Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Cub Butt

Aviation’s posterior-measuring system

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.


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