Low and Slow is Fun

Flying the 0-1 Bird dog in the United States Army Fixed-Wing Flight School was a great experience.

My class completed our primary instruction in the T41B at Ft. Stewart, GA in the fall of 1970 and was transferred to Ft. Rucker, Alabama for the next phase of our training:  Low-Level Navigation and Short-field Operations in the Cessna 0-1 Bird Dog.

Fun airplane

Fun airplane

The 0-1 is an all metal, two-place, tandem seat, tail wheel airplane with a 213 HP, Continental O-470 engine with constant speed propeller.  In addition to having good power to weight ratio, the bird dog is also blessed with 60 degrees of flaps.

Our initial training objective was to learn to fly the bird dog to its fullest capabilities.

With our instructors in the rear seat we flew into and out of some of the shortest fields I have ever experienced.  Some were paved landing and launch pads shaped similar to a lower-case “h” without the second leg and some were grass pastures cleared out of the pine forest of southern Alabama.  One day we were landing on grass over tall pine trees and the next day we would be landing over a used-car-lot-banner on 15-foot high poles on to a paved “h” pad.

I don’t remember why on any given day we would use the pastures, but I do remember our final approach speed was right on the edge of the power curve so it was standard procedure to periodically make sure we could stop our decent by giving the engine a boost of power. With any headwind at all, our descent angle rivaled that of a power-off helicopter autorotation. 

On at least one occasion, my instructor took over the controls by yelling, “My airplane!”  I remember asking him why and he said, “Our descent was too steep.  Looked like we were behind the power curve.” I protested and told him, “The wind is making it steep, but we were fine. I had just stopped our descent.”

After I came around and landed, my instructor offered to swap seats so I could gain a little of his perspective. And, I did.

It only took one approach for me to have a much better appreciation for his job.  Especially considering we were operating in and out of fields with very little margin for error.  I really don’t know how the instructors would have a chance to make a correction once they determined one was required.

Better them than me.

Shooting touch and go’s at the “h” pads was fun not only because it was a challenge, but also because we alternated flying with our “stick mates,” so, we had some time to stand around and watch our classmates’ landings.  This provided some good laughs and an appreciation for the strength of the bird dog. Although I did witness more than one tail wheel break off and get dragged by the cables.

Another stage of training in the Bird Dog was low-level navigation.  My stick mate, Second Lt. Bernard Street, and I alternated flying the front seat to complete our separate missions.  Our goal was to fly a circuit by navigating a series of four or five checkpoints while staying at or below 500 feet. 

It was quite a task to fly that close to the ground while blinded by a 1 x 50,000 map and searching the flat Alabama terrain for checkpoints as hidden as a footbridge across a small creek in the woods.

One of my favorite memories flying the Bird dog took place high above a little town named Opp, Alabama.  Well high is relative.  I was probably only a couple thousand feet, but that was as high as I ever remember flying the Bird dog.

In military vernacular:  “There I was flying as slow as I could using 60 degrees of flaps and considerable power when I looked down and saw I was being passed by Opp…Opp, Alabama, that is.”

The winds from the west were faster than I was flying, so I was actually moving backwards.

With no experience in helicopters, that remains my only experience flying backwards.

Good Times.  Fun Memories.

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