The Wright brothers taught themselves to fly.
So did other pioneers such as Glenn Curtiss, Alberto Santos-Dumont, Casey Baldwin and many whose names are barely noted in aviation history.
Some, notably the Wrights and Curtiss, quickly decided to pass along their hard-earned knowledge and the first flight schools were established. Every flight instructor since then has been, one way or another, connected to the pioneers, not unlike the laying on of hands in apostolic churches, which I say with some reverence.
Flying didn’t come naturally to the pioneers and it doesn’t come naturally to most of us. We have to be taught. The federal government came to that conclusion 24 years after the Wrights learned from their mistakes. The Air Commerce Act of 1926 forced pilots to have federally-approved instruction and certification. It created a whole new industry, but it also encouraged a “carbon copy” approach which has its detractors to this day.
LEARNING TO FLY
Until 1926, most flight instruction came from a pilot friend at his or her convenience. I say “her” because there were women flight instructors from early on, notably Katherine and Marjorie Stinson at their school in San Antonio, Texas; Matilde Moisant, whose brothers created the barnstorming tour; and Harriet Quimby, the first licensed woman pilot.
According to my mother, who earned her license in 1929, lessons began with learning to taxi without brakes around a big, grass field. Half the accidents happened on the ground, most from crosswinds. Once in the air, you flew by the airplane’s attitude, for there were no instruments as we know them today. Technique involved just one thing: coordination, which the instructor communicated from the front cockpit with his hands and by nodding or shaking his head. Spot landings – power off all the way down, stick full back at touchdown – were the biggest hurdle to a passing grade. Most forced landings were caused by carburetor icing and blamed on something else.
Flying for most pilots, much like golf, was without purpose but endlessly challenging.
What came of all that god-and-disciple instruction, however, was solid stick-and-rudder skill; a feel for the airplane right from the start. John Alison, a World War II combat pilot who retired as a major-general, claims that all airplanes were alike, fundamentally, in those days. He flew a glider into Burma, behind Japanese lines at night, leading a successful invasion, never having been inside a glider before, let alone flown one. “If you could fly one airplane you could fly them all,” he explained. Now in his mid-90s, Alison still is the most skillful pilot I’ve ever known.
By 1939 the Air Commerce Act was changing things. There were separate ratings for ground and flight instructors, for example, and revisions to FARs 61 and 141 were weeding out some of the shadier operations. We have three types of approved flight training, now: the traditional FBOs; schools offering sophisticated training aids such as simulators and advanced aircraft, leading to higher ratings; and college academic programs offering degrees as well as flight training. Most of today’s students have technical backgrounds that could not have been imagined by Katherine Stinson, my mother, or Johnny Alison, thanks to ubiquitous computers.
And now we have a distinctive license for pilots who fly only for the fun of it, not so far from where we started.
A REAL AIRPLANE
Where we started – at least, where I started – was in airplanes that were all things to all pilots. As the revered Wolfgang Langewiesche wrote, the Piper Cub served as classroom, hobby, sports car, toy – and “it made the wonderful music of a real airplane.”
Many of us speak of “real airplanes” when we mean those of the pre-turbine era. We adore those airplanes. The look of them, the sound, even the smell evokes a simpler time which we think was a better time. In many ways, it was. Certainly it was far less complicated. My mother soloed after four hours of instruction. I soloed after 12 hours. Today, it takes more than 12 hours to master GPS, let alone the data-sated intricacies of even the simplest glass cockpit.
The accident rate has gone down as training time has gone up, but it is argued that fundamental stick-and-rudder skills have been eroded. The trade-off needs examination.
Inarguably, today’s airplanes are far more utilitarian, not to mention comfortable. It took my parents the better part of two days to fly Mother’s Luscombe to Florida, camping under a wing at night. My hangar neighbor’s Meridian does it in about four hours, in splendid comfort, with reliability and ease. When I was a small boy, Johnny Miller – who will be 101 come December and still flying – thrilled me by flying the mail off the roof of the 30th Street Post Office in Philadelphia, in a Kellett autogyro. He took mail to downtown post offices in Washington, D.C. and New York City as part of an air mail experiment, flying at around 100 mph. Mail no longer can fly directly from post office to post office, but it flies an awful lot faster and in far greater bulk – and still takes three days coast-to-coast, as it did when trains carried it. Maybe that’s an improvement, maybe not.
Until the Sport Pilot license came along it looked as though the day of the Cub had come and gone, except for those flown by a few enthusiasts. Well, the Cub is back, with several companies building Cub replicas and Cub-like airplanes for a whole new generation of pilots.
And why not? The basic Cub is simple and solid and stands up to a lot of use and abuse. Bill Piper liked to keep things simple. No electrical gadgets. Originally, you started it by the Armstrong method and you learned to do it standing behind the prop, so you could reach the throttle. That was illegal – the FAA wanted someone in the cockpit – so Piper contrived a non-electric Armstrong starter which was a crank in the middle of the instrument panel. You cranked it – a lot – to tension a bungee, pushed the crank forward, and the stored energy gave the prop a ferocious spin. It started every time. Maybe that’s why it didn’t catch on. I haven’t seen one in decades.
“There was a natural affinity between Cubs and railroads,” Langewiesche wrote, explaining that railroads chose low and level places to run and you did the same in a Cub, if you were wise. (Out West, it should be noted, all four 1930s transcontinental airways followed the historic rail routes which, in turn, followed the rivers.)
The Cub and its ilk gave us something that we’ve pretty much lost: awareness of the country below. Low and slow you could look into people’s yards, or delight in amber waves of grain flowing in the breeze, the stark beauty of fields just harvested and the geometric patterns of those just plowed. You could land on farms, fields and plantations all over the country, not to mention the strings of Department of Commerce emergency fields along each airway, kept impeccably in the federal government style of that era. You knew what time the airliners came through, so the sky was yours, for all intents and purposes.
The Cub’s first heyday was before Pearl Harbor, but the early post-war years – my student pilot era – were not so different. Aviation went right back to where it had been before the war. There were plenty of Cubs, Aeroncas and other very simple airplanes. The innovations we take for granted today – tricycle landing gear, for example – came later.
The very existence of general aviation is owed to the Cub, for it supplied a critical mass of pilots whose sheer number kept the generals, the bureaucrats and the airlines from running us out of “their” airspace, as had happened in most other countries before the 1930s were over – and the ’30s were what we still call aviation’s Golden Era.
Today the Cub and Cub-like cousins are experiencing a new popularity; one which, we can hope, will add many more pilots to general aviation for, if the Cub is returning, so is the threat from airlines to take over “our” sky.
Now, if only we had another Bill Piper to speak for us.