Soaring — June 2015
Change Language:
Becoming a Tow Plane Pilot
Key Dismukes

I had been flying sailplanes for five or six years when I got a yen to fly tow planes, though I had never flown powered aircraft. The tow plane pilots seemed quite glamorous, sitting high in the cockpits of converted Pawnee crop dusters as they wheeled up for the line boy to hook the towrope to the glider.

I saved up my money and fairly readily obtained my private and commercial single-engine land ratings ± the stick and rudder skills learned in sailplanes giving me a leg up on learning to fly powered aircraft. The first obstacle came when I tried to find a place to get instruction for a tailwheel endorsement ± all of the local airports trained in tricycle gear aircraft only. Finally I got a lead on a remote small airport said to provide the training I sought. I called the airport and explained to a man with a gruff voice that I wanted to get tail dragger training. “No tail draggers here,” he said and hung up.

I went back to my source, who assured me the operation did have a little Aeronca Champ and did give training if one could talk the owner/instructor into it. I called the owner back and mentioned the Champ, to which he responded that’s a tailwheel airplane; tail draggers are airplanes with skids in back, they quit using those after World War I. He also said he only trained people who had some compelling need for tailwheel experience. Eventually I was able to convince him that my desire might conceivably be justified, and my training commenced. I can’t remember the guy ever saying more than four or five words at a time, none of them expressing admiration for my flying ability, but I did end up with a tailwheel endorsement in my logbook.

The big obstacle arose when I went to Jerry, the gliderport owner/operator, with the ink barely dry on my endorsement. He pointed out that his insurance company required 500 hours of tailwheel time for tow pilots. So I started going back to the airport with the Champ at lunchtime twice a week to spend 30 minutes flying, all I could afford.

I was moping around the gliderport one morning a few months later, grousing that at the rate I was going it would be another nine years before I could sit in the Pawnee cockpit. At this point in the story I must digress to explain that gliderports are rarely financially lucrative operations. Although they bring much joy to sailplane pilots, the economics of aviation and the vagaries of weather in the Northeast, where I lived at the time, mean that few gliderport operators drive luxury cars. This particular day was close to the end of the month, a time when it was never clear whether Jerry would be able to pay his creditors, and this day he looked especially jumpy. Hearing my grumping, Jerry made me an extraordinary proposition: If I loaned him $7,000 “for just two weeks” he would list me as a named pilot on his insurance policy, which would remove the 500 hour requirement.

I will never know how Jerry knew that $7,000 was the exact total of my savings account, and I doubted I would ever see the money again, but the truth is I probably would have accepted if he said I would have to work the rest of my life for him for free.

The Pawnee is a single-place airplane, so one’s first flight in it is solo. Jerry showed me how to slither through the window to get into the doorless cockpit. Then as I sat far higher than in any airplane I had ever flown, he raised and lowered the tail to show me what the attitude sight picture would be at cruise versus climb and descent. Because of the fuel tank and the unused hopper in back of the engine, the snout of the Pawnee is ten feet long, and Jerry explained that the sight picture over the nose, the sound, and the feel of the aircraft gave a more reliable indication of attitude and airspeed than the cockpit instruments.

I fired up the big Lycoming with nearly four times the power of the little Champ, and advanced the throttle. Before I could even raise the tail, the Pawnee, unencumbered by a sailplane, leapt into the air. The next 15 minutes were pure joy as I maneuvered the airplane, getting a feel for how it handled.

We were landing to the south that day. When the tow planes returned from a tow, landing to the south and trailing the tow rope, the pilots would fly around a tall stand of trees north of the runway, lining back up with the runway and leveling their wings just before touching down in a graceful maneuver. Even though I was not trailing a rope I decided I should practice this maneuver and was congratulating myself on a deft execution as I passed through 30 feet above the ground just short of the grass runway.

Suddenly I was horrified to realize that, focused on maneuvering the airplane, I had completely forgotten the sight picture of how high I would be with the wheels on the ground and in a three-point attitude for touchdown. I was anxiously trying to bring this picture back into mind when I heard a faint rumbling sound; while I was preoccupied with deciding when to flare, unconsciously trying to delay the moment of decision, I had probably pulled back on the stick slightly and the docile Pawnee had happily landed itself on the grass so gently I had not felt the contact with the earth. It was to be many hundreds of flights in the Pawnee later before I could even come close to that first, perfect landing.

I taxied up to Jerry and shut the engine down, excitedly describing how easy the Pawnee was to fly. “In another six or seven flights I think I will be ready to start towing.”

“Six or seven flights? Hell,” Jerry said, “there’s a revenue flight waiting for you,” and he clipped a tow rope to the Pawnee.

And, mirabile dictu, two weeks later Jerry repaid my $7,000!

About the Author: Key Dismukes retired as Chief Scientist for Human Factors at NASA Ames Research Center. His research addressed the ability of experts to manage challenging situations, error vulnerability, risk management, prospective memory, attention management in multitasking, and learning and memory. He holds ATP, B737 and Citation-type, and glider instructor ratings and received the 2013 Laura Tabor Barbour Air Safety Award.