Budd Davisson, Plane and Pilot Magazine

Eulogy for a Dead Butt

Has the old stand-by control aid become useless?

I love my butt. Besides being a convenient and cushy place to sit, it fights against the insistent downward pressure of my belly to keep my pants up. Much more important, it tells me what an airplane is doing before it does it. Butt-input is immediate and accurate. Unfortunately, however, we may be seeing a nationwide rise of buttapathy. Worse than that, part of the flying public thinks the butt is nearing an age when there is little use for it. To them, the butt is a sitting thing. Not a listening-to thing.

Anyone who flies with me gets really tired of the voice in the headset saying, “Feel your butt, center the ball.” Until they get their feet under control they can count on hearing it so often that it keeps them awake at night. And I want it to. I’m something of a raving zealot when it comes to keeping the ball centered and I make no bones about it: fly with me and expect to get harangued on a regular basis for ignoring your posterior. In my household, the butt reigns supreme.

Recently, however, I was made aware that the butt, as seen by guys like me (we refer to ourselves as buttologists), is being phased out. Maybe it’s a generation thing. Or maybe it’s simply that modern airplanes don’t speak as clearly through the seat covers as older birds do (get more interactive seat covers?). These days, when I launch into my “feel your butt, center the ball” speech, I often receive a blank, slack jawed stare. Huh? The ball? There’s a connection between the ball, my feet and my butt?

Yesterday, while on a ferry flight over to pick up a Citabria for a broker (big broker but no one in the office was tailwheel qualified!), I became depressingly aware of how out-of-step with the world I may have become. During the flight over in a 182 with someone else flying, I kept track of rudder inputs and from lift off to touchdown the pilots’ rudders didn’t move one time except to counter a crosswind on landing. The ailerons were righting the turbulence on final like crazy, but the feet just sat there watching. And my butt was twitching.

After the landing, everyone, except my butt, congratulated the young pilot for a job well done. I guess no one but me noticed the way the nose jitterbugged down final, sawing back and forth in response to the rudderless aileron inputs. The movement was subtle, but it was there.

To all outward appearances the flight had been flawless. And even I will have to admit that the ball wasn’t scurrying out of its hole much more than about two-third its width. And with the pilot sitting right on the CG, it took a sensitive rear to know it was happening.

As we were taxiing in I was thinking that maybe all of my butt-talk was unnecessary. Maybe my way of teaching and flying is old fashion. Obsolete. Maybe the old butt and I have out lived our usefulness. Step aside coordinated flight and make room for modern, feet-on-the-floor airplanes. At that moment, I was sitting on one very depressed derrière. My main control device suddenly felt as if it had spent a lifetime answering questions no one was asking. Definitely a bummed-out butt.

Then I strapped on the Citabria and took off into a choppy, fairly hard crosswind and my bottom side immediately perked up. It felt useful. And wanted. I was listening to it as it told me that the wind was doing its best to shove me sideways and lift a wing. Then, once off the ground, it unerringly told me how much rudder pressure was needed in the climb to keep the ball centered. All the way back home it kept barking at me (you’ve never really been chastised until you’ve been barked at by an irritated butt) to keep the rudders moving as I fought the turbulence with the ailerons. 

Since that flight, the butt and I have flown another half dozen student hops and on each one I heard my SBFC (seat bottom flight coordinator) speaking to my students through me. “As soon as the gear leaves the ground, you’ll feel your butt slide sideways, don’t hesitate. Step on your butt. Get that ball back in center.”

Rolling into a turn, the voice in the intercom says, “Feel your butt slide to the inside? Get that rudder moving the instant you displace the ailerons.” 

“Whoa! What’s that? You don’t hold rudder in a turn! Don’t you feel yourself sliding across the seat? ”

As rear ends go, mine seems destined to be an educator. It may not be a truly educated butt itself, being raised in the country and all that, but it knows what flight is supposed to feel like. It knows when everything is in the groove and when it’s not and it wants everyone to know that feeling. My hardworking hienie is determined to reach out and convert everyone into a butt-savvy aviator.

Some people get the message better than others, but if you ask my students, they’ll all agree that I, for one, have been absolutely and completely converted to a butt head (take that any way you want).