MANSCORE EXPERIENCES: FLYING A TAILDRAGGER These Planes Are Wicked Cool
It is a crisp cool afternoon, a rarity during a Chicago summer. However, the monotony of the day is dragging on. Wake up, work out, traffic, computer screen, expense reports, boring, boring and more boring. I’m stuck. I’d rather be flying. I glance out the office window into an empty hangar--a sad sight. Beyond it, the large door is raised just enough to catch a glimpse of the green infields and crisp sky. A Gulfstream thunders down the runway. Its stance is purposeful. It appears to leap for the sky but its weight gives the eager machine a reality check, causing it to pause ever so slightly in its rotation. He’s heavy. It’s wings filled with enough fuel to take it far away from my cubicle. But here I sit. No mission, no airplane, no purpose. My wings are out of town for an 8 week inspection and it’s been six weeks since I’ve tasted the sky. I’m hurting.
My phone buzzes across my desk and I catch it as it tries to fall to the floor. A message from my buddy, Chris, turns the day around. “Hey dude, I know it’s been a while. Wanna fly the Luscombe today? We’ll go for dinner. You’re Treat!” Jessica Alba asking me on a date wouldn’t have quite had the same effect as Chris asking me to go buy him a greasy burger in exchange for some time in a machine that was built way too long ago. I’ll be leaving early today.
I’ve flown many things, from tiny Cessnas to complex business jets and boxcar shaped turboprops loaded with smiling boxes. I’ve flown a lot, but mostly as a result of my career choice and rarely for myself. I primarily cruise along in a rigid and structured world of flight plans and deadlines, moving people who have places to be. The option to fly over “there” or circle over a small town never exists, but today it does. I am excited to be going nowhere but up, and for just because. I have also never flown a taildragger or anything vintage so today is going to be special.
Most aircraft these days have what is known as tricycle landing gear. They call it that because, well, it resembles a tricycle in that there is a nose wheel and a set of main landing gear usually mounted under the wings. The plane we are going to be flying has conventional gear. The main landing gear is mounted near the front of the aircraft and a tiny wheel sits at the tip of the Tail. Because of the way these aircraft look they are often referred to as “Tail Draggers.” Flying a Tail Dragger is substantially different than flying an aircraft with tricycle landing gear and is an item that has been on my bucket list for quite some time now. I pull up to the tiny airport surrounded by cornfields in northern Illinois. Chris is there waiting for me, right hand out stretched to meet mine, a pair of beat up, mint green headsets in his left. Chris is a fellow business jet pilot and active flight instructor who never misses an opportunity to give me crap. We flew together during college and still spend many evenings enjoying craft brews and storytelling. Behind him is a beautiful, curious looking craft: a Luscombe Model 8.
The Luscombe 8 first flew in 1937, almost 78 years ago. Luckily for us, you’d be hard pressed to find anything remaining on the airplane from that era as this aircraft has been completely restored. Its blue on silver paint shines in the afternoon sunlight and its nearly new engine rumbles to life as Chris briefly engages the starter. Moments later, we’re taxing out. Chris spins the tiny plane around into the wind paralleling the paved runway but not on it. I look at him slightly puzzled, “Were going to use the grass today” he states. Definitely not something you can do in a Falcon. Chris pushes the single throttle to the firewall and the engine roars, but its bite does not match its bark. As we lumber through the grass slowly accelerating the Luscombe finally decides it is an airplane and comes alive. The tail starts to fly and Chris is dancing on the rudder pedals to keep the plane tracking straight. A moment later, the grass lets go of us and the sun shines bright as it heads for the horizon. We climb slowly skyward and turn south. The airport and restaurant we’re off to come quickly as we are pushed by a tail wind from the north. Chris sets up for the traffic pattern and rolls the airplane on as if he’s done this before. We scarf down dinner and discuss a plan for the flight home. It’s my turn.
Chris walks me through the nuances as I coax the tiny airplane onto the freshly cut grass. Its heel brakes make for interesting ground operations. The air is now still at the surface. I announce our departure over the radio and begin the takeoff roll. As I raise the tail, the aircraft yaws significantly (you really do have to dance on those rudder pedals to keep it straight). Soon, the grass slips away and Rochelle drifts behind us into the now setting sun. I turn back to the north and fly low over the farm fields that seem to stretch into eternity. We’re heading into the wind now. The little Luscombe is at home at around 90kts through the air and we barely keep up with the cars on the highways below us. But that’s ok, we’re not trying to get anywhere but where we are. From our perch at 1800ft, the world is a substantially different place than it is at Flight Level 410. The wind turbines whir beneath us, standing over their corn and bean fields like sentinels. This is after dinner flying at its finest.
We make a short stop at a seldom used grass strip so that I may practice some three point landings. No sophisticated weather reporting equipment exists here, just a tattered wind sock hangs limp in an almost poetic fashion. The first few landings are a little rough but my skills improve with each lap around the field and I haven’t scared Chris, yet. We depart for home as the daylight fades and the turbine fields begin flashing in uniform. The sky is gorgeous in that time between day and night. As I descend toward where we started, dusk now upon us, I can’t help but think that this is what flying is all about. I’m completely hooked…again.