Knowing your physical limits
BY FREDDY LUDTKE, EAA 46943/VAA 13053
MY WAKE-UP CALL OCCURRED WAY BACK IN 1974 on a hot July afternoon at Henley Aerodrome. Henley was a great place for EAA and AAA types to fly in for a $50 hamburger. Yes, back then an all-expense-paid burger did not add up to $300. Clay Henley’s field was an aero museum displaying Walt Redfern’s World War ’ replica fighters, a hot air balloon, and students flying de Havilland Tiger Moths. Clay presented air shows on weekends, so my Warner-powered Monocoupe was often booked as a star performer.
The passing of 40 years has not erased from my memory one of these shows. Located near Athol, Idaho, Henley’s field elevation was 2,530 feet. The OAT was more than 100°F. I did not have my trusty 1953 issued E6-B circular slide rule to calculate the density altitude; however, I soon discovered that even a 500-cubic-inch radial engine turning a 93-inch Aeromatic propeller could not hack it. My 90A flew like a limp dishrag. The altitude-gainer maneuvers did not gain enough to set up the looser maneuvers, and the loosers were real altitude-losers.
The most difficult figure in my program was a square Cuban-eight. I flew it with square loops and two vertical half-rolls rather than round loops and half-rolls on 45-degree lines. My first vertical half-roll did not penetrate up very far, and the Monocoupe simply did not continue the vertical line. Same for the second vertical half-roll. When I got to the end of the short vertical line, I pulled the nose down to fly the vertical downline of the second square loop. Damn, that runway looked wide! I have never been this low before. I eased back on the stick only so much and no more. Just one more finger full of back-pressure could pull more g’s than the wing could produce and cause a stall. Inertia pushed the sweat on my forehead down into my eyes. Just as I began to see some daylight over the round cowling, a Piper Apache parked near the runway flashed by below my right wing-tip. Then sky appeared, blue sky, the bluest sky I had ever seen! I continued the pull to straight up and socked the stick over to the left to celebrate my victory with the vertical roll. Then pushed forward to float 0g to level flight. I tipped it over and poured it out, split-S straight down, pulled out 200 feet over the runway, and slow rolled. With no inverted fuel system the engine went quiet, and I glided around a 360-degree overhead pattern, slipping it in for a squeaker landing. I taxied back to the spectator center, shut the Warner down, hit one brake and spun around, and stepped out in the cool 100°F air. My white dinner jacket was soaked with sweat.
REVIEWING THE INCIDENT
I ate an early supper in Clay’s restaurant, then prepared the Coupe for the 280-mile trip home. Since I was no longer masquerading as a wealthy sportsman pilot, I removed my white dinner jacket and red necktie. I filled the two 14-gallon tanks with 80 octane. Launching to the north, I eased up into a graceful left chandelle to salute my friends back at the aerodrome, lined up the nose with a west section line, and set and uncaged the directional gyro on 270 degrees. A few minutes later, I leveled off at
7,000 feet, then reduced power to 21 inches and 1750 rpm. I leaned back and relaxed as each turn of the 93-inch propeller pulled me homeward.
My thoughts went back to the afternoon’s incident that impressed me so it is still filed away in my memory. Nuts, I have flown that same show sequence since the 1967 Canadian Centennial Air Show at Abbotsford. Many of those shows were flown on hot days at a higher altitude than Henley’s. Why did I almost fly my air show program into the ground? I never committed myself to low-level dive pull-outs and always flew at least two mistakes AGL. Why did I continue to fly the square Cuban-eight when I was losing so much altitude? Why didn’t I wake up before the runway suddenly looked so wide? Yes, the high density altitude degraded my airplane’s performance, but my performance as a pilot was in the tank. I better find out what got me into that low-level pullout so I never do that again!
I returned my attention to the task at hand, a two-hour 20-minute flight across Washington’s arid plateau and Cascade Mountains. The DG still showed a true course of 270, and I was flying directly over the line penciled on my sectional chart. At 7,200 feet the engine instruments were in the green, and the Cascades spread out across my windshield with the entrance to Stevens Pass straight ahead.
My left tank should burn dry in 15 minutes. Realizing that I was tired, I doubled my effort to remain alert and keep my thinking ahead of the airplane.
A GOOD NIGHT’S SLEEP
Tired! Could being tired downgrade my flying that much? I damn near bought it! Why am I so tired? Last night I kept my rule of being showered and in the sack by 2300 hours. That rule kept me out of a lot of fun parties, but I always felt fine and ready for the next day’s show. On Friday,
I took my wife, Elaine, and sons, Rick and Marc, to the 1974 Spokane World Expo. We walked all over the fairgrounds visiting the Soviet and many other pavilions; with no shade and lots of walking in the hot sun, I got pretty tuckered out. Maybe I was too tired to sleep. Also our accommodations were uncomfortable; none of us slept well. I should have realized that morning I was not up to par.
A person can call in sick and not report for work, but whoever thought of calling in tired? When it came my turn to fly, I strapped in, someone swung my prop, and I flew the flight that is still stuck in my memory. My 11 o’clock rule let me down. I revised it to include, “Must also get a good night’s sleep.” So I learned another lesson and went on to complete 18 years of flying shows in NC18166 and then two more years in my new Monocoupe 110 Special NC2064, The Spirit of Dynamite.
Later, Clay Henley sold his beloved aerodrome, and it became part of a theme park called Silverwood. In 1983, I sold NC18166 to finance the construction of my clipped-wing Monocoupe. The old Coupe flew a year or two and then went into storage for 25 years. Recently Skagit Aero Education Museum purchased it. I am certain that it hummed the largo movement of Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” all the way from Burlington, North Carolina, to Concrete, Washington. Now that the aircraft’s back at home in the Northwest, restorer Jim Jenkins will work his magic to bring my old Coupe back to its original glory. So the 18-year air show trail blazed by NC18166 may continue.
So, to all who will not do that again: Blue skies and tail winds, always.