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Sense of the pants – coordination
Flying as an aerial firefighter requires the pilot to develop not only average but outstanding stick-and-rudder skills, what we call: a good sense of the pants. Feeling how the aircraft flies without needing to look at instruments is key. Feeling is understanding, understanding means awareness, and awareness is crucial.
This is obvious for old-school aerial firefighters who mostly came from Ag-flying, but it might sound strange for other pilots who have never developed those skills. Your sense of the pants will be needed during all phases of Flight as a survival mechanism, since lift-off, when carrying the load at low-level, while dropping over the fire, and during every landing – whether if it is on land or on water, if we are commanding an amphibious scooper.
As instructors, we have plenty of indicators, and it usually takes a few minutes of aerial work to understand where we are. It is pretty easy to assess if a pilot is only a bit rusty on his stick and rudder skills, if he has never developed coordination and is overwhelmed chasing instruments, or has mastered the sense of the pants, the turns feel smooth, and is ahead of the aircraft.
Coordination between arms and legs is a skill per se that we should not neglect, it is easy to spot, not only in aviation but in many other activities, as this video shows.
A thought-provoking question related to the video: can any farmer, just for belonging to the farmers community do that straight away, or will it require high doses of individual deliberate practice?
Please have a think and continue reading to connect the dots later on.
The root issue -uncoordinated Flight
When an aircraft flies uncoordinated, it will be skidding or sliding, both very inefficient ways of flying an airplane. Once that happens, we present the extra surface of the fuselage to the relative wind, and an uneven amount of wind to the wings, and control surfaces, drastically increasing drag and using energy that needs to be compensated by adding extra power or trading altitude for speed.
If we fly heavy loads at low level, we do not have power in excess or altitude to sacrifice. We need to be accurate, and we can’t afford to waste the few extra knots above stall speed that keeps us flying. Flying uncoordinated in a small Cessna or Piper at the early stages of a pilot career, is something to fix, but the learner could probably get away with it if only does local flights on Sundays, or flies A to B only doing gentle turns.
In our scenario, flying uncoordinated kills. Turning smart matters when flying low level, and those fine tolerances have to be mastered.
Aerial Firefighting aircraft – Single Engine Air Tankers and Light amphibious Scoopers (Fireboss)
The aircraft we use tend to be far less forgiving when tolerating poor coordination than nose wheel aircraft. The following video shows some great examples and the level of mastery needed when flying Ag planes or Fire fighting aircraft, which are basically the same. It also shows what we mean with low-level. I have seen definitions of low level as below 5000ft and very low level below 1000ft (when ag-flying the range could go from 5 to 15ft for normal operations, requiring 50ft for seeding as the highest).
Many pilots who are used to only flying nose wheel aircraft will struggle and will need to go through basic skills as we all did before flying a tailwheel. The following video shows some great tips on basic air work and how to fly coordinated by using the sense of the pants and not chasing the ball looking inside, which is another classic mistake. A good starting point.
Pilots with sloppy footwork tend to be reactive
Learning to become proactive rather than reactive with the rudder is key. What usually happens is that they wait until something happens before they do something about it. The feet are sluggish and stiff, and often disengaged from pedals. They don’t perceive drift or don’t understand why it’s happening. They have trouble keeping the plane travelling in the same direction we point during landings, and during liftoff, it is not a pretty dance; the nose is all over the place, stitching the desired track.
This is called uncoordinated Flight, and it is normal if we are humble enough to recognize it once it has been identified. There is no shame in it.
The problem is when ego kicks in and blinds us, thinking we should be able to fix it with what we know already or the status we have achieved.
They are a different set of skills. You don’t know what you don’t know, and you might not be even noticing what you are doing wrong.
Please listen to your instructor and go back to basics, if needed. A fire fighting aircraft is not the best aircraft to learn elemental stick and rudder skills and failing won’t make good to your mindset.
No matter how low and fast you flew before. If you have not experienced tailwheel aircraft in the past and the flying you performed, whatever it was, did not require proper use of rudder, you won’t be able to use the legs in a precise and timely manner. You will have to learn it, and you will have to show high proficiency levels before being awarded a position as an aerial firefighter (or at least that is the way it should be). No shortcuts. It is a different skill that has to be assessed and transferred. This article from Airmed and Rescue, describes what it takes to be an aerial firefighter in-depth.
The lost art of tailwheel flying – Learn to fly a tailwheel aircraft and become an expert at it
If you can’t fly a docile and straightforward tailwheel aircraft as a Piper Cub or a Citabria, think twice before knocking at the Single Engine Air Tankers or light scoopers doors. Test yourself and make an effort understanding what it takes and how you can get there. No matter what your name is and what you have achieved in the past. At the end of the day, it will be 2 in the cockpit and the CV and recommendation letters will stay at the desk in an office. It is time to perform, not to learn the basics.
Remember that it is not only how many hours you did, but what did you do during those hours and how that transfers to the new activity. If you are checked by someone who does his job, cares about the industry and your safety, you will have to show above-average levels of proficiency. Barely coping is not an option as you will have to deal with extreme conditions.
This video, from the 80´s shows a landing a PA-36 Brave, in a random runway for Agricultural flying. It turns out it was my father, but it well could be someone else. These guys would do this kind of landings in this sort of “no margin for error” runways, tens of times, every day, on a tailwheel aircraft that demands high levels of feet-work proactivity. Check out the clearance from wingtips and terrain next to runway.
They cleared the path and set up the basis for the aerial firefighting we have today, and they were top-notch flyers when it came to stick and rudder. We learned from them and although the circumstances might be changing, we should not lose the art of tailwheel flying.
We need to continue pushing to gather the best cohort of stick and rudder, and train them well. There might be not so much agricultural flying, but there are so many other activities that transfer well.
First thing first: get those needed skills in place
Learning to fly a tailwheel takes patience, precision, and coordination. It’s a valuable way to enhance the rudder technique and has a profoundly positive transfer to what we do. Takeoffs and landings in tailwheel airplanes demand greater footwork and awareness. This translates to better control coordination and improved confidence during all Flight phases – especially low and slow, which is what we do while fighting fires.
Our job is a lot about low-level energy management, often surrounded by steep terrain. we do not have an endless excess of power to take us up like a rocket if we have misjudged it.
We can’t afford to be close to the stall, low level, short on power, drifting, and not be able to recognize it (this happens). The aircraft should always feel like an arrow effectively penetrating the air. High on energy, no wobbly movements.
Learning to fly a basic tailwheel and get to an acceptable safety level usually takes 5-10 hrs and some effort, but going to the local club and getting those feet moving is not that difficult, just go and sort it out!
Learning to master tailwheel and flying coordinated as second nature, takes hundreds of hours and a high level of specialization.
The following video shows some of the tailwheel aircraft I got to fly before getting into Aerial Firefighting. Nowadays, I have done +5000hrs tailwheel, and I still keep learning about those beautiful birds!
For your safety: fly coordinated!