Back Seat Driver

Flying from the back isnt that practical, but it sure was fun to learn


Just for the fun of it, I decided to learn to fly my taildragger from the back seat. Theres a stick. PTT, throttle and carb heat in the back, but from there you cant change the radio frequency, adjust the mixture, hit the start button or manipulate any of the panel controls. Because there has to be a person in the front, you cant see much, either.

Nonetheless, I wanted the challenge, so I enlisted the help of one of my favorite instructors and off we went. Taxiing was more Pitts or P-51 or Stearman than Citabria, with S-turns a requirement for seeing whats in front of you. Suddenly the taxiways seemed much narrower.

The runup and mag check were normal. I dictated a pre-takeoff flow check to him, which was unnecessary because hes as familiar with the airplane as I am, but it made us both feel better that Id actually do the same if ever a less-experienced pilot was in front of me.

Once in the air, the most noticeable difference I could tell was that my backside was much more sensitive to turn coordination. Intellectually I knew this would happen and why, but it took being there to really drive home the point that proper turn coordination is a blessed gift to passengers.

Getting the feel for how the airplane handled wasnt that difficult, with one oddity unique to Citabrias. From the front, the trim control is a lever on the left sidewall just under hip high. It falls easily to hand. From the back, while wearing a five-point harness, the trim control lever is something you hook with your left toes to trim nose up and step on with your left foot for nose down. Getting subtle adjustments definitely took some work there.

The first landing was ugly. No way around that. We came in to a 38-foot-wide runway with a huge descent rate and bounced halfway to Cleveland. OK, fortunately nothing was hurt besides pride.

After that it got better, and by the end of an hour I was beat, but Steve pronounced me fit for back seat operations. I might proudly add that he says Im one of the few hes ever taught who could get it down in one lesson. That made up for that nasty bounce.

The return home was a breeze and the landing a greaser, and I wiped her down and put her to bed.

Now I have to wonder what Ill do with this skill. Because I dont instruct, Ill not have student pilots in the front. The kids are out, because theyre too little to trust with things like starters and mixtures and radio frequencies.

Most of the friends I have are not pilots, and I expect theyll prefer the view out the front better than looking at the gray hairs on the back of my head. In order to do that, though, theyll have to learn the controls I cant reach.

Still, it was a fun exercise. It taught me just a little more about flying and a little more about my airplane. And any day I can say that is a good one, indeed.

-Ken Ibold


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