Having begun my flying career less than a year ago, I've already gone and made myself a pariah at the little upstate New York airport where I aviate on sunny weekends and on stormy days sit at the feet of the Old Pilots, soaking up lore about the birdman's art. The trouble started when I bought a secondhand Ercoupe, one of those tiny, twin-tailed, two-place jobs with tricycle landing gear which used to be featured in Macy's and other big department stores back in the early postwar period when flying optimists foresaw a family plane in every two-car garage.
I was delighted with my purchase, and so was my wife. The plane had had very little flying time despite its age, and I got it for less than the difference between our 1951 Plymouth and a new model. Of course I thought the Old Pilots would be happy for me too, but almost to a man they were disgusted.
"It's got no rudder controls," snorted Old 6,000 Hours (2,000 hours of it ferrying freighters).
"It's not a real airplane. It'll spoil ya rotten," said 1,500 Hours with an Instrument Rating.
November 8, 1954
"How ya gonna slip it in cross wind with no rudder?" snarled 3,200 Hours.
"It's crazy, like a car with no steering wheel," said 400 Hours, who last year celebrated the acquisition of his private pilot's license by flying his family to Florida in a thick fog and still brags about it instead of lighting candles to St. Christopher.
But the real attitude of the Old Pilots was best summed up by a taciturn ancient who hasn't even bothered to keep a logbook since 1931.
"Flyin' that contraption is just confessin' that you're old, tired, or scared," he said, in the longest speech I ever heard him utter. "The damn thing is too safe."
Stung, I made the mistake of quoting Wolfgang Langewiesche on the subject of rudderless safety airplanes, and this really clobbered me with my friends, because they don't like to hear fledglings quote flying books, especially Langewiesche's books. This author is an Old Pilot of scientific bent and eloquent language, and in a volume called Stick and Rudder he has compounded some of the goldarndest theories that ever assaulted veterans' ears. Langewiesche starts out by saying that amateur flying—that is, piloting which does not involve instruments and pinpoint navigation in zero-zero weather—is not necessarily a High Art requiring the reflexes of an athlete or the eyes of an eagle. He says, in effect, that you can get along just fine as a Sunday pilot in no time at all if you learn the proper theories of flight at the beginning.
HERESY UPON HERESY
The first of these theories is that rudders do not turn airplanes the way rudders turn boats. In fact, rudders cannot turn airplanes at all. Langewiesche then piles heresy upon heresy: the throttle is not the speed control, but the up and down control. The "elevator" is the real speed control and, with the ailerons, is what really turns the airplane, by converting part of the upward lift into sideward thrust in a bank. You do not bank to make a turn comfortable; you bank to turn, and the rudder, in flight, merely prevents yaw and is a secondary control.
Try these notions in the air, and you not only find that they work, but make the amazing discovery that the so-called "art" of smooth, well-coordinated flying is really nothing more than coming to an understanding with your mislabeled controls. No doubt it will always take years of hard work to become a truly fine pilot, but as far as the simple business of controlling the machine is concerned, a little discreet reading of Langewiesche behind your instructor's back will not only convince him that you're an exceptionally talented student who already shows signs of the mystic "touch," but will practically guarantee that if you die violently it will be in a car or in the wrong bedroom, not in an airplane.
Nearly half of all flying deaths in light planes are due to skidding from trying to turn by rudder, then stalling and spinning out of the resulting sloppy maneuver near the ground. The occasional survivors seldom realize that they misused their controls or even that they were in a spin because spins are something you practice way up high, out of a level attitude.
Okay, says Langewiesche, take out the trouble-making rudder control, as the Ercoupe does, and attach the rudder to the aileron control, because unless you're going to do acrobatics involving spins, the rudder is to the ailerons in flight as the tail is to the dog. The Wright brothers had the good sense to tie the controls together, and they invented the game. Sometimes an independent rudder is handy for slipping into cross-wind landings, but the Ercoupe has tricycle gear constructed in such a manner that you can land at an angle, crabbing into the wind. It took all my courage to land that Ercoupe cockeyed the first time, because I was brought up to believe that if you touched down any way but straight you could expect to scatter wheels, portions of wingtip, and your own teeth from one end of the runway to the other. But it worked, just like old Wolfie said it would.
The Ercoupe is defunct today, and it's a pity that it died as much from professional hostility as from public apathy. It's a funny thing: golf and tennis pros try to attract customers to their game because they have sense enough to know that without a constant stream of new addicts they won't be able to pay the grocery bill for long. Hobby flying is easier than tennis and in many areas cheaper than golf, yet here is a traditionally air-minded nation in which military aviation is crying for cadets, and private airports are usually starvation enterprises. A large part of the blame lies with characters around the fields who discourage newcomers by feeding them the romantic nonsense that handling an airplane skillfully is a mysterious art necessarily tinged with an aura of danger, and who ferociously resist any make of plane or method of instruction which dispels the hocus-pocus about fair-weather piloting.