I will admit that, deep down, I have an admiration for many airline pilots. A lot of my tailwheel students are airline pilots. I admire their knowledge of their equipment and of the system in which they fly. I also admire their ability to learn, as well as their desire to learn when they come to Tailwheel Town.
My friend, Bert Garrison, who is also an airline captain, once shared with me his opinion that a lot of people believe an airline pilot can fly anything. As a well-trained flyer, who soloed in a little taildragger before he was old enough to drive, perhaps ol’ Bert is one of the reasons for that misconception. But I think he’s right.
Many years ago I met a guy who did a comedy act in a J-3 Cub. His gimmick was that he’d dead stick it, then, in a pass by the crowd, clamber out on the gear leg and hand prop the plane. He’d get it started just in time to hop back in and land safely. John’s act relied upon his getting a qualified pilot to sit in the other seat, mainly to act as a human auto-pilot and keep the wings level while he was outside propping. Now, I didn’t see the performance which I’m about to describe. I guess I heard about it later from some friends, so if I get a few details wrong, forgive me. The point will be the same and that point is that maybe there are certain assumptions which we shouldn’t make.
Perhaps John made that assumption that Bert referred to. A lot of airshow pilots are airline pilots. John asked one of them to “ride shotgun” for him. With this high-time, popular air show pilot in the seat, John proceeded to fly his act. He stopped the prop, then transferred control of the plane to his “auto-pilot” and climbed out to hand prop the little Cub. It wouldn’t start. With the ground gradually approaching, John finally gave up his attempts and tried to scramble back aboard. But the ground was fast approaching. He hung on, half in and half out of the cockpit while his co-pilot, suddenly promoted to Pilot-in-Command, attempted to land the plane.
But John’s assumption included his belief that a Cub is so simple that anyone can fly it. That might be true if not for the fact that there are plenty of high-time, accomplished pilots who have never flown a tailwheel airplane. He’d selected one of those. The result was a wild, bouncing trip down the runway. I didn’t witness it, but for all I know it may very well have ended with a ground loop. When the dust had settled, all had ended well, with no damage to the airplane and only a little to some egos.
I’ll bet ol’ John never made that assumption again. And I’ll bet his second generation airline pilot helper realized that maybe the “What-if”s should be considered the next time someone was needed for that kind of job. I guess it’s a lesson we learn from time to time: Don’t make assumptions.