I was brought into this world where my father loved flying with a passion. Taught to fly before the 2nd War by Eddie Rickenbacher’s wingman, Weir Cook, my father was taught to fly by the seat of his pants and more.
When I was two years of age, I was strapped on top of two parachutes so that I could look out the canopy of his AT-6 and then he handed me his old military hand mike and headset so that we could talk. That day I got my first aerobatic maneuver: a barrel roll. I have had flight lust in my veins ever since. My father taught me to fly and so I soloed the first chance I had. That was my 16th birthday.
My brother in his PT-17 Stearman, and I in a BC12D Taylorcraft, loved to climb through sucker holes on gray dismal days to chase each other and dogfight, dreaming of being WWII fighter pilots.
Until fuel ran low, the rain soaked cornfields of Indiana were lost from our minds. We were at home among the valleys between cumulus clouds. Getting home wasn’t an issue. When the fuel cork bobbed too close to not bobbing at all, it was time to look for a new hole in the cloud deck and scoot for home. There were many times we could not find that hole large enough to legally fly down through. There was our dilemma.
How do we get below? We’d pick the largest pinhole opening we could see, and I would trail my brother to it. Directly over the hole he’d pull the nose straight up. Just as he slowed, he’d spin his plane. As he passed through my horizon, I also pitched my nose up following his path. Then it would be my turn, so I would spin down over the top of him. Our only problem was we never were able to line up our recovery. I would watch him recover from the spin pitching out in one direction, but I without a doubt would recover and pitch out in a totally different direction. After that, I would not find him until we were putting the planes away in the hangar.
We had no fancy IFR equipment. The fanciest device the T-craft had was a vertical airspeed indicator taken out of an old dirigible. We had always been told if caught on top, to spin your plane through the cloud deck. At least that way your airspeed would be relatively slow in case you hit something hard.
Today, through modern instrumentation, one should never have to resort to such tactics to get below a cloud deck, unless you’re flying one of those wonderful ol’ birds that aren’t equipped with such instruments or you get some bad luck on top and lose a few critical instruments. Well anyway, the problem with spinning is that the recovery time could be disastrous if the cloud base were to be just too close to the ground. Yet, how can one safely descend if caught on top? The answer to that I’ve worked on for years. The old fashion slip is the way to get you through. In an airplane without gyros, the pilot is quickly disoriented trying to fly be the seat of his pants. The problem with four variables (Throttle, Rudder, Aileron and elevators) is that usually only the throttle remains a constant.
The answer lies in removing one more variable from the equation, and that variable is the rudder. With the throttle closed, the rudder input set at a constant deflection (usually right rudder), and cross aileron used as a variable to maintain heading, the elevator inputs become necessary for controlling speed. Descent is controlled by throttle. Now, if too much aileron is used with not enough up elevator, your shoulder will feel the increase in side pressure indicating a roll over to the left and likewise the opposite is true if not enough aileron and too much elevator is used indicates a roll to the right. With speed set and as long as your shoulder feels the same pressure and your heading is maintained, you will have stable control of your aircraft even during descent through clouds. Once the plane is clear of clouds, bring the rudder and aileron to neutral and bring the nose up. Recovery is instant. In an emergency, this maneuver could bring you down to VFR minimums with a safe recovery. Slipping through clouds blindly should not be standard practice for any pilot, as it is not a legal, but this maneuver is as important to flying as is spin recovery. It should be used for emergencies only.
Take along another set of eyes on your next flight. Climb up a couple of thousand feet and practice the long forgotten slip with the hood on. Someday you just might have to punch a hole in a cloud instead of losing control and punching a hole in the ground.