Earning My Pax Rating: Many 'Firsts' With This Decathlon Ride

11:15 PM

By Dan Pimentel,
Airplanista Blog Editor

In my continuing series on how I'm earning my "Passenger Rating" after selling my Cherokee 235 this year, I recently enjoyed a great ride with a fellow EAA Chapter 1457 member, Ray Beverly, in his 1972 Decathlon. This outing produced many 'firsts' for me...and while it was really just a scenic flight over the fall colors popping below us in Oregon's Willamette Valley, it will be remembered for a while.
Upon arrival, Ray had Two Charlie Alpha primed, ready and waiting on a chilly but clear Oregon morning at Eugene Airport (KEUG). Beverly has about a zillion hours of time, flying T-38s and B-52s in the U.S. Air Force, followed by a long career first as a Flight School owner and CFI in California and then as a Captain for one of the largest fractional jet ownership companies. After his retirement from that gig recently, he's become known as the "go to" test pilot in the local EAA building community, and throughout all that, he's spent off hours wringing every last ounce of performance out of his Decathlon.
After a great walkaround where he explained the various things that makes the Decathlon such a great airplane, he popped the cowl and thoroughly explained the Christen Inverted Oil System. That ratcheted up my anticipation of doing some aerobatics on this outing, but without the mandatory parachutes at hand, this was to be a more sedated flight. Might have been a good call for me anyway, as my head was already FUBAR from a bout with allergies, so going upside down did not sound pleasing.

As we taxied out, I waved off an offer to handle the plane, simply because I have never driven a tailwheel airplane, and did not feel up to learning. That also went for takeoff...because in 20+ years of flying, I have never touched a control stick, with my hours all being behind yokes. With 0.0 of time in airplanes with the nose gear moved way back under the tail, I decided to let Ray get us aloft...which happened in about 700 feet of runway!
Before we had left the airport environment, Ray handed off control to me, and told me where to point the nose. "Keep it at 80 miles per hour on climb out," he said, and encouraged me to do whatever I wanted because it was - at the time..."my" airplane. Because the Decathlon is an aerobatic ship, it is rigged very well, with zero slop between hand and flight control surfaces. It took maybe :05 seconds for me to realize you do not "fly" a Decathlon, you simply think about changing control inputs...and it happens. I stayed rock solid on climb speed, and once were leveled off in cruise, the VSI looked welded on zero. This is a very easy airplane to fly, I was impressed.
After taking it around the Eugene/Springfield metro area to peep leaves and "wave" the wings to a large group of climbers atop the local "butte", Ray instructed me to head off to a more rural area so he could demonstrate what this airplane can do. No, we would not be going inverted today, but that didn't mean he couldn't give the "G" meter a bit of a workout.
Once clear of the metro area, he asked me to do a steep turn...or what I thought sufficed. In my Cherokee, "steep" was defined as about 45 degrees, and you just mushed around the circle trying to keep the horizon and glareshield in sync to maintain altitude. So I did a couple of turns, which looked like amateur hour, before Ray took back the airplane and demonstrated what doing a "steep turn" means in Decathlon. After adding a bit of throttle, he rolled into a seriously awesome and HARD turn, standing Two Charlie Alpha up on the wingtip to put us into a quick 360-degree rotation. Talk about your "turns around a point" maneuver! This was "pin the wingtip to a barn, and crank it around." It happened so fast, and was graceful while being aggressive. I guess that's how you fly when you've flown all the varied hardware Ray has.
Next up was another first, something I have never done....spins. When I got my Private Pilot ticket in 1996, my instructor was adamant that if you never stall, you will never spin. So he never taught it, and while I'm not sure that is how I'd teach a primary student, being in a spin is something I have never experienced. But Ray's Decathlon seemed to be MADE for spinning, and with such an experienced hand on the controls, I thought now was the day.

Since I have never been in a spin before, I cannot compare this to anything else. But as soon as Ray chopped the power, pulled up into a stall, and stabbed left rudder, Two Charlie Alpha spun very fast, and in a fraction of a second, we were staring straight down at the farms below as they went around rapidly. Of course, he easily recovered right on the exact line to complete the spins as promised, but what it taught me was this: I never realized how aggressive a spin can be, and could easily see how a pilot without spin training could get screwed up in seconds. By the time we completed 1.5 turns in our second spin, my head was starting to wonder which way was up. If I were alone as PIC in the clouds, or trying to horse a plane into a small strip in windy conditions and got myself in this condition without any training, it would have been lights out.

I now highly recommend spin training for every private pilot because when it happens, it happens fast, and you do not have time to remember what to do, you have to have the muscle memory to do it on instincts.

We concluded the flight back at KEUG where Ray demonstrated both kinds of landings available in tailwheel aircraft, a "wheel landing" and the "three-point" landing. I was amazed at the amount of finesse it takes to land this airplane...it is true you do not stop flying it until parked at the hanger door. The physics of a tailwheel craft are so vastly different from a tricycle gear airplane...and I realized that to get properly endorsed to fly these would mean unlearning most of what I know about landing.
This flight checked off a lot of boxes on my passenger rating training. In the regs, it clearly states the following in FAA CFR Title 14 part 91.1234567, subsection 3, paragraph 23:

"Any person wishing to act as a licensed general aviation passenger with all the privileges herein granted with the Passenger Rating shall have no less than ONE (1) flight in a 1972 Decathlon, color of red and white. Such flight may also be flown in a Citabria, Aeronca or Aviat Husky, but a Cessna 152 Aerobat may be used only with prior written approval of the local FSDO Supervisor. This flight must occur with a PIC having logged hours in a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, Northrop T-38 Talon, Van's RV-6, -7, -8, -9, -10 and -12 and Citation X.

Yep, I am one step closer to my passenger rating. I would be lying if I said I don't miss being PIC right now, but this role suits me fine. Sure, the rust is building up, but rust can be buffed out when the time comes. Just being up in the sky with my EAA pals is completely OK with me right now, and my cash contribution to their gas fund is a cheap price to pay to build stronger bonds with a bunch of great people.
This rating has been fun, but it will never be issued until I log the one ride that will certify me as a professional passenger. That's to become ballast in the back seat of a P-51 Mustang.

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