My fellow pilots, please note the following: yes, I did simplify some parts of the flight, and possibly some dramatic license in one or two places. That’s because I don’t want to bore the non-pilots to tears. This is primarially entertainment, not flight instruction
Here I am at last, sitting in the cockpit of a Citabria, ready to start my taildragger lessons!
I spent the first ten minutes squirming around in the seat. Really.
You see, this isn’t like a car, or a later airplane, with adjustable seats. Oh, no - the seats are firmly and permanently affixed to the airframe floor. So, I got in, sat down, and felt for the rudder pedals. I could just, barely, get full throw on them using tippy-toes… um, not acceptable. So we dug the spare cushion out of the back of the airplane and put it behind me, pushing me further forward and allowing more comfortable rudder operations. Yeah, that was important, given that taildraggers require a LOT of rudder on the ground, during take-off, and landing.
Next step - can I see out the front? Um… yeah… sure, the engine and prop block some of the view but I’ll be able to avoid obstacles in front of the airplane. Onward!
I suspect there’s this idea out there that the cockpit of any airplane is Very Sophisticated, full of dials and gauges and what not, and I have flown some that had a lot of stuff in front of me on the control panel. The Citabria in question, however, is not like that. Sure, there’s an airspeed indicator, and vertical speed indicator, tachometer, a bare-bones turn indicator… but no artificial horizon. There’s an ILS glideslope but C (sitting behind me, owner of flight school and my instructor for the day) tells me that it’s past due for an accuracy check and she couldn’t say for sure if it was working or not. No one has actually used that particular instrument in a long, long while because this is a VFR airplane - that is, it is flown under Visual Flight Rules. It is not legal to take this airplane into instrument-requiring conditions, and it would be very, very foolish to do so. You see, even the most accomplished instrument-rated pilot requires a certain complement of instruments to fly safely in such conditions, and this airplane simply doesn’t have those instruments. OK - so we’ll stick to good weather. In addition to these minimal instruments, there is one communication radio and one navigation radio, and a transponder. And, oh yes, an electric starter. No ignition key required here - the starter is a push buttom affair.
Hey, where are the gas tank indicators?
Oh - they’re up there, above my head, on the wing roots where I can’t possibly see them from my seat. And, I’m informed, not very accurate. “Terrible” was the word used. Still no problem - I know how much gas is in the tanks (I just supervised the fueling as part of the pre-flight), the amount of gas it burns per hour is on the paperwork for the airplane, and I have a watch.
The “electrical system” - such as it is - is also mounted behind and above the pilot, on the left. At least the switches are within easy reach. Master, magnetos, beacon light, navigation lights, in-plane intercom… and that’s it, really. No extras.
The throttle is on the left, on the wall of the airplane, as is the trim. These are both knob-like affairs mounted in a slot so they can slide back and forth. These slots have a metal surrond that used to have enameled print on them, but 40 years of hands have worn most of the writing away. There is an honest-to-Og joystick mounted on the floor. No, it’s not one of those little jobbies you use for computer games, this is the original incarnation of a control stick, about three feet long, with a push-to-talk switch on top - clearly, an after purchase modification. This arrangement, power with left/steer with right, is opposite that of the more common Cessna/Piper/Mooney/Beechcraft airplane makers that use yokes instead of sticks. The change can bother some people - I know this because I started with sticks and switched to yokes so I’ve been down this road before, in the opposite direction. I just hope that six years of yokes haven’t made me completely forget about sticks.
Fuel control is under the left side of the panel. It’s another minimal-looking affair, a lever-type switch painted red. Pointing to the right is OFF, pointing down is ON. It’s a good thing C told me this, because the markings are entirely worn off that baby.
Finally, I locate the jacks to plug in my headset. You know that big honkin’ headsets with enormous ear cups you see pilots wear on TV and in the movies? Yeah, those. Yes, they are heavy. But I like my hearing, and they’re good for 30 db of protection (when properly fitted and worn), not to mention it’s a LOT easier to hear the radio and your flight companion with the headsets blocking engine and wind noise. The jacks on are on the left side of the minimal control panel.
Alright, ready to start engines!
Going down the checklist - I skipped the “passenger briefing” because there aren’t any passengers and we just spent a half an hour discussing the flight prior to coming out to the airplane, so that’s done. I check my seat belt. I turn in my seat to check C’s got hers on - yes, I’m really that anal. Seat belts - verify no interference with rudder controls. WTF? Oh, right - see, the there is a second set of rudder pedals, the ones for the back seat, mounted left and right of my seat. Pretty close to where my safety harness is achored (since this is an aerobatic plane, the seat belt isn’t just a lap belt - it’s a four-point restraint over hips and both shoulders that’s strong enough to hoist a 1967 Buick off the ground, but I digress…). Thus, it is important to make sure that the lap belt portion of my restraint system is not wrapped around or otherwise interfering with the second set of rudder pedals. OK, that checks out. Make sure fuel valve is ON (very difficult to do visually when strapped in, it is done by feel - hence, worn-off printing is not an issue during flight). Brakes on - that means my feet are pressing on the tops of the rudder pedals, 'cause that’s how the brakes are activated on this thing. All electrical switches OFF except the BEACON - that’s the blinking light on top of the airplane. Door closed, window “as desired” (yes, I have been known to fly with an elbow sticking out the window, much as if I were in my car or pickup truck).
NOW we’re ready to start the engine! Yes, finally.
Master switch - ON. (This starts the beacon flashing, which informs folks within view of it that an airplane is getting ready to start up) Magneto switches - ON (both of 'em. So I turn slightly in the seat, raise my left arm, reach backward slightly, and flip those three on. Throttle - “cracked open”, with the helpful notation that this means 1/2 to 1 inch. That’s distance along the slider starting from all the way back. Carbeurator air - cold… OK, check that knob. Mixture, full rich - grab bright red mix knob, push all the way in. Primer - unlock silver knob, pump four times, push back in, re-lock. Propellor - CLEAR, front and rear… look (really look) forward, to sides, and towards back for people/animals/vehicles that show a high probability of coming near, lean out window and shout “CLEAR PROP!” Starter - PUSH, release after engine starts. Alright - push silver button. Starter and prop go rrrRr…rrrRr…rrrrRr…rrrRr… through several rotations until the engines catches and goes BRRRRRRRRRROAR!!! and the prop spins into near-invisibility. Throttle - check it’s at 1000 rpm and adjust if necessary. Check oil pressure within 30 seconds of start. Proceed to adjust lights and radio “as desired”. Headsets are adjusted, with the phrase “can you hear me now?” repeated a few times, a phrase we flyers were using long before Verizon made it an ad catch-phrase.
OK! Wow! After two years of researching flight schools and thinking about the problem, two weeks of talking with this flight school in particular, and a week of “book learning” and anticipation I am finally at the controls of a taildragger!
I nudged the throttle forward until the Citabria started rolling, then gently applied the brakes to stop it (want to make sure they’re working, ya know?). I slowly taxi out to the run-up area. Directional control isn’t bad - I had been told it wasn’t a problem at slow speeds - but turning requires some definite pushing on the rudder pedals as the airplane is reluctant to respond. OK, just take it slow, easy, and anticipate the turns. First 90 degree direction change starts well, but the airplane keeps going past 90 - oops, didn’t put the “straighten-out” input in quite soon enough so I correct back to my course line. Second 90 change is better. I put-put across the ramp to a spot where I can orient properly to the wind, run up the engine, and not sandblast bystanders or other airplanes. Oh dear, this requires a 180 turn – which goes alright, especially after that extra nudge on the throttle to use some power to turn it around.
Alright - brakes SET (me doing the shove with the toes routine again); flight controls - CHECK freedom of movement, that is, the stick goes all the way left, right, forward and back to make sure the controls are operating properly (proper parts of wings and tail move in the correct directions) and easily, nothing snagged anywhere. Elevator trim - SET for take off - trim is… oh, don’t want to interupt here… it helps the pilot maintain the proper angle of attack and airspeed so it’s somewhat like a gear setting on a car and somewhat like cruise control but really like neither at all. Flight instruments - CHECK, or in other words, make sure your altimeter is reading correctly and your radios are on the correct frequencies. Fuel - ON, check it again. Mix - RICH, make sure knob is all the way in. Primer - CHECK, make sure it’s locked. Engine instruments - CHECK, in other words, make sure all the gauges are “in the green”. Yes, they really are marked with green paint along the “acceptable” range.
Now we can do the engine run up. By the way - have you noticed that in aviation there’s this continual aspect of getting ready, preliminary procedures, and more getting ready before you actually do anything?
OK, stick all the way back. Throttle to 1800 rpm Mageneto check - you turn one off, observe the rpm drop, turn it back on, and repeat with the other. After which you make sure both are in the ON position. This confirms that the magnetos are both working. Each mageto supplies spark to half your spark plugs so, yeah, they’re sort of important to continued engine running. Carb heat - turn on (you use this if you start get ice forming in your engine, which can happen in ambient temps as high as 20 C), observe drop in rpm that indicates it is functioning, turn carb heat off. Check engine gauges are in the green. Return throttle to 1000 rpm’s Check the magnetos again, make sure both are ON. Make sure cabin door is closed and latched. Close and latch windows. Check seat restraints again. Turn on lights as needed (not needed this day). Turn transponder to “ALT”, which is “altitude Mode C reporting”, which is way more technical that anyone here probably wants to know. Check for traffic before proceeding to runway and sky. In other words, look both ways and up.
By the way, needing to hold the stick all the way back during run up is an illustration how you should think of the Citabria as flying even when on the ground. If you don’t hold the stick back, which has the effect of holding the tail down, then during engine run up or other high throttle settings the prop+engine is capable of causing a “nose-over” if mishandled, especially if you’ve been careless about positioning and the wind is coming from behind. Essentially, the prop is spinning with such force that it can pull the airplane into a nose stand (although you really have to screw up awfully for that to happen). This will qualifty as a Bad Day for several reasons. First, a nose-over will, if allowed to proceed far enough, result in a contest between prop and ground as to which is tougher. So far, props have largely lost these duels. Depending on what the prop hits, you will have dirt, rocks, grass, or large chunks of pavement slung right and left with great force and speed. I’ve seen this sort of debris punch through the metal walls of hangars a surprising distance away - a hundred meters is still not safely distant. Frequently, the prop shatters at some point. This means shards of metal or wood flying about, again with great speed and force, and they can go any direction - left, right, up, down… usually more forward than back, but back/aft is also possible. Around this time it will be noted that the airplane is now sort of standing on its nose, an inherently unstable position. Shortly after the prop disintegrates the airframe will flop over. Typically, back onto landing gear or to one side or the other although forward somersaults resulting in inverted landings are also possible. This will result in crumpling and breakage of various bits, which have probably already suffered from flung debris. But we’re not done yet - interactions between the prop remnants and engine (which is likely to still be running, if the idiot in the cockpit hasn’t been able to shut it down - this will all happen in a matter of a second or two) can impart a spinning motion which will result in the airframe rolling over and over, with much folding and crumpling and breaking until you have something resembling a ball of aluminum and wood sticks mixed with shredded cloth. Which is more or less what you wind up with. People have survived this sort of adventure, but the odds of severe injury or death are significant. These things don’t happen very often but it’s terribly embarassing when they do. So, um, do please try to remember to point yourself into the wind properly and keep that stick all the way back into your belly. You’re using a flight control to hold the airplane in place, and thus you are “flying” even though you are on the ground and standing still - if you weren’t “flying” it at a standstill you’d be moving, and most likely not in a way you’d want to go. If the engine is running - you’re flying. (You can also fly without the engine running, which is why airplanes left outside are literally tied or chained down in place. It really is to keep them wandering off on their own).
After everything checks out, we go to the runway. Yes, we really will get off the ground today! I remind C I probably know just enough about taildraggers to be dangerous, and she says OK, remember I’ll be right here as I talk you through a take-off.
Well, here I am, strapped in and facing down the runway.
Have I ever mentioned my worst experiences in airplanes are usually during take-offs? I never pull onto a runway without a tiny bit of trepidation. At a certain point during the take-off you are committed to flight in a way that’s hard for non-pilots to understand - there’s a point at which it is more dangerous - no matter what is happening - to try to stop than to go forward and up. It doesn’t help that I’ve never rode in a Citabria before. Although it’s an airplane and all airplanes share many features in common, no two airplanes are exactly alike, either - there’s an aspect of not quite knowing, for sure, what will happen next. And I will be doing the take-off - you learn to fly by flying.
Deep breath. I’m ready. Full power. We roll forward, slowly at first, then picking up speed. C is talking to me, words of encouragement and “right rudder-right rudder- more right rudder”. It’s the engine torque pulling the airplane to the left, you see. We’re rolling along and so far not much is different.
Then the tail comes up.
It does that automatically, by the way. Remember, boys and girls, it’s the wind over the wings that makes the magic happen. When the airplane is going forward at a certain speed it flies. In a taildragger, when the airplane is going foward at a certain speed the tail - the horizontal portion of which is also an airfoil, just like the wing - starts flying and lifts up. Which means the front part - where I’m sitting - rotates somewhat forward and down. I now have a MUCH better view of the runway, and I start to lose control of the airplane. Partly it’s the change of viewpoint, but it’s also because at that point the airplane really is less stable on the ground since it went from being a tripod to a bipod at that point.
C goes tap-tap-tap on the rudders, getting everything under control again, and says “Your plane, hold it there, let it fly off by itself”
So that’s what I did - hold the airplane on center (that took a LOT more footwork than airplanes I’ve been flying, but was manageable) and the throttle forward. A couple hundred more feet we reached the Magic Airspeed and, all by itself, it lifted off and up. Which really is like magic - that this bundle of metal and wood and cloth suddenly leaps up into the sky.
I used the stick to adjust my airspeed for best climb. The airplane bucked slightly in a gust as we went up, but stabilized almost immediately. 400 feet off the ground I started a gentle turn to the right to leave the traffic pattern over the airport. I ask C what next. She said to climb to 3,000 feet and we’ll do airwork.
You see, although 90% of what I’ll be doing to get my taildragger endorsement is getting off and onto the ground, the first hour or two will take place at several thousand feet. And why is that, you say? Because landing is no time to be figuring out how to fly the machine.
This is true of any aircraft - you have to learn it’s features and quirks. Even more so with the Citabria. C needs to know that I’m comfortable with steering with my right and throttling with my left, instead of vice-versa. I need to know where the controls are by second nature - on final approach I won’t have time to hunt around for anything. I need to know how fast it climbs and descends at different power settings, how much force is needed to turn it - and how much needed to stop turning. I need to get used to the particular noises of this airplane, its engine and the wind against the fuselage, learn if that rattle is the door or a seat belt or something else. I need to get used to how the wind nudges or throws it around.
So, we start with the very basics - straight and level, can I hold altitude and airspeed, can I climb or descend and stop that vertical motion at a precise altitude (or do I overshoot the mark?). Shallow turns, standard turns, steep turns. Then we combine those manuvers - a turning climb, a turning descent. C asks to see particular altitudes and airspeeds and it’s up to me to deliver. This gets me used to the airplane, and it allows her to judge my piloting ability. Time goes by, and I get more precise - mind you, C hasn’t touched the controls since just after the tail rose up. She’s letting me make my mistakes and correct them, offering advice but the point here is to let me fly the airplane.
Then she asks for slowflight.