Flying the Champ: Taildragger Heaven

I walked out to the ramp to begin my preflight on the Champ.  I reached up to run my hand along the wing, and it gave under the light touch of my fingers.  I sucked in my breath and exclaimed, “It’s fabric!” I admired it and was in awe of the feel of it.  My face must have shown my amazement, as my instructor laughed at me with my first encounter with a truly original style fabric covered plane.

It’s an Aeronca Champ built in 1945.

I’ve never felt one before today.  There is an etiquette with planes, you don’t touch one that isn’t yours without asking.  It’s like touching someone’s spouse, you just don’t do it.  A plane is more than just a piece of equipment.  It’s an intricately woven extension and expression of each owner.  It’s intimate, and touching it can be as well.

I continued my preflight with my instructor since this is my first time with this type of plane.  I love the way it feels!  It’s amazing, and so light.  With curiosity, I continue to feel my way around it, checking each piece carefully and listening to my instructor explain the differences as compared to the Cessna I’ve been flying.

It’s such a simple aircraft, yet impressive.  It whispers of adventures.  I can’t wait to fly it!

Looking to the cockpit, it’s as simple as I’ve seen.  The floor is wooden.  There are only the basic of instruments in it.  A portable, handheld radio has been mounted with connections for headsets.

The cockpit of the Champ

I’ve never flown a stick before, and the rudder pedals and brakes are completely different than the Cessna.  It will take some getting used to braking with my heels.

My instructor goes over the location of everything in the cockpit.  The throttle is on the far side.  The mags switch and carb heat are practically behind me with the seat fully forward.

There’s no key to start it with I notice.  Oh God; I think to myself, we have to hand prop this baby.  Of course, it’s something I’ve never done before, and what is it that I’ve been taught…it’s VERY dangerous!  I sigh.

My instructor walks me through every part of the procedure for hand propping.  He will handle the prop while I hold the brakes and control the mags and throttle. 

“Why do these brakes have to be the size of pecans?” I think to myself. I’m already having trouble reaching the pedals and the brakes!

“Please God, don’t let my feet slip.”  I know I say that little prayer over and over in my head as my instructor is looking at me through the cockpit window.

“Prime her four times,” he says.

“Eyes on me.” He says firmly.  I nod.

“Feet on the brakes?”  I nod again.

“Contact” he says. I turn the switch to mags on and give him a thumbs up.

“Throttle slight?”

“Throttle slight,” I say and nod.

He reaches up with both hands, spins the prop and steps back.  A puff, a grunt and she starts.  Vroooom and I pull the throttle back just below 1000 rpms and keep my feet locked on the brakes as he gets in the plane to buckle up.

Whew, I’m so relieved that my feet didn’t give or slip once he’s in the plane.  I finally relax a bit but still have my feet on the brakes.

He talks me through taxiing the Champ as it’s different in a tailwheel plane.  He has control but asks me to keep my hands and feet on the controls so that I can feel the movements he’s doing.  It seems like a lot more work to taxi than I’m used to, and once we get on the taxiway, he lets me control it while he feels what I’m doing on the controls.

I have to hold the stick back a lot farther than I would have imagined to keep the tail wheel on the ground while taxiing. My instructor once again takes the controls with me feeling them from my seat to get an idea of what is required for takeoff.  He’s in the back seat and apparently vision is more limited from that perspective.  He asks me to make sure he gets it on the center line.

I ask what rotation speed is for the Champ and he snickers at me.  He says that you point it down the runway and push full throttle and she’ll climb.  I nod from the front seat to acknowledge him.

We start down the runway; and as light as it is, we’re airborne before I know it.  Wow! That really was fast!

Once we’re up and climbing, he gives me control of the plane.  I have to move the stick more than I imagined to turn the plane, and there is a whole lot more rudder work to keep it coordinated.  I can tell this is going to give me a good workout.

The Champ is a much slower plane than the 172, but I love it.  Because it’s slower, you can enjoy the view and the feel of the plane.  It’s a bit dreary today with a good bit of haze around, but still very much a VFR day.

I’m in the Champ today because the plane I was going to fly went in for it’s 100 hour inspection and another Cessna wasn’t available.  I had mentioned during one of my first lessons how much I’d love to fly a taildragger at some point.  So, my awesome instructor asked me if I’d like to go up in the Champ instead of not flying today.  I didn’t hesitate at all with saying yes to this offer.

It’s a wonderful change of pace and from what he said, it gives you a real sense of the feel of the aircraft.  You feel from your seat if the plane is coordinated or not since it’s so light.  I could tell immediately if I didn’t add enough rudder for a turn or if I added too much rudder.

I practiced slow flight, which is really slow in this aircraft.  I even did some stalls and recoveries.  Then he asked me if my shoulder straps were fastened?  I pulled down hard on the straps and tightened them up and said, “yes.”  He took the controls and said to watch and feel. 

He pulled power and brought the nose up into a full stall.  As the plane began to buffet, he went hard left rudder and we went nose down into a spin.  As I watched the earth coming up and saw the ground begin to spin beneath me, I started laughing.  I was lifting out of my seat a bit and amazed at how it looked just like it does in aerobatic videos of planes spinning.  As quickly as it began, he brought the plane out of the spin and leveled off.  I was still laughing when we finished and said something stupid like, “That was awesome!”  I felt like I was 12 years old and on a roller coaster ride.  It was amazing.

I had talked with my instructor about my desire to learn to recover from a spin when I got the chance as I felt like it was one thing to know what you are supposed to do, but a completely different thing to actually do it and understand how to recover from one.  It’s not required teaching any longer for your license, but I feel like the more I know about unusual attitude recovery, the better pilot I’ll be.

Then he told me to get on the controls with him and we’d do one together.  I put my feet on the rudder and my hand on the throttle.  He talked me through each step and as I went full left rudder, again looking down at the ground and seeing it spin beneath me, I laughed.  He talked me through the recovery and I recovered a bit fast and felt it in my seat as I went a bit heavy for a few seconds.  Coordinated again and climbing back up to gain some more altitude, he asks me if I want to do one by myself.  I hesitated for about 2 seconds before I nodded and said, “Yes!”  confidently.

I was thinking to myself during that short timeframe, “When will you ever get to do this again?”  I might get to, but then I might not and why not now?  Why not live in this moment and do something you’ve never done before?  Why not?

So, I took the controls, put it into a full stall attitude, mashed full left rudder and face down I was again watching the earth spin beneath me.  I smiled to myself as I brought the plane out of the spin and recovered it gently this time.  My instructor said that I did a great job with it. 

A deep breath and a huge confident smile on my face that no one could see, I was flying high after that and feeling more relaxed.  We continued flying and I practiced S-turns and turns on a point before we headed back to the airport.

I knew my instructor would be doing the landing today since this is an unknown for me with the tailwheel plane.  On my way back, he tells me that pattern altitude is lower since this plane is slower and to bring her into the pattern at 1500’ instead of the usual 1700’.  I like that it’s slower, it gives me more time to set up for landing.  There are no flaps on this plane, so setting it up for final is easier.  As I turned from base to final, my instructor takes the controls and I leave my hands and feet on to feel what he’s doing as he brings her in to land.  We have a little wind and I can feel the plane moving a bit as we approach.  It’s a different attitude in the tail dragger, but from the front seat, it’s easier to see than from the back where my instructor is seated.  We land relatively quickly, almost as quickly as we took off.  He decides we’ll do a touch and go and do a couple of landings so that I can get a chance to practice with her.

Airborne again, and I have the controls to make another loop in the pattern.  We made the next landing together and did another touch and go, but this time, he wanted me to keep it low over the runway and manage it while keeping the altitude the same and staying on the centerline.  Talk about work on the controls, I had to do more rudder and stick work to keep it centered.  After doing a relatively good job with keeping it centered, he told me to climb and I did. 

Once more around the pattern and I got to do the last landing with just a bit of help.  I felt really good about flying the Champ today.  It was so much fun and such a fantastic opportunity to get out and just enjoy flying again.  It didn’t feel like work at all, but I was physically worn out when we finished.  A break like this during training can really breathe life back into your love of flying. 

I’ve enjoyed getting back to training again, but it’s still nice to have times when you just get to fly for fun. Now after flying this plane, I know that after I get my license, my first endorsement will have to be the tailwheel!  Flying it has been the most fun I’ve had so far in a plane.

6 thoughts on “Flying the Champ: Taildragger Heaven”

  1. Angela you have a wonderful way with words—-I have no desire to fly anytime but your enthusiasm and careful attention to details make for a gripping account!!

    1. Thank you so much for the sweet words. I really appreciate you taking the time to stop by and read it, and especially for commenting. It’s nice to get feedback. It’s great to hear from you, and I hope you are doing well.

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