Airport Stories: The Psychological Effects of Perspex

I once flew biplanes for a New Zealand adventure flying company. My bread and butter aircraft was the Pitts Special. Our model was an S2A. It boasted a 200hp engine driving a two bladed prop that dragged two people, cocooned in a fabric covered steel frame, through the sky in whatever direction the pilot desired. It is actually probably one of the most underpowered Pitts in the range, but it was great for giving willing victims a taste of upside-down.

Some S2As are open cockpit with a dedicated windshield for each occupant. Ours had a single windshield in front of the forward (passenger’s) cockpit and a perspex canopy that stretched from the windshield to the “hump” behind the rear (pilot’s) cockpit. It was opened by releasing a catch immediately above the rear instrument panel, once freed it slid backward about 5-10cm and then hinged sideways and upward to the right.

Sitting in the fully open position, it was a convenient platform for the passenger to put their weight on when trying to squeeze themselves into, or extricate themselves out of, their seat. Unfortunately the canopy is built purely as a windbreak and has no real strength at all so passengers were always warned not to put any weight on the canopy. They were also closely monitored and their hands usually guided to ensure they didn’t break the canopy. Some of the better looking female passengers may have been monitored a little more closely, and there may have been more physical guiding going on than strictly necessary, I’m not sure, it was a long time ago and my memory fails me at times.

One weekend, I remember well though.

There was an open day at Wigram, an ex NZ Air Force base located in Christchurch. Wigram had once been the Air Force’s training base and had been the launching ground for multitudes of Harvards and, later, CT4 Air Trainers. In more recent times it had been abandoned with only a museum and another joyriding company in residence.

So, the museum was having an open day. They would get some of their old relics out onto the flight line and aviation enthusiasts got to cruise around and get up close to various bits and pieces. To take advantage of the expected influx of people, the local joyriding company were offering cheap flights in their Stearman and, as they expected more demand than one aircraft could cope with, they had invited us to bring our Pitts over from Wanaka.

Our company agreed on the basis that accommodation would be provided for my girlfriend and I at no charge, they kindly arranged for us to stay a couple of nights with one of their pilots. Now days I wouldn’t dream of overnighting somewhere without being put up in a moderately good hotel and being paid an allowance that amply covers any expense that might arise (in fact, I am writing this while lying in a king size bed in a moderately good hotel in Cairns, Australia, and trying hard not to waste my allowance on room service and the mini bar.) Back then I was just happy to get out of my own backyard and play in someone else’s for a bit.

With everything sorted, my girlfriend and I jumped into the Pitts one Friday afternoon, and set off toward Christchurch. We had what minimal luggage the tiny compartment in the fairing behind my head would allow and a couple of aeronautical charts and books squeezed between the fabric and the fuselage framework that made up the cockpit “wall”.

The little Pitts had the bare minimum of instruments, only what was needed for its speciality. An engine manifold pressure gauge, an RPM gauge, a fuel flow gauge, a ball (no AH or turn coordinator, just a ball), a G meter placed prominently in my line of sight and a compass which had long stopped bothering with pointing in any usefully consistent direction.

We threaded our way through the mountains following roads, railways, and large power pylons, resorting to the charts only when entering the controlled airspace around Christchurch.

We arrived uneventfully later that evening and settled the plane down into a comparatively enormous ex RNZAF hanger for the night.

We stayed for the Saturday and Sunday and the weekend quickly turned into a blur of activity. We did a lot of flights. A LOT of flights. We were charging $50 for a 12min aerobatic sequence, roughly a third of our normal price, and people were lapping it up.

The owner of the host company knew what to expect and had enlisted the help of several young (suitably briefed) volunteers to help load and unload the passengers. The way it worked was that I sat in the aircraft with the engine running while one of the volunteers briefed and helped a passenger into the cockpit. Once strapped in and on intercom, I gave them a second more detailed brief and off we went.

The Stearman was operating off a roughly square piece of grass between the runway and a taxiway, and I did my first flight from there as well to fit in. Unfortunately I found the grass to be too bumpy for the Pitts and decided I’d have to use the runway. Getting to and from the runway involved a fairly lengthy taxi though and as demand for the flights increased it became apparent that an area closer to the aircraft park would be necessary. I soon settled on taking off from a short and narrow length of taxiway that was close-by and landing on the runway.

The Pitts and I did over 70 flights for the weekend, something over 35 flights each day, operating dawn to dusk, shutting down the engine only for fuel, food and drink was provided on demand by one of the helpers, we had a seemingly endless stream of passengers.

Everything was going really well until someone lent on the canopy as they got out and there was a nasty cracking sound. I shut down and inspected the damage. It was relatively minor but bad enough to stop the canopy from closing properly. On the face of it, it appeared that the flying was over for the day and a dozen or more people would go home disappointed. I had a think about the situation and it occurred to me that the canopy doesn’t serve any structural purpose at all, it was just a windbreak, and judging by the open cockpit Pitts flying around the world, an unnecessary one. Both the passengers and I had been flying with Gentex flying helmets on with a dark visor. That’ll be enough to keep the wind out of my eyes, I thought.

With a flourish I pulled the Holy-Crap-I-Need-To-Get-Out-Of-This-Plane-In-A-Hurry handle which released the canopy altogether, and discarded it, declaring to all who could hear, “The show will go on! I will continue to fly, WITHOUT THE CANOPY!”

There was probably wild cheering and applause, as I say, it was some time ago and not all the memories are clear.

This was a fantastic idea I thought. Not only do these guys get the ride of their life, but it’s now in an open cockpit biplane!

The next game passenger came along and was strapped in. She discovered my feet resting on the rudder pedals, touching each side of her bum, and gave them a playful squeeze and giggled. I giggled back.

Off we went again. Lining up on the taxiway I completed my pre take-off checks and pushed the throttle up to the stop. Ahead of me I could see nothing at all, which is just as it should be. In the Pitts, if you can see the runway then you are probably not on it. The wind quickly built up and my flying suit was flapping away quite nicely. When I felt the tail come up, I held the stick back and the main wheels came off the ground as well. I banked over to the right straight away to keep good landing areas ahead of me–just in case. Climbing at 1500’ per minute we were quickly up to our operating altitude.

Flying across the runway at right angles I looked around and checked for other aircraft, there were none, save for the Stearman doing lazy loops and rolls about a mile away. Cool. It’s play time.

Pitching up sharply I rolled over to the right into a half wing-over, turning through 90 degrees and lining up with the runway, then diving down looking for 140kts airspeed, then pulling back, 2… 3… 4Gs, going vertical, looking straight up and back, looking for the horizon, easing off the Gs over the top, still looking up, runway appearing underneath us again, Gs coming back on, 4Gs again and back to 140kts. My flirtatious passenger was laughing and screaming at the same time at our first manoeuvre, a loop. Keeping the 4Gs on, pulling into another loop, less Gs over the top, maybe just 1/3 to 3/4, then back to 4 and airspeed back to 140kts, another 4G pull up and over, pointing back the otherway, still lined up with the runway, dive down inverted at 45degrees down and roll out, then a repeat of that–a cuban eight, from there we’ve got 140kts again and pulling at 4gs but holding it vertical, flying straight up, looking left to keep oriented, gradually increasing right rudder to keep from yawing left, airspeed washing off until we almost stop in midair, a little vibration of the aileron tells me it’s time to go, and I let the nose yaw to the left slicing down through the horizon till we’re pointing straight down at the ground.

This no canopy thing is working out pretty well, I thought, just the same as usual apart from being a little noisy.

Pulling out of the hammer-head turn, 140kts, pitching up to about 20degrees and a rapid aileron roll left, very slight positive G throughout to make it feel pleasant, this is passenger aerobatics, not competition aerobatics, then a roll to the right, followed by another small pitch up and half roll left, stopping with our wings level, inverted, but level, the sky is now below us and the… OH MY GOD THERE’S NO CANOPY, THERE’S NOTHING HOLDING ME IN HERE! yes there is, your harness is on, IT DOESN’T MATTER, I’M GOING TO FALL!

I had discovered that I didn’t much like flying upside down with out that layer of perspex between me and the world. The positive G stunts were fine, loops, rolls, hammer-heads, no worries. But once the little plane was just cruising along upside down, straight and level, and my full 90kg were hanging in those straps, with nothing between me and the ground, I didn’t like it. Quite stupid really, the canopy would never have held me in anyway, it was all psychological.

The girl up the front was vocally ecstatic, the intercom was unnecessary with some people, and I could still hear delighted squeals. I persisted, moved on to more serious stuff, vertical rolls, tail sliding torque rolls, hesitation rolls, and negative G pushes from flying straight down to flying inverted, level.

We landed and taxied back. That was exhilarating, I thought, isn’t it supposed to be them getting scared?

I was pleased to discover that the passengers on the day’s subsequent flights weren’t interested in doing too much negative G stuff, and by the next day, the canopy was fixed, and the Pitts and I were back to our old selves.

I had a lot of good times in that little aeroplane. Unfortunately discretion dictates that most of my stories remain between me and some select friends :).

I loved your story, Ray. Next time I’m in the Southern Hemisphere, I wanna go flying with you! :slight_smile:

Unfortunately my current work, though better paid, is not quite as exciting.

When I got up this morning, I never imagined I’d be doing a Google search on “Eskippakithiki.”

My work here is done, then. :wink:

I dare you to try it in the Dash-8 :smiley:

Great story. I recently did my first solo aerobatic flights in a Decathlon, and a Pitts is next on the list.

Can you talk a bit about the handling of that type of plane? I’ve read a lot of stuff about how hard they are to land. But the people I know who fly them say there is a lot of exaggeration going on.

Wow, great story! The first time I flew with a puker was on an aerobatic flight, but curiously she hurled back in the pattern, not while doing the upside down high-G stuff. When it rains, it pours, and the next time I took a non-pilot up in the company plane for some formation flying, that one puked too, and shortly thereafter I had two students throw up. Regardless, taking non-pilots up in planes is one of my favorite things to do . . . especially when it’s on the company dime!

Also, I’m jealous - have never had the opportunity to fly in an open cockpit!

Too cool … great stuff …

As to landing a Pitts, from a guy who has made only 3 landings in them, if you have other tail dragger time, instead of making a square pattern, just make a nice steady U turn to the left from the downwind and lose altitude to suit so that you end very near the ground at the same time you line up with the runway.

Worked for me.

I do that in all the ‘blind’ airplanes.