Amputee Pitts Pilot: Peter Loeffler
Text by Budd Davisson, Sport Aerobatics , March 2007, Photos: Budd Davisson, Helen Loeffler
Where There's a Will, There Really IS a Way
"So much for the mystique of the Pitts "
Calvin Coolidge is one of those presidents (1923-1929) who history has nearly forgotten. One of his most enduring legacies, however, is a quote that should guide those who have a dream. He said:
"Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.
When old Cal was penning the above, he could have been speaking about any one of those hundreds of pilots amongst us who have fought against the forces of luck and nature to make their way into the cockpit. One such pilot is Pete Loeffler of Bend, Oregon.
We’d like to share Peter’s story not because he’s unique (he’s not) or a hero (he’ll definitely say he’s not) but because he’s the living embodiment of the Coolidge quote. He’s proven that persistence and determination will conqueror all and there’s something we can all learn from that
“I don’t honestly remember getting hit,” he says. “I got out of my Cardinal to break a stuck starter bendix loose and I remember moving the prop. The next thing I remember I’m laying on the ground in a pool of blood.”
Between the two conscious moments was a violent instant where the already-primed engine started, caught him by the right leg and, according to Dan Sullivan, who was driving past in a fuel truck, picked him up off the ground and actually thrashed him around the nose at least twice before throwing him nearly fifteen feet in the air.
“Getting hit,” says Peter, “felt like getting slammed onto the round, but I have no perception of being spun on the propeller or thrown into the air.
“Dan saved my life. There’s no doubt about that. He is ex-Navy and, after calling for help, applied his first aid training. My leg was nearly severed above the knee and he pinched off the main artery with his fingers until the paramedics arrived. I was conscious but definitely in no shape to do it myself.”
Lesson number one for the rest of us: “I can only blame myself for what happened. I’d been flying for a long time, but at that point, I was clearly distracted by having been dumped by a girl friend and wasn’t totally focused on what I was doing and simply forgot to turn the mags off. Luckily, the mixure was out, so it ran out the prime and quit.”
We’ve all seen movie scenes where the hero is laying bed contemplating a drastically altered future and it’s impossible not to wonder how we’d all react to the same situation. Hopefully, we’ll never have to find out, but Pete did.
“For what ever reason, I reacted in what I now know is an unusual way. Once I knew I wasn’t going to die, some part of my brain knew that I’d get through this and come out the other side okay. It never really got me down and I was amazingly ‘up’ most of the time. In fact, the paramedics came by to see me a number of times in the hospital and I think the fact that I was in such a good frame of mind, made them feel good too. I can’t explain why I reacted that way. I just knew I couldn’t let it get me down or it would drag me down for the rest of my life.
“While I was going through therapy,” he says, “I just assumed I wouldn’t fly again. But, as I got better at hobbling around on my new prosthesis, I realized I liked LOVED flying too much to quite. So, two months after the accident and wearing a temporary leg, I got back in the Cardinal with an instructor and went for it. It turned out to be one of the most important moves of the entire experience.
It’s pretty clear that Peter thrives on a challenge because he’d he had been ready for his commercial check ride before the accident and picked up where he left off as soon as he could. He also didn’t miss the SCUBA trip to Cozumel he had previously scheduled. As much as possible, his life was going to proceed on the schedule he’d had before fate stepped in.
It’s important for the rest of us to understand exactly what losing a leg above the knee means to a pilot. If the amputation is below the knee, the primary limitation is that the ankle/foot flexibility isn’t there. The foot and lower leg act as a unit, but the pilot can still push rudder more or less normally and can use his leg to reposition the foot up to get the brake. If the amputation is above the knee, that’s not the case. With no knee to direct the prosthesis, most of the pushing motion has to come from the hip. He has to twist to move the entire leg forward as a unit. Also, to get the brake, the leg can’t pick up the prosthesis and relocate it on the brake pedal. He has to reach down and manually relocate it or come up with another way to apply brake. Peter did both.
“I was in the process of being checked out in a rental Bonanz,” he says, “when the CFI, Wanda Collins offered me a ride in her Pitts S-2B. She said, if I’d pay for the gas, we’d stay up as long as my stomach could take it. It was absolutely the coolest thing I’d ever done but I remember thinking I couldn’t possibly do this.”
That was in the early 1990’s and he began to re-evaluate his own capabilities in 2002 when he was invited to be a partner in a Decathlon.
“Parker Johnstone gave me my tailwheel endorsement and aerobatic check out, including the entire spin series. Up until that point I’d been flying with a ‘walking’ foot that had a shoe on it, but found it didn’t work as well as one of those L-shaped carbon fiber feet. I hadn’t flown for yearly ten years at that point and it turned out the lay-off caused more problems than my prosthesis did.
“I had dabbled in aerobatics before, but flying the Decathlon made me aware of how much I really liked akro. I decided I was going to keep at it and eventually fly local contests at the Sportsman level. It was as if I’d discovered flying all over again and I was loving it! The more I flew the Decathlon, the more I began to think back to my one hour flying the Pitts a decade earlier. I began to wonder whether flying a Pitts really was beyond me, so, I decided to find out and called Budd Davisson in Phoenix. He advertises that he can teach anyone to land a Pitts and I figured I might as well take him up on that.”
Right here is where writing this article gets a little complicated because, as the writer, I’m not sure how to work myself into this thing. So, if you don’t mind, I’ll just start speaking in the first person and tell my side of the story.
When Peter called me he assumed he’d be the first amputee with such a request, but I’d already checked out at least two others in Pitts. However, both of them had lost their legs below the knee, so working with an above-the-knee amputee would be something new. I was fairly certain we could work it out but we wouldn’t know until we tried and I’m game to try virtually anything along that line in my airplane, a Pitts S-2A. Neither of my past amputee students had any problems whatsoever. Better yet, both had an attitude about learning that couldn’t be beat and I sensed the same from Peter. If he was willing to try, I was certainly willing to work with him.
Peter says, “I stayed at Budd and Marlene Davisson’s B & B, which helped as the ground schooling never stopped. Also, in many ways, Budd was going to function as a physical therapist, which means you can’t hide anything from them and staying at the B & B helped in that regard.
“Our first challenge was getting me in the airplane. Fortunately, his airplane doesn’t have the long, double canopy, but is open in the front with a sliding bubble in the back. So, I’d climb up on the right wing walk, balance on the prosthesis and swing my leg over the canopy and into the back seat. It must have looked odd to by-standers, but, getting into every airplane involves some sort of special dance that this is what worked with the Pitts.
“I have to admit to being a little intimidated walking up to the airplane and the thought crossed my mind ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ but, Budd seemed confident we could do it.
“Once in the cockpit, finding a position for the L-shaped foot took some doing and it was obvious a custom designed foot would be the hot ticket, but we didn’t have one. In fact, after each hop during that first week-long session, I’d go into Budd’s workshop and grind away on the foot, making small modifications to make it fit better and clear obstacles.”
Peter and I found right from the beginning that his biggest problem, besides getting in the airplane, was going to be the simple fact, that the design of that prosthesis gave him an either-or decision on the right pedal. It was either rudder or brake and the difference involved him changing hands on the stick and picking up the leg with his right hand to reposition it on the brake pedal. When taxiing it was extremely jerky at first, because when he’d go for that brake, he’d just jab at it. However, eventually, he worked out a way that he could pressure the right brake and balance that with the other rudder and brake so, although he wasn’t as smooth as he’d like to be, he at least wasn’t rocketing off the taxiway into the lights.
As a flight instructor, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I wasn’t paying a little more attention than normal, but I’d also be lying if I said Peter’s initial tries were scary. They weren’t. In fact his first takeoffs were at least as good as I’d see from a lot of students who weren’t challenged. After 35 plus years in the pattern in the same airplane, I’ve seen a lot of “interesting” things, but during that phase of his training he didn’t run the pucker meter any higher than at least half of my students do.
Peter remembers, “By the time we got ready for that first takeoff, we had done a bunch of taxiing down the runway at increasingly higher speeds. Budd had the throttle and controlled the speed and I had the airplane. My job was to keep the airplane going straight and the tail on the ground. At first I was jerking it all over the place, but eventually figured out how to get the rudder in and then get off of it quickly, so I didn’t over control. Budd said had me running down the runway as fast as 45-50 mph, which felt as if we were riding a rocket.
“I can’t begin to tell anyone how I felt the first time we did it for real. Budd was in front, so I couldn’t see his face, but I know I probably was gritting my teeth as I focused on the sides of the runway and brought the power up. The acceleration was terrific and, as the tail came up the airplane started a slight swing to the left, I thought ‘This is it!’ This is where I would find I couldn’t do it. I gingerly put a little right rudder into it and was more than a little amazed, when the airplane straightened out.
“Budd had me holding a constant, slightly taildown attitude, and in a few seconds, during which the sides of the runway became a blur, it left the ground and I broke into what had to be the biggest grin I’ve ever had. Of course, a second later, Budd’s voice was in my headset saying, ‘Right rudder, get that ball in the middle, right rudder.’ I had forgotten his warning about the P factor right after takeoff and the airplane was sliding sideways to the left. A little rudder put the ball back in the middle and the airplane climbed away like it knew what it was doing. A part of me was still on the runway watching it.”
In the years I’ve been checking pilots out in the Pitts, I’ve found they have more trouble flying a good approach and setting up a good touchdown than they do controlling the airplane on the ground, after landing. If a Pitts touches down square, with no drift, it has not much more tendency to head for the bushes than any other airplane, although you have to be thoughtful about the amount of rudder used to correct any divergencies. If you put it on crooked, however, you’ll be a busy little bear right down to turning off the runway. Like every other pilot, Peter’s salvation lay in making a perfectly straight touchdown. That way all he’d have to correct for would be the smaller turns that are generally the result of crosswind or unnecessary movements by the pilot.
On that first trip down here, he proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he could fly the airplane. However, the leg made smooth braking difficult, although he eventually got it down to acceptable levels. Since he lived not far from Steve Wolf of Wingover Aerobatics in Creswell, Oregon, I suggested he hook up with Steve, whom I consider to be one of the best, if not the best, Pitts instructor on the planet.
Peter says, “I went over to see Steve and he picked up where Budd left off. We were flying his S-2B and Steve worked me pretty hard: he would introduce swerves on roll-out forcing me to deal with larger and larger problems.
“In the course of flying with Steve, my confidence continued to increase and I began looking for an S-2B with Steve looking over my shoulder to make sure I got a good airplane. I was doing this with a partner from the Decathlon. To make sure I was ready, I went back down to fly with Budd again.
“When I arrived at Budd’s I have to admit that I was feeling pretty proud of myself and I wanted to show off a little for him. Then, I got my first set back: I made one landing where I flat lost it. The airplane went one way and I way over controlled and, for the first time, Budd had to save my bacon. It was no big deal to him, and he said so, but it was a real blow to my confidence.
“I’m really careful about what I do and I recognize the limitations the leg places on me, so I tend to be too hard on myself, which is just part of my nature, leg or not. I left to go back to fly with Steve with my tail between my legs.”
Steve got all the kinks worked out for Peter and got him up to speed on the S-2B he had purchased, when Peter had another setback: After he had soloed the airplane and logged four hours in it, his partner (with two legs) lost it on landing and put it on its back totaling it. Peter was right back where he started.
“On the one hand, I was devastated, on the other, I had proven I could fly the airplane, which was my goal all along, but I was definitely aeronautically depressed and started looking for a Decathlon, but this time I’d do it on my own, as the last one was also torn up by a partner.
“As I looked for Decathlons, I couldn’t get the Pitts out of my mind. I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. I guess I like a challenge and I also now know I don’t like being beaten by a challenge. So I started talking to Steve and Budd about the practicality of me flying a single-place Pitts, which were much cheaper and I could afford by myself. Both of them said the airplane was too quick to handle with the current leg, but I’d already started coming up with a Mk.II prosthesis.
“The Mk.II Pitts-Prosthesis had a flat foot on it that pivoted at the ankle and had a lever on the knee joint that could pivot it forward. I could change hands on the stick at the end of the roll out, grab the lever and put the right brake on smoothly without any jerks or grabbing. The first time I flew with Steve with that foot, it was obvious to both of us, that it was a huge improvement and he felt I’d have no problem with a single-hole Pitts.
Peter’s search for a single-hole airplane found him owning a homebuilt S-1S fitted with Sparcraft wings and a hopped up 0-320. Steve gave the airplane a thorough going over and said pilot and airplane were ready to go.
Peter remembers, “I was nervous as a cat on that first takeoff, but it went okay. Then, the first approach so pretty good and I was straight on touchdown, so I stopped. That first flight was from Creswell bringing the airplane home to Redmond, so I had 45 minutes, or so, to calm down and get used to the airplane prior to landing. Before going back down to see Budd, I logged four hours in the airplane, including a bunch of touch and goes. I even got one good landing in it. The rest were ugly but acceptable.
When Peter came back down to fly with me the last time he had the Mk. II prosthesis and it was a huge improvement. As I told him, from my perspective, I couldn’t tell he was flying with a prosthesis. There was no difference between him and any one else. None. We had some mild crosswinds from both directions, including the left, which would challenge him more than ones from the right and he handled them fine.
Because of the way the leg is configured Peter always has to fly in shorts and I have to admit it is huge fun watching the faces of the fuel guys or anyone standing around as he gets in the airplane because his right leg looks like the Terminator’s.
It’s obvious to everyone that he’s doing something that most would agree is totally impossible. But he’s doing it. He knows there’s a risk, but from what I’ve seen of him, as a pilot, his risks are the same as anyone else flying the little buggers. He has to pick the days that match his talent and can’t go out to fly with anything other than a totally focused attitude. And that’s true of any Pitts driver. Since the airplane will only do what you tell it to do, you have to make sure your mind is not distracted by anything. Peter has already found that out the hard way.
Peter says, “I would like the add that none of this has been a solo effort. I have had a lot of help. From Dan Sullivan, who truly saved my life and without whome two great boys, Christopher and Nick, would have never made it into this world. From Park Johnstone who took me from a very rusty tricycle gear pilot to the point where I was comfortable landing a Decathlon from the rear seat and doing inverted spins. From Budd Davisson who gave me a very firm foundation in landing the Pitts as well as a lot of encouragement. From Steve Wolf who built on the landings and aerobatics and spent a lot of time setting up the S-1S so that I fit in it with my prosthesis. Las, but not least, my wife Helen who has put up with my obsession with the Pitts and loved me through all the ups and downs.”
At the very least, I’d say that Peter has definitely laid to rest the old wives tales that surround the Pitts Special. So, the next time you think a taildragger or a Pitts is beyond you, think about Peter Loeffler and others who have risen to the challenge. If they can do it, so can you. Period.