Stick and Rudder
[revised 9 August]
The F'n A A has been sitting on my application for a Special Issuance medical certificate for 53 days, so I'm restricted to Light Sport privileges (basically 2 seats, Day VFR, maximum weight 600kg). This is lots of fun, and it raises some interesting questions about flight training.
The Ercoupes I've been flying are intriguing airplanes. As I understand it, Fred Weick designed it to be safe, inexpensive, and fun. Most 'Coupes have aileron-rudder interconnects, eliminating the need for rudder pedals.
I used to think this was a travesty, and it makes me feel good about my skills to note that I'm better coordinated.
But now I'm beginning to think that the 'Coupe might be an ideal training airplane for the 21st century. One reason for this is the rise of the Light Sport category, which demands airplanes that are safe, inexpensive, and fun. There are some impressive LSA airplanes that look like fun: the ideal vehicle for, say, a skinny retired couple to explore the country. But these are expensive. Right now you can buy a flyable Ercoupe for $25,000, and maybe come February in a tough economy you will be able to find one for less. They need some TLC, but this can be fun, and costs a lot less than the $100,000+ new planes.
And, although I have mixed feelings about FAA certification (there is no reason for me to spend 7 summer weeks without a medical certificate), the Ercoupe is a CAA-certified airplane; the newer LSA airplanes are not certified at all, but are built to industry standards. Certification involves oversight by someone without a dog in the fight. I have seen corners cut in aviation.
But what about the flying part of the Ercoupe? I cannot look at you with a straight face and tell you that it is a stick-and-rudder airplane: it doesn't have rudder pedals! I've written before (and will again) about the importance of basic flying skill at all levels of aviation, especially slow flight and stalls. The 'Coupe won't stall!
By contrast, an Airbus 320 has little use for rudder pedals, and won't stall.
So what can one learn about flying? Well, try this: the other day I was out in an Ercoupe when the weather turned threatening and the wind picked up. As I approached the airport the wind sock showed light winds, but groundspeed on the upwind leg was low. I anticipated a fast downwind and wind shear on final. It felt early to turn base, but in fact I was high with a pretty good crab angle. Bump bump bump and now I was low with a pretty good crab angle, the other way. I touched down on the centerline in the crab, and the 'Coupe did its thing and we tracked straight until the runway exit.
Flying that pattern required a large number of transferable skills, skills that apply in every airplane from a single-seat glider to a 777. It did not require every single flying skill, but no maneuver does.
What about navigation? The Ercoupes I've seen have navigation equipment varying from a magnetic compass to a abasic IFR panel. The IFR panel is heavy, which is a problem: to quote Burt Rutan: before you install something in your airplane, hold it at arm's length and let go. If it falls to the ground it is too heavy. But a high-quality handheld GPS is neither heavy nor expensive. You may not use it to file IFR, but you can certainly use it to learn modern navigation. The right IFR GPS (or iPad app) can give a student NexRad radar, EGPWS, and airborne access to METARs and TAFs. There's no autopilot so it won't be tha hands-off flying that the Airbus driver enjoys, but there's still a lot of transferable skill to be learned.
The Ercoupe has wonderful visibility, making it easy (and fun!) to watch for traffic. That's a good habit.
So while the Ercoupe cannot make a complete pilot, no one airplane can, either. A wise instructor could produce a skilled professional pilot by supplementing the Ercoupe with a desktop Flight Training Device for learning instrument scan, and a light twin for learning to use the rudder. Both are important preparations for a flying career.
What do you think?