A Real Pilot Again…(Almost)

[Under Construction. Placeholder to retain an old article I wrote over at SimHQ.]

The reason for this self-promoting old post is that another self-promoting old post about the DC-10 had me visiting SimHQ after several years. That article and this one established relationships with virtual friends that have lasted longer than most of my “real” friendships. In the other thread I used the word “wistful”. That’s exactly the feeling. Totally selfish but I want to preserve these important moments in my sim-community life. Until I can find a better spot to store them I hope you all don’t mind that I keep them here for safe-keeping.


Part 1

The following is an article that I wanted to submit to SimHQ. But it was far too long and I lack either the editing skills or the modesty to pare down anything I’ve already written:


The Pitts �Special�. Even before I soloed at 16 I knew this was the plane I wanted to someday own. Along with the incomparable pilot-plane connection that gave the Pitts 40 years of competitive dominance also came something of a difficult reputation, mostly involving landing it. Some pilots say, citing that since no two Pitts landings are the same, practice should be avoided on the theory that doing them over and over does little more than tempt fate. Was it this rough reputation or the obvious airshow prowess that has kept such a hold on me? Whichever, or both, this plane has been in my dreams for decades. I got a small taste of the biplane thrill when I was 22. Bob Arzonico, a local pilot who flew with my dad at Piedmont had just bought a Christen Eagle, a close Pitts relative. After a little begging, Bob agreed to take me up but not before making it clear that he was still on the backside of the learning curve on this marvelous new toy. He had a total of five hours in the Eagle–which also happened to be his only five hours of tailwheel time. It showed. We took turns mimicking some basic acro moves and had a fine time flying ugly. We laughed through his hairy landing back at Winston-Salem and the experience only solidified for me the difficult-Pitts mystique. A month later, Bob, along with Lester Bauchamp, another Piedmont pilot, were both killed when they crashed their Piper Comanche high on a mountain in Colorado.

Initially in my career I promised myself not to fall into the trap of allowing my airline flying to completely edge out �real� flying. At first, I was able to maintain my small-plane connections as I promised myself I always would. The best gig, although unpaid, was towing gliders with a Maule M7. Every fair-weather day that I wasn�t earning a living, I was at Swan Creek either towing gliders or flying them. But alas, my hold on general aviation was too precarious to withstand four airlines and a dozen addresses all over the world. To fill that void I turned (or rather returned) to sims. Flanker, Falcon, IL2, Rise of Flight–I flew these sims every chance I could get. My wife once took a picture of me married up to my HOTAS still in my uniform and with a TrackIr cap on my head. I was starving to fly something high performance and exotic. Flying like that for real was well outside my fiscal means but the simulations were so damn good that I felt that I was getting enough of the experience to be content. And of course they provide more than just a cheap facsimile for a real flying fix. Flight simulators of the combat kind allow us to experience both a part of history and much of the competitive thrill of air combat without the inconvenient bits like dying from dysentery in a POW camp or slowly burning to a crisp. It�s true that I don�t fly competition aerobatics like I thought I would as a kid. But I still fly. That contentment lasts until I see an Extra or a Sukhoi or a L-39…or a PITTS and then the bubble bursts. I can�t keep pretending. What I do isn�t the flying I dream of. Flying is the freedom to see the earth in any attitude, limited only by your imagination and your skill level. I have 13000 hours boring nice gentle holes in the sky with the autopilot on and a hot coffee in my hand. I�d like to think that there are occasions where considerable skill is applied to do what I do. But is it the skill that I just defined? Not by a long shot. Do the thousands of hours flying virtual Mustangs and Dr.1s mean anything? I am about to find out.

The Aviator’s Unlimited Hagar. On the left is the bottom half of the grass strip

Finding a tailwheel instructor these days is no longer easy. Locating a Pitts instructor is much harder still. The plane is expensive to acquire and operate and outrageously expensive to insure. But this is the age of Google and �hard� is only a relative term. A bit of searching resulted in Aviators Unlimited . And with a quick call to the owner, Johnny White (who answered in flight), I had an instructor available who matched my days off. He and his wife also ran a B&B on his airstrip so I even had a nice place to stay. Although I would later discover that Johnny wasn�t just any instructor, I knew already that his Pitts wasn�t just any Pitts. It was a Pitts S2C–a relatively souped up version over the earlier S2A and S2B incorporating many improvements designed by Curtis Pitts himself before he died. The S2C can�t quite claim to be an Unlimited aerobatic machine. But it is about as close as a 2-place biplane can get in this era of the monoplane�s dominance. The already long drive south to Virginia was made much longer by a power steering failure on my VW driving west on I-78. I called Johnny to say that I didn�t expect to get to his house until around midnight. He was in the middle of a corporate flight in Manassas, VA and coincidentally wasn�t expecting to be home until around the same time. When I finally did roll up to the entrance of his long gravel drive he was waiting there in his pickup to lead me the rest of the way home. And home it was. A gorgeous brick postcolonial on a hill with a pool and a hangar. And for a front yard there was a 1500� grass strip that Johnny spent a month of midnights clearing and leveling himself. All surrounded by the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The place is pilot heaven! We introduced ourselves and Johnny, even after his long workday, was pure hospitality. Through the still closed door he enthusiastically greeted �Waco� his big black lab who was lounging inside on the couch. After the introductions with Waco Johnny grabbed me a cold beer and offered a second to finish off in my room. We did a whispered shotgun tour of the guest half of the big house and I was soon buzzed by the beer and sprawled out on a king sized poster bed dreaming of airplanes.

Part 2

The very new Citabria with “Baron von Groundloop’s” Cub behind. Blocked by the Citabria are a disassembled Pitts and a beautiful Cessna 180 once owned by Johnny’s father

Johnny had apologized the night before about the need to leave in the morning for another corporate flight down to Atlanta. He planned to return by 3pm which would still leave us plenty of time to get a nice warm-up flight in the Citabria. Surprisingly, he invited me along. With nothing to wear but shorts and sandals I opted to stay local and explore. The day was hot and brilliant. I spent it running the �Creeper Trail� with Waco and snooping around the hangar. The hangar really got me in the mood. Inside was a pristine Cessna 180 with the cowling off, dripping oil into a pan. In front of the 180 was a J3 and an obviously new Citabria. The Citabria was to be our ride in the afternoon so I took a few minutes to sit inside and soak it in. I was expecting something old and worn. Instead it still had that new plane smell mixed with a slight hint of sweat that was once so familiar to me. Against the wall was a partially assembled old Pitts that is many years from ever flying again. It was a good opportunity to marvel at the beautiful woodwork on those little uncovered wings. The J3 had the classic Cub paint-job but with an added maltese cross and �Baron von Groundloop� painted on the side. That and the scrub-marks on the bottom of the left wing made this a probable airshow bird. Somehow I�d missed that aspect of his operation when I had browsed his website. Honestly I picked Johnny because he was the only Pitts instructor I could find in the country with time available. Choosing an instructor this way is a bit like picking a lawyer by throwing a dart at the Yellow Pages. By pure dumb luck, what I got was a Master Instructor and an immensely experienced acro pilot. Johnny is not a man of leisure. He might be 60 years old with a bit of a gut but he is full-switch, always. His corporate flying job pays many of the bills and commits typically just a few days a month. The rest of the time he flies, instructs, mows or repairs. Peace for him is to go back to the hangar late at night when wife and dog are asleep and turn wrenches on the 180–the very same plane he soloed in 1970. Just inside the hangar door is the �flight school� which is comprised of a plastic table, four chairs and a big board which, front and back, sums up everything a good pilot, an �aviator�, needs to master. Johnny came back from his trip all smiles–typical for him, I was beginning to learn. He was especially happy today because he had fallen in love with a Great Lakes biplane he had flown while in Atlanta. He pulled out his iPhone to show me pictures and began to fantasize about trading his Pitts for the Great Lakes and doing shows in something different. I can�t say that idea thrilled me as much as it did him but to do anything but share his enthusiasm would spoil the moment.

The Board

Before we flew Johnny spent an hour in front of The Board. He was once an airline pilot himself and knew better than to assume I still grasped the basics. The genius in many great things lies in their simplicity. And that sums up The Board. The takeaway which any good pilot must never forget is that the rudder is the soul of the airplane. Johnny can be categorized among a group of tailwheel instructors who emphasize tail-low takeoffs and 3-point or tailwheel-first landings–even in a Pitts. The principal is best summed up here: Fly a Pitts.

Part 3

Time to fly! The Citabria is as simple as fixed-pitch trainers always are and the cockpit checkout was quick. Four pumps of the prime, mixture about � inch short of full rich as befits out 2000� MSL elevation, make sure Waco (the dog) is nowhere near and we were started. From my seat in the front the visibility over the nose was generous. Just this, taxiing a little plane at a walking pace with a stick and rudder reacting to the bumps, was worth the price of admission. Johnny�s strip is far from level–few grass strips located in hill country are. Conditions today required that we takeoff uphill. We were coasting down some pretty rough terrain but he assured me that we were good (I thought we were going to roll down into the lake). At his call I kicked it around with a touch of power. Lined up, it was time to �burn in� the sight-picture because I would need it again on landing. Full power, relax the stick, get the tail off the bumps and we�re off! Hey man, I�m flying! That was easy. I�m still the awesome pilot I keep telling myself I am! Until Johnny says, �look at your wings.� What�s the problem? �You are flying in a side-slip. Less right aileron and more right rudder and get the wings level.� Oh yeah, that does feel better! Another laugh from him. I should add here that he keeps the turn and bank indicator taped over. During the cockpit checkout earlier he explained why: �You don�t need that damn ball. Those two you�re sittin� on are all the balls you need!� That�s clever. What do you tell your female students? His answer can�t be repeated here but it caused such a bout of laughter from Johnny that he needed a moment to recover. The Citabria is sweet. If my goal really was simply to own something I can wring out a few times a month, this plane is more than enough. Once I got the wings level, Johnny didn�t say much more and just let me fly. He pointed out Highlands Airport and we stayed far enough away to avoid being a nuisance. It would be hard to find a more stunning environment to fly over: hills, vales, deep river ravines, lakes and precious little traffic. Just us on a perfect day. Perfect but hot and bumpy. But I liked responding to the bumps and my thrill meter was just about pegged simply to fly again. We didn�t do any aerobatics, just steep turns and slips to get my footwork back. Johnny is talkative on the ground but blessedly understated in the air. After a quarter hour of basic airwork he said, �Hell son, you still got it!� It was true. I did. I blame Rise of Flight. If any sim will work your feet, that one will in spades. By comparison the Citabria was easy. This isn�t to say that a master virtual pilot would do well immediately in real flight. In fact I think he or she would initially be completely lost. But once his head became comfortable in this new environment his sim experience would be far more help than hindrance. One thing I noticed immediately is that I had only a sense of pressure on the pedals, not movement. No one could call the Citabria a �sensitive� plane and I know the pedals were moving several inches or more with each input. I am accustomed to this �pressure only� sensation on the 737 and attributed it to the size of that airplane�s vertical stabilizer and rudder. But I expected the rudder on the Citabria to feel a little more like my Saitek Pro Pedals. The feel was completely different from that and far more pleasant. I have heard players wish for force feedback pedals. As an owner of a FFB stick I don�t think this could ever work. There simply is no way to incorporate feel in a way that is convincing. It�s one of those instances where the closer we try to mimic reality the farther we steer ourselves from it. I haven�t tried one yet but the concept of a �butt-kicker� is probably much more �real� than attempting to provide cues through the stick.

Airwork done we entered the pattern at Highlands. On downwind Johnny reminded me about that sight-picture I was supposed to have soaked in prior to takeoff. �Hold it off and when that tailwheel touches, really pull the stick in your gut!� On base the mantra was �Pitch, power, trim. Pitch, power, trim!� I was high on final but that was partially by design. In the Pitts, a forward slip is essential to see any of the runway environment around that big nose. It�s best to stay high and use that slip to control sink. You can�t mimic a Pitts approach with a Citabria but by nuancing a slip to control my aim point on the runway I was applying a skill that would be essential the next day. Over the numbers I got rid of the slip and flared way too much (that was the inner airline pilot rearing his ugly head). Overcontrolling, I eventually got something close to a landing attitude when it touched. And bounced. Actually I had been nowhere near a landing attitude and the plane wanted to fly. I added power to settle the next landing. Johnny spoke for the first time since we turned final, �No. No power! Just let it settle and hold the stick back.� It settled to an acceptable 3-point touchdown. �Stick ALL the way back!� I could feel him pull the stick those last couple of inches. �Don�t forget. ALL the way back.� Instead of a touch and go we coasted to a stop and I taxied back to the departure end. I was expecting a lecture on the taxi but Johnny was mostly compliments and encouragement. �Hell son, you are goin� to LOVE that Pitts!� We taxied past the hangar where said Pitts was residing but I wouldn�t see it until the next day. We did several more touch and gos and they mostly worked out well. On the last, the tailwheel shimmied so badly that Johnny thought we had blown out the tire. Time to go home and check it out so he verbally guided me the 5 miles back to his strip. It is so nestled into the surrounding hills that I didn�t see it until he called my final. The landing uphill on the grass, generally easier than pavement anyway, was uneventful. It turned out that the tire was fine but the tailwheel assembly was a bit loose–probably having fallen victim to my abuse. I posed this half-jokingly to Johnny. �Naah. Son you did fine. I can tell you had a good instructor back in the day.� That�s called ending things on a good note.

I sat normally and held my iPhone against my forehead. You can get some idea of the field of view.

The next day required an early start. The temperature was forecast to reach somewhere in the high 90�s which would make a Dutch oven out of the Pitts canopy. But the morning air was clear, cool and free of the thermals of the day prior. We took off downhill this time and turned left toward Highlands. A nice 3-pointer was followed by two more touch and gos to hit home the important points from yesterday. Enough of the Citabria, it�s time to check off the biggest box on my bucket list. I parked us next to a large hangar that housed Johnny�s Citation, a CJ2 belonging to another company and �7CD�, our ride for the day. He often keeps the Pitts at his house and I shudder at the thought of flying this thing into that strip. Fortunately, that will never be expected of me. We rolled it out into the shade of the hangar. I was slightly distressed at my own nervousness. I felt like I was about to ask the Homecoming Queen if she would go with me to the Prom. That�s probably not a bad analogy. Because to look at a Pitts is to look at a machine with capabilities far exceeding the potential of most pilots. You would need to be one cocky (or talented) S.O.B. to feel yourself completely worthy to fly it. Getting into a Pitts is a process that can do thousands of dollars of damage if you step on the wrong spot trying. I was expecting to feel as if I had squeezed myself into a grocery cart. To my surprise it was downright roomy. We had taken the cushions out excepting a thin pad of foam under the parachute. This worked out nicely with several inches of clearance once the canopy was closed. Johnny stood next to me for a cockpit checkout that was every bit as thorough as the Citabria was quick. First, the parachute. Securing it along with the seat harness is a ritual that must be done methodically. I think that if I were to try it now, a week later, it would take at least half an hour of trial and error before getting it right. He explained how to release the canopy if a collision or failure required our exit. He described how I, not �we�–he would already be gone (another laugh), would need to stand, grab the �D� ring with one hand, that arm with the other hand, jump, pull and pray. He then told a funny story (funny to him) about how he once nearly jumped. He was flying a biplane (I forget the type) when, after a maneuver, the elevator suddenly jammed. The stick was frozen solid. Nothing he tried would unstick it. He unfastened his harness, trimmed the plane so that it would likely impact the unpopulated ridge ahead and tried to stand up. He couldn�t do it! He was simply unable to muster the will to jump. Johnny didn�t exactly say he was crying at this point but the story is funnier for me to imagine if he was. He sat back down and considered that the fuel remaining gave him at least an hour to live. He discovered that he had enough trim authority to nearly stall the plane. The catch was that with the elevator surface itself frozen the trim worked opposite: nose down trim raised the nose and nose up trim lowered it. He tried a few practice approaches and was pretty certain that whatever the outcome, it was probably going to be better than jumping. He managed a landing that would have been, considering the circumstances, uneventful but for another plane, ignoring his radio calls and blind to his approach, positioned on the same runway. Johnny had no choice but to land anyway and veered off into the grass to avoid a collision. On that happy note the cockpit check continued. The Pitts is soled from the back seat. The front seat has all the primary controls but lacks mixture, fuel totalizer, fuel flow, fuel valves, cowl flaps, magnetos, boost pump, alternate air, starter and most other controls needed to get moving. Since I would be in the back seat it was important that I had the steps to get the engine cranked familiarized before Johnny buckled in.

Throttle – Full
Mixture – Rich
Prop – High RPM
Master – On
Boost Pump – On for a 3-count after fuel flow pegs
Mixture – Idle Cut Off
Throttle – Open � Inch
Starter – Engage until start
Mixture – Advance smoothly as engine fires
Throttle – 1000 RPM

We were wearing top-end Lightspeed noise cancelling headsets and the vibration was felt even if the engine wasn�t heard. A 260+ horsepower Lycoming turning a 3-blade composite prop easily stirs a reaction from a tiny 1200 pound biplane. Yet another reminder that this is a machine designed to make your heart pound. Taxiing was surprisingly easy with the steerable, non-lockable tailwheel. S-turns were essential to see anything. The pilot has a 60 degree forward obstruction and no amount neck stretching is going to improve that. Johnny reminded me of the �triangles� created from the angle of pavement on both sides by the wings and the cockpit. If the triangles are equal in size, you are in the center. This isn�t very important for taxi. However those two triangles are our only directional reference during takeoff and landing. (If the concept isn�t clear read Fly a Pitts already mentioned above.)

Part 4

An engine runup was a good chance to relax into the familiar. For a moment I could think of this as just a plane that needs to be checked and controlled much like any other complex plane I�ve flown. For takeoff, he had me position us just past the numbers to be certain that both the plane and the tailwheel were straight. I can tell you the steps: stick back, SLOWLY apply full power, relax stick to just forward of neutral, get the tail up slightly and let her lift off at that attitude. What I actually did didn�t look anything like that. It was more like: throttle forward, Holy Sweet Jesus! I�ve never felt this kind of acceleration! Crap! Tail Up! Arrrrggghhh, too much! Swerve left, (overcontrol), Swerve right, (overcontrol), Hell! We�re airborne! Left wing low. Right aileron! Too much! That all that took maybe 7 seconds. If Johnny said anything during all this ugliness I don�t recall it. We were climbing at an ungodly, heart-stopping angle. But he pointed out that we were short of the sight-picture we �memorized� on the runway and doing 120 mph instead of what should be about 90. So I pulled back some more. I looked at my hand and I was gripping the stick. Not a death grip but certainly with all five digits. I remembered that he earlier recommended just thumb and forefinger until I got accustomed to the sensitivity. The instant I did that the ugliness ceased and the sweetest, most responsive flying machine I ever imagined revealed herself. Back to about �25 squared� on the power and we began a nice climbing left turn to the practice area. This is the beauty of Johnny as an instructor. He says a lot when there is a lot to say but otherwise you forget he�s there. This was my machine and I was so in love with it I could easily cry. I cleared the area around me enjoying the novelty of a canopy, something I haven�t done since flying gliders. Steep turns. Really steep. Oh man feel those G�s. I thought we were pulling about 7 but a glance at the meter showed just shy of 4. My G tolerance sucks. Oh what fun! Really crank it over. Johnny doesn�t care. If he did he�d say something. I�m not pretending I am in a Spitfire or a Camel or an F-16. I am in a PITTS! And there is no need to pretend anything else. Time is money so it was time to get to work. Johnny talked me through a series of maneuvers first by describing them fully and then calling control inputs at key points during the maneuver. First were barrel rolls, left and right. Easy if not particularly pretty. Now let�s fly inverted and check the straps. It took surprisingly little forward stick but then again I didn�t have the attitude quite right and we were descending. This is not comfortable. It�s fun. It�s amazing to look up at the earth. But the sensation is unpleasant as hell. Back upright and re-tighten the straps now that they have stretched. Next were aileron rolls. My virtual flying served me well here and the concepts of using the rudder to hold the horizon during the knife-edges felt completely natural. Then Johnny did a few himself, probably just to remind me that there is a difference between �feeling good� and �looking good�. Next, some loops. Johnny let me do these without demonstrating. On the first I didn�t apply enough right rudder on the pull to overcome torque and P-factor nor did I pull nearly enough on the bottom half to recover. (Again, the G thing) The subsequent loops looked a little better. A lot of getting it right has to do with where you look. �What do you want to do next?� �Snap rolls!�, I replied. You probably don�t need me to tell you that sim flying will never prepare you for this. I was expecting a very quick roll. I was not expecting the constant buffeting through an eye-socket popping 400 degrees/second. Its like getting punched in the nose by your girlfriend and liking it. I did one to the left then one to the right. It�s not necessary to gut the stick into a full stall. But you do need full rudder. On the snap to the right I overshot the exit all the way into a right knife-edge. I wanted to try it again. I pulled and stomped about � right rudder. It sort of snapped but parked inverted with no further roll and lots of rocking and buffeting. Johnny was laughing. For some reason I pushed forward a tad for the recovery which resulted in 1.5 to 2 negative G. I�d quickly grown tired of that and rolled us back upright. The next snap was passable but I was feeling pretty rough after that previous negative G. Spins are a requirement in Johnny�s eyes for any check-out and I fully agree. He suggested that as our next stop and I said, �Johnny, I think I just need to fly straight and level for a minute or two.� �That�s ok son, just take deep breaths and you�ll be fine in a minute.� We had to pass on the spins. They are actually pretty docile in the Pitts (or so I�ve read) and I have done them countless times in lesser planes. I didn�t want to risk scrubbing the chance to practice landings by getting worse. Johnny asked if before heading back I might like to see a basic routine. My stomach was recovering but still not quite right. But I couldn�t pass up a chance to see this thing flown by a real pilot. A hammerhead, Immelman and Cuban-8 flown perfectly. Forty years ago Duane Cole titled his now standard book on aerobatics, �Conquest of Lines and Symmetry�. That exactly describes how Johnny tied those three simple maneuvers together.

Before heading back to Highlands he had me fly a fake pattern all the way to a stall to practice the power settings and sight picture. Some Pitts instructors teach a power off angled approach to the runway. Obviously I don�t have the experience to compare but I do like Johnny�s technique. He teaches a close downwind and bringing the power back to 2000 RPM on the 45 degree angle off the runway end as you turn base. On base (�pitch, power, trim�) hold that same memorized attitude which should result in about 90 mph and then time your final turn so that you can finish it with enough of a forward slip to keep the runway just in sight. The great thing about a Pitts is that you can rarely be too high but you must NEVER get low. When you just start to see some runway on both sides of the cockpit, kick out the slip and gently establish a 3-point attitude while bringing the power to idle. However, mine looked a little more like that first Citabria landing from the day before. I touched short of three points, bounced, and again added a touch of power as I tried to reestablish the proper attitude. Johnny, again, called nix on the power. Chirp, chirp. Stick back and we were on. All in all, it wasn�t awful. I swerved a lot along the centerline as we slowed to a stop. There�s no mirror and Johnny can�t see me but nonetheless said, �don�t move your head, look straight and use the seat of your pants for directional control.� Once again, he was right. I WAS moving my head. I was trying to see enough so that I had some reference for heading. We taxied back to the runway and Johnny propped his arm under the open canopy to protect it while we got some circulation. It wasn�t that hot yet but I was drenched. The next takeoff was everything the first one wasn�t. This was now an airplane I was just beginning to appreciate without fear. During the roll I concentrated on using lateral sensations for directional control and it really seemed to work. The next landing was full of small mistakes but it worked out ok with a skippy little 3-point touchdown. Again I used �seat of the pants� sensations for directional control and there was no question that the result was much better. A few months ago Eagle Dynamics released a beta version of DCS: Mustang. Once they work out the bugs it will be a blast. It�s already very good. But I took some issue with how laterally unstable it seemed during takeoff. I brought this up on the DCS forum and got into a short discussion with �YoYo� about it. He contended that the model was correct and that the player, when reacting visually to an undesired yaw state, is reacting too late. In other words, it is a side effect of flying purely by visual cues. To me, this didn�t seem valid. I use visual cues for directional control in my real flying and I certainly don�t swerve like I did in my initial takeoffs in the DCS P-51. After flying the Pitts it�s pretty obvious that he was right and I was wrong. I thought of DCS on the third landing. The yaw sensations were so obvious I think you could do it blind with a reasonable chance of staying on the runway to a stop, assuming you had deft touch on the rudder. After the fourth landing to a full stop we had to put her to bed and get back to Johnny�s house so that he could make a doctor�s appointment. I was whipped anyway. Despite the porked snap-roll and the less than beautiful landings I felt like the greatest pilot in the world. That�s the power of the pilot ego–it perseveres over all. Johnny probably didn�t help with, �Eric, you did a great job! You have just GOT to get you a Pitts! Aerobatics don�t matter. You can teach yourself that stuff. But two more hours with me around the patch and, son, you�ll be set!� On the short flight back Johnny gave me a few more pointers but, honestly, my brain was too fried to take much of it in. He talked me through a pretty thrilling approach into his field by flying through the bottom of a �V� formed in the middle of a ridge and making a hard left around a hill to find yourself on short final. Any confidence he had in my ability ten minutes ago was shot when I started drifting right on the rollout and, biggest crime of all, didn�t gut the stick on landing. �Son, you can fly. But you have got to remember to get that stick back!�

So that was the Pitts. It has a different sort of mystique for me now. I should have known better than to succumb to all the talk about the difficulty flying it. That stuff is often spread by pilots like me who don�t know any better. Given time and repeated tellings these stories become so ubiquitous that they take on a truth of their own. The fact is that while it is an airplane that needs more respect than most, the Pitts is a plane that most can fly–but only if they approach their flying like an art. Johnny White would call such people �aviators�. It is my new goal to become one–and then to buy that Pitts.

On the drive home I called everyone. I have never been one to phone my mom about new girlfriends or job interviews or other moderately important life events, but I called her about the flight in the Pitts. My 80 year old dad listened with little interest. He just wanted me to get off the phone and concentrate on my driving. My brothers had no idea what I was talking about. Days later I called my wife in Japan using FaceTime and promised her that I would never leave her no matter how old or fat she might become. But I just might leave her for a Pitts. I could see by her hurt expression that maybe my attempt at ironic humor did not translate so well. Perhaps it’s time to keep this new addiction to myself. Simulators are another addiction I sometimes keep to myself, especially around other pilots. But its an addiction with benefits. High fidelity flight simulations like FSX, X-Plane, DCS and Rise of Flight really do aid and improve the real pilot. Once again I have experienced this first hand and for me it is undeniable.


Wow. Just wow. That was one of the best flying stories I’ve ever read.