Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Cub Butt

Aviation’s posterior-measuring system

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.


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