Bringing back memories
Sometimes we think that we know nothing and feel that we having nothing to contribute; then, on reflection, we realise that, in fact, we do know something and that maybe it is worth sharing. This is perhaps the opposite of the paradox that the more we know, the more we realise that there is to know. Is a little knowledge a dangerous things? Possibly, if used with a cavalier attitude. In the end you, the reader, will decide.
A couple of months ago, Paul Handover described on this blog some details of his Piper Cub aircraft. Although I knew of his post, having skimmed it at some time, I had missed a coincidence which now triggers me to think about my limited knowledge and experience of the Piper Cub!
It is, of course, a very well known type of aircraft. There is a famous remark on this topic when an experienced American test pilot was asked what type of aircraft was the safest. He replied,”that would have to be the Piper Cub“; and when asked why, he replied, “because it can only just kill you!”
Memories of R-151
Anyway, I remember well that Paul kindly allowed me to take the controls and to land his aircraft, R-151, on the grass at “its home airfield in South Devon” [Branscombe Airfield. Ed.] some years ago; I think that it was one of only two times that I have performed that wacky experience of landing a tail dragger! The other time was with a friend and instructor in a different Piper Cub which was based at Exeter, Devon; unless I have forgotten that some RAF instructor had been trusting enough to allow me to get close to performing this feat in a Chipmunk during my days as an air cadet.
The whole subject has been widely studied and has been the subject of many hours of “hangar talk” by pilots, so this is not the time or place to debate the counter-intuitive design that is a tail-dragging aircraft; but, if there is any interest in this, then I am happy to describe my take on it sometime!
However this is all background, the main point is that I was triggered to relate this story by Paul’s photograph of his Cub in the French Alps. The coincidence is that, apart from those two flights, the only other time that I can remember flying a Piper Cub was in the French Alps!
Memories of mountain flying …
It is also the only time that I have flown from a mountain strip. This was while on a skiing trip in Tignes les Breviers, France with my eldest son, one of my nephews and a group of friends from, you guessed it, Devon. We had seen light aircraft operating in the area and even landing on small airstrips near where we were skiing. After a little investigation, a couple of phone calls and some hitchhiking (as we had travelled by train), I had got myself to the airfield at Meribel which if I remember correctly is at 5,200 feet above sea level. Now for non-aviators (and even for some aviators, who might not be familiar) mountain airstrips are quite unusual airfields.
This video, although not in a Cub, provides a taster of the place in a Jodel, F-BMFX:
The majority of the length of the runway is on a steep slope except for a small level area at the bottom, on which to touch down, and a level area at the top, which is larger to include parking space.
As I had no mountain experience I was, of course, under instruction; my instructor was Patrice Villier, an ex-Air France 747 captain, and I have fond memories of that flight. As we approached the aircraft which was on skis and parked at the top of the strip which was covered in snow, I remember his wonderful comment: “we have no steering and no brakes!”
Once airborne, he soon passed control to me and I remember flying up to about the same height as Paul’s Cub in the photograph. I learnt to fly on the right side of valleys not in the middle, to maximise the opportunity to turn round; and to cross a mountain pass at 45 degrees to increase the opportunity to turn away due, for example, to traffic crossing from the other side.
… including the approach!
During the preflight briefing, I had learnt that there is a point during the approach beyond which the aircraft is incapable of out-climbing or turning to avoid the hill ahead; so, beyond that point, there is no go-around available, which concentrates the mind somewhat!
I remember flying most of the approach including passing that interesting point, at which stage my instructor checked that our approach was good and no other traffic would affect us, before committing us to continue. His comment was, to this effect: “we are now going the hit the ground! If we do it right, then it will be gentle; and if not, then not!“.
As I continued to fly the approach, I was in very good hands of course; but, even so, it takes some focus to descend into that valley from which there is no way out and to commit to approach to land on that little flat region at the bottom of the steep hill. Any tentativeness or lack of commitment can cause one to drift high on the approach, which is likely result in pancaking into the steep part of the slope. I found this experience helpful later, in less extreme circumstances, when approaching to land at conventional airfields with sloping runways (such as at St Mary’s on the Scilly Isles).
Needless to say, he relieved me of control of the aircraft before the landing, we made a good landing (defined elsewhere!), and it was a memorable flight.
Memories of older pilots
Talking of commitment, in the club house afterwards I was looking at some of the photographs around the walls, when I came across one extreme one. I was looking at a photograph of a Boeing 707, but this was not cruising at high altitude, this was not landing or taking off from some large airfield; this Boeing 707 was flying deep in the valley near Meribel airfield!
When I asked Patrice about the photograph, he told me that they had held an air day at the airfield at Meribel and this aircraft had performed a fly past. Then he motioned to a man sitting in the corner, perhaps in his 70s or older, and indicated that he had been the pilot.
It was wonderful, and reminded me of the feeling of being at Exeter Flying Club, where I had trained, with people like the late great Dicky Dougan, with whom I had the privilege of flying on a couple of occasions.
As it happens, Dickie had been one of those RAF instructors operating “air experience” flights from Exeter when I was an air cadet; so, there is a possibility that he had instructed me. If so, and if there is a slim possibility that I’d come close to landing a Chipmunk, then if anyone might have allowed it, Dickie would.
So that sums up my very limited experience and associated memories of flying in Piper Cubs!
By John Lewis
Just a PS from PH!
John’s Post brings back many memories as I originally trained at Courchevel Altiport for my Altiport Rating and subsequently spent many happy hours flying the Super Cub from there. This YouTube video provides a wonderful insight into landing at Courchevel.