The Cowboy Hat

I’m not sure exactly when it happened or how, but somewhere along the line I fear I have lost my “cowboy hat.” After forty years or more in the aviation arena it has finally come to pass that someone offered me an opportunity to fly in something that I desperately wanted to fly in, and after some really quite non-typical soul searching by me; I declined. For decades I have been the “can do” guy who flew the edge, had fun and raised hell in many different kinds of airplanes. I admit somewhat sheepishly that there was a time when the local GADO would call my hangar if anyone in the state performed a buzz job. I guess those days are gone.

1_1My buddy Terry found himself the owner of quite a nice little Acrosport II biplane. The airplane is pretty well equipped as this sort of airplane goes and I coveted it and hoped for the opportunity to actually fly it one day. The airplane had come to Terry as a damaged toy. Well, OK, it was wrecked. The previous owner had landed the airplane fast, or slow, or in a cross wind or long or something and had managed to wipe the gear off and make himself a homebuilder’s “Q tip” prop in the final stages of his arrival. Somehow or another he had thrown up his hands and talked Terry into taking the little yellow bird off his hands. It was something on the order of “once bitten, twice shy” I am sure. While I applaud the man’s decision to err on the side of caution, there is a great deal to be learned from the old adage about getting back on the horse that threw you.

Terry proved to be quite the craftsman and spent a fair amount of time and money getting the little airplane back into serviceable condition. This included as you might well imagine, a bit of a look-see at the crank and flange and corrections to abnormalities found there.

Terry is a low time but competent pilot who also owns a C-152 so, it is not like he is lacking for flying currency. He has a tailwheel endorsement (something us old guys got for being a “grandfather”) and even found someone who was qualified in the airplane to bring him up to speed in it prior to is soloing in his little yellow toy.

What happened next is every pilot’s nightmare. Somehow on one of his first solos in the airplane he found himself doing a fine Flipper impersonation and porpoising down the runway to the point where the runway ended. Still he persisted and in the end the Acro came to rest sans gear once again.

1_2Never one to be dissuaded, Terry went back to work and this time went all the way, replacing the bungee gear with spring steel from Grove. I have to admit, spring gear makes the little bird look great. His workmanship appeared to be great and he even had an A&P give his work the official “Okey-Dokey.” Some new sheet metal was added to replace that which had been through just too much and the paint was touched up so that everything matched. The only thing not overhauled was the wheel wells; those would be the points on the leading edge of the bottom wing where the landing gear parked itself after letting go. These areas were deemed to be cosmetic only and something that would not adversely affect the flying quality of the airplane.

And so it came to pass that the airplane project was back together and ready to meet the sky once again. This is where I joined the story. I had watched the Phoenix rise from the ashes and Terry and I had talked about his airplane quite a bit. One day when I stopped by on the way to my hangar the conversation came around to when he might fly his Acro again. He allowed that it was ready to go but he wanted to get someone with taildragger experience to spin him up again. I, of course, jumped at the chance. I had let my instructors ticket expire a year or so prior but I have a boat load of tail wheel time, have built my own RV-8, owned three Pacers, one Taylorcraft, one GCBC, one Champ, and have flown Pitts and Extras. If I couldn’t legally give him dual, I certainly could safety him. After all he was a certified pilot with the proper endorsements. And so we agreed. I explained to Terry that I would not feel good about working with him unless I was comfortable in the airplane first. He readily agreed that I should become familiar and comfortable prior to the two of us flying together. This was to prove to be the wisest thing I have done for some years. We also discussed insurance on the airplane. Which proved to be the second wisest thing I have done lately; since he had none. We agreed to a “Hold Harmless” agreement and in a couple of minutes on the computer we had the proper document and everyone understood that I could now wreck his airplane and not be held liable. This would be a good thing in the event that anything that could go wrong, did.

On a bright windless Saturday morning when I had no business headaches to distract me, we met at the hangar early and spent some time going over the airplane. After a bit I said I thought we should start her up and do some taxing so I could get a feel for the ground handling. Visibility from the rear cockpit sucks as is true of most of these types of aircraft so “S turns” are mandatory. Lesson one; when moving slowly with the throttle retarded the aircraft hates to turn since there is no prop blast on the rudder. So noted. Lesson two: the airplane seemed sluggish despite having prop blast over the rudder. This annoyed me to the point that I returned to the hangar to discuss what was going on. What was going on was that my chosen shoes were incompatible with the rudder and brake pedal design and my big fat feet were in fact dragging on the brake pedals all the time. The brakes got hot; the airplane ceased its desire to roll. Once the brakes cooled down, and lighter moccasins were installed, rolling ceased to be a problem. One other problem that reared its ugly head was that of wind. The rear cockpit was extremely windy and wearing a headset or sunglasses was impossible. Terry remedied this problem with a helmet complete with visor and headset. This would do the trick, although it was not what I had thought I would be wearing to fly the Acro. What about the wind in my hair!?

1_3Now I deemed it time for some high speed taxi work. I stuck to the grass for this until I could determine if there were any unwanted tendencies, and Terry stayed in the hangar as he had seen enough taxiing for a while. The tail was a bit reluctant to leave the ground without a good amount of forward stick but I have seen this in other aircraft in the past so I was not too concerned. The problem is that where the tail comes up and where the airplane decides to fly are very close to one another. Caution was the word of the day. I certainly didn’t want to blast skyward until I was ready. With the tail up and me bouncing along in the grass the rudder dance was predictable and positive and I felt good about the prospect of taking the little girl around the patch.

I took a break at the hanger to think about the airplane one more time. I decided on one more taxi test, this time on the asphalt. Off I went, positive that I would soon be flying with the wind blasting my eardrums to pieces. Hard surface taxi was no problem and even fast taxi proved to be acceptable with just a little dancing on those pedals. When I got to the high speed attempt I was however, concerned. I’m not sure I am all that rusty but I suppose it is possible. With the tail up the airplane on hard surface appeared to have a mind of its own. We zigged, we zagged, and I got the throttle out and the tail down. All seemed fine again with the tail on the ground. One more time; I added throttle, got the tail flying and the little bird sorta just headed off to the left. “P-factor” I thought. But no. I leaned on the right pedal and little change occurred. Finally we came back toward center but by now one wheel had left the ground. I chopped power and got a serious pedal dance going. She wanted to go right, no left, no all the way around! I added just a bit of power as I crossed the center line one last time, determined not to ground loop my buddies lover. The Acro straightened out and I slowly reduced power until the tail wheel touched earth then pulled hard aft on the stick to hold it tightly to the runway. Once slowed the normal docile handling returned and all was fine except for the heart throbbing in my chest and the tiny beads of sweat running down my back.

Back at the hangar I told Terry that I had had enough for one day and that I wanted to think about flying his airplane before we took it into the sky. He agreed. I said nothing of the near ground loop that had just been averted, I would save that until later. For the time being I really did want to think over the flying of this aircraft.

Never one to say “No”, I was the guy who always got into anything that was offered to me and flew it. Sure, when I graduated into bigger more complex airplanes there was study and some dual and checkouts involved, but smaller airplanes always struck me more like driving a tractor than anything else. This little Acro was perplexing to me. I was sure I could fly it but there was something about it that made me question if I even wanted to. I had to fight with this thought because I have wanted an Acro to play with for years!

After a few days of worrying on it I decided that what was bothering me was that it wasn’t my airplane. If it’s mine and I bend it I’m sad but OK with the idea. If it is a friend’s plane and I bend it I’m not sure I can live with that even if he did agree to take the risk. I decided that I would probably feel the same even if he had insurance on the airplane. I talked with Terry and explained my feelings. He understood as I knew he would. He has since found an instructor with currency in that same type of airplane so I guess that really is a happy ending.

1_4So there it is. After 40+ years or flying around the world, crashing through thunderstorms, hauling an inch of ice, dealing with engine failures, balky landing gear, busted radios, blown tires, broken mags, and students bent on killing me; I was brought to clarity by a 135 HP, 1100 pound sport biplane on a sunny, no wind morning. It’s not that I couldn’t fly the airplane; it is, I guess, that I would feel much better not flying it under the circumstances presented to me that day. It was probably time for me to hang up my cowboy hat anyway.

Tom Speerstra

Author: Tom Speerstra

Tom Speerstra has had an enduring love affair with aviation for over 40 years. Countless adventures have been enjoyed flying students, people, paper, and parcels in everything from Champs to Citations. He has held positions as both Chief Pilot and Director of Operations for Part 135 carriers and holds an ATP, MEII, SES ratings and a Citation type rating. Tom makes his home in Michigan with his wife Elizabeth and Pappy “the dog” Boyington.