Pilots Flock to Stick & Rudder Safety Clinic

By Scott Spangler on July 3rd, 2008

It’s been awhile since I’ve attended an FAA safety seminar. With good intentions I read all e-mail invitations FAASafety.gov sends, but other weekend responsibilities too often take precedence. A tailwheel clinic, on the other hand, is more important than cutting the grass, especially when it’s held in a place where airplanes are born. 

Located on the Rochester, Wisconsin, airport, the American Champion Aircraft (ACA) factory wasn’t hard to find. In the main assembly hangar several dozen people, many wearing their best aviation T-shirts, milled around the tables where the Rochester Library Association sold coffee Grande and high-octane pastries for $1 each. Based on the safety clinics I’d attended in the past, the crowd seemed average. 

Nearby, a High Country Explorer guarded a sea of 200 empty chairs that faced a large screen standing before a yellow Scout on tall Tundra Tires. Rather optimistic attendance hopes, I thought, given that taildragger pilots are a minority among aviators.

Then an amplified voice echoed through the hangar. “Let’s get started,” said Jeff Taylor of the Wisconsin Bureau of Aeronautics. Those with coffee and donuts got the best seats. Right behind them were the pilots who had been exploring the CNC mills and towering racks of aluminum and steel airplane parts. At 9 a.m., it was hard to find an empty chair.

What’s going on here?

Finding an answer to this question occupied me during the breaks in the four programs that lasted about an hour each. ACA test pilot John Gauger narrated the exhaustive preflight he conducts before the first flight of every newborn plane. We watched over his shoulder as Taylor followed with a video camera that fed a close-up view to the screen. Cool!

I wasn’t the only one taking notes. After a preflight Q&A, Keith Myers, a CFI from Ripon, addressed The Single Most Important Taildragger Truth–keep the airplane straight–and explained why. 

Before John Cmiel, a CFI and owner of the Wausau Flying Service, explained tactics for Preventing the Utterance of Whoops and Uh-Oh, he took a census by raised hands. About two-thirds were private pilots, with the rest holding commercial or ATP certificates. The double handful of nonpilots were enthusiasts who wanted one day to fly.

During the breaks pilots refilled their coffee cups, snagged another donut, and clustered to talk about flying. Hoping to learn why this clinic has drawn so many pilots, I eavesdropped, coffee and donut in hand. 

Indirectly, Ray Fey provided the elusive connection in the oral captions to the projected photos of his four flights to Alaska. He briefly mentioned GPS navigation, the morning’s only reference to technology.

Aha! The grassroots rewards of stick & rudder flight is what brought these pilots together. From the hands raised earlier a bit more than half had up to 100 hours of taildragger time; only a handful had more than that. Those who hadn’t yet flown a tailwheel wanted to.

Adventure is what draws many of us skyward. It’s facing fundamental challenges mano-a-mano and basking in quiet self-satisfaction of being equal to the task. Taildraggers provide this on every flight, a realization of every pilot’s youthful stick & rudder dreams that yoke-driven, electronic  tricycle drivers will never match.

Is living this grassroots adventure what keeps pilots flying year after year? I can’t answer that, maybe nobody can. But almost four hours into the day, as Ray talks about his last few images of Alaska, there still aren’t a lot of empty seats. —Scott Spangler


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One Response to “Pilots Flock to Stick & Rudder Safety Clinic”

  1. Make FAAST Your FAA Connection - Jetwhine: Aviation Buzz and Bold Opinion Says:

    […] Sometime during the past two years I gave the FAA my email address. When and how doesn’t matter. What’s important is that I started receiving FAASTeam Notices about important stuff like new ADs, airspace changes, and the like. I also received notices of safety clinics in my area, which I routinely ignored until the recent tailwheel clinic south of me (see Pilots Flock to Stick & Rudder Safety Clinic). […]

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