November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Now & Then/Steve Poleskie


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Steve Poleskie & his Pitts Special bi-plane.

The Ultimate Responsibility

by Steve Poleskie

A reader of my previous columns wanted to know about the time I saved Peter O’Toole from being kicked out of a New York City artist’s bar. The majority of comments I got, however, were about my aviation opinions, so I will continue with that topic and save saving Peter for another time.  Several people remarked that I had come down too hard on the pilots when, after all, a flight is rather a team effort. I couldn’t agree more.

An airline captain is not unlike the quarterback of a football team, who often takes the heat for a loss, even though he was sitting on the bench when the defense blew the game. One of the captain’s problems is that he often lacks information, some of which he is not given, or he has no access to, which is oftentimes vital to the completion of his flight. Nevertheless, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) it is the “pilot in command” who bears the “ultimate responsibility” for the safety of the flight. Unlike many general aviation pilots, the term applied to non-commercial aviation pilots, who often own their own airplane and therefore might have some “hands-on” experience, the airline pilot probably has little or no knowledge of the aircraft they are flying. How could they? An airliner is a vast and complex machine that requires many skilled, licensed mechanics to maintain.

When I took a course to prepare for my Air Transport Pilot written examination we studied for a test based on flying a Boeing 727 airliner. Many of the questions were about things like how many life jackets one should have on board. We were warned that one of the questions on the test, a weight and balance problem, did not have a correct answer in the multiple choices. If you got this problem on your copy of the exam, you should check the answer we were given and should not bother trying to figure it out. I got the question, and could not believe that the FAA would be so stupid as to give out a wrong answer, so tried to work out the correct answer. I could not come up with any of the numbers among the listed possibilities, so chose the one closest to what I had computed. This was incorrect. I scored a 98 on the exam.

The erroneous weight and balance was the only question that I got wrong. I did learn a few things about the Boeing 727 which made me never want to go on one. Most startling was the matter of how the pilot should use the “bleed air” function. It seems that when the 727 was being designed the FAA still allowed airplanes with only two engines to venture out across vast bodies of water. But in the middle of things the rule was changed. And so the designers hastily added a third engine, the one you can see stuck up on the tail. All well and good, except during the take-off.  As the aircraft is rotated, just when it needs all the power it can get, the fuselage blocks the airflow to the engine mounted in the center. This is the time when the pilot should turn on the “bleed air” to suck a little oxygen from those two engines on the sides of the fuselage—hoping that there is enough to go around.

A few casual observations from the special course I went to in Norfolk, Virginia to prepare for the Air Transport Pilots exam. On the first break it was apparent there were three distinct groups here, ranked in their own order of perceived importance: the military pilots, airline pilots and finally general aviation pilots. There was also a group of black pilots wearing that knock-off casual wear that indicated it did not come from the country it was supposed to: for example “Brooklyn Yankees” jackets. As this group always seemed to keep to themselves, I decided to venture over and start a conversation. One of the men told me that they were captains for a Nigerian airline and flew from Lagos to London. Since they were in a class preparing to take the ATP exam, I asked how they could be captains without an Air Transport Pilot Rating. I still remember the man’s answer — told with a big smile, so I am not sure if he was putting me on or not: “Well, we were all co-pilots, and we had a big revolution in our country, and all the captains, they all supported the side that lost, so they were killed, and we became the captains, now we are here to get the proper license.”

Incredibly, for a group of high-time pilots who were about to become captains, I found some of the questions asked in the discussion periods rather basic. The kind of thing I picked up many years ago, when I was a model airplane builder. I have owned five airplanes in my life, but never more than two at a time. I’ve always worked on my airplanes, of course supervised by a licensed mechanic as required by the FAA. This is not unusual for an owner pilot. I am not saying that knowing how to fix an airplane makes you a better pilot, but it is helpful to know how things work. The airplane I used to fly airshows and aerobatic competitions, a Pitts Special bi-plane, I totally rebuilt myself, after buying it from a well-known stunt pilot in Nebraska. A fabric-covered airplane, I took it down to the bare structure, replaced the engine, propeller and other worn parts, recovered and repainted the components, and then reassembled and re-rigged the airframe, being overseen by a licensed mechanic of course, and having it passed by a FAA inspector.

Few people have experienced the sensation of going aloft for the first time in an airplane you have put together yourself. You wonder about the hundreds of bolts and screws, some in very key places, that you have installed with your own hands. In the air now, I proceed carefully. The takeoff and climb out were uneventful. Let’s try a few shallow turns; all well and good. Things are proceeding normally, but this is supposed to be a stunt airplane.  I try a few rolls, beginning with a simple barrel roll. Next comes some aileron rolls: regular, slow, four-point, and eight-point. The airplane seems to be doing okay, but my timing is off, not having flown my Pitts Special since I began rebuilding it six months ago. Let’s try a loop. I line up with the runway, in this case Zeuhl Field, a private airport outside of San Antonio, Texas, which has a zone approved for aerobatic flight.

I can see about a dozen or so people standing outside the hangar where I assembled my airplane, some of whom helped me with it. They have come to see the test flight.  Diving the airplane slightly to pick up speed, I watch for 140 MPH and haul back on the control stick, pulling about 4Gs. I want an easy loop, no sense ripping the wings off just yet. The airplane goes vertical and then over on its back. In the inverted position I relax the stick pressure so the loop will not seem egg-shaped. I play around a bit, doing Cuban-eights, Immelmans, and other maneuvers, feeling happy to have my bi-plane back in the sky. But the real test is yet to come — the spin.

I climb for more altitude. It is best to begin this maneuver high enough so you can use the parachute you’re wearing to bail out if the airplane won’t come out of the spin. Now a well-rigged aircraft should recover from a spin on command. But who put this airplane together? Me. I retard the throttle to fast idle, while gently pulling back on the control stick to raise the nose above the horizon. The airplane slows to stall speed, that speed at which the wings can no longer generate lift. I feel the stall buffet; this airplane has no stall warning horn like airliners do. Holding the ailerons neutral, I boot in full left rudder. The right wing comes up and the nose drops and the biplane falls off into a left rotating spin. The aircraft is pointed at the ground and beginning to revolve around its horizontal axis with increasing velocity.  I only want one turn, so pop the stick forward and apply opposite rudder. The thing stops on a dime. Relieved, I climb back up to altitude and try a whole series, left and right, two and three turns, but I am not yet confident enough in the airplane to try inverted spins. I will save this for another time. I land, a little bouncy as I am out of practice, then taxi slowly up to my hangar and cut the engine. My friends greet me — they are as happy to see me as I them.

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About the author: Stephen Poleskie is a writer, artist and former aviator.  He has flown in numerous airshows and aerobatic competitions and has a trunk full of trophies in his garage to show for it. He has held an Air Transport Pilot license. His artworks are in the collections of numerous museums, including the MoMA and the Metropolitan in NYC. His writing has appeared in journals in Australia, Czech Republic, Germany, India, Italy, Mexico, UK, and the USA. He has published seven novels, the most recent being Foozler Runs. He lives in Ithaca, N.Y., with his wife the author Jeanne Mackin. Web site: www.StephenPoleskie.com