|SUGARED UP AND READY TO GO. Bob Elliott considers a full supply of goodies (and antacids for later) as essential components for long flights in his WWII-style Legend Cub.|
With his big rawboned hand almost lovingly cradling a gigantic bag of Skittles candies, Bob Elliott might almost—almost—pass for Professor Dumbledore munching on Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans. But the baseball cap and screaming-loud, airplane-festooned print shirt puts the kibosh to that comparison in a hurry. His eyes are mere slits from the bright overcast, or insufficient sleep the night before, or more likely, too many Skittles. Tempting me with the open bag, he explains how he got the nickname “A.D.D. Bob” from his flying buddies because he’s constantly diving out of formation (“A.D.D.”=Aviation Deficit Disorder).
“I find that after flying in loose formation for some period of time, I unexpectedly encounter uncontrolled turbulence, which almost always causes an aileron roll and a dive for the deck,” he explains. Once delivered from formation tedium, “A.D.D.” is likely to buzz tree tops, chase a canoe down a winding river or engage another pilot in mock combat. What else is a Skittleholic to do when there’s all that air to explore?
I met Bob on my trip to Sun ’n Fun 2008 with a gaggle of Legend Cub pilots last spring. [See “With Six, You Get Aileron Roll” from P&P September 2008 at our online home.] Since then, he’s come to mind more than once, not only because he’s a fun guy to hang out with, but also because he could serve as the poster child for the largest segment of LSA-buying pilots—those flight-medical-challenged, retirement-aged passionate lovers of flight. And, folks, these pilots have a wealth of experience to share with the rest of us.
Bob’s story echoes those of many current LSA pilots. A recently retired 30-year airline and charter pilot (24,000 hours), Bob flew his own AT-6 Texan warbird for 20 years. When fuel prices crashed through the $5-per-gallon ceiling, “the T-6 became too expensive to operate—around $200 an hour. That gets to be real money, so I sold it.”
After all those years, still crazy about flying and unwilling to experience failing his next medical—or the one after that—he became smitten with the Legend Cub and purchased one. Ever the warbird driver at heart, he painted it up like an L-4 military scout plane from WWII.
“It was a bit hard coming down from the T-6,” he asserts. “But I love the Cub, I really do.” Enough so that, in less than two years, he’s logged nearly 300 hours in the popular LSA. And when he talks about flying, whether it’s Cubs or the Big Iron, you sense another under-the-skin kinship with Prof. Dumbledore: Like that fictional father figure, Bob Elliott is a born mentor.
“If you ever stop learning when you’re flying, it’s time to quit. You keep flying, you make mistakes, you learn from your mistakes. It’s an attitude that you develop, a way of thinking about flying,” he says.
Then he reminisces about Jeff Ethel, the late, great warbird pilot: “Jeff said, ‘If you don’t invite the kids over the fence, this whole aviation thing is going to die.’” That was his metaphor for inviting young pilots into whatever aviation group you might belong to, and bringing them along.
Bob’s observation is that pilots, like most people, tend to gravitate into socially comfortable groups: warbird drivers; Bonanza pilots; low-wing, green, homebuilt taildraggers under 100 hp and so on. Instead, he says, pilots can reach out through programs such as EAA’s Young Eagles and community aviation events; they can give talks and rides and share their experiences with younger people. A little humility doesn’t hurt either: “Hey, I’ve got 24,000 hours, and I’m still learning. I’m still learning from that Legend Cub!
“You know, I showed that airplane all my ratings, and it wasn’t in the least impressed. Then I found out you can overbrake in a Cub, and it’ll happily go right onto its nose,” he chuckles. “That’s when I learned the propeller isn’t the best way to stop an airplane.
“I’m always learning, and that’s not just something cool to say. You’ll never know all there is to know about aviation. I flew the Airbus, for example.” He flew it all right: more than 9,000 hours. “And sure, you do get to a point where, when something goes wrong, you instinctively know what to do,” he asserts. “That’s when everything you’ve ever learned about flying runs like a fast-played tape in your head. Then it slows down, and you do the right thing.
“Yet there’s still a multitude of things I don’t know about that airplane,” he adds, thumbing a couple Life Savers into his mouth. “For instance, I’m not into computers. I used the one in the Airbus as minimally as I could.” Although some of his copilots were tech whizzes who could make the avionics dance with their fingertips, “they didn’t always know about basic airmanship. I’d ask them, ‘Which side of a thunderstorm is best to go around?’ And they wouldn’t always know.”
Yet, in the next breath, he might also say, “I do my best to make an original mistake every time I fly. Your job is to catch it. Which is my way of saying, ‘If I’m screwing something up, let me know.’”
The Elliott Credo: Even when you’re teaching, you’re learning. “You can learn from anyone. I believe that.”
Still, after hauling airliners through the skies and delivering countless people safely to their destinations, what can a little LSA like the Cub have to offer? A light and happy look comes across his face. “It’s like the most wonderful high school in the sky. I love the freedom of it. You drop the side window, and the view from the air is so clean and fresh. I look at places on the ground that I want to visit. I like the adventure of it.
“Flying any kind of aircraft teaches you a lot about yourself. It’s something you do that’s all your own. It teaches you the self-discipline to keep going even when you’re scared to death. I’ve been in situations where I thought I was going to die. And the most unbelievable calm came over me. I said to myself, ‘Just keep flying the airplane. I’m going to do the best I can until I get out of this.’
“Afterward, you can fall apart. But in the middle of it, it’s almost an out-of-body experience. I think if pilots aren’t thoroughly trained, they stop thinking and go to pieces. Once you learn the capabilities of the airplane (and yourself) and how you’re going to deal with something, it changes everything. It changes your perspective on yourself.”
Like many older pilots, Bob flies an LSA in part because he’s close to that time when he might fail his flight medical. “I want to keep flying, like most of the people getting sport pilot tickets right now. We just want to keep flying.”
Why the Cub instead of a fast composite LSA? “People who pick a Cub want a vintage airplane. Personally, I wouldn’t have one of those ‘plastic’ airplanes with a ‘lawnmower’ engine,’” he jibes. “This is a real airplane.”
I’m tempted to offer a little teaching lesson of my own about lightweight, strong carbon-fiber airplanes and “lawnmower” engines, and what they’ve done to revolutionize aviation. But this is his universe and his truth. Maybe that lesson will come another day.
“But you know,” he concludes, tossing the Skittles bag into the backseat as he starts to squeeze his oversized frame into the Cub, “it doesn’t really matter what you fly. The important thing to remember is that the airplane will always teach you.”