By Aka Evans, for Experimenter
Receiving training in a new homebuilt, be it one you just built or one you just bought, is a pretty important step that far too many pilots ignore. The FAA places first-time flight mishaps high on the list of preventable accidents and incidents, which are very preventable if pilots would realize their limits and seek instruction. A 70-hour pilot, Aka Evans easily realized he needed instruction to begin flying his newly acquired Kitfox, and he was very happy he chose Paul Leadabrand as his instructor.
The story of boy meets plane is an old one. The sequel is boy meets flight instructor and can have a happy ending, or a sad one. Much of that opinion is written by the pilot, but the instructor plays a dramatic role in the future enjoyment and the safety of both pilot and public below.
Paul Leadabrand of Stick & Rudder Aviation is the sequel with a happy ending. He’s the one to call when you need to learn the characteristics of the Kitfox you’re going to fly. I know, because I bought a Kitfox and asked Paul to show me the ropes. What he showed me was a treasure box of capabilities and a simple line of thinking for staying safe and having fun.
Paul Leadabrand at the office
When I first called Paul, I hadn’t visited his website, so consequently, I didn’t have a clue about what his company offered other than Kitfox-specific training, which I needed. One of the features of his training schedule is your schedule. What do you want to learn and when do you want to learn it?
After I told him about my “short window,” he answered with a time frame that would work for both of us and a specific goal of getting me checked out so I could fly my plane.
I flew out of my home city on a commercial flight and arrived at 10:30 a.m, local time for Boise, Idaho. Paul had already arranged for my hotel at a discounted rate and provided ground transportation for me. After about an hour of gentle probing conversation concerning my past experience (70 hours in a J-3 Cub), we drove to his hangar and got in his pristine, made-to-order Kitfox Series 7 Super Sport.
The bright yellow and white with black paint scheme gave the plane a lively look just sitting on the ramp, and I felt a tingle of excitement begin to course through my new aviator veins. Paul saw it and reacted to my response with one of his own – calm, assertive encouragement to enjoy the next few minutes of discovery as I rode shotgun on the controls.
He began his instruction at my personal level of beginning. His assessment of my history gave him the ability to start where I needed and tailor the course material for my specific requirements. I was impatient to get into the air, but he had to make sure that his starting point was my starting point.
He introduced me to the Dynon SkyView glass cockpit. The display was information rich; it was easy to see that I would be on overload if he didn’t do something, so he did the essentials. “This is your airspeed indicator,” he said, “and your altimeter is here. tachomenter is here, and I’ll monitor engine temps and pressures until you’re familiar with the layout.” That arrangement worked well, and I understood the basics.
Because I already held a taildragger endorsement, my training would focus on safe handling of the aircraft during takeoff and landing. We moved on to the active runway while Paul handled the radio. I hoped to get my Class D endorsement during my visit, but the priority was to learn how to fly the Fox.
The Fun Begins
Paul took off from the long runway at Boise and turned toward the practice area. After the departure was sure, he gave me the plane and said, “Play with it.” My tentative movements probably gave him the impression that I was intimidated by the shiny new airplane and the video arcade cockpit display. He encouraged me to get to know the plane, so he issued a series of instructions; I started to have fun. His cockpit manners gave me great confidence, and I couldn’t have enjoyed instruction more.
It was time to get to work, so we headed for a wide canyon to practice a technique designed to teach ground reference and altitude control. “Stay above the canyon rim and fly the middle so you can get used to controlling speed and altitude,” Paul said. His voice was amazingly crisp and clear in the noise-canceling headsets. We flew up the canyon, and I got a firsthand look at the responsiveness of the Kitfox.
I’m not a new pilot in some ways, but I’m still new in others. So when Paul asked me to turn around in the canyon, I had to ask him to clarify. Following his instructions, he and I executed a tight but fairly coordinated turn in a radius that surprised me without coming close to the airplane’s design specs or the canyon walls. I felt like Luke Skywalker. With some practice I bet I could do it tighter and with no altitude loss or gain. Well…says me.
Next we headed for an airstrip. Paul took the controls again and demonstrated the landing approach with a simple set of linear instructions. “We’re shooting for 65 mph at idle with a trend toward descent,” he said. “We use power to adjust the glide-slope, and rotate on the numbers for the final phase to flare.” I was really enjoying myself. I was learning and I was flying.
The Kitfox wasn’t the plane I initially learned in, and the characteristics of flight and overall performance were so different as to be almost foreign. In spite of the newness of both me and my understanding of all things aviation, Paul made me feel like a pilot, and he relaxed my tension about flying a truly high-performance plane. Let’s face it – power-to-weight ratio isn’t an unfathomable concept to understand, and the Kitfox has a lot of power for its weight.
Controlling the Plane
My first takeoff was exciting as I accidentally allowed a wing to come up, causing me to fly the plane on one wheel for a while. As I rotated to leave the runway, I added some left rudder to go along with my already tarnished technique. You kinda had to be there – but it was exciting. To my relief, Paul didn’t take the controls and say the words I dreaded most: “My airplane.”
He chuckled into the mic as he explained the maneuver for takeoff in a more Kitfox-like manner. We did a few touch-and-goes at that strip, and he discovered that there were some interesting challenges ahead for him as an instructor. But I still didn’t hear any stress in his voice.
Because my window was short, we didn’t waste time. We took breaks for lunch and quit when I was on overload or just “plane” tired. Paul quickly discovered my left foot tendency and considered the possibility that I had developed a “braking habit” related to driving a clutch-equipped truck. After all, that is where most of my experience has been. He also considered the possibility of my “rudder dancing” as being a holdover from my Cub training. In both cases, the fix was carefully and tactfully weeded out.
Paul’s teaching expertise isn’t accidental. As the resident expert on flying the Kitfox, he has a relationship with Kitfox Aircraft LLC in that he comes with the purchase of an S-LAS Kitfox (special light-sport aircraft) to ensure the buyer’s immediate proficiency. This should send a clear message of who the support team is and the level of factory commitment enjoyed by fleet owners. Furthermore, he’s the sole referral for Kitfox Aircraft LLC prior to the first flight of an amateur-built Kitfox.
The priority after the sale is clearly “to service the fleet.” It was the service-oriented posture of the Kitfox team and a fellow Kitfox owner’s recommendation of Stick & Rudder Aviation that took me to Boise in the first place. If Kitfox owners are that sure of the support staff, there must be something to it. As it turns out, there is.
Before the training sessions were completed, I was making textbook takeoff and landings most of the time and survivable, student-like landings the rest of the time. I had come a very long way in a very short period.
We made 70 approaches at 12 different airstrips in 10 hours. We did it in everything from calm winds to 90-degree crosswinds at more than 10 mph. Paul took me to short strips to fit the profile of my home field. He took me to uphill, downhill, narrow, and humped fields. If it was a possible landing strip, I made the landing there.
He taught me emergency technique and performance tactics to maximize glide distance and minimize landing roll. His teaching technique was superb, and his prioritization of my needs was right on target. The instruction qualified for biennial flight review and is good for meeting the requirements of most insurance companies that call for specific training. Paul teaches much more than the Kitfox checkout and uses only the most modern tools and training. If my experience with Stick & Rudder Aviation is any indication of the quality and professionalism in his company, he can look forward to much more business from me and anyone I meet who wants to be a better pilot.
I have a long way to go before I’m a good pilot. But I’m a safer pilot than I would have ever become without his instruction. I can confidently and competently operate my plane in and around my home field and the country where I live and fly.
Next time I start thinking that happy endings aren’t in the cards, I’ll remember the lessons and the instructor at Stick & Rudder Aviation.