Teaching Orville to fly

Orville near the end of his flying career.

Orville near the end of his flying career.

When I taught my dog Orville to fly, there were people who said I was taking too cautious an instructional approach. What did they expect? Of course I was cautious. He was only three months old. Normally you don’t put a dog at the controls of an airplane until they’re at least six months old. So, yes, sue me, I was cautious.

The main problem was that the Cessna aircraft company didn’t expect dogs to pilot their airplanes, and this 185 didn’t have the proper ergonomics for a dog. It’s too long a stretch for them to get their back paws on the rudder pedals. There also wasn’t a good way for him to operate the yoke, or what is sometimes called the stick. Had it been a stick, it would have been worse than a yoke, because to bank the airplane he would have had to lower his gaze from the horizon to move the stick from side to side with his snout. With a handlebar-shaped yoke, he could put his pudgy little Labrador puppy paws on them, one on each side. Of course, with him being as small and floppy as he was, I had to hold him in my lap and steady him by wrapping my hands around that pink pot belly puppies have at that age. 

Orville had a real talent for aviation. I had a terrific student pilot on my hands. It took him no more than a couple of lessons to realize that turning the yoke banked the airplane. He was a little sloppy, but that’s normal when anyone learns to fly. Getting distracted was a bigger problem. You know how puppies are. They get it into their heads to start wiggling and you might as well be holding a salmon. But I was considerate of his age and knew that I was going to have to let him learn at his own pace. 

After a few lessons, a breakthrough came when he wiggled one time to turn around to lick my nose. The sharp movement made one of his paws press down too hard on one side of the yoke, making the plane fall off to one side and the nose drop.

“Look what you've done now, Orv!” I said.

He looked up and noticed that the horizon was rotating quickly. He pulled his tongue in and put his ears up. Looking down on the back of his head, I could see the top of it wrinkle like a walnut while the gears inside turned.

“It's getting away from you, Orv!” I said while the sound of the rushing wind from the increasing airspeed got louder. While I repositioned his paws on the yoke for him I snuck a hand under it (you never want a dog to see that you’re on the controls at all; they instantly cede all responsibility) so I could pull up before the descending plane picked up too much speed. This induced a small G-load, which pressed us down into the seat. Orville’s weight increased from the 12 pounds he weighed to 18 at a G-and-a-half and then 24 at two Gs. His supple puppyskin ears, still at the stage where they were too big for his head, flattened out on his cheeks.

He seemed to think the whole thing was funny and he tried to wiggle around again, but I maintained my grip on him.

“This is no time to start screwing around, little bear!” I said. “Get on the stick!” You call it a stick even if it’s a yoke sometimes. I helped him press his arm down on the other side of the yoke. Oh, he was proud of himself when the plane leveled out. He believed it was a heroic recovery, and I congratulated him as if it was.

“Good boy, Orv! Good job! That's what I call flying!” I told him, and let him curl up to go to sleep in my lap while we flew back to the airport. It’s always better to end a flying lesson on a high note.

After that, he had no trouble keeping the wings level. He was still prone to wiggling too much, but that’s what puppies do, and as I look back on it, I can’t think of any other flaw in his technique.

Within a couple of months, Orville got too big to fly sitting in my lap. He had to be transitioned to the co-pilot seat. This created a new problem because the seat didn’t go far forward enough for him to lean back and he would have to put too much weight on the yoke when he stood on it. The key to smooth flying is a light touch. But, by then he was good at keeping the wings level and on his own he tried different things. First he hopped his weight off the yoke, but found that when he landed, one of his paws tended to hit first, and the wing on that side would drop.

The solution was to get him off the controls completely. A well-trimmed plane, in stable air, will fly hands-off with the wings more or less level, and all you have to do is add a slight pressure to correct it when a wing starts to dip.

“Whoops — there it goes, Orv,” I only had to admonish him once or twice, and he’d dab a paw at the yoke and bring the wings back to level and, once he had it straightened out, he’d look at me with a big smile and get ready to start wiggling again.

The airplane had an autopilot, so I didn’t really need Orville to take the controls when I needed to do something. But now that he was getting so proficient, I preferred letting him fly. He needed the practice and I, like everyone who teaches dogs to fly, was enjoying observing the improvement in his skills. And, at this rate, he would be a contender in one of the big flying dog contests.

Once we got up to altitude, I’d say, “Okay, Orv. Get ready,” and he would sit up at attention, ready to take the controls.

“Ready?” I’d say. Usually he liked to give me a lick on the nose to say yes to anything, but he was too disciplined a pilot by now and controlled himself.

Okay… you’ve got the airplane,” I’d say, making a show of taking my hands off the yoke, and he'd begin appraising the horizon and keeping the wings level. He got to where he could do it for ten minutes at a stretch.

We flew along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, and because of the high winds there, Orville had to have his lessons early in the morning when the winds were calm enough not to knock the airplane off balance and make a wing drop. As his skills improved, though, he could manage more turbulent air. When the plane bounced around, Orville had his hands full, but he quickly realized that all he had to do was make more frequent, and more precise, corrections. Soon, he became a top-flight pilot. Without using the rudder or throttle, he couldn’t take off or land, but in flight, he was unparalleled at keeping the wings level. Had we been able to continue, I’m confident that he would have learned to make turns.

Unfortunately, though, he was growing too fast, and within a few months he was too big for the narrow co-pilot seat. He could sit in it, but he couldn’t lie down, and in flight there was no way for him to move to the back seat. So, just when he was getting good at it, he had to give it up. He kept flying with me, but all from the back seat. Often, he would look wistfully at the front seat. I could tell he wanted to get back on the controls, but he never piloted an aircraft again.

You know those bumper stickers that say "Dog is my co-pilot?" Next time you see one of those, don’t be too sure it’s just a pun.

There's nothing a good dog can't do.

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