The FAA sayeth thou shalt prove thyself through combat with the aire in the presence of a Certificated Flight Instructor as each twenty-fourth month shall pass.
And so we do. Pilots trek to the airport at least once every two years to submit themselves to a flight review. Many do it with shaking knees, a lump in their throat, and a quivering hand on their checkbook. Others surrender to the process with an almost gleeful sense of adventure.
I’m generally closer to the latter than the former.
My first flight review was actually fun. The CFI who performed it was a friend and co-worker named Todd. He’s a captain on some Jet-A burning behemoth at UPS now. But back then we were flying C-152s pretty regularly, as I still do today. We climbed in, took off, and put the flight review process to the test. Todd covered all the required tasks, plus a few, and I somehow managed to get the airplane into the air and back onto the ground, several times that day, without so much as a dent or a scratch.
Since them I have found a way to enjoy my flight reviews each time they roll around. That’s even true when I haven’t been particularly stellar at the stick.
I always learn something worth knowing. And that’s the whole point of the exercise, isn’t it?
Up through this point in my career I don’t think I’ve ever flown with someone else without learning something worthwhile in the process. Certainly, that’s been true whenever I’ve flown with CFIs and DPEs (designated pilot examiners).
Now, although the FAA dictates a flight review should pop up on my schedule every 24 calendar months, my employer has somewhat more stringent rules. I like that. Putting safety up front and creating a culture that supports it is important to me. And so, I book a flight review every year. Usually in February. In this case, last week.
The benefit of scheduling in February includes Florida temperatures that are moderate during the winter months and air that is undisturbed by thunderstorms. On the negative side the population of the Sunshine State swells considerably during the winter, which can make booking a CFI somewhat challenging.
For that reason, I tend to do my flight reviews in airplanes I don’t fly as often as the aforementioned C-152. I’ve completed the requirement in seaplanes and twins. I’ve flown classics and I’ve flown airplanes where that new airplane smell still lingered.
This time I went for a classic. One of the icons of the aeronautical world. A 1941 Stearman PT-17.
The CFI who comes with the PT-17 is named Tim Preston. With more than 15,000 hours in his logbook, Tim knows a thing or two about flying tailwheel airplanes. More than I do, for sure. Thank goodness. He and his wife Peggy run Preston Aviation out of Gilbert Field in Winter Haven, Florida. Barely a mile from my house.
It was an easy choice.
The air work was a joy. Getting the feel for a new airplane that weighs far more than my old Piper Cub, packs considerably more horsepower up front, but sports a significantly shorter wingspan, makes for a fun day in the air. Turns are a blast. Push the rudder pedal, line up the angled flying wires with the horizon, and you’re in business. After doing 360° to the left, followed by another circle to the right, I found myself getting very comfortable with the airplane.
Control forces on the stick are light. Really light. The rudder is another story. Pointing the nose to the sky requires a fair amount of pressure on the right rudder pedal. A climbing right turn takes even more. If you take your Stearman flight on leg day, you can probably skip the gym that day. At least your right leg can.
In most respects flying tailwheel airplanes is pretty much like flying tricycle gear airplanes, assuming you’re in the air. It’s when you’re on or near the ground that things get interesting.
Visibility over the nose is less than spectacular when taxiing or landing. In an open cockpit aircraft like the Stearman there is wind to contend with when you’re at speed. A lot of wind. If you think of a motorcycle on the highway, you’re in the ballpark.
It’s also a big, beast of an airplane. Yet the light control pressures make handling the beast a pleasure. Until you land. That’s where you can discover a new level of humility. At least that was the case for me.
The Stearman stands tall on its gear. After taking off the gear extends a bit further, what with the weight of the airplane being taken off them. That means touchdown happens a bit earlier than you might have guessed. It’s not quite the same sight picture you had when taking off.
Add to that oddity the Stearman’s flying tail, and you don’t have to keep working the stick back on landing as I so often did in the Cub. It’s a more nuanced dance in the Stearman. But it’s a wonderful ride. Once you get used to the look and feel of the big biplane, it’s possible to do a squeaker of a full stall landing.
That’s a proud moment, let me tell you. I don’t care how many hours you have flying any kind of airplane. When you finally make a good, solid, fully controlled landing in the Stearman, you feel a swell of pride that connects you directly to the 19 and 20 year old boys who experienced that exact same moment of accomplishment in the 1940s.
So, I learned something. And I demonstrated my aeronautical knowledge and ability, just as the FAA wants us to do. And I had one heck of a good time doing it.
Incidentally, you don’t have to wait a full 24 months to do your flight review. You could do it sooner…if you wanted to.
I think I will give it another shot, too. Soon. In the Stearman I think. Do you think March is too soon to go again?