A harrowing tale(wheel)

Back in 1979 I was working as a flight test engineer for Cessna Aircraft at the peak of general aviation’s heyday. The various airports around Wichita were literally filled to overflowing with aircraft rolling off the production lines. One of the perks of my employment at Cessna was delivering aircraft to the dealers on weekends. There was no extra pay involved but the expenses were covered. Most times I would ferry the aircraft out in the morning and take the airlines home in the afternoon.

N40RC being built at Cessna
The Cessna factory was a buzzing place in the late 1970s.

This required getting on what was called the Approved Pilots List. For me, that meant passing a check ride in a 210 and a multi-engine rating. After that I was cleared to fly all of the piston models except for the 188 Ag series and the 337 Skymaster. One week I might be climbing into a 152 and the next a 421. Being the conscientious pilot, I always had my two 3 x 5 index cards with me when I flew. One had the key airspeeds for the singles and the other the key airspeeds for the twins. Working at the factory and flying in the twins during the week made jumping between models a lot easier than it would be today. Being a lot younger also helped.

I was a kid in a candy store. Flying brand-new airplanes to various places around the country was a dirty job, but someone had to do it. Most of these trips were uneventful. A few generated some memories. On one occasion I had just leveled off in a pressurized twin somewhere in the lower 20’s when I spied a B-52 taking fuel from a KC-135 as they passed by about a mile away, going the opposite direction.

Many of the twins left the factory with no avionics installed. Some got their radios while still in Wichita and others were ferried out with a blank panel. I ferried several 340A’s and a 404 with blank panels, but carried a portable VHF communications radio for talking to ATC as necessary. The proposition was simple: get out the charts, draw a straight line on them, and wait for a clear day. It was just like following the magenta line on a moving map display except that the line was black, the map did not move, and I had to keep track of my position at all times. Remember pilotage?

One day my supervisor walked by and asked if anyone was willing to take the company 414A to West Virginia and pick up some urgently-needed Citation parts. I jumped at the chance. This ended up being quite the experience with penetrating a cold front, shedding a load of clear ice, and shooting an instrument approach to a 3000-foot runway on a mountaintop. On the return trip I stopped in St. Louis for fuel. Someone asked if that was my airplane on the ramp. I’m sure they were wondering what that young kid was doing with a brand new pressurized twin.

There was no tailwheel endorsement in those days, but I knew I needed at least some instruction before taking a tailwheel airplane cross-country on my own. That’s where my co-worker and friend Glen came in. He had flown F-8 Crusaders in the Navy and also had tailwheel experience, so I figured he was well-qualified. Landing with Glen at the controls was pretty much like landing on a carrier. He did not waste any runway but somehow the landing gear stayed attached to the airplane. When Glen got himself scheduled to deliver a Cessna 180 I asked him if he would mind giving me a few pointers before he made the trip. We picked up the airplane across town at the Pawnee Division and off we went to practice takeoffs and landings. With his steady hand to guide me I thought I was getting the hang of it after a few tries.

Cessna 180
A Cessna is a Cessna, right?

A delivery trip began with first calling the various regional distributors to see what needed to go where. Sometimes it took several calls, but I was almost always able to come up with something to fly whenever I wanted. Three months after my “tailwheel checkout” that something turned out to be another Cessna 180. How hard could it be? I took the assignment.

Departure day arrived and off I went to the airport with a certain amount of trepidation. The takeoff went all right except for drifting off the left side of the runway after becoming airborne. Of course in cruise flight it doesn’t matter on which end of the aircraft the third wheel resides. I was fine until I got to my fuel stop at Meridian, Mississippi (MEI). Just about when I thought it was time to flare, the mains hit and we were off to the races.

All I remember after that first big bounce was a lot of screeching tires and wrestling with the rudder pedals. Somehow I managed to get the thing stopped on the runway while still pointed straight ahead. None of this was lost on the folks in the tower who called and said “81K, if able, turn left next intersection and contact Ground 121.9.” I sheepishly taxied to parking.

Not willing to let this bird get the best of me, I went around the pattern a couple of times before heading on to my final destination of St. Petersburg – Clearwater (PIE) in Florida. The subsequent landings were better, though still not great. The next several hours were spent pondering landing technique as I continued southeastward. I proposed that no matter what else I did, the airplane would be all done flying when the wheels touched the pavement.

Lined up on a long final, I put the flaps all the way down and slowed to 60 knots. At what seemed like fifty feet in the air I started pulling the control wheel back and reached the aft limit of travel just as all three wheels simultaneously kissed the pavement. The airplane tracked straight ahead without a twitch and quickly rolled to a stop. My moment of triumph was short-lived, however. The tower called and said “81K, clear the runway immediately! The First Lady’s aircraft is inbound for landing!” They were not kidding about this, so I made a quick exit.

That was the last time I flew a tailwheel airplane. Those were heady times indeed but I think everyone involved knew they would not last.

5 Comments

  • Interesting. I interviewed right about this time with Cessna for a PR/Marketing position which would have required flying new planes.

  • My five year old calls them tail dragons… And simetimes they are … But with the right training, they can also be gentle Giants.

  • I’ve had my 180 for 25 years now. Got checked out before a sign-off was required. Best thing about having it is that none of my friends have any tailwheel time, so they don’t even ask to borrow it.

    Learned to fly tailwheel after 10 years in the Air Force, super sonic a couple times, left with a B707 type rating. A short airline career, 18 years where a lot of people didn’t want to fly small aircraft, it was just something they had to do to get where they were. There was a liability factor though -if they screwed up in a small airplane, it could affect their livelihood.

    I guess I like the chalange. I’d be bored in a 172. Besides, when I go cross country get a lot of admiring stares and comments from the line guys and other pilots, saying they don’t see many of those come thru any more. I wonder how many of them just wish……

  • I learned to fly in my 140A in ’76 but in ’77 OKla State wouldn’t let me take off or land their Decathalon during my aerobatics course due to insurance limits.

  • I soloed in Cessna 140, owned a 172, a 170B and two 180H. My present 180 I’ve had since 1976. Flying the 180 is like eating raw cayenne chili peppers with a meal. It teaches respect. Be careful how you chomp into it. I never feel cocky in the 180 but I do feel comfortable and secure.

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