April 7, 1999


What does ‘possum meat taste like? I don't know, but if I asked around, it would not be long before I found someone who would describe its taste in relation to chicken. Chicken is one of life's common denominators, just like bicycles; "...It's like riding a bicycle, you never forget how to do it..."

Airplanes are a lot like bicycles, in that the necessary moves and reflexes, once learned, stay with us. Just as a bicycle's basic operation is different than a car's, so too are an airplane's. We seem to reserve special areas of our brains for different machine categories, and "hardwire" their basic parameters.

I remember as a new pilot, taking my grandfather for a ride. Even though his health was failing and he couldn't feel the bottoms of his feet, he could still fly the airplane with a steady eye. My father had not flown an airplane for 25 years, but he had no trouble controlling the plane when I took him for a ride. On many occasions I have helped people "refresh" skills that had been set aside for years, and in each case, the basic motor skills had remained firm.

Bicycles and airplanes share a lot more common traits than might first be indicated by comparing their speeds and motive power. Both of them are operated in a balance, and both are maneuvered by disturbing that balance. To accurately describe and understand the dynamics of controlling either of these machines, one would have to venture into the realms of physics and mathematics. It's a good thing that kids don't know how complicated their bikes really are.

By the time that most people come to the airport to learn to fly, they are well-tuned into driving automobiles. Four wheels provide them with great stability, and a steering wheel is turned right or left to change directions. Acceleration and deceleration is, for the most part, provided promptly upon demand. All the many dangers posed by other drivers and roadside obstacles are familiar and are accepted as normal.

Long forgotten are the lessons in operating something as unstable as a bicycle. The necessity to keep some speed, but not too much speed, the often erratic ability to stop, and the need to be mindful of the available traction had to be considered. Most people will recall that the bicycle, once mastered, could effortlessly ride, turn, and straighten out "no hands."

The bicycle is turned by shifting its balance just enough to lean it over a bit, and then the balance is shifted back to a neutral value for the duration of the turn. Note that this is different than the way that a steering wheel is handled, by holding it steadily to the right or left until the turn is done. The airplane is turned very much like a bicycle, the controls are used to change the airplanes balance so that the wings bank. It is the bank that causes the turn, and the controls are returned to a neutral position during the actual turn.

Adults feel a need to understand a machine before operating it, and are suspicious of things that are not understood. Everything we do is cast against our life's experience. First we check that the planned action is rational, and then we consider the possible consequences of any mistakes. Imagine if kids learned to ride a bicycle that way? There is a constructive purpose for the breakneck way that kids learn all about the world around them, and there are some valuable aspects of peer pressure, too.

To wish that we could learn as easily as youngsters is no different than wishing we were young again, but maybe there is a compromise. Learning to fly involves a one- on- one program of personal instruction, and a student can spend many hours at the airport and meet few people other than his instructor. A good flying club can provide some of the interactive learning that we once had with other kids in the neighborhood as we were growing up.

All is not lost at a big airport like Elmira, either. We have the local EAA chapter and the National Warplane Museum right next to our hangar, and both of these organizations provide people with other reasons to be at the airport. The Museum's restoration shop is teeming with projects large and small, any of them waiting for a volunteer to "adopt", and the EAA chapter is comprised of people with interests in aircraft construction, restoration and maintenance.

None of us have the time to spend our days like Spanky, Alfalfa, and Buckwheat, while we learn about airplanes. With spring coming, though, each of us should think of how we can help populate our local airports with more new friends.

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