Preparation for Flying the Spartan

When the Spartan was purchased, I had been flying for about 35 years, had owned eleven different airplanes and currently owned a Mooney Ovation. The problem was, none of my flying had been done in an airplane with a tailwheel. My initial reaction was “No Problem” just find an airport with a taildragger that does tailwheel training, fly a few hours and get my endorsement.

Since the Spartan was going to need a fair amount of work before it would be flyable, I had quite a bit of time to reconsider the above. Common sense prevailed and I finally admitted that my original plan was woefully inadequate. It was then that I developed Plan B.

I thought about the characteristics of the Spartan Executive: high performance, complex, side-by-side seating, a throw-over control wheel, toe brakes, no brakes on the co-pilots side and of course, the little wheel on the back of the airplane. Based on my personal flying experience, I concluded the high performance and complex aspect of the Spartan would not be an issue.

After analyzing the other factors, I thought it best if I would train in an airplane that had a control wheel and not a stick, had side-by-side seating and not tandem, and had toe brakes and not heel brakes. High performance and complex would be nice, but it wasn’t on my list of essential features. I also came to the realization that going somewhere and getting the minimum amount of training to earn a tailwheel endorsement would not truly prepare me for flying a Spartan Executive.

At exactly the right moment, I learned of a local Cessna 140 that was available for purchase. At 1450 pounds gross, that is much lighter than the Spartan’s 4400 pounds, but it was side-by-side, with a control wheel and toe brakes. The price was reasonable, so without hesitation, I found myself to be the proud new owner of a 1946 Cessna 140. I quickly made arrangements with a local flight instructor who had a huge amount of tailwheel experience to check me out and get my tailwheel endorsement.

The first flight was an absolute eye opener. While I knew landings were likely to be an issue, I never thought simple air operations like straight and level flight, would be anything other than routine. Actually, I’m not sure I ever achieved either straight or level on that first flight. After putting the airplane back in the hangar, I had some time for reflection. My first thought – – if I can’t even fly this C-140, how am I ever going to be able to fly a Spartan Executive? Fortunately, the next few lessons in the C-140 produced far better results and in short order, I had the tailwheel endorsement.

Since I owned the little Cessna, I was able to practice my newly acquired skills whenever I had available time. Within two months, I had logged 50+ hours and was finally starting to feel comfortable in the airplane. Flying the Cessna as often as possible, I had accumulated 200+ hours by the time the Spartan was ready to be flown. In the meantime, I had many opportunities to fly with a friend in his Bellanca Cruisemaster, a low wing, high performance, complex, side-by-side taildragger. That airplane was one step closer to the Spartan than the Cessna 140.

About a week before the Spartan was ready to fly, I visited another friend in California who owned a Spartan Executive. Since his airplane had the same limitations as my Spartan (throw-over control wheel and no co-pilot brakes), he did the takeoff and landing. I did get a short period of piloting the airplane while in the air. After observing his techniques for flying the Spartan and making note of the various airspeeds, I was ready.

My first flight was the thrill of a lifetime! The airplane was heavier than expected and the amount of right rudder necessary on the takeoff roll was far more than what is necessary in any airplane I had flown before. Once airborne, the Spartan Executive was smooth and quiet. After thirty minutes of exhilarating flight, it’s time to really focus and get this airplane safely back on the runway. This was a time to actually talk to myself so I could hear it through the intercom. Use the checklist to check and then recheck everything. Make a wider than normal pattern, then use all of the knowledge and skills you have acquired over the past 35 years. Don’t stop flying the airplane until it is in front of the hangar ready for shutdown. I don’t remember all of the details of that first landing, but I do remember turning off at mid-field and not touching a thing in the cockpit until I made it back to the hangar.

The first thing I did after shutting down was to go to the other hangar and tap the Cessna on the nose and thank her for a job well done. I then called my friend in California to let him know about the successful flight.

I decided to keep the Cessna along with the Spartan and they are both flown regularly. The Cessna has been such a great little airplane and so reliable, she is now referred to as Old Faithful. The following video shows the Cessna climbing into the clear blue sky, just as she would have done way back in 1946 when she was new.