300 Horses and a Cat Too

Years ago, shortly after the invention of the airplane, I began my career as a flight instructor in Atlanta. There was a young doctor there with his own Aeronca Champ and a bad case of flying fever. He soloed the Champ, but needed a radio for the Private Pilot check ride. This was long before hand-held radios were even dreamed of. Radios in those days were big. Their size and weight was about the same as cinder blocks. And, since the Champ had no electrical system, a radio also meant the addition of a battery, wiring, ammeter, wind driven generator, voltage regulator and switches.

After getting his private ticket, the good doctor decided to go for the instrument rating. We all told him a 65 horsepower Champ couldn't become IFR certified, but we were wrong. All it took was money. The addition of another nav/com, ADF, Marker Beacon Receiver, position lights, beacon and heated pitot brought the 7AC up to snuff.

I still remember the doctor's notice on the bulletin board at the Peachtree airport. "WANTED: INSTRUMENT INSTRUCTOR, TAILWHEEL CURRENT, WEIGHT NOT TO EXCEED 57 POUNDS."

This past summer, David Johnson invited me to ride along on his Category II certification ride. David has a grass strip just across the river from mine and has spent a good part of his life in the hangar, working on his Cessna Skywagon. His 185, which was a moose to begin with, now sports a 300 horsepower Continental IO-550 and three blades. The big engine, he says, gives him the safety and flexibility he needs to carry skydivers out of a short field and to make good time on long cross- countries. Good enough reasons. I would have done it just to get that wonderful, deep-throated sound on take-off.

O.K., I can understand the bigger engine. Everyone loves power. But all those radios .... really! I thought about the doctor in Atlanta and wondered how all this stuff would look in a Champ. Had David become like that doctor? Was he one of those pilots with more dollars than sense?

No, I knew him better than that. He flies the big ones, but he's still a practical farm boy at heart. David says he needs a Category II airplane because he commutes to work with it .... he works for USAir .... and doesn't want to miss a flight because of weather. His theory is, "The airplane I fly to work should have the same capabilities as the one I fly at work."

"Makes sense to me," I muttered as I stared at the panel. I had seen pictures of most of this stuff in magazines, so it wasn't all new to me. Turning on the radio master switch was like dropping a quarter in the pinball machine down at the corner service station. Lights flashed and stuff happened, and that was while we were still on the ground. I watched in wide-eyed amazement as David flew three ILS approaches down to within 100 feet of the numbers at Tri-City airport. I'm afraid to drive a car with 100 feet visibility. Of course, my car doesn't have all those gauges.

"Take altitude, for example," he pointed out, "we have four altitude indications. We can read from the GPS, the readout from the blind encoder, the altimeter itself and, of course, the radar altimeter." The radar altimeter costs its weight in 100 dollar bills, but it tells you the single most important thing you ever need to know .... the distance between your butt and the earth.

It's hard to look at that panel and imagine the day it will all be obsolete. But it will. I still remember what a big deal the Narco Superhomer was. It had whistle-stop tuning, and positions for a dozen transmit crystals. When you selected a transmit frequency, you could just crank on the receiver handle until it gave you a whistle to let you know you were listening on the same frequency you were talking on. Air Traffic Controllers loved that radio. They didn't have to give you a slow count while you cranked on the tuner, trying to dial them in. I took my commercial check ride with one of those radios and thought I was in high cotton.

I thought about the Superhomer as I watched the S-Tec autopilot turn to the numbers on the HSI. Then I fiddled with the stormscope for awhile, but there were no storms to scope out. I checked to see if the GPS and Loran agreed with one another, figured out how to turn on the Alpine compact disc player, and found the button on the wheel to change CDs. I thumbed through the stack looking for Willie Nelson, settled for something else, then relaxed and enjoyed the ride.

I've seen the future and I love it. David's Skywagon is a delight to fly in good weather or bad. This is one great airplane. It'll carry six folks and fuel, will land anywhere, cruises at 180 knots, and has the same landing minimums as a 737. It may be the most eminently practical airplane in the world.

And ..... David let me fly it. It may not have been the greatest experience of my life. But it was among the top ten.