Pilots Of All Sizes. Budd had to cobble this cushion together to fit one of his students.
Have you noticed those "if your bag will fit in here, it's okay" boxes at the airport that the airlines use to measure whether your bag will fit in the overhead storage bins or not? Although I've seen them every flight, I've not once dropped my bag into one. Nor have I seen anyone else do it. I have, however, had considerable experience with a similar measuring device known as an "airplane cockpit."
Every flight instructor who's flying something like a C-152, a Cub or anything else that's cockpit-challenged does a visual preflight of every new student long before he gets in the airplane. In fact, it has become part of my checklist while I'm online or on the phone with a new student making their reservations to ask them their height and weight. This is to avoid the, "Oh my God!" moment when I first lay eyes on them and realize I have a problem. They may not fit in the cockpit. And that has happened more than once.
Some of the most embarrassing moments I've ever had, in or out of aviation, involved putting a person in the front seat, then realizing I couldn't get the stick back far enough to fly the airplane. Both times it was a female, and both times I came up with some sort of bogus reason why we couldn't fly. ("The airplane's gyro widget has run out of Freon, which is an FAA requirement.") What was I supposed to say? "Sorry, we can't fly because your belly is in the way?"
Most instructors who have been instructing in compact airplanes for a long time develop an eye for the kinds of students who are going to be difficult to fit into the cockpit. For one thing, they become sensitized to things like belt buckles being chin high, a sure indication of overly long legs. This generally kicks off a short question-and-answer period beginning with, "How long is your inseam?" To which over half of the males will say, "What's an inseam?" That yields yet another piece of information about that student: Their wife does their shopping for them.
The inseam number gains significance, when it gets to either end of a fairly narrow band, because airplanes were designed for FAA-standard legs. If the inseam is 28 inches or below, the first thought to cross an instructor's mind is whether he has enough cushions to move the student forward and, when forward, will they be able to get the yoke all the way back? It's a delicate balance.
If the number is 36 inches or larger, the guy is approaching spider proportions, so the next move is a quick eyeball check: Where do the guy's knees bend? Believe it or not, but for a given length of leg, the knee can be an inch or two high or low. It's not necessarily in the middle of the leg. And if it's high, he may not be able to get his knees under the panel, or may lock the yoke into a horizontal position, which always makes flying difficult.
As students go above about 6'6", the proportions of their bodies become critical and sometimes humorous. I've had 6'6" pilots who took a couple of cushions under their butts to get them high enough to see out. But, they were folded up like a cheap pocketknife to fit in the cockpit. I've had others who were barely over five feet but sat so tall in the saddle, I had to go to thinner cushions to get their head clear of the canopy. But they had teeny legs, so every cushion I had went behind them.
A note: Beware the flight instructor who doesn't own a bunch of extra cushions. If he, or the school, doesn't have a stack of thin pads, they aren't serious about fitting students to the airplane, which compromises flight training.
Height is one thing. Width is another. This, too, isn't a given dimension that you can count on, partially because it's a ratio thing. Height-to-weight and all that. Two-hundred-pound students aren't a problem in any airplane. Unless they're 5'1". That's when I'm glad I fly a tandem airplane, not a C-152 or anything similar. To be comfortable in a C-152, it helps if neither person is over 5'10" and their body fat hovers around 7%.
The width thing is where older Piper products, Cubs and such, bear a striking resemblance to the airline baggage- dimension-check boxes. Especially the J-3. Actually, the J-3 is nature's way of telling every one of us that we need to lose weight and stretch more. All of us. There's a very delicate little dance required to get into the back seat or the pilot's seat. And it's embarrassing to watch the average person try to learn that dance. It's right up there with watching Colin Powell do the macarena. All airplanes have a different dance, but the J-3 is best boarded by 14-year-old Russian gymnasts who are at the height of their career. The rest of us normally dimensioned blubber butts stretch and lean and contort until it's painful to watch. And, at the beginning, painful to do.
Heaven help the overly tall and overly wide getting into a J-3. It was never designed for even normal-sized people to get into in a hurry. And only the very practiced show any grace in the process.
Even for the physically fit and graceful, getting into my own airplane can be a real challenge. For that reason, part of the first hop has me playing dance instructor, while showing step by step how get in the airplane. The goals include boarding without a)damaging the lower wing fabric b)the student getting a charley horse in their right thigh while trying to hoist their leg over the side of the cockpit and c)keeping their butt from cracking the rear windscreen. I've often thought of videoing those first, awkward attempts at getting onboard. I could produce a hilarious YouTube segment, but would embarrass too many students in the process, so I won't.
Incidentally, when I finally lost 30 pounds and got rid of some of my belly, I found getting in the airplane to be much, much easier. The airplane had been telling me that for years, but I didn't listen. Once again, when airplanes are talking, we should be listening.