Pilot Journal
Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Country Pilot

Joining the farm team for tailwheel training

country pilotHe calls himself the “Country Pilot,” and with his herd of taildraggers and 3,000-foot farm field, he cultivates the art, science and joy of simple stick and rudder flying. He’s even apt to begin sentences with, “I’m just a country pilot…,” when relating how he prefers good weather when flying his PA20 Pacer on the 1,000-mile journey to Sun ’n Fun, or why the Pitts S-2B he bought himself as a retirement present in 2002 has all the performance he’ll ever need for aerobatics.
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country pilot“I’ve been flying it for 25 years,” he says. “This is perfect for what I do now, flying around gently with the wind in my face. I put my wife in there and we go places, fly to breakfast or whatever.”

The graceful elliptical curves of the upper wing and the turtle deck—the sloping protuberance that forms a backrest for the rear-seat occupant—are its most distinctive features. “I think it’s one of the most underrated of the biplanes,” Buergel says. “It’s a joy to fly, has nice control harmony and it can do a lot with not much horsepower.”

Starduster Toos can take powerplants from 150 to 260 hp. Buergel has a 150 hp engine and propeller from a Tri-Pacer, and he has removed the electrical system, further reducing weight and making this an exceptionally light and nimble example. The engine has an Ellison Throttle Body fuel-injection system and a Christen Inverted Oil System, and the standard 26-gallon fuel tank incorporates a two-gallon inverted tank, so the plane can fly upside down for perhaps 15 minutes.

Buergel and I strap on cloth helmets and climb in. Switches off. Someone pulls the prop through. Crack the throttle, prime the engine, switches on, pull the prop…it takes a couple of repetitions, but soon the prop is a blur and we’re taxiing for a north departure. Bloecher Farm isn’t one of your manicured, flat-as-a-pool-table turf strips. There’s a hump about 1,000 feet from the north end of the runway and tall trees to the south. Because of this, takeoffs are typically made to the north and landings to the south, so sometimes pilots have to take off or land with a slight tailwind. All this makes for excellent training—if you have someone with Buergel’s skills in the airplane with you.

The wind sock is limp and the sky is clear. No one to call on the radio, and other than a handheld, no radio to call them on. We advance the throttle, and the Starduster trundles down the runway, lifting off before we come to the little hill at the north end. I’m in the front seat, not paying attention to the minimal instrumentation, concentrating instead on the feel of the airplane—if it likes the climb angle, how sensitive its pedals are, how responsive the stick is. We level out at 2,500 feet—just about 1,000 feet AGL.

The Starduster Too was designed for light aerobatics, but it’s not an airplane that flies the maneuvers itself. “You have to work, but it’s not hard work,” Buergel had said on the ground. “It’s just that you have to move a lot of controls to get things done. It has so much wing and so much lift that you’re actually flying.”

Indeed we are. Green, rolling hills—a quilt of forest and field—spread out in every direction. The wind is blowing in my face and the air is redolent of—cow manure! We’ll get to the maneuvers shortly, but for now, I want to enjoy this sensory assault: the sound of the engine and the wind in the rigging, the feel of the airplane in my hands, the sensation of the air flowing over me like it’s being sprayed from a fire hose and that sweet organic odor. It’s flying at its most simple, pure and intoxicating. Yes, I may live in a big city and my plane may have tricycle gear, but at least for the moment, I too am just a country pilot.

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