Tuesday, 22 March 2011

backseat drivers

What exactly is a backseat driver? Well, according to that well-known font of all knowledge, wikipedia, “A backseat driver is a vehicle passenger who is not controlling the vehicle, and seems to be uncomfortable with the skills of the driver and/or wants to tutor the driver while the driver is at the wheel.”

So what about a backseat pilot? Well, in a Pitts Special S2B (you’ll see where I’m going with this in a second), the pilot actually flies from the back seat, and if they have a numpty student or simple passenger, they sit in the front.* So I guess we could quite happily modify the wiki phrase to be: “A flying instructor is a vehicle passenger who is not controlling the vehicle [unless their student is useless and cocks up (or is being demonstrated something just before they cock up, or being shown what they should have done just after they cocked up)], and seems to be uncomfortable with the skills of the student pilot and/or wants to tutor the student while the daft idiot is at the wheel.”

I am of course the numpty student, and up until today I’ve quite happily sat in the front seat of G-SKNT and attempted to learn to fly aerobatic manoeuvres from there. The advantage to being in the front is that life is pretty simple really – you don’t have a vast number of instruments to be distracted by, and you don’t have all that many little knobs or levers to fiddle with – they’re all being dealt with by the superstar instructor in the back seat! One of the disadvantages to being in the front is that you that know at some point you’re going to be put into the back seat and expected to actually fly the damned thing…

You guessed it, today I sat in the back for the first time.

I’d already made myself feel sick by flying a variety of aerobatic manoeuvres in either a ‘quite well’, ‘slightly wonky’, ‘I think that one was ok…wasn’t it?’, or ‘meeeuuuurrrghhh………..oops!’ fashion from the front seat, when, after a period of stomach re-stabilisation, I was asked if I wanted to have a go from the back…

Silly question really.

Of course, circuits can be really boring when you know what you’re doing and are flying well. They are actually bloody terrifying when you’re presented with the concept of flying a few in a high performance aircraft of a type you’re unfamiliar with and whose propeller could very easily be buried in the tarmac if you fluff up either the take-off or the landing, and which aircraft also has zero forward visibility, extra controls you’ve never used before (or not to a great extent), and a seating arrangement that means you can’t quite reach the rudder pedals optimally (thankfully this last bit will change), oh, and both the take-off and landing procedure are completely different to anything you would ever do in a Cessna 152.

Basically, I’m not yet qualified to fly either tail-dragger type aircraft, or 'complex prop’ types, of which the Pitts is both. Not only am I learning to fly aerobatics, I’m learning to fly a Pitts Special, and today heralded the start of my actually getting to grips with this beautiful aeroplane, rather than just being a glorified passenger with a joystick. Did I enjoy flying from the pilot’s seat? Hell yes. Was it hard work? Of course! I’m learning several new skill-sets with this aeroplane, and as with any learning process, feeling when things start to ‘click’ and make sense, suddenly understanding how you need to be doing something in order for it to work properly, is one of the simplest and best experiences in life in my view, and for me the process of learning to fly aerobatics and learning to fly the Pitts is something greatly rewarding and truly special.

Off course, with the numpty being in the back seat, the wiki definition went right out of the window, as all of the discomfort and fear was shared equally between both seats!

Bring on more good flying weather!


*For anyone interested, the reason for this is to do with balancing the main chunks of weight (no offense Paul) to maintain a reasonable centre of gravity (CoG). The engine is by far the heaviest component of the aeroplane, and it sits right at the front, so the pilot sits way back in the tail to help counter this. Any passenger (in the front seat) will be much closer to the aircraft’s CoG and so their weight will have less influence on balance and weighting.


  1. Great post! I was on the edge of my seat the whole time. Came across your blog via OBN and now a follower.