I wrote this post in 2014. A reader who knew both of the men I wrote about left a comment this morning and I decided to move Taildragger Tales back to the top of the blog. —Paul
I found some faded and blurry photos of the Great Lakes biplane I used to fly, and, as old photos always do, they brought back memories.
In 1977, while I was an Air Force T-37 instructor pilot at Vance AFB in Enid, Oklahoma, I started a civilian flying training program at the local airport, thinking I might want to fly for the airlines some day. The fixed base operator at Woodring Field, Bill Sellers, ran a well-regarded flight school, and I earned my certified flight instructor rating in one of his airplanes. A month after I became a CFI, Bill added a Great Lakes biplane to his stable and decided to offer a course in aerobatics.
I was Bill’s first aerobatic student. After finishing the course I went to work on the weekends as one of Bill’s CFIs, teaching aerobatics and earning the occasional paycheck from the back seat of the Great Lakes. Snap rolls, outside loops, Cuban 8s, hammerheads, you name it … I flew many of these maneuvers in the T-37 at Vance AFB, but doing aerobatics in an open biplane, with my head out in the breeze, was another order of fun altogether.
The Lakes demanded your full attention on landing. As a taildragger, its center of gravity was behind the main gear, and if you didn’t work the rudder to keep the tail behind you it would try to get out in front. Swapping ends in this manner is called a ground loop. It’s an ever-present danger in taildraggers, especially during crosswind landings.
One day during my checkout program, Bill Sellers’ son Rusty, who was my instructor that day, decided he’d better land the Lakes himself since tower was calling a 13-knot crosswind, right at the plane’s limit. Sure enough, he ground-looped it. It happened in the blink of an eye, but I remember having time to think “Thank god I didn’t do that!” Bill Sellers was waiting for us with death in his eyes as we taxied up to the FBO a few minutes later, fabric hanging from the bottom of a bent wingtip.
Well, that was embarrassing, but hardly life-threatening, and Bill had the wing repaired in no time. The second time something bad happened in the Great Lakes, I was at the controls, oblivious to the danger I was in.
I was still in training, this time with Bill as my instructor. He was in the front seat pretending to be a student while I practiced teaching how to do snap rolls from the rear seat. A snap roll is a violent maneuver … “snap” is exactly the right word for it. You yank the stick all the way back and slam in full rudder in the desired direction of the roll. The plane whips into a fast roll, well in excess of 360 degrees a second, and halfway through you slam in full opposite rudder and full forward stick to snap it back into level flight. I probably did five snap rolls, one after another, until Bill and I were both happy I had the maneuver and teaching technique down. After practicing some other aerobatic maneuvers we flew back to Woodring Field.
Aerobatic maneuvers are hard on an airplane, even one designed for aerobatics, so I always gave the plane a good look-over afterward. That day, walking around the front of the Lakes, I noticed a half-circle gouge on the front of the engine cowling, right behind the propeller spinner. It looked like the engine had twisted to one side during flight, allowing the back of the spinner to rub against the cowling. “Bill,” I said, “what’s this?” We unbuttoned the engine cowling and took it off, and discovered to our horror that two of the four motor mounts had broken during our flight, probably from side-to-side forces generated while I was doing snap rolls.
Perhaps that doesn’t sound all that big a deal. Trust me, it was. With two motor mounts broken and doubled stress on the remaining two, another snap roll might have caused the engine and propeller to rip away from the front of the airplane. If the spinning prop didn’t chop up a wing … or the two guys sitting right behind it … the sudden absence of several hundred pounds from the nose would have turned the Great Lakes into an unflyable basket of wood and fabric, and we’d have certainly had to bail out … if, that is, we could have freed ourselves from the tumbling wreckage.
Bill and I were very quiet after that post-flight inspection. By the following weekend Bill had had the motor mounts replaced and the cowling repainted, but neither of us ever practiced snap rolls again, and I didn’t teach them once I was an instructor myself.
Like cats and their proverbial nine lives, pilots have an allotted number of close calls. Not nearly as many as cats get, though. Some of us get only one, some get three or four. Once you use them up you’re gone. I’m one of the lucky ones, because I’ve lived to tell about three close calls. This was the first one. I’ll tell you about the other two some day.
© 2019, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.