I'm not sure when it was.  I was already braindead.  Hammerhead--that's when you pull up as if you were going to loop, but keep on going straight up until you're almost stopped, out of energy, even though the throttle is wide open.  The wings are long since stalled, but it doesn't feel like a stall because the only lift is from the propeller.  Just before you stop dead, you kick full rudder and yaw sharply until the nose is pointing straight down.  It's very quick, sort of like doing about face in marching.  Then you accelerate like mad and pull up as you do in a loop, except that you're heading in the opposite direction.  It's sort of an extreme wingover.)

"Now let's try some four-point rolls."  Whoops!  I'm not ready for this, and the first one is very ragged, but the second at least has four points to it.  By this time I'm hoping to relax a bit, but he wants me to do an eight-point roll, and this goes very very ragged, and he has to nudge the stick at one point to correct for my overcontrolling.  We do another eight-point roll and one more four-point roll, and by this time I'm beginning to get messages from my semicircular canals, so I tell him that I've about had it for the day.  Although we've been going around and around in three dimensions for the full half hour, I hate to be the one to end it.  But I'm feeling pretty good otherwise.

Back at his new hangar, the fuel truck pulled up and Greenwood pumped 4.1 gallons into the Pitts, then invited me to come along to the terminal for coffee.  Whether it was because he was bored or because my face may have had that tell-tale green tinge, I don't know.  But it's just fun for me to hang around pilots who can really fly.

He said he turned 67 yesterday.  He told me that his father died when he was five and his mother put him in an orphanage.  His grandparents rescued him and took him to live with them, even though the grandfather had active TB.  Skipped first grade.  Enrolled in VMI at age 16.  (So he must have been about 20 when he graduated and entered the Air Force--in about 1951 or 52).  As a kid in Petersburg, he used to play in a battlefield park and often found minnie balls and other relics of what he called "The War of Northern Aggression."  He said he's never lived in a house.  Said he's only mowed a lawn once in his life. Two P-51's in formationSaid he flew B-24's and 26's (I think), and then in Korea, F-51's.  Said...  Well he went on for quite a while like that.  I often get the feeling that he needs to prove himself and, maybe, to be admired, but more than that, it's almost as if he's afraid of growing obsolete.  (With my own 62nd birthday impending, I have an inkling of that--but I think it's mainly how you feel about your own aging.  He's had four knee surgeries, he says, and a spinal tap last week for his back problem.  So it's probably heavy on his mind that he ain't getting no younger.)

He's left handed.  Very pale blue eyes, almost turquoise.  Lean, tanned face, with vertical folds bracketing his mouth.  About 5' 10" and slender, maybe 160 pounds.  He runs every morning.  Keeps a keyboard in his hangar and was playing it one morning when I arrived--something not classical that I didn't recognize.

Today he chided a guy who landed just ahead of us after flying a very long downwind--gave him a few blisters on his ears over the radio.  Later, in the terminal, the guy told him he'd had aileron problems and was afraid to fly a tighter pattern, and it turned out that they've been friends a long time--since high school, I think.

I find him an effective teacher--for me, at least.  His instructions and critiques are clear, and he works me hard, but not to exhaustion.  He's very helpful and offers lots of advice about flying--to me and apparently to everyone else.  He introduced me to everyone we encountered--all apparently old friends--and tried to include me in the conversations.

It was warm and homey in the terminal, especially compared to the terminal at Chesterfield County Airport, where, as Greenwood has said several times, "it's so sterile."

All the same, I didn't feel completely at home there.  For one thing, I was surprised to see that nearly everyone in the terminal except for the people who work there had gray hair.  I suppose that on a Friday morning, you have to be somewhere else unless you work there or have gray hair.

And I noticed--not for the first time--that nearly everyone drives a big, expensive car and wears expensive clothes, however casual they appear.  I suppose that's not much of a surprise, either, especially on a weekday morning at an airport.  You don't just hop over there on your coffee break from your job at Wal-Mart.

Back to "Learning Flying"
My home page.