Many years ago, when I was working as a television news reporter, I spent a day in a wheelchair so that I could get an idea of what it was like to be disabled for a story on the American With Disabilities Act. I remember how challenging it was to use a water fountain, get in and out of a car or an elevator, even maneuver in an office. These were all things I did everyday without thinking. I wondered if I would have a similar experience if I flew the Sky Arrow 600 with hand controls.
During last year’s U.S. Sport Aviation Expo in Sebring, Fla., I had the opportunity to fly the Sky Arrow with the hand controls. Mitch Hansen was my ever-so-patient instructor with nerves of steel.
For starters, Hansen said he usually puts a rudder block on the pedals when he is flying with someone who doesn’t have the use of their feet or legs, because if they can’t feel the pedals they may not know they are blocking or jamming them. Instead of rudder pedals, the pilot uses handles on the left and right side of the cockpit to manipulate the controls.
I am ambidextrous, but I was having a challenge getting my hands to do what my feet normally do during taxiing.
It’s a good thing that Sebring Regional Airport has a lot of apron and wide runways, because I was having a terrible time keeping the Sky Arrow on the centerline of the taxiway — and I was going too fast. I found that I had a tendency to twist my my whole body rather than the levers in my hand when I was trying to manipulate the controls. It took a few minutes to figure out how much force would give me a turn and how much throttle was needed to move the aircraft along.
Takeoff was pretty straight forward. Apply power, a little back pressure and let the aerodynamics do the rest.
It’s easy to over control with your hands. I worked the pitch trim heavily. I felt like I was chasing the controls for the first 10 or 15 minutes.
When I attempted to do turns for the first time, the airplane wallowed with the grace of a drunken dock worker. The ball slid this way and that. “Step on the ball” doesn’t work when you are not using your feet for rudder control, so I thought “slap the ball” was a better choice.
Slow flight and stalls were a challenge because of the T-tail. I kept remembering the dire warnings I’d received during my training about keeping the ball in the center because T-tails are not as student forgiving as the Cessna when there is a stall. Hansen coached me through it. I kept my eye on the ball as if it was a child misbehaving in church.
Recovery was straight forward and quick, but I could see how it could be “festive” (flight instructor speak for MY AIRPLANE!) if I had not been prepared.
I asked Hansen to do the landing but followed him through on the controls. It was very windy that day and I wasn’t confident in my ability to handle a crosswind in an unfamiliar airplane with hand-controlled rudders.
He handled it like a master and I am happy to report that by the time we taxied back to parking I had the rudder and throttle control figured out.