The allure of the cockpit has called out to me since I was a wee lad. That seems to be true for a great many folks who grow up to be pilots.
Along the way, somewhere between that initial spark and the issuance of the first certificate, there are discoveries to be made. The dream isn’t always right in line with the reality of it all.
It was 1968 or so, while enrolled at Thomas S. O’Connell Elementary School in East Hartford, Connecticut, when I encountered my first book that included a peek at aviation as a career. I distinctly recall the page devoted to the pros and cons of being a pilot. In the pro column was the pay, which was quite high by non-pilot standards. Also, the ability to travel and be paid for it was considered to be a plus. On the con side was an item that I dismissed completely.
Cockpits can be tight. Very tight.
As a 10-year old boy, there didn’t seem to be any space I couldn’t squeeze my slender pre-pubescent body into and out of with minimal effort. That turned out to be a double-edged sword of sorts.
My granddad lived on a gorgeous lake in North Florida where the water was crystal clear and adult supervision was nonexistent. My brother and I, along with the neighbor kids, spent much of each day in the water. Young boys, being young boys, tend to push the limits of good sense, and we certainly did that. By kicking a bit of sand out of the way, we took turns swimming under the bottom step of the wooden stairs that led from the lake to the dock. It never occurred to us that we’d drown if we got stuck.
A similar lack of foresight went into my early flying pursuits. By the time I climbed into the pilot’s seat with an intentional purpose, I was in my late 20s, physically fit and limber as a cat. Sliding into the Cherokee, the Tomahawk, the C-152, and C-172 was a breeze. Whether I had to climb up on a wing then step down or slither in behind the struts to step up to the seat, entry to the cockpit was never a problem.
Now, more than 30 years later, the airplanes are exactly the same. While the panels contain gadgets I could never have dreamed of, mogas fills more tanks than ever, and vinyl applications have made exotic designs on the fuselage relatively inexpensive and easy to fix in place, the practice of getting in and out of the airplane has become somewhat more challenging.
That’s not true of all aircraft, of course. I’ve never flown a C-177, the venerable Cardinal. Yet everyone I know who has taken the controls starts their description of their time in type the same way, “It’s a breeze to get in and out of.”
With a cantilever wing that requires no external strut, the door does indeed swing open wide, allowing pilots of all shapes and sizes to slide right into the seat. For those of us who are carrying a few dozen pounds more than they did years ago, that’s nice.
The airplane I first soloed was a Piper Cherokee. A PA-28-160 to be specific. It’s a wonderful airplane. The Cherokee is rugged, reasonably light on the controls, and it offers excellent visibility. It was a dream to fly early on.
Today, I still find it very easy to get into the Cherokee. Stepping up onto the wing is cake. Sliding down into the passenger seat, then scooting one seat to the left is no problem.
Getting out? That’s another story entirely. At 6 feet 1 inch tall and pushing critical mass hard at 235 pounds, my knees no longer respond well to the idea of standing up from a confined seated position to climb up onto the wing. I can do it, of course. I’m not an invalid. But it hurts. And I’m as awkward looking doing it as I was in elementary school when I asked Barbara Jacques to dance for the first time.
Let’s just say, neither scenario is pretty to watch.
I’ve got friends who own Taylorcraft BC-12s. Beautiful, classic aircraft. I just love the look of them. And I can squeeze into the cockpit if I really put some effort into it. But not if anyone else is already in there. And it’s unlikely anyone over the age of five could fit in beside me once I’m settled and ready to go.
Sometimes I wonder if the engineers who design cockpits are aware that pilots aren’t born in the seat. We have to get in there somehow. Often, that somehow requires enough twisting and turning that the manufacturer might consider adding a list of chiropractic offices to the Pilots Operating Handbook.
It’s not just old pilots having to shoehorn their way into small GA aircraft that have trouble, either. I’ve wiggled my way into corporate jet and turboprop cockpits that were very comfortable to fly, but present the pilot with a significant barrier to entry.
Even warbirds can be difficult. I recently saw a YouTube video featuring a young spry fellow touring a World War II Heinkel 111. It’s a fascinating airplane. Perhaps the most impressive thing about it is that pilots somehow found a way to actually climb into the pilot’s seat without incapacitating themselves in the process. Based on what I saw, I’m guessing somebody somewhere must have gotten the German equivalent of a Purple Heart for screwing up the process on cold, early morning.
Fortunately, I fly a C-152 most of the time. I’m still agile enough to get in and out of it without embarrassing myself.
And this week I’m picking up the Cub project I bought at the beginning of the month. The Cub is a small airplane, but with a wide-open right side and steel tubing overhead that allows the pilot to hoist themselves in.
Hey, I wonder if I could rig up a mechanical seat/hoist unit that could pick me up and place me gently into the Cub at the push of a button? That might be an interesting project. Because I’m pretty sure I’m not going to be getting any younger, stronger, or more flexible in the foreseeable future.