Author Archive

My Bicycle Stories

July 31st, 2013 No comments

By James F. Riordan   copyright 2013

My involvement with bicycles started when I could barely stay on top of a small one with training wheels.

Then, a friend around the corner in Arlington,  Virginia where we lived at 5610 N. 16th St. decided he wanted a bigger bike and I got my first second-hand “big-boy” bike called a “Rollfast”.

1956 Rollfast Bike like my first one

1956 Rollfast Bike like my first one

Just the name conjured up images of roaring down hills with my hair sticking straight out in back.

My dad always supported, or at least understood this “need for speed”, my mom, well, not so much.  I got my first “road rashes” with that bike.  If my memory serves me I believe it was about a “twenty-inch” model, which was smaller than the one in the brochure photo on the left.  I rode that bike until I outgrew it.

About that time we moved to 3188 Pollard St., to a new home in Arlington,  near Military road which was a quicker commute for my Dad to his office in downtown Washington, DC.

It was there that my dad bought me my first large bike, a 26″ Shelby. Boy what a beauty, it had an electric light , a horn, really cushy seat, fake “gas tank”  and it just screamed down those hills all around our home. I was king of the neighborhood. I was also the king of road rashes.

Shelby 1953 traveler like mine

Shelby 1953 traveler like mine

I think this would have been about 1954, I was coming back all excited after riding a Go Kart for the first time. This was one of the first Go Karts that I had ever seen and the first time I had discovered the “rapture” of going uphill without pedaling. It had a 5hp Briggs and Stratton and boy could it slide on those slick “bluestone” streets after our rather predictable thunderstorms we used to get nearly every day. They would sneak up on you at about noon every day , pour for a few minutes and then disappear as fast as they arrived.

I was so excited that day I was riding as fast as I could go down Military road and just as I turned right onto Pollard street, my brand new Shelby bike slid right out from under me. As luck would have it our mailman was right at the end of the street and I slid right under his delivery truck. I had bluestone gravel embedded in me from head to toe. Our mailman had mercy on me and carried me to the front door of our home a couple doors away and handed me over to a very hysterical mom and a very calm but concerned and caring dad.

This was my first memorable time of realizing that if I was going to be a “daredevil”, it was going to hurt.  My Dad told me, ” Son, be a man. This is going to hurt but if you are going to be a crazy man then you have to be a brave one as well.” My Dad proceeded to pluck out all the gravel, many pieces so deep he had to pull them out with tweezers, and then go back and put [OUCH] iodine on all of them.

Little did I know that many, many years later I would be telling my son the same thing for exactly the same reason . . .A nice long slide along an asphalt road  with a rocky topping on his first “big boy bike”!  My son and I turned out to have a LOT in common and still do today although we, at least my half of we, have slowed down a bit. Okay, in my case quite a bit after 25 broken bones!

In my 30′s, I was still a rather crazy person on bicycles as well as motorcycles. We moved from Arlington in 1959 to Marin County, CA and then to San Jose., CA. One time, while vactioning in Yosemite, My wife and I were camping in Camp Curry and decided to rent bicycles to ride “the loop” around the valley floor. ( I use the term “bicycles” loosely here, because these babies were worn out, wobbly and I’m sure had not seen any oil for years)   These were days when I used to be able to jump on the seat of a motorcycle and do wheelies standing on the seat, so, to impress my “Girl”, my wife Lynn, who had stopped to take photos of a waterfall, I yelled what has  proven in many cases to be my most painful words to her . . . “Watch this” . .  . .and jumped up on the seat of the rental bike.

Jim Riordan Standing on bicycle seat in Yosemite

Jim Riordan Standing on bicycle seat in Yosemite

Not long after she took this photo I realized “Interesting point number one” , that the pedals just kept on turning with the rear wheel, so jumping back down and trying to land with both feet on the pedals was going to be nearly impossible; and “Interesting point number two“, the road started to steepen dramatically, and make a turn to the right dead ahead, as the wind “whistled through my tee shirt.”

” Interesting point number three” was that this “bicycle” had no hand brakes, only a “coaster” brake and I was coasting really fast by now.

As I built up more speed, the road took a turn to the right and I took a turn for the worst!

Just about the time I had decided I was going to have to chance jumping down and landing with my butt on the seat, I hit the dirt shoulder of the road and ran square into a BIG log that was laying perpendicular to the road and the bike stopped dead while I went flying.  . . Yup, road and shrubbery rashes again. Dang.  But hey, great photo!

When I got up, the front wheel looked a little like a pretzel and both front forks were bent, but with a little . . . wait, make that a lot of , help from my buddies, we were able to bend it back enough to ride it back and “rack it up” with all the other rentals. Still hurts just thinking about it!

A few years later, I decided to start riding again for exercise. I had to give up Motocross due to broken shoulders and wanted to be able to ride SOMETHING!  So I headed down to my local bike shop to buy a new Peugeot ten speed. I began to ride it around our tract in San Jose and could get into top gear on a slight downhill street nearby and get a little wind in my hair. These were the days when helmets were not yet that common.

One day, I was in top gear and pedaling hard when I saw a guy starting to back out of a driveway in a Fiat X-19 sports car, right in front of me.  We made full eye contact and I truly expected him to stop.  He didn’t. The next moment, still looking at me, he backed right out.  In situations like this in racing, I was used to either laying the bike down or jumping up on the seat and letting the bike hit another motorcycle or whatever obstacle had presented itself and then tumbling over the obstacle and with luck, rolling or tumbling away. I immediately jumped up on the seat, like you saw in the Yosemite photo above.

The bike ran into the right rear quarter panel of the X-19, and put a nice dent in the side. I tumbled over the flat trunk and darn near landed on my feet. . . . But not quite. I ended up laying in the road on my back feeling REALLY lucky. Hardly a scratch.

The X19 driver, who turned out to be a nice guy, but perhaps not the brightest bulb on the tree, said, “This is your fault you know”, as he looked down at me.  I said, “No, it was your fault”.   He literally stammered out, “Bu, bu, but you’re only a bicycle and cars have the right of way!”  I told him, “No, actually Bicycles have the right of way.”  Again, he was a nice guy, and he said, “Well, lets call the police.”  I said “Sure , no problem.” so he went in his home and called the PD.

Jim's bicycle after hitting Fiat X-19

Jim’s bicycle after hitting Fiat X-19

When the PD arrived, they informed him it was indeed his fault and so he gave me his Driver’s license and insurance information and apologized profusely.

The next morning I called the insurance adjuster and he told me , “Well, it’s going to take me a few days to come out there”. I told him,”Look, I am not someone who sues people but I want to keep up my exercise routine and my bike was only a few days old, so there is no depreciation here. I have called my bike shop and they have my exact bike in stock and ready to go. So, here is my deal.  We can do this the easy way and you can meet me tomorrow at the shop and buy me my exact same bike, nothing more and nothing less and we part friends or, I will be on my way to the doctor tomorrow because I am awfully sore.”

The adjuster said,  “You can’t threaten me like that.”  I laughed and said , “I just did.” I told him, “Just think about it and call me back. I am asking for nothing for pain and suffering and if an attorney looks at the photo of my bike with the front wheel alongside the chain gear and the top frame member bent at the seat and the steering head, I won’t even have to say ‘ouch’ and they will pay me way more than the price of the bike alone. I do not want anything but what I had”.

He said he would call his boss and get answer. He called me back within half an hour and agreed to meet me at the bike shop in the morning. He was a man of his word and when we left the bike shop with my new bike, he let me keep my bent bike and gave Lynn and I $40 cash to take us out to dinner for being so easy to work with. In those days you could actually buy a nice steak dinner for two for forty bucks.

I  took the bent Peugeot, straightened the front wheel, salvaged the rear wheel, seat and accessories, bought an old Schwinn frame from a friend, mounted a Honda 90 engine in it and called it the “SCHWONDA”  . . It “screamed” . but that’s another story.









Smoke in the Cockpit

July 23rd, 2013 No comments

By James F. Riordan  Copyright 2013

In mid-November of 1984,when we were living in San Jose, CA., my wife asked me if we could fly up to see her brother and his wife in Santa Rosa for a weekend with them in their new home.

Sonoma County airport (STS) was close enough to their new home so her brother  could easily pick us up. We headed out to the Rental Club, at Reid Hillview (RHV) airport, where we had a membership at the time, expecting to rent a Mooney or Piper Archer as usual and somebody had already beat us to them. About all that was left was this well-worn Beechcraft “N67216” Skipper. An underpowered, slow, Tee-tail “nose dragger” that had definitely seen better days, as demonstrated by the condition of the interior , but it was all that was left, so we took it.

Beechcraft “Skipper”

I noted the time of “wheels up” and set the radios.  After clearance we headed to (STS) and began yawning.  . . .Yep, it was THAT slow.

Exactly 17 minutes into the flight Lynn casually said, “I smell smoke, do you smell that?, I replied , “No, I don’t smell smoke”.  I checked the amp meter and I was still charging well, with voltage in the green.

I told Lynn, “This is a worn old beast so just tell me if you smell it again.

Sure enough after a few minutes she smelled it again.  This time it smelled stronger to her.  However it was only on her side and I could only smell it if I leaned my head over next to hers and then only a little. About 4 minutes later, Lynn said, “look!”: and pointed to a waft of smoke coming out from under the far right side of the instrument panel, right in front of her right arm.

I began shutting off accessories to see if the smoke would stop. Radios off, avionics off, still the smoke kept coming until it was becoming denser and more putrid. I shut off the master switch and within a few minutes, which seemed liked hours, the smoke slowly subsided until it stopped.  I noted the time again and it was 28 minutes until the smoke had stopped.

For you non flyers, the electronics and battery systems on aircraft are completely separate from the magneto generated power which provides spark for the engine to run.  By this time we had only a few minutes remaining until we were within Sonoma County airport airspace. So, I first set the radio frequencies and then turned on the radios and transponder, avionics and then threw on the master switch.

We landed without incident and could detect no warm spots under the instrument panel.  We locked up the plane, tied her down and Lynn’s brother met us and took us to his home for a well deserved adult beverage. Had a great weekend and returned to the plane on Sunday afternoon for what we hoped would be a safe trip home. After starting the engine and checking the amp and volt meters, all “in the green”, I did an extended run-up on the ground and could feel no warm spots under the instrument panel and had no visible smoke.

The final decision to fly home was based on plenty of daylight left, severe clear weather without a cloud in the sky, and ,well, the knowledge that it was NOT MY airplane.  For those of you who do not fly, that last part means I really did not care if I had to land it “off-field” and then simply call the rental operation and tell ‘em where it was.!  I had plenty of off field, short field, and unimproved runway experience and most importantly it was not affecting the engine operation at all.

After the extended run-up I did my “tower talking” and headed off to Reid Hillview airport and home. Again I noted the exact time of wheels up. All was fine until Lynn said again, “Jim, I smell smoke”. It was exactly 17 minutes from wheels up.  Deja Vu all over again as Yogi Berra once said. I could not smell any smoke and all gauges were in the green.

A few minutes later Lynn calmly said, “its getting worse again” and I leaned over and , Yup, it was getting stronger. I did another gauge scan and all was well . . . then the smoke started out from under Lynns right side of the instrument panel again. I tried once again to narrow down the source and could find no obvious cause. This time the smoke became thicker faster and I shut off all the electrical equipment, radios and master switch and just as before, the smoke diminished and then stopped. It was 24 minutes after wheels up which meant the insulation on whatever the problem was , was getting more serious.

We avoided controlled airspace, descended our flight path and then turned everything back on when I had to talk to Reid Hillview Tower. I was given clearance to land, we had no more smoke and we were on the ground in about 15 minutes.

I pulled out the log books and grounded the aircraft with an extensive description of the problems and an admonishment to the A&P  (Airframe and Power plant mechanic) who would be investigating my “squawks”  to specifically NOT just taxi to the run-up  area and let the engine idle for 17 to 25 minutes, I told the mechanic it must be FLOWN for a minimum of 25 minutes, landed, cooled down and re-flown for the same time and then immediately inspected under the instrument panel for any raw or blackened/melted wires.

My instructions took up almost an entire log book page.

Mechanics hate it when pilots tell them what to do, because most mechanics think that most pilots are mechanically illiterate and in fact some are. Without bragging, I am one who is not. I have built race engines, built five experimental aircraft, all of which I personally maintained and still do maintain. I understand engines , wiring, avionics and airframe building and have owned a sheet metal and machine shop. I took the time to write all this out so the mechanic would take all the steps necessary to make the plane airworthy again.

Jump forward to about 10 pm the next evening. a friend of mine named Bob Jenkins calls me up and relays this story.  “Hey Jim, I went to take a friend from work flying tonight .  He had never flown in a small plane so we went over to Reid Hillview and the only rental available was this Beech Skipper, you know that one right?”  I said “Yup” . . .with an eerie feeling of what I was about to hear.

Bob continued, “Well, we took off at dusk” (Oh-Oh) ” and flew down to Morgan Hill to South County Airport” (which is about a twenty minute flight)  . . ” and just about five minutes out from destination I was getting set up for my straight-in landing approach when the inside lights got dim and the cockpit began to fill with smoke.”  He said, “When I clicked the mike key five times to activate the runway lights, the cockpit lights went out, the landing and navigation lights went out and the radio stopped transmitting.”

Note: all over the US, pilots use the microphone “key” to turn on runway lights while transmitting on the landing frequency for the intended airport . . . usually 4 to 8 clicks and all the runway and taxiway lights turn on  along with the VASI ( Visual Approach Slope Indicator)  lights. It is pretty spectacular when folks see this for the first time.

On the other hand, it is no fun when you hit the transmit key the required amount of times and everything remains dark.  That is what happened to Bob. It was a low moonlight night and Bob said, “At least I could see what I thought were the edges of the runway so I started my straight in approach.”

Note:  What he had really seen were long lines of pure white gravel on both sides of the TAXIWAY which were being used to fill in trenched ditches on either side of the taxiway to install the new taxiway outline lights.  The taxiway was actually posted “closed” on the ground but he had no lights to see that.  To make it MUCH worse, in the center length of the taxiway was a large (six ft. tall) mound of dirt running across (perpendicular to)  the taxiway, where they had trenched to connect all the lights running north and south from the center.

Bob said,” The approach went well” and he said “at touchdown I was surprised to feel gravel instead of asphalt but at least I was down and straight”.  He continued, “I know you know that feeling when the wheels are finally firmly planted and you’re saying to yourself, whew, I’m glad we made it.” I agreed that was a great feeling, been there done that, more than once.

Then Bob said , “Well, it was about that time I saw this six foot tall mound of dirt and white gravel dead ahead, with no possible way to stop, so I went to full power, lifted off and, Jim, you know I almost made it. ”  Intrigued, I had to ask “Almost?.  He said, “Yeah, except the nose wheel hit the berm and we went right over on our back sliding backwards and upside down listening to things crunching and cracking until we finally slid to a stop inverted.  The tall ‘T’ tail, stayed intact and it was the only thing that kept us from being hurt badly.  My passenger and I wrestled open the door and we crawled out. My friend had a broken ankle and could not walk unassisted so he put his arm on my shoulder and we hobbled over to the payphone (remember those? ) and called for help.”  When Bob called me he was in the waiting room as his buddy got his ankle in a cast.

I could not believe my ears. That A&P “mechanic” had not followed my mandated procedures and had simply run the plane up for 20 minutes, noted no problems and approved the aircraft to be put back on the flight line. He lost his A&P license over his failure to follow proper procedures resulting in  a potentially fatal crash.

This kind of neglect still happens today at airports all over the US and that is why I recommend that any time a pilot rents an aircraft which has been “squawked”  from a previous flight and then put back on the flight line for rent, the pilot should do his own inspection or more extensive run-up to be sure it is truly safe for further flight.

In my case, my rental days are over.  I have built, worked on, signed off and  flown five of my own experimental aircraft for years now so I know exactly how the aircraft has been operated and maintained.

Fly Safe!






Ultralight Flying

July 18th, 2013 No comments

I enjoy just about anything that gets my feet off the ground. I learned basic flight control when I was a child sitting on my dad’s knee.  Then, a few years later I was washing airplanes at a small airport in Manassas Virginia in exchange for rides and some continuing informal instruction.

My family moved from Washington DC in 1959 and relocated in Northern California.  I tried Hang gliding but crashed promptly (and hard) and decided I really liked “3 axis controls”. That was before the days of two person hang gliding (with an instructor), before trying it alone. I think I should have waited for those days to arrive before trying it. Plus, I did not enjoy having to climb or drive to the top of something before I could get airborne.   I should add that nowadays, many hang glider enthusiasts use Ultralights to tow them to altitude making the sport much more fun and a whole lot less work.

Years later I began flying Sailplanes with Bret Willat at Skysailing airport in Fremont, CA, which has since moved down south. See: Then, my wife and I bought our first airplane, a Cessna 140 “Taildragger” and we both took lessons in it until she was comfortable that she could land in an emergency and I earned my PVT SEL in it (Private, Single Engine Land, with tailwheel endorsement). I went on to get my high performance, complex, aerobatic and low altitude waivers for performing aerobatics in airshows and in the meantime flew everything anyone would let me fly including many antique aircraft and owned a piper Cherokee, a Cessna 150 and two Citabrias. The name “Citabria” was a little marketing gimmick by Champion Aircraft Company . . .  Citabria is Airbatic spelled backwards.

It was many years later, after moving up to the Gold Country and away from the crowded airspace of the Bay area in San Jose, that I really began enjoying flying like never before.   Flying in what is now known as “Class G“ airspace with no towers to talk to and freedom to land at little hidden airstrips all over the Gold Country proved to be the best flying ever, for me anyway.  I have always flown for pure fun, not to get anywhere fast.

Before I left the Bay Area, I had met Craig Catto, now known for his incredible propeller designs. (see:  At that time Craig was designing, I believe in 1979, along with his partner the first “Ultralight” I had seen.  He called it the “Gold Wing” See:

The first versions were a little too heavy to meet the strict design limits of the Federal Aviation Regulations, (FAR Part 103) so Craig lightened it until it eventually complied.  It was an incredibly innovative design at the time and began to pique my interest in extremely light aircraft.

I began to trade aerobatic rides in my Citabria for rides in Ultralights until I had flown enough of them to decide I wanted to buy my own. It seemed to me then, and still does now, to be the purest and most free form of flight that I have experienced.

About that time, around 1991, I was doing a consulting job for a company building an automotive product, when I came across a single seat CGS Hawk Ultralight, stored in pieces in the back of their shop. It was built from a kit designed by a great guy and hang gliding pioneer named Chuck Slusarczyk. I called Chuck and he said he had all the parts in stock to rebuild it.  So, I approached my client and asked him how much he wanted for it and he told me, “Take it, it’s yours, I need the shop space”.

The next day a friend with a trailer and I hauled her home and I went to work on it. The original kit came with a full cloth cockpit cover with doors and large plastic windows, however, I chose to remove that, recover the wings and tail with light aircraft fabric with a Butyrate aircraft “dope” finish and add some light aluminum nose covering but leave the cockpit “open”.  I rebuilt the engine, a Rotax 447  which had been sitting for a couple of years.


This is our CGS Hawk with my son Brett getting ready to fly it. I am pulling the starter

This is our CGS Hawk with my son Brett getting ready to fly it. I am pulling the starter.


She flew great right from the first flight. Today Chuck is still producing them in several versions.  Very simple and sturdy aircraft. Brett and I  had lots of fun in it. To see more check out: .

My Quicksilver MXL Sport II, 2 place Ultralight. Still today, one of the most popular and sturdy designs

My Quicksilver MXL Sport II, 2 place Ultralight. Still today, one of the most popular and sturdy designs

The more I flew Ultralights, I began to do a mix of test flying for friends and acquaintances who would rather have me do the first flights on their aircraft including experimental amateur built (or EABs), first flights after annual inspections on certificated aircraft and first flights on Ultralights.

I earned my Ultralight Flight Instructor Examiner certificate,[or UFIE] and gave other Ultralight pilots who wished to become instructors their tests.  The bottom line is that I gained a lot of experience flying all types of Ultralights and Experimental aircraft.

In 1996 I was asked by the owner to do a flight test on a Hummingbird Ultralight, a small twin engine aircraft which had a “V tail” design.

My hangar mate at the time, Mark Nagy, and I assembled the aircraft and inspected everything as we went.The only parts we could not actually see were the aileron pulley retaining straps right behind the front spars in the leading edge of the wing. We checked the cables and they were free and operable. We lubed the cables, checked all attach points and “ran up” both engines and tuned them for our altitude. They ran perfectly.  This was a very basic aircraft with a sling seat and a right hand “side stick”.   One of my best friends, Dr. Doug Pleatman, a pilot and U.S. Accuracy Champion skydiver came to help monitor the flights . . . .  Thank God!

Hummingbird Assembly With Mark 101996

Hummingbird Assembly With Mark 101996

When our assembly and inspection was completed, I taxied the aircraft to the runway at Placerville airport (PVF) ran the engines up again and then did my first short and low “hop” to test pitch authority of the V-tail elevators. Pitch control was excellent.   My second test hop was to test “Yaw” authority and the V-tail rudders once again proved effective. On the third hop, I tested “roll” authority and the ailerons proved effective.   You can see a video of a hummingbird in flight at: The hummingbird video at  .

The fourth test was to be a check of the controls in all three axis at about 75 feet above the runway and then landing, with the fifth and final hop to be a “trip around the patch”.

For those unfamiliar with PVF, this airport is sort of an aircraft carrier in the sky with drop offs of over 1,000 feet to the valley on the south side of the runway and a drop off down to a residential area on the north side.

I lifted off for the fourth test and all went well up to 75 feet, then, while testing all three axes, I got hit with a gust of wind from the left and responded with left stick into the wind. With the correction complete, I went to center the stick again and found it had locked up solid to the left, with the left aileron in full left turn mode.   No amount of right pressure would break the aileron loose. As the aircraft began to depart the runway in a left turn, I tried a right rudder skid/slip to get back over the runway and realized if I held my position I was going to run right into the tetrahedron which is a large and heavy wind direction indicator. Hitting it would have been sure death or near death, so I popped off the rudder and ended up in a nice gentle left turn which I kept as “flat” as I could using the rudder and “differential power” of the two engines. Left engine to full power, right engine pulled back just enough to “widen the turn” but not enough to fly straight by any means.

Hummingbird Crash Site from Left Rear

Hummingbird Crash Site from Left Rear

I realized I could not climb and I was lower than the runway level so I was definitely going to impact the side of our mountain, just below the runway.  Oh joy.

I had about a four minute ride during which to ponder my situation and realized there was simply no way out . . .  I was going to impact the side of the hill.  A hill covered with trees. Some tall pines and some scrub oaks.  At the last minute I thought I might have had a chance to get between two trees and then stall the aircraft into the side of the hill facing uphill  . . and  . .  well, . .  I almost made it.

As I was going between two tall pines, and trying to use full differential power, the left wing tip just barely hit the left tall tree and immediately turned my forward speed into a fast spinning spiral into the ground from about 75 feet in the air.

I hit so hard, I left an indentation in the ground and the impact was later estimated to be around 49 “G”s , typically enough to kill you.  When all the crashing sounds stopped, the smell of dripping gas hiss-hiss-hissing, on the hot engines started.  I tried to wiggle out of the seat but was firmly pinned in the bent aircraft.  Only a few minutes seemed like an eternity and then the first person arrived on the scene.  It was my Bud Dr. Doug Pleatman.

Doc had called the paramedics who were only a few minutes away and in no time they had hacked a path through the brush down to me and had me in an ambulance headed to Marshall Hospital in Placerville.

The pain was more substantial than I had ever felt, but I could move my toes and fingers and was thanking the Lord for that .  At Marshall hospital with Dr. Doug by my side, the X rays came back and the ER doc said, “There is no way we can do anything for you here, we’ll have to transport you by ambulance to Mercy San Juan Hospital in Sacramento.  You have a shattered vertebra and a piece of it is cutting into your spinal cord”.

It was about then that I realized that I could no longer feel my sphincter muscle . . .  But, I could still move my toes. Doc Pleatman asked the ER doc , “Say doc do you ever give a shot of steroids to prevent the tissue around the spine from swelling and forcing the bone chips from a blown apart vertebra from cutting spinal cords?”  [I did not know it yet but I had literally blown apart T12, and L1 and L2 vertebrae} The ER doc said “No we do not do that.”  I jumped in and told the ER doc that if he “did not listen to my doc and I ended up paralyzed, I would come back and find him in my wheelchair”.  Doc Doug calmed the situation by saying, “Well doc, have you ever heard of any negatives from giving such shots? And the ER doc said “no”  Then Doc Doug said, “well then we have nothing to lose do we? “

The ER Doc gave me the shot right where my Bud told him to and if I had not gotten that shot, I would not be walking today.  Here is what my back looks like today from the back(left) and from the side(right).

Back rods and screws

Back rods and screws

Back rods and screws side view

Back rods and screws side view

It took me nearly a year to recover from those operations but the minute I could, I was back in the air again in my own Ultralight, a beautiful two place Flightstar II SL which had been sitting and waiting for me. I even got my back surgeon to go for a flight with me and he loved it!

Below is a photo of Dave, one of one of my great flying buddies in a two place Flightstar IISL that was exactly like mine, just a different color.  Great plane! Flew really well and most any weekend you could find us flying around the valley, landing on levee roads along the river and having our paper-sack lunches in the middle of nowhere.  Flying does not get much better than this.

Dave shuts down after solo flight

Dave shuts down after solo flight

My two place Flightstar was not rated for aerobatics and I was missing doing aerobatics A LOT!. So, I decided to build an aerobatic single seat Ultralight as soon as I was again able to tackle a new project.   After a few months,  I finished my new single seat aerobatic Ultralight that was a real beauty and was incredible in the air. I worked with the factory to add some of my own design mods even though the aircraft was already approved as an aerobatic plane in several other countries.

FS Spyder best pic

FS Spyder inst pnl 2

The Cockpit was a work of art with a right side “joy” stick like many of today’s jets and the handle on the left was for the brakes.  It featured a five point aerobatic harness.  Red handle on the left is for the Ballistic Recovery system Parachute.  The small gage under the white stopwatch is the G meter.  CHT (cylinder head temp) and EGT (exhaust gas temp) gages are on right side.

Getting ready to go fly upside down. Note the top-mounted BRS Parachute canister

Getting ready to go fly upside down. Note the top-mounted
BRS Parachute canister that eventually saved my life:
BRS Parachute Canister Website


I believe this plane was one of the best planes I have ever flown. I still love them today. One day as my buddy Mark Nagy, owner of a drum filler equipment manufacturing company  and I were  out flying, a local radio station airborne traffic reporter, whom we knew, (Commander Bill Eveland) who flew for KFBK radio in Sacramento, heard Mark and I talking on the air com channel and asked us for a traffic report on Hwy 50 traffic.  We gave him the report and then he asked if we could “see the old Salmon Falls Bridge “ that only pops up in the American river as it gets low each year. I told him I would go check it out and I pulled the nose up steeply like I had done so many times before and kicked the rudder hard right to enter a spin to the right. {I had done 22 turn spins from 10,000 feet in this bird and she was steady as a rock}  ! could easily pull her out right on a point.

This time it did not work out that way, after several turns of the spin, which I entered at about  2000 ft. AGL (Above Ground Level), when I hit left rudder, it would not budge.  The right rudder was “nailed” to the floor. I tried everything I could, power on, power off, tried to pitch it over inverted . . nope nothing worked. The rudder had jammed itself into a mechanical/aerodynamic lockup, an almost unheard of phenomenon (which by the way was immediately fixed by the factory and as far as I know has never happened again)

I radioed Commander Bill and my buddy Mark and told them I was going to pull the BRS ballistic chute.   Finally at about 750ft AGL, I pulled the chute. It opened instantly.  I gave commander Bill my GPS coordinates and he radioed the CHP (California Highway Patrol) medevac helicopter and gave them my position.  Had my landing gone as hoped, I would have floated down and landed on the ground in a still intact aircraft, but that was not to be. I NOW know that I could have restarted the engine and pulled myself over to a nice sandy beach under near full power, but I did not know that then.  I HAD restarted the engine to pull myself away from a rocky cliff, but the more throttle I used, the more the aircraft nose went upward and I did not want it to deflate the chute, so I shut the engine off, shut off the fuel and electrical system and gently floated down into the top of a huge 50 ft. Oak tree.

And, I am scared of heights. For a few seconds that seemed like an eternity, I pondered how the heck I was going to climb down from this big tree . . . .  but I did not have to ponder very long.  I began to hear branches breaking and slowly the aircraft slid out of the tree and went straight down nose first onto a very HARD mountain bike path, breaking that pretty red nose and bending it upward taking my right knee and right leg up with it until it blew apart my right knee. And it HURT a LOT.

I sat there pinned in the wreckage and listened to the sound of gasoline hissing as it dripped on the hot engine and exhaust pipe. I remember, vividly, sitting there, not really scared since I was probably in semi-shock, while I pondered what it would feel like to burn. About that time, two guys appeared, mountain bike riders, who had heard the ballistic rocket fire and then watched my descent . They were both sons of two different California Highway Patrolmen, God bless’em .

Their first words were, “Hey man are you ok?”  I cannot possibly express my level of joy of seeing them.  I said, “No guys, I am pinned and I think my right leg is broken”.   They jumped in and lifted the nose of the plane and then gently helped me out. Literally by the time I was out of the aircraft, JC Dodd, one of El Dorado County CHP’s best helo drivers was landing his medevac helo “H10” in a tiny clearing behind me that BARELY cleared his rotor blades. And this was SIX MINUTES after I hit the ground.  JC just happened to be in our area when Commander Bill gave him my coordinates.

 Red nose broken upward.  Engine mount and frame tube bent straight down. Nose wheel gone. Tail Boom twisted and bent

In the above photo you can see the crushed nose, the broken and twisted “Tail Boom” and see that one blade of the three blade prop almost hit my left hand hold, within about 8 inches. I was very lucky.  At least I had a well-reinforced back.  My right leg and knee were not so lucky but, hey they are a LOT stronger now with a titanium plate and ten screws.   Without the BRS chute I would not be writing this!

Right leg plate screws front view

Right Leg Plate Screws Front View

Thanks pilot JC Dodd and thanks Medic Leslie Berndl (of CHP H10) .  I will ALWAYS remember you.  Many people have no idea that our California Highway Patrol helicopter rescues climbers, accident victims etc. AT NO CHARGE.   My same ride in a private helo would have cost $10,000!!  [See a CHP medevac helicopter in action on You Tube at ]

I am a big believer in Ballistic parachutes (parachutes fired from the aircraft by a rocket) I was save 141. See:  and they are now up to save 295 . .  that’s a lot of lives saved   My new aerobatic airplane has, yup, a BRS chute in it today!  And last of all, every time I have been stopped by CHP for speeding, I THANK THEM  (:>))

It has been years since that crash and I have been back flying full size aerobatic planes I built myself ever since  . . .  but I still think about landing Ultralights on dirt roads, picnicking out in the middle of fields, on mountain tops and near or on islands in the middle of lakes and the pure freedom of Ultralight flying .  I miss that and may have to have another one, one day. They are getting better every year now.

Speaking of the freedom there are a couple of funny stories to share. One nice sunny day one of my buddies and I were out flying low meaning about 5 feet off the deck and we came upon what seemed like an endless vineyard, with nice wide rolling hills with dirt roads in between the rows of vines.  Looked like a perfect place to have our bag lunches, so we popped down on one of the roads and came to a stop at the top of one of the rolling hills, shut off our engines and broke out our lunches. We were commenting on what a beautiful spot this was when we noticed rising dust clouds from a truck coming down the road toward us. When it reached us, the driver hopped out and asked, “Do you guys know where you are? And I said, “Yup, eating lunch” and he stammered, “But, but this is Franzia Vineyards”, I could not help it, I said “GREAT, where is the tasting room.”  That broke the ice and we all started laughing.  I told him we didn’t really drink and fly and he said, “Ok guys finish your lunches and just take off I will pretend I never saw you . . . and DON’T CRASH!”

Another great story was landing UP the spillway at Comanche reservoir , near Ione, CA and having lunch. This spillway is huge but perfectly protected for lunching in Ultralights. The spillway is extremely steep and plenty wide and at the top there is a big half-round area that is blocked off to boats, so they don’t accidentally go over it when the water level is high.  This was summer and Lake Comanche was lower than the spillway, but the string of buoys was still in place, so even the Ranger’s boats could not reach it.  To keep people from falling into the spillway, it is surrounded by a 12 ft high chain link fence with no gates which also keeps the Rangers at (forgive me) “bay”.

This is right after landing, looking up to the top of the spillway with the overcrossing in sight in between.  We taxied to the top, turned the planes around, ate lunch at the top and then flew out under the overcrossing.

This is right after landing, looking up to the top of the spillway with the overcrossing in sight in between. We taxied to the top, turned the planes around, ate lunch at the top and then flew out under the overcrossing.

We were about finished with our lunches when a Ranger on the outside of the fence yells down, what do you guys think your doing?”  We responded, “Eating lunch”.  He said, “this is illegal, you two stay right there”.  Keeping in mind that this is one long and steep spillway, the only way to reach us was by 4 wheel drive jeeps. . and they had one.  They could not see our registration numbers since they were under our wings.   We had a clear view of the jeep trail to the bottom so we finished our lunches, stowed our trash and started our engines just as the jeep started up from the bottom of the spillway. There is a road overcrossing about halfway down, so we were in the air almost immediately due to the slope , flew under the overcrossing and then did steep climbing turns and we were outa there!  Not many folks can say they flew in and had lunch in the spillway at Comanche reservoir. Below, that’s Mark grinning away right before lunch.  You can see how high the sidewalls are.

Jim and Mark in lake Camanche spillway

Jim and Mark in lake Camanche spillway


Ya know . . . . I think I need another Ultralight.



Skydiving at Pope Valley Parachute Ranch

July 17th, 2013 No comments

It was one of my best friends, Jerry Wyatt, who first got me interested in skydiving, even though all my life I have been afraid of heights.

My Dad had the last privately owned franchise of the John Hancock Life Insurance company based in Washington DC and every year I can remember they flew him up to Boston to try to talk him into selling his franchise back to the “Home office”. He would say,”No” every year until 1959 when they finally “made him an offer he could not refuse”. So, In 1959 My Dad, Mom and I flew together to Boston to finalize the deal.

One evening, my dad and I stayed in the building after everyone had left and my dad said, “C’mon son, I ‘m going to show you a sight few have seen”. At that time, the John Hancock building was the second tallest building in the U.S., topped only by the Empire State Building in New York City. This was long before the Twin Towers days.

We went up to the top floor and then climbed several more flights of stairs up to an area which I am pretty sure was available only to the maintenance people. My dad opened a windowed door that opened onto a wide ledge which, as I recall, had no railing. Against my most vigorous objections, my dad took my hand and we stepped out onto this windy ledge far above anything else in the city of Boston and stared down at the street lights far below and all of the other surrounding skyscrapers.  My dad had absolutely no fear of heights.  I, on the other hand have always had a hearty fear of heights unless I have an aircraft or parachute strapped on me.  That ledge scared me nearly to death.  To this day I just don’t like heights. I can force myself, but only barely.

So, many years later when one of my best friends, Jerry Wyatt, said we should go Skydiving, my knees knocked together with a volume I’m sure those around me could hear. .  [All these years later that still sounds funny to be coming from an experienced aerobatic pilot, but yup, my knees still knock together at any height unless I am strapped into my airplane].

My wife, Lynn, however immediately thought parachute jumping would be great even though she too is uneasy with heights. Jumping out of perfectly good airplanes didn’t bother her a bit.  She loved it.

Jerry Wyatt learning to exit and hold onto strut

Jerry Wyatt learning to exit and hold onto strut

Several weekends later, on July 12, 1975 we were in a rented Piper Cherokee, with Jerry flying, on our way up to Pope Valley Parachute Ranch near St. Helena to go for our first parachute jump.

Things were MUCH different then. Nowadays a first parachute jump, in fact your first several parachute jumps, are made in a “Tandem Rig” in which the jumper is harnessed to an instructor. In 1975, the three of us had to attend a full day class involving classroom instruction, then learning “PLF”s or Parachute Landing Falls, by jumping off a (to me) rather high platform and learning to bend your knees, land in a big “sand box” and then roll your body to absorb the landing shock.  These were repeated over and over until our instructors considered us ready.

Kathy Kruger jumping off the “strut” at “GO”

Kathy Kruger jumping off the “strut” at “GO”

Next came ground instruction on how to exit the aircraft, which in our case was a Cessna 180 “taildragger” with an “in flight door” which opened UP (as opposed to “out”) and latched in place underneath the wing of the airplane. We were to step out and put our left foot onto the entry step and put our right leg out in the slipstream, while maintaining a (for me) “death grip” on the aircraft wing’s lift strut. We practiced this on a wooden platform with a simulated “strut” We were to hold this position until our instructor slapped our leg and yelled “GO” at which time we were to jump off the aircraft, still attached by a “static line” and immediately get into and maintain a “belly-out” arched back position until the static line pulled the parachute for us and we were then “on our own”. In order to reach our intended landing spot, we had to “steer” using “toggles” which were above our head on the left and the right side of our main harness.  Pulling on a toggle opened a flap toward the rear of the T10 Round canopy, the same kind used by airborne troops. Very simple design.  Pull right to go right, pull left to go left and pull neither one to go straight ahead, or pull both at the same time to descend rapidly.

You can learn more about the T-10 Parachutes on Wikipedia® .  They have lots of info on them at:

According to Wikipedia, depending upon air density and the jumper’s total weight, the T-10 parachute’s average rate of descent is from 22 to 24 feet per second.  The total suspended weight limitation is about 375 pounds. I believe our nylon parachutes were deployed using a 20 foot static line, allowing the parachutist to be easily launched at speeds from 85mph to 130 mph.

Throw your arms back and arch your back as hard as you can!

Throw your arms back and arch your back as hard as you can!

The maximum suggested ground-speed wind for the T-10 was about 15mph.  Any more than that and the old round chutes could give you a pretty hard landing. However, those old chutes could provide a perfect stand up landing in a 10mph to 13 mph wind on the ground. Once you mastered it, that is.

If I recall, our reserve parachutes were attached right to the front lower part of the parachute assembly which consisted of five components: pack tray, harness, deployment bag, risers, and canopy.

So, after learning how to fall and roll, arch our backs and throw our arms back and our chests out, it was time to hit the sky.  One funny part of this story is a businessman who had brought 4 of his female staff with him. All day long, he was teasing them about how they would be too scared to exit the plane when the time came . . . the laugh was, all of the ladies jumped while the loudmouth refused to get out of the plane . . true justice we thought!

[Now I must digress for an important note.  I was at that time still very active in motorcycle scrambles racing and Motocross racing and had suffered broken shoulders, both left and right, and multiple dislocations of both thereafter.  My shoulders were so loose that I could occasionally dislocate a shoulder simply by pulling a door shut behind me! I used to have to pop them back into place by placing the disjointed arm between my knees and then quickly straighten up while turning slightly to get the arm back in place.[John Wayne style as he did in one of his movies!! ]

All day, in the class, along with, and in between the PLFs, we were told over and over and over by our instructors that “as soon as we leave the plane” we are to “THROW our arms back and our chest out and arch our backs ”  This was repeated over and over, to be sure we remembered to get into the proper position immediately to be ready for the chute opening, so that we would be in the proper position for the opening, which would become very important when it came time for our “freefalls” to begin.  In those days we had to complete 5 static line jumps minimum before we would be eligible for freefall.

After the class had practiced proper exits for some time, we were divided into groups of three based on our “gross weights”, donned our “pure white” Jumpsuits and the heaviest person would load last and exit first.

That’s me on the far left getting ready to load in our pure white jumpsuits . . More on that later . .

That’s me on the far left getting ready to load in our pure white jumpsuits . . More on that later . .


I was the heaviest person in our plane and my wife was the lightest, so I would have to get out first. [See photo at left]  Oh the joy. Lastly, we were instructed that as we jumped off the step we were to yell out “Arch thousand, two thousand, three thousand” and the parachute would open as we said the last “thousand”.  I’m certain that many of our class said that properly, but I’m also pretty sure that my count went something like “Arch .thoohhhhhh shhhiiiii”    . .I threw my chest out and when I went to throw my arms back, my left shoulder popped out of joint so fast it was unreal. I was totally unprepared for how strong a force the wind would be against my arms (and shoulder) at our forward airspeed.

Immediately, I felt the incredible pain of the dislocated left shoulder, and I pulled it in close to my body and started to reach around with my right arm to get my dislocated arm back in place. That action caused me to go into an immediate roll onto my back just as the static line was pulling the parachute out of the pack on my back.  I felt a burning on my left wrist and then looked up and saw a nice round canopy.  “YES!”

Then came the struggle to get my shoulder joint back in place.  I managed to “pop” it back into place.

Scar from parachute riser 7121975

Turns out the burning on my left wrist was from the static line pulling the chute out and one of the parachute cords had literally cut a groove into my arm as it was whizzing by.  That groove is still easily visible as I write this, 38 years later. [See photo at left] .  I then realized that I could not get my left arm up high enough to reach the left “steering toggle” so I basically just floated down getting further and further away from our designated “Drop Zone” target.

As I floated down I noticed I was being sprayed with droplets of some liquid. It was going into my eyes and my face and all over my PURE WHITE jumpsuit.

A few minutes later, I realized I was WAAY off course and headed for what looked like a dirt road next to a grass field.  I was headed for the grass field and thankfully (yet uncontrollably) headed INTO the wind. The wind was approximately 10mph which just about equaled the forward speed of the parachute. Great, I thought, at least it will be an upwind landing so the landing should not be too hard.

It was just about then that I noticed there seemed to be a line of tall grass in my landing spot . . .THEN, I saw that the “line of tall grass” was actually un-mowed grass UNDER A BARBED WIRE FENCE . . . EEegad!!   We had been warned to stay away from barbed wire fences, but no one had told us what they looked like from ABOVE.  An added bonus was this was the type of fence that had white metal “stringer” posts that were virtually invisible from above.  . . . I immediately reached up with my good arm and pulled on the right toggle as hard as I could.

The parachute responded quickly with a right turn and now I was going about 20mph downwind to a tumbling landing in a dirt road with about 4 inches of the finest dust/dirt you could imagine. I was instantly covered head to toe with this brown dust on my white jumpsuit.

When I finally stood up and tried to dust myself off, I realized my jumpsuit was also covered in red dots of blood.  I imagine I was quite a sight to see. My left wrist was now squirting blood and I had to hold it closed as best as I could with my right hand as I walked back to the hangar.

As I approached the hangar, the next class of students were getting ready to go. I looked at some of them staring at me literally with their eyes wide open and some of them with their jaws dropped open . . . I looked at the group and yelled, “That was GREAT, you guys are going to love it!!

In retrospect that must have looked pretty funny to onlookers. I walked inside and the drop zone owners, Tim Saltonstall and Curt Curtis looked at me and queried, “What the hell happened to you?”  After I explained it, they said, “Well, no more jumps for you until you get your shoulders operated on.”

I had been putting those shoulder operations off for a long time so I had them both done and then returned to the drop zone a few months later to complete more static line jumps and finally

First Jump Certificate

totaled enough jumps to begin my freefalls.

My wife Lynn loved skydiving and actually completed her fifth jump and then found out she was pregnant with our son Brett.

Jerry wyatt and I began bringing large groups up for the first jump classes and Tim and Curt began giving us free jumps in return for bringing the classes.

Later we would learn that Jerry and I had brought the most new students to Pope Valley to complete their first jump than anyone else. I received a nice letter from Curt Curtis which you can see below. (Note: From 1970-1977 Curtis was a Member of the 1971, 1972, 1976 and 1977 US National Parachute Teams). He was US National and World Parachuting Champion in 1977.

Pope Valley Parachute Ranch, Inc. letter to Jim Riordan


Jerry and I had lots of fun bringing these large groups to pope valley. Jerry and I would go jumping while the classes finished up and then we helped on the ground, directing students with a big arrow which the students would watch on their way down as we continually pointed the arrow in the direction of the drop zone landing area, a gravel circle in the middle of a field..

Tanya runs to see Lynn after Lynn’s first jump.  Check out that grin!

Tanya runs to see Lynn after Lynn’s first jump. Check out that grin!

My wife Lynn would jump with us several times as well. The photo on the left is Lynn Riordan right after her first jump. Tanya, one of the instructors is running to congratulate her for landing right near the center of the gravel target area.  Pretty darn accurate for a first landing and just check out that big grin on Lynn’s face.  She got the closest to the center of the target than anyone else in our class.

Every now and then, “Stretch” the pilot who flew the Beech 18 would allow me to fly right seat as we took groups of experienced skydivers up to 12,500 feet and dropped them out and then we followed the free-fallers down right over the top of the formation and then dive down, turn tight around the big oak tree at the end of the runway  and pick up another load. Riding with Stretch was always a thrill for me.

Years later, Stretch, who is now flying skydivers at Lodi Skydiving center just South of Sacramento, CA again took me up to put out a large formation of Skydivers and let me fly right seat in Bill Dause’s DC3 back home. Flying the DC3 was a real thrill for me. Very light on the controls at cruise and very heavy in landing configuration,

That’s me on the left and Jerry Wyatt on the right, after our first free-falls.  You could not chisel those smiles off!

That’s me on the left and Jerry Wyatt on the right, after our first free-falls. You could not chisel those smiles off!

especially just before touch down.  I cannot even imagine how many flight hours Stretch has by now. Many of the skydivers who used to frequent Pope Valley Parachute Center moved down to make Lodi their new home “Drop Zone”.   In fact Lodi has become Northern California’s premiere Drop Zone.  You can read all about them or even better, book a jump at

The owner of The Lodi jump center Bill Dause holds the world record for hours spent in freefall and can provide instruction from first jump through freefall

“relative work”.

We had many great experiences taking jump classes up to Pope Valley. I could not even estimate how many people we took all total, but it was a LOT. I know I recruited over 80 employees of FMC ordnance engineering department alone when I worked there.

Of all the classes we brought to Pope Valley, we had only one “incident” that would have been comical had it not been for the damage done. I cannot remember his name, but this student breezed through class with sort of a cocky, “this will be easy attitude” but sometimes it is that very attitude that can change very quickly once you are airborne and that in-flight door opens up, the wind whistles by and you realize you are going to have to climb out the door and actually, well, JUMP!

This particular student did not panic in the aircraft, but he “froze up” solid once he jumped off the plane.  I noticed that he was not “following the arrow” to the landing site early on and was not responding to my directional instructions at all. As he got lower, I jumped on my little Honda 70 mini-trail I brought along as ground transportation and followed his route as he headed for the aircraft parking area at the far end of the field.  As he got low enough to hear me, I began yelling at him to turn back toward the grassy field and away from the parked airplanes. . . . No response. He was absolutely frozen.  . . . . and now heading downwind at approximately 15 to 17mph.

As he got closer to the parked airplanes, I was hoping he would land between them but that was not to be. When his feet, with laced up hard-toed boots , were still about 6 feet off the ground, his right foot impacted the left inner leading edge of a brand new Cessna 182 and dented the leading edge clear in to the wing spar, immediately grounding the airplane.

Note the leading edge of the wing smashed back to the spar!

Note the leading edge of the wing smashed back to the spar!

Since he was still being pulled along by the chute, amazingly, he flipped over- from the impact and the pull of the parachute-  in what appeared to be a somersault and then crossed over to the right side of the plane where, as he came down, his LEFT boot went clean through the top of the rt. horizontal stabilizer and out the bottom, missing the inner ribs and creating a big  hole all the way through the stabilizer!  Unbelievable.

He jumped up, just as I arrived next to him.  He looked at me and said, “I’m never doing that again!  . . . .and then he unfastened the parachute harness and reserve chute, dropped it on the asphalt, took off the jumpsuit, removed the boots, and quickly beat a path to his car and left the drop zone.

About that time, the unsuspecting owner of this factory new airplane came out of the nearby restaurant, (which was famous for its prime rib and was located right on the field along with a small motel)  where he had stopped for lunch on his way home from picking the plane up from the factory back east, and he could not believe his eyes. His brand new airplane now damaged and grounded leaving him with no transportation.  I know Curt and Tim took care of the plane owner and the damage but I never did learn whether the skydiver ever paid anything or whether the drop zone ended up paying the full bill.

It was not too long after that when a member of, I believe, of the “Hong Kong Parachute team”, based in England, who had come to California to practice, was not watching where he was going and walked right into the spinning propeller of the 180 killing him instantly and damaging the aircraft. I can empathize with the poor pilot who told me later, “Jim, by the time I realized he was oblivious to the propeller, there was nothing I could do .I had no horn, I could not back up and then “Wham” and it was over . . . These guys walk near spinning props all the time  . .  I could not believe it!”. He felt terrible and suffered with the memory of that incident for a long time.

Not long after that I called to book another class and found out that there was no more Pope Valley Parachute Ranch.   Later I would learn that most or all of the group except Tim Saltonstall and Curt Curtis had relocated to Lodi.


Spins, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

May 14th, 2013 No comments


February 20, 2013


Jim Nissen, Jim Riordan and a 1918 Curtiss Jenny

Jim Nissen, Jim Riordan and a 1918 Curtiss Jenny

Over 45 years and thousands of hours of flying I have been privileged to fly many different aircraft from Ultralights (in which I was a AFI or advanced flight instructor) to complex, turbocharged and high performance SELs, Gliders, and antiques including an OX5 powered 1918 Curtiss Jenny (shown here with Jim Nissen Standing in the plane and me climbing in in the red jacket.), an OX5 powered Thomas Morse scout, an OX5 powered American Eagle Bi Plane, and a Ryan PT22. During that time I have had many, many conversations with pilots from beginner students, to novice low time private pilots, Certified Flight instructors (CFIs) and airline transport pilots (ATPs). One subject which never fails to generate the most angst amongst the most pilots is the SPIN. Some would say the “Dreaded Spin.”

Frankly, I love them. I learned to fly when FAA spin recognition training actually included fully developed spins. Sadly, for many pilots today, the FAA no longer requires actual spin training, only “spin recognition”.  It is my opinion that spin recognition is not even close to the experience of actual spin training.

Many pilots seem to believe they don’t need spin training since they will simply practice “avoidance”. Problem is, though, sometimes, unintentional spins can sneak up on you and ruin your day if you are not properly prepared.

A fairly common sequence which can sneak up on a novice or low-time pilot, and can lead to an unexpected and certainly unintentional spin, can come from making an uncoordinated (too much rudder) turn towards a runway while approaching for a landing.

A pilot may sense he is overshooting his base leg and thus thinks he will miss final approach, so he adds more rudder instead of more rudder and aileron .thus increasing the bank angle while dropping the nose at the same time. The pilot then yanks back on the stick to get the nose back up and voila, the perfect setup for a stall followed by a spin at an unrecoverable altitude. This scenario is played out typically several times per year across the Country. This is why I recommend that every student pilot find a flight school that will safely teach you 1) Spin recognition and, 2) REAL, FULLY DEVELOPED spins early in your flight training.

My first recommendation would be to contact an old friend and now the best civilian airshow performer in the world, Sean Tucker He owns and runs the Tutima Academy of Aviation Safety  You could not learn from a better guy, better school or better pilots. Please tell him I sent ya! You can learn more about Sean at .

Dave Gray, Jim Riordan and Lennert Von Clemm

Dave Gray, Jim Riordan and Lennert Von Clemm

My second choice would be Aerodynamic Aviation at Reid Hillview airport,(RHV) you can find them at: in San Jose, CA. (ask for my dear friend Dave Gray and please tell him I sent you!)  In the photo on left Dave Gray is on the left, I am in the center and our dear friend, the late Lennert Von Clemm is on the right)  Aerodynamic Aviation used to be called Amelia Reid Aviation and several of my friends and I (including Sean Tucker), learned spins and beginning aerobatics there from Amelia herself.  She was so confident, she would show us maneuvers and then she would sometimes fall asleep in the back seat while we practiced them. Really! She would always wake up before landing!  Of course Sean Tucker has to be their most famous student  . . . but I digress.



Yes they can be good. First, in my opinion, they are an excellent maneuver to be used in a number of situations in which you may want to lose altitude quickly. I have done that many times in sailplanes thanks to my dear friend Bret Willat of Sky Sailing Glider port who taught me to fly gliders and sailplanes.

I have also spun down in my Champion Citabria 7ECA to get below the cloud cover going into Reid Hillview (RHV) Naturally this is done outside the controlled airspace of any airport to avoid traffic anywhere near the pattern. Another example would be in a situation where you unexpectedly face a forced landing in an area where your only option is an approach to a small landing area surrounded by tall hostile terrain or trees such that you can spin down within the surrounding terrain and then make a tight circular pattern to a short field landing. Been there, done that. REALLY glad I had the proper training in my “toolbox” for that. (Thanks Bret Willat, Len Von Clemm, and Dave Gray!)

Another reason they can be good is to keep your “stick and rudder” skills “on the bubble.” Len Von Clemm and I used to go out together in a Decathlon and have contests to see who could do the best precision recovery to a predetermined heading. We would usually start at 5 turn spins, and (sigh) he would most often win . . .but hey, I was flying with one of the best.  Sometimes I would end up with a slight “bobble” at the end to get precisely on target, Len would almost always be dead on. We have “wrung each other out” for over an hour at a time, loving every maneuver and every minute of it. [Sidenote: Len was the pilot who flew the Tri Motor in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”. Len taught me how to fly that same Tri motor along with other antique aircraft that belonged to our mutual dear friend, the late Irv Perch, who built the “Flying Lady” restaurant in Morgan hill, named after his wife Jan Perch.   Irv had a large collection of antique aircraft and I was one of a few pilots who had permission to land on his golf course right at the restaurant to go in and visit him. The Tri motor is now at Kermit Weeks “Fantasy of Flight” living history museum in Florida]

Then there is the pure fun factor. Yes, they are great fun, at least for those of us blessed with a stomach that can accept some “rockin’ and rollin”.  In aircraft equipped with inverted fuel systems you are able to transition from inside spins (where the pilot is on the inside), to outside and back and also transition from a standard spin to a “flat spin” and back which is a maneuver best left until you have mastered standard spin recovery.  Lastly, full spin entries are wonderful for teaching students to become comfortable with STALL recovery since an aircraft must be stalled in order to spin.



Just as they can be good, they can be bad.  Some pilots, especially in training stage, become easily disoriented when doing spins and can experience varying degrees of under reaction, over reaction, opposite reaction, NO reaction or simply “freezing up”. The last can be a little traumatic to the poor bastard in the other (or back) seat.

Years ago I had an experienced pilot to whom I was teaching spins in a Citabria 7KCAB “freeze solid” on me. I was sitting in the back seat, and I could not see his face. I had demonstrated spins right and left and recovery in 3 turns on the proper heading, following a long, straight dirt road in a field below. We climbed back up and started at about 5,000 feet.  At altitude, I asked him if he “was ok” and I got a definitive “yes”. I told him “your airplane” and he acknowledged “I have it” He seemed fine.

I reminded him this was to be “three turns ending with the nose on the road in the same direction as when we started”, he acknowledged. He pulled the power back, slowly brought the nose up, checked he was in alignment with road, and then pulled the stick back and applied full right rudder. I had asked him to “call the turns” as the nose aligned with the road. He counted, “One, Two, then nothing.  As the nose passed over the road, I said, “Ok, three turns, let’s recover”.  Nothing.  As we approached 4 turns I said, “4 turns and airspeed, time to recover”.  Nothing. At 41/2 turns I said, “RECOVER NOW, stick forward, left rudder, nose on the road.” Nothing.

I then tried to over-power him but he was “hanging on tight” to everything.  I could not budge the controls. He was taking us straight into the ground. I couldn’t imagine what was going through his mind or the look on his face. So I did what one of my first instructors and best friends taught me (Thanks Dave Gray) and I “Cuffed” him. This where you take both hands, and from behind, hit both sides of his headset at the same time and the pressure inside the “cuffs” of the headset sends an ear splitting pain instantly to the head and brain of the pilot, causing him to think only of that, and break his (Literal) deathgrip on the controls. I was then able to overpower him on the controls and “zoom” out the bottom, darn near redline and pulling 5Gs.

He then asked me, “what happened, why did you do that?” He actually did not recall freezing.  That is how mesmerizing spins and other aerobatic maneuvers can be to some people. This incident made me forever aware how totally “sensual overloading” and overpowering these maneuvers can be to those people.  I could not help but think about what would have happened to this guy if he had tried this maneuver for the first time with a poor unsuspecting passenger.

Since then I have found that this is no isolated incident. This why pilots die every year attempting maneuvers that are over their head or beyond their ability, or worse yet, beyond their fear factor, get disoriented and die. This was an eye opener for me since thank God, I have never been disoriented to the point of incapacitation. I did become somewhat disoriented one time doing vertical rolls into a cloud in a Pitts S1S but I simply powered back, tail-slid out and regained my orientation quickly.

Some pilots new to spins can actually perceive they are spinning in one direction, when in fact they are spinning the other direction. When this happens, applying what the pilot thinks is the correct control input can quickly make the spin “go flat” and cause further disorientation such that unlucky pilots think they are spinning to the left when they are actually spinning to the right. This can easily cause a novice to “hang on too tight”, apply the wrong control inputs and spin right into the ground, trying to regain control all the way down while wondering why the aircraft is unresponsive to his control inputs. This disorientation can happen easily to some folks and not so easily to others . . . yet another reason to do all your training with an experienced instructor in the other seat, behind you or next to you.

To me, the most important thing I have learned about spin recovery in a disoriented situation is, “If pushing the rudder pedal in one direction does not work immediately, DON’T PUSH HARDER on the same rudder pedal, PUSH THE OPPOSITE RUDDER.



Yes, just as they can be good or bad, they can be ugly, unrecoverable and deadly. That is why we are: 1.) Supposed to be wearing parachutes when we perform aerobatics, and intentional, fully-developed spins are definitely aerobatics. [Aerobatics are technically defined as bank angles exceeding 60 degrees or nose up or down angles exceeding 30 degrees].2.) We are supposed to be performing them ONLY in aircraft that have been approved for all maneuvers you expect to perform especially including spins. Many aircraft are specifically “placarded” against intentional spins with language such as: “Intentional spins prohibited”. If someone wants to teach you spins in an aircraft with such a placard, decline the invitation!

Performing spins in aircraft that are not approved for spins can have deadly consequences. In years of test flying different types of aircraft, or first flights in experimental aircraft, and doing spins as part of the testing, I can tell you there have been times I nearly had to exit the plane because of poor spin recovery performance, spin induced “flutter” and other anomalies that made recovery nearly impossible. That is why we test them before releasing them for “general aviation” usage. Just as importantly, we should be doing them only in airspace designated for/and/or safe for aerobatic practice.



The first thing you need to learn

Memorize the “mnemonic”  P-A-R-E   for Power OFF/ idle, Ailerons neutral, Rudder opposite the spin, and Elevator to/through neutral.   It is my understanding that the mnemonic “PARE” actually evolved from a ten year spin testing program completed at NASA, and based on intensive and sometimes fatal spin testing involving both NACA and NASA test pilots. Some of this testing dated as far back as 1936. This testing turned into proven procedures which used to be taught in an aircraft, by approved FAA instructors and was used in certifying aircraft for safe flight.

“Real” as in fully involved or “wound up” spins are no longer taught because too many instructors are afraid to do them, soooo the FAA simply turned real “spin training” into “spin recognition” which to me is joke.  It is my belief that no one should be given a ticket to fly passengers until they can prove they can recover from, at a minimum, a simple, fully stalled, two rotation turn to a specific heading, in a Cub or C-150. Until then, as far as I am concerned, there is no proof that they can take others’ lives into their hands and bring’em back alive..

Further, different aircraft each have a different, and sometimes VERY different “feel” which you can only learn from FEELING in my opinion.  Some planes may take only a little stick forward for recovery, while in others you may have to give a pretty darn good push . . . sometimes a LOT before you get recovery .Plus it is my experience that the length of time you must hold a control before full recovery can vary quite a bit. My little CHAOS S9 I have now, (shown below in front of a friend’s house), requires literally just fingertip “nudging” rather than pushing and tugging.  It is light as a feather on the controls and it responds instantly, right side up or upside down.  . . . . But then go hop into a C-206 at gross and full fuel and you will redefine “heavy” controls.

Jim Riordan's RANS S9 Chaos

Jim Riordan’s RANS S9 Chaos

In some aircraft that spin readily upright and inverted—such as Pitts, Christen Eagle-and my RANS S9 Chaos (shown in the above picture) you can also use a different technique . . Pull power to idle, let go of the stick, and put in full rudder opposite to the rotation of the spin.  I prefer to never let go of the stick and have never had the need to, but it is a proven recovery method in some aircraft.

One must always be aware that: 1) In some aircraft, too great or too rapid an application of control inputs can result in a “crossover” spin from a positive to a negative spin (inside to outside) and also that 2) Too fast a movement of the elevator can “black-out the affectivity of the tail and can even make the rotation faster than it was.

I once sold a 1946 C-140 ragwing I had, that spun great, to an airline Driver  . . .  when I asked “Wanna see her spin?” I was told “No” in no uncertain terms. I told him, “She will spin nice and easy” . .  and he said, “No I am afraid of spins”  . . . .and this guy was flying around with lots of peoples’ lives in his hands!

Another time, I needed to go, on business, from our Gold Country office to San Jose, CA. so I went to the local FBO at Cameron Park airpark and said I wanted to rent one of his 150s for a few hours. The owner handed me off to one of his younger CFIs and I figured “three times around the pea patch” and I’d be on my way.  . . Wrong!! . .  He quickly glanced at my logbook, missed the fact I had owned two C-150s long ago and said, “Naw I think we’ll go over Folsom Lake and do some unusual attitudes”  . . .  So, since Folsom Lake is just down the hill, we were over the lake at 3,500 AGL in minutes. He has me put on the “Foggles” and look down and he starts the same ole BFR routine, he does a couple of turns in each direction and then a climbing right turn followed by a climbing left turn and gets the bank angle steep, nose high and says “your airplane” . . . After many years of aerobatics, I instinctively knew and could “feel in my butt” exactly where I was and what he had done. . . as he hands it to me, I notice we are free of traffic ahead, at a perfect speed for a gentle snap roll to the left, and a pullout into level flight, so I go to full power, full left rudder and full back stick and in an instant we were in level flight . .  with him still screaming “Wha—Whaa– wha what was ttthat?”  I said, “You set me up for a perfect ¾ left snap roll, it was the quickest way to get level and there was no traffic, so I took it”  . I said, “A snap roll is simply a spin maneuver” and he stammered back, “I’ve never done spins”.  I replied, “You should have had to do a full spin recovery to get your Commercial/instructor rating!”  He said, “I never did them because my original CFI would not do them and the examiner pilot who gave me my CFI said he “hated spins” so I never had to do a single one” . . .I thought to myself that this guy was teaching people every day and yet he had never experienced a REAL spin entry.  . .  So, I could not resist . .  I looked at him and said, “Well . . .then THIS is your lucky day” as I pulled the throttle back, yanked the stick back and put the right rudder to the stop. After one turn I told him , “you got it” and then walked him through a couple of recoveries.  He was a new man!  He absolutely loved it so we did spins left and right most of the way back. By the time we landed I could see a new confidence in him. He thanked me profusely as we stepped out of the plane and I asked, “Well, did I pass?” . .  and he replied, “Did I??”  and we had a few laughs . . As I walked away I wondered how many other young CFIs were out there teaching others to fly without ever having learned how to save themselves and without teaching their students how to recover from their most likely enemy in the air.  I sure am thankful I learned it the right way. Thanks Dave, Len, Bret, and Amelia, you taught me to REALLY fly.

Jim Riordan and Brett Riordan after Brett Received his Student Pilot License

Jim Riordan and Brett Riordan after Brett Received his Student Pilot License

As a footnote, my son Brett got his student solo license at 16 years old, but not before he could do a full sportsman aerobatic routine, including full five-turn spins in each direction in our Citabria. (Brett is shown in the photo on the left just after he received his student pilot license)  .

My hope is that after reading this, you will make sure that REAL spin training is part of your flight instruction. You owe it to yourself and your family.

You may even like it  . . or . . LOVE IT.  Do remember that all aircraft react differently, at different rates, or to amounts of control input, so it is a good idea to get some spin training in each type of aerobatic plane you intend to fly. Using the same amount of control input on a Pitts as you might on a Cub can put you in a very disorienting “crossover spin” maneuver REALLY quick.  . . .  So hey, learn them all and fly ‘em to the max!

Jim Riordan completed spins - 1977

Jim Riordan completed spins – 1977

Some aircraft that I have intentionally spun are Pitts S1S, S2A, Cessna 140, clip wing Taylorcraft, Cessna 150, 150 Aerobat, Starduster Too, Cessna 152 Aerobat, Champion Citabria 7ECA, Citabria 7KCAB Decathlon and 8KCAB Super Decathlon 150hp, Schweitzer 126 glider (Shown at right after I finished a flight in 1977) and Schweitzer 232 gliders, Flightstar ultralights, Avid mark IVs, Kitfoxes, Piper Cub and of course my Rans S9 Chaos.

Remember, no two different types of aircraft will recover in exactly the same manner. This may be due to different rigging, changes to the CG position/mass Distribution etc.

Lastly, ALWAYS wear a parachute. My Rans has a BRS Ballistic parachute as did my Flightstar and my Avid and I am a firm believer in them, especially after one saved my life already.  I am “BRS Save 141” on the BRS (Ballistic Recovery Systems) website, which you can read about at:


About Jim Riordan

Age 66, married 44 years to wife Lynn.  Residence is in Cameron Park, CA.  He is the CEO of his own consulting company that provides new product evaluation, alternative design consulting and strategic marketing advice for companies as large as 3M to small businesses and individuals as well.  He is a successful inventor and has written books and courses on product evaluation and marketing. His son Brett, 34 is also a pilot and soloed at age 16, Riordan was a several term member of the Placerville Airport Advisory Commission.  He grew up in a flying family and has flown since he could sit on his dad’s knee and hold a control yoke.  His uncles both flew bombers in WWII. He holds a private pilot’s license SELwith high performance and high altitude endorsements, a glider rating, tailwheel rating and a low altitude aerobatic competency certificate for doing air shows.  He has logged over two thousand hours, with over 1,000 hrs. in aerobatic tail wheel aircraft. He teaches aerobatics and is an Ultralight Flight Instructor and Ultralight Flight Instructor Examiner (UFIE) for the EAA.  He has made 11 intentional parachute jumps including freefalls and one unintentional ballistic parachute descent.




Do What it Takes

December 13th, 2012 No comments


By James F. Riordan


Bret Willat of has been one of my best friends for so many years I have lost track. He is also one of the best pilots I have ever known.  In anything from high performance sailplanes, to aerobatic planes of all types, to jets.

Funny how the best pilots I know all believe in the same basic rule of flight, regardless of what you are flying. In any and every situation, the answer to, “How much rudder do I need?” or “How much trim should I use?” or “What do I do when the stall breaks?”, or “What do I do in an emergency?”  . . Their answer is always the same  “Do what it takes!”

To the novice pilot this is a little disconcerting for they are expecting a more defined or finite answer. The truth is, there is no better answer.  One should never try to worry about learning an exact measured response to anything in an aircraft because we are flying in an ever changing environment, full of surprises and one must be ready to do whatever it takes to get out of it or face losing control of the aircraft. If you put in a measured amount of rudder and you are still not getting the response you need, put in more! Do what it takes.

One day Bret Willat and I decided to go up and do some side by side aerobatics.  I had my, then, young son Brett in the back seat of our Champion Citabria (That is Airbatic spelled backwards – A little manufacturer’s joke) Little Brett loved flying at a very early age and “Big Bret” was teaching him to fly sailplanes during that same time.

Jim Riordan, Bret Willat and Brett Riordan standing by a Schweitzer 233 Sailplane

Jim Riordan, Bret Willat and Brett Riordan standing by a Schweitzer 233 Sailplane

Here is a photo of Brett in the front seat, Big Bret in the back with me standing by the Schweitzer 233 sailplane Brett was taking lessons in.

So Bret hopped in his experimental “Snarl Cat” a small aerobatic Biplane  and my Brett and I flew alongside the Snarl Cat until we got to our aerobatic practice area.

Once we made clearing turns to check for other air traffic, we started our routine of flying aileron Rolls and doing loops side by side. The side by side aileron rolls are a little “sporty” and require a concentrated symmetry to avoid touching each other’s’ wings on the roll in and roll out phases.

The side by side loops are fun and far less demanding.  After completing a couple of loops, I came out at the bottom of one in perfect formation with Bret when I heard my little Brett casually say, “Hey Dad, Bret’s GONE.”  He said it so casually I thought he was joking until I looked to the left and there was the little Snarl Cat in perfect formation BUT WITH NO VISIBLE PILOT.  I could not believe my eyes.  I immediately radioed over “Bret are you ok?” He answered ever so casually, “No!”

The next thing I see is his left hand come up out of the cockpit and he was holding the stick in it. Yup, the ENTIRE. FULL LENGTH STICK!. I could not believe my eyes. I asked , “are you going to be ok?” and the answer I got was a not-so-reassuring, “I think so”.  I moved a little more to the right to give him more working room and finally I could just see the top of his forehead and a little bit of his eyes peering over the cockpit “combing” of the Snarl Cat.

I asked , “will you be able to land?”- – Another “I think so” came back. The thought of trying to land that little Biplane with nearly zero forward visibility in level flight and no forward visibility in a nose high landing flare was perhaps the greatest challenge a pilot could ever face. I offered to fly his wing right to the ground and he accepted. I hopped up over the top and lined up with him being just off my right wing.

Bret Willat is one of those incredibly few pilots that just never does anything but a perfect landing in any darn airplane, including every taildragger I have seen him fly, some of them dating to darn near the dawn of flight. (We both belonged to the Northern California Antique Airplane association).

True to form, Bret made a perfect three pointer with nary a bounce and coasted to a stop.  My Brett and I pulled up next to him, jumped out of our Citabria and ran over to the Snarl Cat. There was Bret with a big grin on his face – he had taken out his Swiss army knife, placed it into the hole where the stick broke off and used it as a three inch “stick” to fly and land the plane. Without that knife I don’t think the outcome would have been pretty. This was probably the most unique life-saving use of a Swiss Army knife known to man.

The moral of the story- DO WHAT IT TAKES.


JFK Jr.’s Crash: Inexperience or Lack of Proper Tools?

December 12th, 2012 No comments


JFK Jr.’s Crash: Inexperience or Lack of Proper Tools?

By James F. Riordan
© 1997, 2012

We may never know for sure what caused John F. Kennedy Jr’s plane to plummet off the radar scope and into the ocean at a descent rate of, according to investigators, 4700 feet per minute. We do however, have the tools to prevent the majority of similar accidents in the future, if only we would put them to use.

Imagine for a moment that each new pilot, during training, is given a toolbox containing “flight tools” which will be used to fix in-flight emergencies.  The problem is that our presently mandated FAA training programs are failing to provide two critically important flight tools for the new pilot’s toolbox.  We are simply leaving them out.  The new “inexperienced” pilot now crashes due to the lack of one or the other of these flight tools. What is the true cause of the accident?  Is it “inexperience” on the part of the pilot?  Or is it the present training programs which failed to provide these critical flight tools to student pilots?  I believe it is the latter.  Vertigo training and actual spin training are presently being left out of the student pilot’s toolbox.  The absence of these two critical flight tools virtually assures that we will continue to see a high rate of stall/spin accidents every year.  Not all of them will attract the notoriety of JFK Jr.’s crash, but each of them will leave the public wondering whether small planes can be flown safely.  The truth is, they can be flown safely and many lives could be saved if only we would give pilots the tools to save themselves.

Spatial disorientation comes on quite suddenly.  One second you are in control.  The very next second you are out of control and horrifyingly “behind” the aircraft. By “behind,” I mean the aircraft is changing direction and velocity faster than you are reacting to its changes.

You looked down for only a split second, and when you looked up, you suddenly felt as though your aircraft has entered a steep left banking turn.  “Why?”, your brain is screaming?  What caused this?   Perhaps it was wind shear!  Your peripheral vision searches for the horizon that was visible only moments ago.  Your eyes desperately search for the visual cues which will tell you the position of your wings relative to the horizon.  The horizon is now nowhere to be found in the haze and the darkness.  Without the outside visual cues, your inner sense of balance or the “gyro” in your head is taking instructions from only your inner ear, which is sending it false signals.  Your internal balance “gyro” has effectively “crashed” and is no longer sending correct horizontal situation information to your brain.

Just as you have been trained to do, you react to what you think must be a strong gust of wind blowing your plane to the left.  You quickly turn the yoke to the right, and push right rudder.  You still feel like you are banking to the left. Everything begins to seem as though it is in slow motion.  You feel somehow out of control yet you can’t understand why. Your brain is still screaming, “you’re in a left turn, do something about it”, yet a quick glance at your instrument panel indicates you are entering a right turn. You vaguely remember your instructor telling you to, “believe your instruments,” but right now you do not believe them.  Your brain and body are telling you that your instruments are wrong.  Within a couple of seconds, the right turn you have unwittingly entered has quickly degraded into either a “spin” or a high speed “graveyard spiral”, from which you will not recover. You become, like JFK Jr., another small plane/private pilot statistic, chalked up to “inexperience.”

“Experience” in aviation comes less from accumulated total hours than from what a pilot experiences during those hours.  It is easy to log a great number of hours without ever logging the real experience which will be needed to save your life in a vertigo or spin situation.

In October of 1987, I had the opportunity to “test fly” a simulator called the Vertigon which the FAA aeromedical team developed to induce vertigo. Please see:  The Vertigon is used by the FAA as a training tool, usually at airshows.  As an aerobatic pilot, I had already experienced momentary vertigo doing vertical, straight up rolling aerobatics on a cloudy day, and I knew full well how deadly it could be.  At first, I was skeptical that this “Vertigon” machine would be able to duplicate the vertigo experience. Boy was I in for a surprise.

The Vertigon had a redundant set of flight instruments. One set on the inside of the “pod” in front of the pilot and the other set on the outside of the simulator control panel where (certificated) pilots, waiting in line to try their hand, could watch the instrument panel and see how well or how poorly the pilot inside the Vertigon’s pod was reacting to the onset of vertigo.  While I waited, several pilots “spun in”, and others, some nauseous, wobbly, incredulous or all three at the same time, said they would, “never forget the experience.”  Neither will I.  Expecting full well to easily master this beast I confidently climbed in and started the simulator.  Sure enough, it induced the worst vertigo I had ever felt.  When I stepped out, I had managed to lose only three hundred feet with a course deviation of 30 degrees before I recovered enough to get immediately back on course and altitude.  I had achieved the best score of the day.  The FAA official running the Vertigon commended me on my quick recovery, but I couldn’t help but think what would have happened to me had I been at 299 feet on a dark final approach.

The Vertigon was totally enclosed and revolved very slowly to the left about three turns and then to the right about three turns and effectively disoriented one’s inner ear.  Inside I could sense no turning movement whatsoever even though I knew I was turning since I had been watching all the guys before me. After turning both ways, the recorded “air traffic controller” in the simulator asked the pilot to, “descend to and maintain a heading for approach to, a local airport”. I did.  After a few more seconds went by, “air traffic control” radioed:  “Change transponder frequency and squawk 1200.”  I looked at the instrument panel and there was no transponder . .  then I looked down and there it was on the right side of the cockpit floor (where it would never actually be located in a real aircraft) This action required the pilot to look down, which completed the inducement of vertigo. Remember, a pilot could drop a pencil on the cockpit floor or reach for a map, the point being, the Pilot looks down.  When the pilot looks back up, the “gyro” in his head crashes and he honestly believes his aircraft is entering a steep turn to the left or right.

The Vertigon was one of the finest and most amazing training tools I have personally experienced. The moment I looked up, I felt as though I had been violently lifted up and thrown HARD to the left. I looked at my instruments and they were telling me I was straight and level but my mind simply could not believe them.  I started to turn in the direction my head was telling me I should turn KNOWING that my instruments were telling me differently. My aerobatic background kicked in and I simply let go of the controls, let the aircraft fly itself for a moment, took a couple of deep breaths and said out loud ”believe your instruments!!”I regained my ability to follow my instruments, got back on course and altitude  . .yet with a whole lot more respect for killer disorientation.  It is my opinion as an experienced aerobatic pilot, that every private pilot should be required to log time in this device.

Pilots who have actually experienced this feeling can predictably overcome their natural reactions and instead, believe in, and rely totally upon, their flight instruments.  Pilots who have never experienced vertigo may not be so fortunate.  If, instead of believing the flight instruments, a pilot listens to the nearly overpowering and sensory-overloading urge in his head to bank the plane in the opposite direction, to “get level again,” the plane can easily “get ahead of” an inexperienced pilot so quickly that he never regains control and either spins or high speed spirals right into the ground or water.

Alas, according to the FAA, the Vertigon, along with actual spin training, is no longer a part of private pilot training. Nancy, a Sacramento, CA FAA Flight Standards District Office employee at that time, who was reluctant to share her last name, said she was hired in 1989 and had, “heard about the Vertigon” but said it “was not in use anymore.”   Nancy said, “Now, all they have is spin awareness training which can be done orally.  They do not have to actually do spins in order to get a private pilot’s certificate.”

As a private pilot, aerobatic pilot, glider pilot and ultralight flight instructor, with tailwheel and complex endorsements, over forty years and thousands of hours of aviation experience, including flying the Piper Saratoga, JFK jr’s plane, I find the concept of “oral spin awareness training” to be absurd.  There is no way to adequately orally describe the sensory overload an inexperienced pilot will feel the first time he experiences a plane “breaking” over into a fully developed spin.  After years of teaching students to recover from spins, and in fact having to “whack” an experienced pilot on both earpieces of his headset to break his death grip on the stick in a 3 turn spin that turned into a six turn spin after he “froze”, when I was in the rear seat of a Citabria,  I still really love spins and snap rolls etc. However, the sheer terror of my first one remains well etched in my memory.  Thankfully, my instructors, who taught WWII airmen, believed in actual, not “oral” spin training.  They gave me the tools to save my life and the lives of my passengers.

I believe we need to revise the private pilot training process to give all new pilots these tools.  Tools which might have saved JFK Jr. from the murky waters.  I believe he lost the horizon, became disoriented and “death spiraled” the Saratoga into the ocean.  Stall/spin accidents are among the most common killers of “inexperienced” pilots. I believe that every applicant for a private pilot’s license should be trained to recover from fully developed spins, rather than being given an oral description of what it will feel like.  An oral description does not even begin to qualify as a “flight tool.”  The real experience does.

So why did they quit teaching spins?  Perhaps it is because many FAA approved flight instructors are scared to death of doing spins.  I have personally flown with ones who were, and who had “signed off” commercial students without ever giving them full-on spin training!  I have flown with Airline captains who had never experienced spins or vertigo. That is scary! If an instructor is too scared to teach spins to students, then that instructor is “holding on too tight” and flying “too scared” for his students’ good and that instructor should take up another sport, say boating, for his students’ sake.  At the very least, the instructor should send the student off for a couple of hours of spin training with another instructor who is comfortable teaching them.  Students who are not taught how to manage and recover from spins and are instead given “oral spin awareness training” are being cheated out of learning the very maneuvers that are most likely to help them save themselves.  I have personally taught several FAA certified flight instructors, during check rides and flight reviews, to do spins to the right and left.  To a man, they had not done even one full turn spin, even to get their commercial and CFI ratings!  They told me that their instructors had simply signed them off as having completed the spin portion of the training!  These instructors were amazed at how fast the aircraft began rotating once a spin was fully established at 3 to 5 turns.  Thanks to the excellent “old school” spin training I received from my instructors, (Thanks Dave Gray,

Dave Gray, CFI, Aerobatics At Aerodynamic Aviation

Dave Gray, CFI, Aerobatics At Aerodynamic Aviation

Dave Gray, CFI, Aerobatics  At Aerodynamic Aviation
Dave Gray has been an instructor so long none of us can remember when he started or how many hours he has. Let us just say that he has plenty, in many different airplanes. He is just as happy giving flight training to a new student how to fly as he is teaching advanced aerobatics. Dave’s philosophy is that flying should above all be fun for both the student and the instructor.


Bret Willat at Amelia Reid and Lennert Von Klemm I am perfectly comfortable doing upright, inverted and flat spins in aerobatic airplanes and I taught my son at thirteen years old to be competent and proficient at spins before he soloed at age 16. In fact he could do a full Sportsman aerobatic routine before I set him free to Solo.  I wanted him to start his flying experience with a full set of tools.  Any pilot CAN learn these skills. Every pilot SHOULD learn them.  Without them, they do not have a “Full toolbox”

JFK Jr, his wife and his sister-in-law, might be alive today had John been given a full toolbox.  Had he been proficient at spin recovery and had he been introduced to vertigo in the Vertigon, before he learned about it the hard way on a gray afternoon in a dark cockpit above a darker ocean, he might still be with us.

Rather than placing unduly weighted blame on “pilot inexperience,” perhaps the FAA needs to revive the Vertigon and include vertigo and actual spin training in every new pilot’s toolbox, before they receive their Private Pilot’s Certificate which is really a “license to learn”.