A few hours after hooking up with Byron we were somewhere out in the eastern Oregon wilderness which looks surprisingly like a desert, but after drenching rains, it was all mud. We were sitting on top a small mesa with the engine idling and out in front of me, maybe 250 feet away, was a distinct semi-ditch where an old stock road had eroded into sharp edges. Half way to the ditch was a narrow swale I'd have to ride through. The entire undulating surface was low sage brush and mud. Lots of mud.
Byron was sitting in the back seat with no control stick and no throttle. He had no way to correct if I screwed up. The best he could do was scream into the intercom. I was going to have to get off on what was in front of me and then come back around and land on what was behind me. The 150 feet or so behind me started at a sheer cliff, went up hill for 30 or 40 feet, and then plateaued with the ditch at the far end. We had about 400-500 feet of runway, mud for a braking surface, and very little wind on the nose to help.
Was I nervous? Surprisingly, no, I wasn't. I'd seen Byron make three approaches and landings and for some reason, the airplane gave me so much confidence I wasn't worried. Byron must have felt the same way because I was the first person outside his company to occupy the sole pilot seat and he was turning me loose in what I thought was a marginal situation. Later I was to find that wasn't the case. 500 feet wasn't even close to being marginal.
Byron's voice was somewhere in the back of the Bose headsets (which are an absolute necessity!) but I wasn't hearing it. As the throttle went in, I was listening to my own voice inside my head coaching me as if I was a student. With 400 horses streaming out of the IO-720 Lycoming and over the tail, I just held on and tried to hold the tail wheel just barely out of the mud.
There is no way you can imagine what it feels like to be bounding over rocks and sage brush and down into a swale, while hanging on to a raging bull. My mind was speaking to my right hand, asking it to keep gently applying back pressure, while willing the airplane off the ground and away from the awful beating we were taking.
The big tires soaked up an amazing amount of what I knew were airplane destroying impacts, then we bounced once and were airborne. I held that attitude for a second, letting the airplane accelerate until it felt as solid as it had at cruise, before banking steeply around as we came out over the yawning edge of a small canyon. As I banked I glanced at the airspeed for the first time. 55 knots! I thumbed the electric trim on the stick forward for a second and grinned. At that speed the airplane felt absolutely stone solid.
The confidence the Sherpa gave in that situation was truly awe-inspiring. I don't ever remember an airplane that felt that good that slow or that early in a flight It just seemed so right that I immediately felt comfortable, which is not the way I usually feel before even making the first landing. I'm not one of those super pilots who are good in every airplane and this airplane couldn't have been further removed from my usual mount, a Pitts Special, if it tried. Here I was, 55 knots, 100 feet over a desolate wilderness in a 30 degree bank in a machine that weighed nearly two and a half times what my Pitts does and I felt good about it. Really good. That says something for the airplane.
I stayed low and bent it around in a tight pattern heading for the other end of our so-called runway, which was nothing more than a piece of raw wilderness. I punched the rest of the flaps out (40°, slotted-Fowlers) and trimmed for 50 knots as I turned final.
The vertical edge of the mesa and the short, up-hill ramp which was my intended touch down spot was well up in the windshield. It was as if the airplane had no nose the visibility was so good. Also, the airplane was so speed stable, I found cross checking the airspeed was a waste of time. As long as I didn't move the nose, the needle stayed stuck in one place. I trimmed it back to 45 knots, licked my lips and visually fixated on my landing stop.
Not once in my entire life have I ever been in that type of situation, one which demanded the airplane hit exactly where I wanted and for which the consequences of failure were so great. Land short and we'd be a jumbled pile of junk on the edge of the mesa (or so I thought at the time) and the multi-million dollar investment of Byron Root and his partner Glen Gordon would be gone. Land long and I'd go slithering through the mud into the road/ditch unable to stop (or so I thought at the time).
I flew an abbreviated final but it took only a few seconds to realize the airplane absolutely followed the throttle, what little I was using of it. We weren't grinding along nose high, with the power screaming to keep us in the air. Rather, we were simply in what would have been a steep glide but we were using just a little power to flatten it out and overcome the drag.
At 45 knots everything is happening in slow motion and it seemed as if I had all day to gently move the power in and out to draw a straight line to my landing spot. Then, suddenly we were there and the spot loomed large in the windshield. I gently brought the nose up and eased the power off (Byron had demonstrated it needed just a bit of power to flair). We flopped into the mud with me sucking the stick into my gut and the airplane had nearly stopped rolling before it dawned on me to get on the brakes.
I let out the breath I had taken on downwind and grinned about as wide as I believe I have ever grinned. What an absolute, positive, unqualified blast! I looked ahead at the road/ditch I was worried about and realized I had more distance left to takeoff than I had the first time. We hadn't used much over 150 feet on landing and I didn't know what I was doing! That says a lot for the airplane.
I made a bunch more take-offs and landings on top that mesa before trading places with Byron so he could show me how the airplane really flew.