Sometimes lessons learned about flying are painful and expensive. Other times, you get lucky. Back when I bought my first airplane, I was convinced I’d become a tailwheel expert overnight. I’d learned to fly because I was in love with the sky, and with one airplane in particular, the Globe Swift, a low-wing, retractable taildragger, reminiscent in configuration to the WWII fighters I’d read so much about and admired from afar.
With only 125 hp out front, however, the Swift was far from the fastest conventional gear machine above the planet, but the GC-1B at least looked the part of a scaled-down military aircraft.
As I got to know the Swift, I discovered the standard airplane was indeed underpowered, so much so that power upgrades to 145, 160, 180 and even 210 hp were common. Mine was a pure stock machine, and even if it was a cherry example, the family budget dictated that it would stay that way for the eight years I owned it.
On the plus side, it was perhaps the quickest-handling civilian two-seater in the sky, short of a dedicated aerobatic trainer. In fact, since my Swift was a 1946 model, it was certified under the old CAR3 limits that allowed most simple aerobatic maneuvers, assuming you were brave enough to try them.
The Swift was a short-coupled little beast and had a deserved reputation as a squirrel in crosswinds, especially from the left. Again, my confidence level was high. With a combination of a whopping 150 hours in my logbook and more luck than skill, I was unjustifiably fearless, and I flew the airplane everywhere, regardless of the wind.
On one Sunday breakfast flight, I flew out to the Apple Valley Inn in California’s High Desert. At the time, Apple Valley had a relatively short, narrow, unmanned, semi-paved runway, with an elevation of about 3,000 feet. The airport was directly across State Highway 18 from the Inn’s luxurious restaurant and golf course. It was a short walk from the airport to the restaurant, and, accordingly, the Inn made an excellent Sunday-morning breakfast destination. (The new airport, KAPV, is about 5 miles away, but it’s much larger, with a Unicom and a crosswind runway, which would have come in handy this day.)
The Roy Rogers Museum was right across the street, and Roy and Dale Evans, his wife and lifelong roping, riding and business partner, lived just a block away. If you were a fan of Roy and Dale’s movies, or even if you weren’t, you could wander in and marvel at memorabilia from hundreds of TV shows and movies, plus examine Roy’s horse Trigger, rendered heroically in brilliant Palomino taxidermy.
On this day, my wife and I enjoyed a late breakfast, then re-crossed the highway and returned to the Swift. The desert wind had picked up while we were at the Inn, and we now had an estimated 15-knot left-quartering crosswind. The temperature was up to 80 degrees F, not obscenely hot for the High Desert but a definite challenge for a new pilot flying an underpowered airplane.
My tailwind instructor had counseled me on the proper technique for a strong crosswind, but that was in a Citabria, a relatively docile taildragger. At the time, instructor Gary was chief pilot for United Airlines and had flown a little of everything, including a variety of Swifts. He suggested I stay away from any significant left crosswinds. He hypothesized that the Swift’s tail and rudder simply weren’t up to handling a significant left crosswind component, torque and P-factor all at the same time.
As I taxied out at Apple Valley, I had some concerns about the wind, but I was unjustifiably confident that I could handle anything the Swift could throw at me.
I pushed up the power, leaned the mixture for max power, and headed down the runway toward the perimeter fence bordering the highway. The Swift came out of the hole like a South American tree sloth. I’d been taught to lift the tail as soon as possible to reduce drag and takeoff run, but that turned out to be the wrong thing to do in this situation.
The takeoff started going wrong the second I pushed the yoke forward to put the airplane into a level “wheel” attitude. As the small tailwheel came off the ground, the Swift turned hard into the wind. It went charging off the left side of the runway so fast I couldn’t believe it. My feet were on the rudder pedals, but my brain was caught flat-footed.
The prop sliced into the desert scrub brush, scattering segmented sage high into the air. The ground was well rutted from a wet winter, and I knew if I chopped power and tried to stop, I’d probably drop a wheel into one of those ruts, nose over and wind up on my back, not a good plan considering the Swift’s cabin entry/exit hatch opened up rather than to the side.
I stabbed on the right brake repeatedly, and the airplane finally slewed hard to starboard, too hard, as it turned out. The Swift charged back toward the broken asphalt runway, bounced up onto it for a second and continued straight across to the opposite side before I could stop the turn.
More tumbleweeds flying. Now the perimeter fence intended to help protect Fords and Chevys from idiot Swift pilots was coming up fast. Airspeed was slowly hovering just below VR as the airplane bounced through the underbrush, but the combination of rugged desert and high density altitude was constraining acceleration.
I was out of options. I hauled back on the yoke, and the Swift reluctantly struggled into the air, fighting for a few feet of altitude.
That’s about all I got, a few feet. Amazingly, I cleared the fence and thanked God there were no tractor/trailer semis coming along the highway. Straight ahead was another, taller fence on the opposite side of the road, this one enclosing the edge of the golf course and probably intended to keep golf balls from bouncing off cars. It didn’t look nearly strong enough to repel airplanes coming the other way.
I had a brief screenshot image of a golfer lining up his putt on a green, then looking up at my menacing airplane and diving for cover as I tried to keep the Swift from hitting the second fence, landing on the golf course or taking out a nearby stand of palm trees.
I flipped the gear selector to the “up” position and tried to thread the needle between mushing through the hot desert air above the golfers and making a hole-in-one on the fifth hole.
The Swift was barely holding its own in the heated sky. I noticed the gear had not come up, so I pulled the circuit breaker to avoid burning up the motor, then somehow managed to climb and claw my way up to 6,500 feet.
Forty-five minutes later, when we were ready to enter the pattern at Long Beach, I held my breath, put the gear switch to the “down” position and pushed the breaker back in.
The gear light went green, and I started breathing again. I had no idea what damage I might have done to the gear and prop, or if I might have even caved in some portion of the wing leading edge against the hard brush.
The airplane seemed to be running normally, the flaps worked as usual, and the landing was normal. Back on the ramp, I checked the gear, prop and wings, and there appeared to be nothing worse than some minor paint damage. Whatever had jammed the gear and prevented retraction had apparently fallen away when I lowered the wheels.
In retrospect, the crosswind component at Apple Valley probably hadn’t been that strong, but my mistake had been in lifting the tailwheel too soon and not anticipating the strong weathercock reaction of the Swift.
I loved the airplane, despite its foibles, but just as I’d been warned, the vertical tail and rudder are fairly small and have limited aerodynamic effect. That means leaving the third wheel on the ground longer to improve rudder authority and give the vertical empennage more “bite.”
These days, with the benefit of quite a few more hours in a number of tailwheel machines, some of the lessons I've learned about flying I now realize I should have known before taking on the old Apple Valley Airport on an 80-degree day with a strong left crosswind.
There was nothing wrong with the airplane that day in the desert—just something wrong with the pilot.
As of January 1, 2016, Senior Editor Bill Cox has logged 15,100 flight hours in 321 types of aircraft. He also holds 28 world city-to-city speed records, has made 211 international delivery flights, and owns and flies a LoPresti Mooney. You can email Bill at [email protected].
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