3, 2, 1, Breathe
How long can you hold your breath? For 30 seconds…? A minute…? Actually, it’s longer than you think.
For me, it was a little over 12 years.
To be precise, it’s been 13 years since I flew anything with a throttle, and about 11-½ years since I flew a glider. After a while, the numbers don’t matter. Twelve years seems about right.
And the whole time felt like I was holding my breath.
That’s 12 years (give or take) of thinking about flying; dreaming, watching; photographing and writing about aircraft – waiting for the day I could fly again. Would fly again.
So tell the sky to rejoice. A prodigal aviator has come home.
For most of this year I’ve been working a kind of 14-day week, burning the midnight oil to earn side-hustle dollars from freelance writing and study my flying textbooks, in the hope of finally knocking the rust off my pilot’s license.
As it started to look more and more do-able, I also tried to set some clear goals about how I’d manage my re-training and what I wanted to achieve once I was re-qualified.
I won’t bore you with all the details, but the cardinal rule was no training wheels. The flying had to be in a taildragger airplane. Adelaide’s major GA airport at Parafield (YPPF) is literally minutes from my work. It would have been easy to duck round there before or after office hours to fit in flight lessons.
Unfortunately there’s not a single tailwheel aircraft on the field for private pilot training. So, cardinal rules being what they are, the 45 minute drive to Aldinga was my best option.
No bad thing
As it happens, that’s no bad thing. Aldinga is exactly what you want your airport to be like. Set deep in the McLaren Vale wine region, it has a long gravel driveway sweeping up an avenue of shady gum trees. The front gates are wooden and the perimeter fences invite you to use your brains, not just your imagination.
The flying school, Adelaide Biplanes, feels like a clubhouse crossed with a cafe. There’s a mouth-watering selection of cakes and coffee, comfortable chairs, walls covered in aviation memorabilia, and a long verandah (complete with tables and chairs and a geranium border) that fronts the all-grass 14/32 runway.
They also operate a great range of aircraft. Alongside the usual flight school suspects, there’s a Waco YMF 5C and DH-82a Tiger Moth for Scenic Flights, a Great Lakes 2T1A-2 for aerobatic rides; plus a Super Decathlon, Super Cub and Sport Cub for tail wheel aviators.
When I visited for the Aldinga Airfield Open Day, I didn’t give a damn that Parafield had ruled itself out. This was a clearly a beautiful place to fly.
I caught one of the staff’s attention, got referred to an instructor, and made a booking for the following Sunday.
No more holding back.
AWOL from my brain
When I look around the amusement park of life, I can confidently say I’ve been on a lot of the rides. But I have never been so gut-churningly nervous as I was on my way to that first-again flight.
Deep down, I felt sure that flying was like riding a bike. I know every piece of conventional wisdom says it’s NOT. But there was no way I could forget the skills I’d learned and rehearsed and tattooed into my soul a decade earlier. Was there?
On the other hand, I also remembered how overwhelming a cockpit and its surrounding air could be, and how easy it is to get left behind by the aircraft you’re supposed to be flying. Then I’d suddenly remember some random mnemonic like Power-Attiitude-Speed-Trim, and realise I’d completely forgotten that essential basic until just then. What else had gone AWOL from my brain?
Who was I kidding? It wouldn’t be like riding a bike; it would be like flying a taildragger… for the very first time again.
With a growing sense of trepidation, I practiced the phonetic alphabet on car number plates while driving to work, then tried using the same number plates to rehearse radio calls. Things I used to do the first time I was a newbie.
Then, on the morning of the big day, I opened YADG in X-Plane and tried to fly a circuit.
It was disastrous… Not helping.
And so, for better or worse, there was nothing left to do but go. I piled into the car with my galloping anxieties and hit the road for Aldinga.
Now I had literally nothing to do for an hour but avoid other cars and stew over how wildly this whole return to flight thing might go. Luckily, I remembered a long-ago Human Factors lesson on dealing with a persisting high-stress situation.
You wouldn’t want to have heard it, but boy did I sing! By the time Ziggy and The Spiders and I pulled up under the trees at the airport, I was feeling reasonably normal.
Besides, I was about to go fly.
No place to hide
I turned myself in to Adelaide Biplanes and was taken to a small office with Managing Director and Chief Flying Instructor Martyn Smith. To say Smith knows his stuff would be an understatement. With almost 13,000 hours to his credit before he even started Adelaide Biplanes, he has flown microlights, Fokker F-27s, BAC -1-11s, MD-80s, B-757s, B-767s – plus the fleet of sightseeing and training aircraft now under his supervision.
I’d elected to start out in his CubCrafters Sport Cub – a modern analogue of the classic Piper J-3 with, I was assured, a few modern improvements and even nicer manners.
Still, when you start back in directly across the desk from a highly experienced Chief Flying Instructor, there’s no place to hide. (No matter how bad you want to.)
Our briefing consisted of a quick recap on what I’d done and how long since I’d done it, plus a quick summary of the Sport Cub’s characteristics. The overall concept was a familiarisation flight for a new aircraft, while also giving me a chance to find my feet (it’s a taildragger thing), as well as my hands, memory, brain… stuff like that.
We talked about control inputs and turning, stalling and stick position, and the special attention required to keep a tailwheel aircraft sunny side up during ground operations.
By the end of it I don’t think Martyn was any more worried than I was. I’d answered most of his questions ably, with only a few gaps and a few questions of my own.
I never felt so glad that, after first passing my PPL, I’d spent a good part of my time learning more about how to really fly, rather than simply heading off to buy expensive hamburgers at other airports.
And continually refreshing that knowledge, even though I didn’t have the opportunity to apply it, was starting to pay huge dividends.
Onto the grass
The exercise continued its inevitable progress.
Having sat down and talked sensibly with a man who clearly knew a lot about flying, and having found that I hadn’t forgotten quite everything either, the morning’s overbearing anxiety had passed its peak as we headed out onto the grass to confront the aircraft.
It looked like, well, like an aircraft should. Like a Cub, but shiny and new (and not fabric).
I followed on for the walkaround, learning where to sample the fuel and check the oil and that kind of thing. Then it was butt-first into the cockpit, threading myself over the sides and around the stick until my parts were all in their appropriate positions. We gathered up the four-point harness and I ran my eye over a relatively simple and surprisingly familiar panel.
Martyn called out the short, verbal pre-start checks and start-up procedure for me. As I twisted the key the propeller kicked once, spun into life, and settled into a happy twirling as I set the throttle.
Can’t hang around
Taxiing a taildragger comes with its own set of challenges. Not just in keeping the tail firmly down to maintain directional control either. A bigger problem is going slow enough to be careful, but fast enough to be able to manoeuvre at all. I’d be lying if I said it came back to me naturally.
Actually, I’d be lying if I said it came back to me at all. I meandered along the taxiways like a lost grandmother looking for an empty space in the church carpark. Eventually, almost circuitously, I made it to the run-up bay and stood on the brakes. Power up; mag check; idle check; control check; everything else. Check.
Then I meandered us around to the threshold of runway 28 – a charming, if quite short-looking stretch of grass – and eventually got lined up to my satisfaction.
And finally there was nothing else to do but go: You can’t hang around on a runway.
We took off with one stage of flap, managed with a very manual lever up by the left wing root. And it was simply a matter of lining up, feeding in throttle (and keeping straight), following the throttle with stick (and keeping straight), then putting in a little back pressure to offer the Sport Cub to the air (and keeping straight).
Well it couldn’t have been more keen.
Even with two of us aboard, the aircraft took off with alacrity. When I fly it solo, I’ll need to be ready to go from a stand still!
I’d never used a stick-top electric trim before, but it works like any other trim and by the time I’d put the flaps away and passed though 400 feet I’d stopped thinking about it. Besides, with the climb trimmed and stable, I had bigger fish to fry.
We threaded our way out between beachside settlements and continued climbing to 4,000 feet above the sparkling blue sea off Sellicks Beach. Now it was show time, starting with a level, clearing turn before we began manoeuvring. I was pleased when Martyn called for a reversal to fly the figure-8 lookout I’d been taught in gliders. I’d been just about to roll back the other way anyhow, and it was nice to know we were on the same page.
Having ticked off level turns, Martyn pointed out the downstruts of the Sport Cub’s frame, that cut through the forward field of view either side of the windshield. ‘A handy reference for steep turns,’ he said. ‘Let’s try some now.’
I’m not sure if he expected to be disappointed, or to have to egg me on, but I’ve never had an issue with cranking an airplane into a 45º or 60º bank. As briefed, I laid those bars on the horizon and pulled hard to hold our level. When instructed, I rolled it over and went back the other way.
The G forces and three-dimensional flow felt wonderful. I was flying again.
Which left not flying.
The whole gamut of stalls
From steep turns, we ran through the whole gamut of stalls – from low power level ones, through power-on stalls, stalls out of turns and side-slips, and stalls in a range of take-off and landing configurations.
This stuff is all covered in Upset Recovery Training, so at least I’d seen it before. It’s even kind of fun to watch the ‘bite’ get more and more pronounced as the configuration gets more extreme (compared to flying power off and level, anyway).
Even though I knew better, I had an annoying habit of putting in aileron when recovering from the straight-ahead power on stalls. I think it was because, even then, the Sport Cub stalled so politely that my brain didn’t fully register what it was doing.
We practiced them five or six times and I started to get better, but I made a mental note to go and work on that some more, further down the track.
After a look at the glide (idle power, at least) with and without flaps, Martyn finished with a demonstration of the dreaded stall/spin from a skidding turn. (Too often, and fatally, a low-level finals turn.)
He did one to the left and one to the right with me following on the controls. This set-up delivers a vicious snap-stall, with a partial flick-roll and steep incipient spin. The recovery procedure is a standard spin recovery – close the throttle, stop the rotation, pull out of the dive.
A windscreen full of Planet Earth is always pretty attention-grabbing but I was very aware that I was getting completely left behind each time, too gob-smacked by the sudden flick-roll to move on to the spin recovery. Perhaps if I’d been initiating it, I’d have been more ready. But if I’d been surprised like that on finals, I’d have been very dead.
I made a mental note to practice those in the future too, until they don’t bother me any more.
With the upper air work completed, we headed back to YADG for some circuits. Martyn cued me to make an inbound call. I scanned the blank canvas of my brain and scraped together a few morsels of information about being a Sport Cub with a tail number inbound, Aldinga.
Turns out I forgot to tell anyone our altitude. Luckily it was a quiet day.
But my biggest blank spot was just around the corner. As we joined overhead and confirmed that 28 was still into wind, I came up absolutely empty handed on how to descend on the dead side, cross mid-field and join downwind – let alone make a call announcing my intentions. Sure, I could recount all the steps, but I had no mental picture of how to get from A to B to C, or describe it to someone else.
I swallowed my pride and admitted I had no clue of what to do next. It was a wise move, and with a little guidance we were soon in the right place. Let me just add that it’s all very well to rehearse circuit joining procedures in theory – but it’s another area where I need more real-world practice.
Three pointing it
Now, I’ve always enjoyed flying circuits. In fact, landing is far and away my favourite thing to do in an airplane. Maybe I just haven’t put enough effort into aerobatics yet, and thermalling a sailplane is quite amazing, but there’s something unequivocally testing and precise and four-dimensional about returning an aircraft safely to the earth.
It hadn’t always been easy. All through my basic and aerobatics training, I struggled to pull off landings that I was happy with. I remember my first greaser at least as clearly as my first solo, although I had no idea how I’d done it.
But when I transitioned to taildraggers it all suddenly crystallised for me. The little Citabria gave feedback in a way that those tricycles never had. Within one session of circuits, I had the key. And even after so long out of the cockpit, I was quietly confident that I could bring the Sport Cub down to the grass and make a decent fist of three-pointing it. Like riding a bike, right…?
Rumble, rumble, rumble
After the embarrassment of just getting myself into the circuit, the rest of it was quite straightforward. Martyn ran through the downwind checks and the downwind call was the one I had practised in the car. All I had to do was plug in which runway I was downwind for – 28 – and it flowed out naturally enough. In fact, I could already feel the old radio cadence coming back.
Flying sailplanes had taught me to visualise my glide slope, so I could ‘see’ my path to the runway clearly enough as we flew down base. Having trimmed the aircraft to hold the approach speed for me, it was easy to tell whether I was getting short of or beyond my aim point.
Then, as the grass gained texture and started to rush past, I lifted my eyes up to the horizon and flared, gently increasing my back pressure on the stick to bring the rate of descent to zero and – rumble, rumble, rumble.
Feed in power, forward on the stick, back into the circuit for another one. I couldn’t help but smile. I could still do this!
Enjoying the ride
We flew six circuits in all. Each one followed the same, familiar script. Sometimes I’d need to add power after I’d got set up on finals, sometimes I’d need side-slip. On one landing, I ballooned a little but held my nerve and eased her back on without any trouble. On another, I felt a very definite swing from the tail, but arrested it instinctively and carried on through the touch and go.
Of the six landings, five were painted on. That little balloon was the only blemish on my technique.
Once I’d learned where to set the Sport Cub’s nose, my circuit height was good to about 40 or 50 feet for most of the session too, Of course, I’ll work on that. And I was a little heavy on the rudder through some of my climbing turns, but not bad considering…
As I looked to check my runway spacing during downwind number 5, out of the corner of my eye I saw Martin sitting back in his seat, arms folded, enjoying the ride. And that may have been the most satisfying, aviator-affirming moment of all.
Taxing back in from the final landing, I was surprised to feel glad it was over. I’d been keyed up all day, and in the last hour I’d lifted the weight of 12 years from my shoulders. It had turned out to be a smooth, sunny day, with a forgiving wind straight down the runway. But the sweat under my collar belied how hard I’d been working at enjoying myself.
I lined the Sport Cub’s wingtip up with a Skyhawk parked on the grass apron, checked the mags, and followed Martin’s instructions to put the plane back to sleep.
As he climbed out, I unclipped my straps and took a moment to enjoy the familiar music of a shut-down aircraft. The lowering whine of gyros, ticking hot metal, and the loud quiet of not having the engine running. The birds were singing. A breeze rustled past. I turned and swung my legs out of the cockpit.
It’s great to be alive
As we walked back in, I thanked Martyn for the lesson.
He smiled and told me it was a pleasure to fly with someone actually knew how to fly. That’s what he said! After 12 years of not flying, I’m filing that feedback under “Keep It Up”.
Other commitments meant we didn’t have time for a full debrief and I’m not sure I could have taken much in. I might have been back on the ground, but I was a long way from coming down. There’s a big part of me that only wants to be around airplanes, and I’d just given it a six course meal.
I was elated. I felt whole again.
Once again, flying had made me feel taller, more accomplished, and full of a confidence I hadn’t enjoyed in years. (Yep, I’ve been faking it this whole time!)
To celebrate, I took the long way home – foot down through the gorgeously lush, spring-green Adelaide Hills, with my windows down and Drive-By Truckers playing so loud the wing mirrors were shaking.
Big breath in. It’s great to be alive.