Tag: I was there

Mustang musings: what it’s like to fly the legendary P-51

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Several years ago my close friend Lewis Shaw and I took a trip south from Dallas to Encinal, TX, in his North American P-51D Mustang. We were flying to the remote and little-known town to visit with an associate who was a serious collector of warbirds. He was looking to buy a second Mustang to add to his collection and Lewis was looking to sell his—a polished aluminum beauty that was an exquisite example of the legendary WWII fighter in every way.

Neither Lewis nor the interested buyer were new to the Mustang world. Lewis had owned two beautiful Mustangs prior to this one and the interested buyer had one already in his stable and a number of other perfectly restored and flightworthy warbirds to boot. I had arranged the meeting between the two and was invited along for the ride to handle introductions.

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Acceleration in a North American P-51D is rapid and seriously forceful.

Acceleration in a North American P-51D is rapid and seriously forceful. If you’ve ever put the pedal to the metal in a high-dollar sports car, no further explanation is required. During the first few seconds following brake release, the pilot has no direct forward view. Because the tailwheel is still on the runway, all Mustang (and taildragger) pilots must momentarily compensate by developing a peripheral sense of where the airplane is heading. Once a little forward stick is applied (which, incidentally, also unlocks the tailwheel from the rudder) and the tail lifts, the view forward is excellent. At that point, the mission objective becomes simply keeping the airplane on the centerline while it accelerates to takeoff speed.

During acceleration, engine power is metered out in measured quantities. Too much torque can be a dangerous thing when airspeed and lift are marginal, so max power (approximately 40 inches of mercury at 3,000 rpm) isn’t applied at the very beginning of the takeoff roll. It is, in fact, eased into at a somewhat conservative pace using a good mix of experience, book learning, and common sense.

Staying centered is no overly simple task; the P-51D’s Rolls-Royce Merlin engine and Hamilton Standard four-blade propeller develop a lot of torque. Right rudder in serious quantities is required to offset the pull to the left (five degrees of right rudder are, in fact, pre-set by the pilot prior to takeoff to ease rudder pedal forces), but once the airplane’s airspeed gets to the point where the rudder and vertical tail have acquired some authority, the pilot can reduce the right rudder input and start concentrating on other things.

Once airborne at just over 100 miles per hour, the landing gear are retracted and, if flaps were used (20 degrees–optional), they are retracted also. The oil and coolant shutters are usually operating in automatic mode, so they are not an issue–particularly on a cool day.

Immediately after takeoff, the pilot has to be conscious not only of too much engine power being applied too quickly, but also P-factor. Sometimes referred to as asymmetric blade effect, it is a condition that occurs usually at low airspeeds and relatively high angles of attack. Without getting into the modestly complicated aerodynamics of it all, suffice it to say that P-factor forces a propeller driven airplane to yaw, usually to the left, in concert with the added force of torque. At low airspeeds and low altitudes, P-factor and torque can create a deadly duo that P-51 pilots do their best to avoid at all costs, particularly during takeoff and landing.

My friend, pilot, and Mustang owner, Lewis Shaw and I were, of course, communicating throughout the takeoff roll and departure from Addison Airport. I was having a seriously enjoyable time in the back seat documenting everything with my Nikons and trying to keep up with all the activity in the front seat. After some radio chatter with the tower, ATC got us heading in the right direction and out of the way of Dallas-Ft. Worth Airport traffic. Basic route for us was due south/southwest to Waco, Austin, and San Antonio, and then a slight veer to the west after we passed over the Alamo.

Encinal—population 629—our destination, is just over 100 miles south of San Antonio, so air time from Addison (just north of Dallas) to Encinal was just about an hour and fifteen minutes cruising at around 300 mph. Cruising altitude was around 6,500 feet. All in all, a comfortable setup for the airplane and Lewis and me.

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Cruising along in the P-51D is an unforgettable experience.

The Merlin, at cruise, is a relatively smooth and responsive engine. With a helmet and headset on, the cockpit noise level is easily bearable but far from quiet.

Finding that I had overdressed a bit and had put on a sweatshirt that proved redundant, I decided to remove it in the tight constraints of the back seat. This required some serious twisting and turning, a complicated unbuckling of belt and chute harness, and of course the removal of my helmet. The latter quickly gave me a much better sense of actual ambient cockpit noise without any ear protection. Suffice it to say it was a relief putting the helmet back on after I got the sweatshirt off!

Midway through the flight Lewis turned the stick over to me. This was not a simple matter of communication, but also involved my pulling the back seat stick from its storage clamps on the right side of the cockpit and installing the stick in the base stub on the floor just in front of my seat. No major effort involved, but it was easy to understand why the stick was removable. Getting in and out of the rear seat area would have been all but impossible without this feature.

Rudder pedals are permanently installed, so there was no issue there and nothing to do but place my feet on them. After that, it was grip the throttle and have a good time!

With Lewis’s blessing I did a few gentle maneuvers, input some partial rolls to the left and right, watched my horizon flip flop around without a lot of effort, and overall thoroughly enjoyed the rare treat of flying a real-deal Mustang. Though this was not my first Mustang ride, it was most certainly the first time I had been given full control of the airplane. It was a most memorable experience.

The Mustang’s stick and rudder coordination are excellent and very smooth. Response is near instantaneous to inputs from either, and the throttle response is equally fast. One has to be conscious of the engine/propeller torque (and airspeed) at all times, as too much power input too quickly, even at cruising airspeeds, can quickly affect the airplane’s direction and stability. Everything on the other end of the throttle handle needs to be handled with finesse and forethought until flying the Mustang becomes second nature. Even then, it’s nothing to be taken for granted. Mustangs do not bear fools lightly…

As noted previously, the Mustang’s back seat is not the most comfortable perch on the planet. After an hour of flying, keeping an eye on the GPS and compass, and cooking under the clear bubble canopy, I was ready to land and stretch my legs and rub my back. When Encinal finally appeared on the horizon, I was not unhappy about it. After locating our destination runway, we made the customary high-speed pass down the centerline, pitched up, rolled, and turned onto base leg and final.

The wheel landing, with Lewis back in control, was uneventful. Approach, with a modest amount of flap, was around 110 mph with touchdown taking place at about 95 mph. Once the tailwheel was on the ground, things slowed in a hurry. Five minutes after the main gear kissed the asphalt, we were pulling up in front the main hangar and shutting down.

Our visit lasted for about two hours. The airport proprietor was a kind and absolutely first-class host. After Lewis and our host finished their business, we were fed and the Mustang was fully fueled for the trek back north. The Mustang holds around 180 gallons of hi-octane avgas internally and has a range of about 1,100 miles in standard fighter configuration. Add two 75-gallon external wing tanks (which Lewis has on his Mustang), and the range jumps to just short of 2,400 miles. Either way, those are long non-stop hauls. If you’re in the back seat, you better take some pain pills with you and possess a very large bladder.

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Made for performance, not comfort.

Departure from Encinal was uneventful except for the obligatory high-speed pass and roll. Aiming north and getting back up to cruising altitude and airspeed, Lewis again turned over the stick. For the next hour and several minutes, I cruised along fat, dumb, and very happy while my pilot dozed for a few minutes in the front seat.

All too soon it was over. After turning control back to Lewis, I pulled the stick from its stub connector, inserted it into its storage clasps to my right, took my feet off the rudder pedals, and relaxed back into passenger mode. Before I knew it, we were on final to Addison. A minute or two later, the mains kissed the runway and the Mustang began to decelerate. A few seconds after that, the tail wheel was back on the ground with a light bump and the snake dance back to Lewis’s well-known “Toy Barn” hangar got underway.

One thing that sticks with me is how many people came out of their hangars and buildings lining the Addison Airport runway and taxiway to watch our cackling and popping passage. Though Lewis flew his Mustang regularly from Addison, it’s obvious the locals never got tired of seeing or hearing it. Polished aluminum, a Rolls-Royce Merlin, and the name Mustang are eye candy that no red-blooded aviator can ignore.

Once the big Hamilton Standard prop came to a halt and Lewis extricated himself from the front seat, I was able to follow suit. I must say that that moment arrived none too soon, as by then my back and butt were absolutely killing me!

Would I do it again?

In a heartbeat…

Latest posts by Jay Miller (see all)

Harmony and distractions

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Music occupies space as poetry. The notes merge into a symphony, calibrating the brain with that ethereal sense of wonder. Bach’s music by some is considered the emotional calibrator. Each melodic note rides the wave on the preceding note; much like the start of an IO-550 engine, you can hear the guttural sound on ignition. After the fuel pump has loaded up the distributor block and the mixture of air and fuel is introduced into the cylinder, the magnetos induce the electrical spark from the spark plugs as a gentle cascading flame spreads across the piston head, combusting the air/fuel mixture and pressing the pistons in their cylinders into a perpetual linear motion of up and down.

You can hear this if you concentrate and slow your brain down—keep the door and window open when starting the engine. Keep the headset on your lap for a moment and listen. Just like the members of a symphony or at a Broadway play, the musicians calibrate their wind and string instruments before the maestro raises his arms. And suddenly there is harmony. All the cylinders fire in harmony if there is no early morning sickness of stuck valves. The CHTs on the display come alive like the musical score communicating the information visually. All is well with the machine, pilot, and the world.

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Do you hear the symphony?

I put my headsets on when the symphony is well on its way and then listen through the noise cancelling waves for any errant cellist in the mix. Taxiing to the approach end of the runway is much the same: no distractions, just concentration on the task at hand, safely negotiating the taxiway to the runway and using the checklist.

Taking off is magic, every time. Ask any pilot and within a fraction of a percentage you will hear these words, “Its magic!” As the weight is lifted off the gear and borne entirely by the wings, we are airborne. The sound of the engine changes as it harmonizes with the ocean of air.

After an hour and a half of flying, I was returning to my home airport the other evening. It was a dusky evening with the haze clamped down firmly beneath by the overhead gray clouds. It was that time of the day where the forces of night are hammering at the door to let it in, and that little bit of twilight won’t give up.

Three miles from the airport, I was already at traffic pattern altitude, slowing down from my standard 20 inches of manifold pressure (MP) to 18 inches. The winds were calm on surface based on the AWOS but at 1000 feet they were 5 knots from the west. I was planning the 45-degree entry for a downwind pattern to runway 24, when I heard the call that a Cherokee was on a practice ILS approach to runway 06. He announced that he was three miles out. Midstream in my thought process, I changed my plans to accommodate the pilot and land on runway 06 as well, to avoid any conflict.

I was doing 110 knots, slowing to 105 knots as I flew crosswind-midfield overhead the runway. Turning onto left downwind, I reduced power to 15 inches of MP to slow down. Suddenly that blessed-neural-harmony of thought had an errant cellist in the midst. The Cherokee pilot announced he was one mile from the runway threshold; I looked for the aircraft below and to my left and could not see the aircraft. Nope, nothing there! I strained at 2-3 miles beyond the runway threshold and nothing still.

I heard the seven clicks, and the runway lights came on at full bright. I strained to look for the Cherokee to decide when to make the base turn. And lo and behold, his localizer must have been pegged to the right because he blew right past me, 500 feet below and closer to my flight path. The Garmin lady blurted “Traffic! Traffic!” as the yellow ball danced just below me on the MFD.

I turned base as the pilot announced a missed approach and the yellow ball disappeared on the MFD. I noted that my airspeed was still 95 knots and put the approach flaps in and simultaneously reduced the MP further. The dissonant cacophony of the gear-warning alarm disturbed the harmony! One and a half miles from the threshold. I looked for the three green—and there weren’t any! My hand grabbed the gear handle and pushed it down and four seconds later the three green lights lit up. The base leg gave me ample time to stabilize for the final approach at 700 feet.

The “500 feet” warning came on a few seconds later and I deployed full flaps. The aircraft slowed down to my desired approach speed of 80 knots, and I reconfirmed the GUMPS with the “three green” visually once again. I looked for the Cherokee pilot and saw him well left of the runway executing a missed approach, turning southbound right over the midfield at 200-300 feet above my altitude. Fortunately, there weren’t any others around to partake in this spaghetti-like confluence of distractions and maneuvers.

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Not the result any pilot wants.

What went wrong with my symphonic harmony? It is obvious there was a minor distraction that prevented me from reviewing and executing my checklist. In retrospect, I realize that if the harmony of thought is broken at any point during a flight, one must force oneself into the basics. Perhaps, I should have extended downwind and pulled out the checklist and reconfigured for the approach (a wiser and more careful methodology), but not turned back to an upwind for another pattern since the Cherokee pilot was cutting his missed approach quicker and at a lower altitude (although I did not have a clue then). He would have been a conflict!

These are questions worth pondering in the aftermath exercise. An old saying, “there are those pilots who have had a gear up landing and those who will,” scares the daylights out of me!

What went wrong (Excuses n’ all):

  1. Visibility
  2. Deviation of planned maneuver
  3. Sudden change of runway
  4. Unable to visualize where the other aircraft was
  5. Forgetting to lower the gear on turning downwind (checklist)
  6. Verbalizing, “three green” while simultaneously looking for the indication on downwind
  7. Verbalizing, “three green” on base leg before the gear warning horn sounded
  8. Reducing power below 15 inches MP to reduce speed, which if properly configured in the aircraft I fly, should happen only at short final when the runway is made.
  9. OK, I did not mention the chatty passenger “he, who shall not be named,” in the back seat, whom I had to electronically isolate while overhead the field… should have done that five miles out!

DECIDE:

D- Detect that the action is necessary: checklist review
E- Estimate the significance of the action: gear up landing
C- Choose a desirable outcome: landing safely
I- Identify actions needed to achieve the chosen option: power/speed/gear/flaps
D- Do the necessary action to achieve change: extend gear/flaps
E- Evaluate the effects of the action: power and desired speed

What saved the day:

  1. The below 15 inches MP gear warning horn
  2. Alertness to the warning
  3. Immediate execution of gear extension
  4. Confirming the “three green” on base
  5. Confirming the “three green” on final
  6. Reconfirming with the “check landing gear” warning at 200 feet from the Landing Heights System (LIDAR) that I recently installed.
  7. Stabilizing the approach at 700 feet, otherwise unstable at 500 feet equals a missed approach.
  8. Landing without incident.
  9. LESSON LEARNED!!!

The musical interlude exists to enjoy for another day, for breaking the surly bonds and witnessing the spectacle of flight—but now with renewed concepts and understanding.

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Confessions of a seaplane charter pilot

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Following my retirement from dentistry, I became very bored very quickly and realized the necessity of having something to occupy my spare time. I immediately turned to the field of flight.

I had already owned and leased out aircraft, including a new Piper PA-16 that I traveled to Florida to purchase new for $10,750 (in 1963) to replace my worn out, leased Piper Tri-Pacer. (The salesman suggested that I sell the valuable radios and “throw in” the airplane). I then flew the new airplane back to Boeing Field without a radio; yes, they still painted the name of the airport on the roof of the hangar to aid navigation. Later, I bought and leased to my glider club a Piper Super Cub for towing gliders. But the maintenance, fuel, and insurance ($4,500/year on a $20,000 aircraft) made the business model impractical; I returned to my first love, seaplanes.

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Lake Union is one of the busiest seaplane bases in the world.

My mentor, Lana Kurtzer, had already died and his estate had sold the land and the company to his former competitor. But one of his long-time employees had established a small company across Lake Union; I decided to introduce myself.

The timing was perfect; the seaplane charter business is seasonal and (most of) the small companies fly seven days a week for three months in the hope of earning enough to carry them over the winter months. This was the beginning of the season and the boss needed a pilot. I checked out in one of his two Cessna 206s on floats (N8397Q) and immediately began flying, at first occasionally and then nearly every day. The Cessna 206 with a Continental IO-520 engine had right-side double doors aft but lacked a front seat right-side door (no exit from the right front during docking) and was mounted on Deep V 3400 floats that were valuable when landing in rough weather.

Aircraft maintenance was the responsibility of the boss (an A&P) and always a consideration. One of my first charters was ferrying a passenger to Lake Chaunigan on Vancouver Island to attend a rowing crew race. Before departing, the boss muttered something about the alternator on N8397Q that I did not clearly hear and we headed out of Lake Union, crossed the straits, and soon found lake Chaunigan near Victoria. It was surrounded by crowds of people; I landed and taxied up and down the shoreline searching in vain for a docking area to unload my passenger and finally shut down the engine in the hope someone would run out to us and take my passenger. Nobody volunteered; I decided to restart and taxi clear of the lake for the coming race. The battery was dead!

The crew race began, and I was stranded in the middle of the course. People were shouting and waving at me from the shore to clear the course and finally one kind boater recognized my problem and towed me off the course to shore. The emergency paddle fit into a sleeve on the inside of the left float; I used it to paddle into a float where my passenger quickly jumped ashore and disappeared. The race finished and I sat there deciding where I could find another battery and thinking unkind thoughts about my boss and what he had muttered about the alternator. I suddenly remembered that sometimes if you leave a dead battery sit a few minutes it sometimes generates a small revival charge. I tied a slipknot to the cleat on the float and ran the end into the cockpit, hit the starter and it kicked over once and started! But my problems were not over…

I took off, climbed out to 2,000 ft., leveled off for cruise and noticed that it was cruising 10 mph slow. I checked the power settings, flaps, and water rudders but suddenly remembered… the paddle! Looking out the window I could see that it was firmly plastered vertically to the leading edge of the float struts by the airflow, blade down and with the handle just out of reach. I knew that I could not fly across the city with this situation—it would surely depart at a most inopportune time—and tried everything to dislodge it: slow flight, stalls, skids, slips. All were unsuccessful, and finally I let down and touched down on the step and dislodged it.

I returned to Lake Union with a more realistic understanding of maintenance problems in small (and large?) aircraft companies that I found valuable in future years on several occasions.

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A seaplane can get the pilot into unique forms of trouble.

My seaplane charters continued nearly every day in the summers and there were always challenging problems that kept it interesting.

For instance, Tuesday was sailboat race day on Lake Union, and it was sometimes challenging to find an area large enough to land without violating safety rules. I returned one late Tuesday to find dozens of race competitors covering almost the entire lake. I noted one potential area on the east side of the lake that would could qualify by stretching the rules slightly, and entered a downwind left-hand pattern over Westlake Avenue with final approach to touchdown into the strong breeze just offshore from the houseboats lining the lake. I touched down easily and settled down off the step to begin my 180-degree turn around on the water to taxi back to the dock at the southeast corner of the lake.

Floatplanes weathercock into the wind and are difficult to turn away from the wind in a strong breeze. The torque from the propeller rotation will turn them naturally to the left and the greater the RPM, the greater the left turn force. The water rudders help when properly rigged to allow them to deploy full length into the water; 8379Q had received a recent 100-hour inspection and the rudders were not properly rigged.

After touchdown, I applied (a lot of) power, stood on the left rudder with the yoke back, began the 180-degree left turn, and slowly came around 90 degrees to find myself with my madly thrashing propeller looking dead ahead at the Seattle police harbor patrol boat. This was not a good way to make friends! I completed my turn and taxied back to the dock with the police boat following. I climbed out, tied up and, expecting the worst, met the officer coming down the dock.

He had a quizzical look on his face as I calmly greeted him, and unapologetically explained the difficulty turning the seaplane away from the strong wind. I offered to taxi him out on the lake to demonstrate the problem.

He just smiled and said, “I thought you were just being obnoxious.”

We departed good friends.

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What’s in a (fighter pilot’s) name?

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Fighter aircraft have names such as Mustang, Lightning, Thunderbolt, Spitfire, Warthog (the unofficial name of the A-10 Thunderbolt II), Viper (the unofficial name of the F-16 Fighting Falcon), Tomcat, Phantom, Wildcat, Eagle, Cougar, Hellcat, and Typhoon.

Fighter pilots have names, or “callsigns,” as well. You are probably familiar with some of the callsigns of characters in Top Gun. There was Maverick, Goose, Iceman, Hollywood, Viper, Jester, Cougar, etc.

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Where do those catchy names come from?

You may wonder where a callsign comes from, or what one does to earn a callsign that sticks forever. Callsigns can be associated with your name, your profession (some people around fighter pilots get a callsign, as seen below), a noteworthy accomplishment, or something you would rather forget—and wish that everyone else would as well. What follows are some callsigns I knew during my career and how they came to be.

To begin, I’ll own up to my own callsign—Boots—to which I still answer. It starts with my last name, Hill, and then think about the gunfighters in the Wild West who were buried at Boot Hill after dying with their boots on. Fighter pilots believe they are immortal but, if they are killed, they want to die with their boots on while “in the fight” and not doing the dishes. Finally, I always wore Corcoran combat boots, the same ones worn by Army paratroopers, which hold a shine like nobody’s business, and meant the lieutenants hated seeing my boots next to theirs. The moniker stuck and I proudly wear it.

There are easily explained callsigns.

If your last name was Rhodes or something similar, you inevitably were Dusty.

My brother was a Marine F-4 pilot and he was called Mustang for much the same reason Tom Cruise was Maverick in Top Gun.

One of the pilots in my squadron had the last name of Porter, so he became Bagman.

A fellow A-10 driver had the last name of Davidson; naturally he was called Harley.

A good friend with the last name of Bruner picked up Burners, which is very fitting for one who flew an aircraft with afterburners.

When computers were becoming widespread, our squadron had a guy called Spam, not because he had a computer, but because he actually liked to eat Spam.

A fellow A-10 pilot at Myrtle Beach once made a gear-up landing in an O-2 (a militarized Cessna Skymaster); he subsequently, and permanently, got stuck with the callsign of Skids.

Another A-10 pilot with the last name of Dill became Pickle. Note, when you drop a bomb or fire ordnance in fighters, you press the pickle button, so this name was fitting for a fighter pilot.

A fellow classmate in my F-16 training course took off one day and was trying to catch up with his instructor pilot (IP) in the lead aircraft. But he was having trouble getting sufficient airspeed, even with the throttle pushed well forward. He finally did join up with the flight leader and that’s when the IP saw the problem: my classmate had never raised his gear after takeoff. He forever became Wheels.

As a commander, one of my guys had the callsign of Pid. His first name was Stuart, and his nametag was embroidered with “Stu” followed by a dash and then “Pid.” Of course, he was anything bit stupid!

We had two pilots who arrived at the 80th Fighter Squadron (the Juvats) in Korea at about the same time. One was a large, affable character, the other was a smaller version of the first. They instantly became Yogi and Boo-Boo–remember that cartoon? As you can see, timing plays a part in assigning callsigns.

Callsigns can also be based on a physical attributes. As a commander, I once took five of my F-16s and eight of my IPs to Miramar Naval Air Station outside of San Diego, California. We spent a week role-playing Soviet fighters for their students learning to fly the F-14. When I spoke with our host officer on the phone prior to our arrival, he told me his callsign was Tiny. Upon landing at Miramar, I climbed down the ladder of my F-16 and Tiny was there to greet me. He was anything but tiny! I wondered how he ever fit into the cockpit of an F-14.

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Not all callsigns are compliments.

One of my IPs who made that trip to Miramar was a guy we called Little Joe (like Michael Landon on “Bonanza”). His name was Lloyd Joseph, but, like our host at Miramar, his callsign was based on his size. I wondered how Little Joe, or L-J as we sometimes called him, fit into an F-16 cockpit. I knew when he was the last one who flew an F-16 that I climbed into because I couldn’t see over the glare shield until the generator came on line and I could raise the seat. To give you an idea of his size, L-J was a lineman on the Brigham Young football team.

I have a longtime friend who graduated college with me and we flew A-10s together at Myrtle Beach. Like me he is now retired and is also a member of the same Daedalian Flight in Atlanta. He is known as Senator, but it’s not because he’s a politician; he has a southern accent and can press the flesh with the best of them.

When I was commanding the 61st Fighter Squadron one student pilot we trained, named Roger, got a unique callsign. Roger was an F-4 pilot when the Air Force started looking for flight surgeons who would also be fully qualified fighter pilots, not just occupy the back seat on the occasional mission. As a qualified fighter pilot, he would normally go through a three-month transition course to get checked out in the F-16. However, Roger was accepted for this new program as he had the grades, passed the MCat, and had been accepted to medical school. So, he stopped flying the F-4 for four years of medical school followed by his residency to become a flight surgeon.

When he returned to flying, he had been out of the cockpit for over five years. On top of that, he was upgrading to fly the F-16. The higher-ups decided that, because Roger had been out of flying for so long and he was also upgrading to a new fighter, he would go through a six-month basic course. The other students in Roger’s class were primarily those who had just been awarded their wings. Roger was a Major and, because of his rank, he was the class commander while his classmates were a bunch of fresh-faced, young (very young!), 2nd lieutenants.

We thought long and hard about what Roger’s callsign should be. We thought of Bones (what Captain Kirk often called Doctor McCoy on Star Trek) as well as Doc (like one of the seven dwarfs in Sleeping Beauty), but those were both too easy. After much deliberation and because of the age difference between Roger and his fellow classmates, we settled on what you call an old bone: Fossil!

As for non-fighter pilots who were given a callsign, the first to come to mind were two 2nd lieutenants in Korea who were in the 8th Fighter Wing (the Wolfpack) weather shop. We liked these guys, had fun with them, and they became known as the Phoon brothers, Ty and Buff.

The Juvats also had a flight surgeon who was in the first class of women to graduate from the Air Force Academy. Her last name was O’Hare, so she was tagged with Scarlet (think Gone With the Wind). When she returned to the States, Scarlet was the flight surgeon for the 61st Fighter Squadron at MacDill AFB in Tampa, Florida, while I was the commander. She later married one of my pilots whose last name was Fox. As a result, we changed her callsign to Fox II, which is the radio call made when firing the heat-seeking, AIM-9 air-to-air missile. See how easy this is?

In my past I knew a Mallard, a Latka (from TV’s “Taxi”), a Juice, an Enos (from TV’s “Dukes of Hazzard”), a Bulb (like a lightbulb), and a Torch (who nearly burned down the squadron).

I’ll close with two of my favorite callsigns and why they were assigned.

  • One should never try to badger those who are assigning callsigns; but you can try and bribe them! I knew a 2nd lieutenant who wanted to be a Rock, or Flame, or Spidey, or some other super-hero, and he let everyone know it. But, because of his baby face and for making such a nuisance of himself, he got tagged with Fluffy!
  • Finally, remember the F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter that was shot down by Yugoslavian forces in 1999? The mission callsign of that F-117 was “Vega 31.” When a B-2 pilot I know proposed to and subsequently married a Canadian-American lady of Yugoslavian descent, he picked up the callsign of Vega because he too was a stealth pilot “shot down” by a Yugoslavian.

There are many callsigns out there like Conan, Rocket, Fazer, Hose, Ajax, Slam, Two-G, Dizzy, and others. When you encounter someone sporting a callsign on their jacket or flight gear, ask them how they got that name. You might be in for a good laugh along with a good story!

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A landing and a one-wheel takeoff on Interstate 25

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On a hot August morning in 1976, at 7:20 (rush hour), I landed a Cessna 172 on Interstate 25 south of Denver, Colorado, near mile marker 172. Within a few minutes of my touching down, a TV reporter and cameraman showed up. Five minutes later—and quite predictably—the Colorado Highway Patrol arrived.

In addition to my day job as Manager Flight Services at Jeppesen, I was a working CFI. That morning, I was giving dual instruction to a private pilot student with a passenger (the husband of wife’s sister) in the back seat. My student had recently completed her first solo cross-country. That morning, I had asked her what she enjoyed about her trip and also to tell me what questions she had. After explaining the great feeling of going someplace else on her own (without me), she said she had a couple of questions: the first was she needed some help to figure out how to determine the best way to enter a new airport pattern for landing. Then she explained she was having some difficulty when tracking outbound from a VOR. She said everything went well when flying to a VOR but flying from just was confusing.

3a3c1f5d3fa7183a478fd43d650c4260  united states colorado douglas county larkspur us 85 perry park airport 719 338 2401 300x168 - A landing and a one-wheel takeoff on Interstate 25

Not a great airport for a low performance airplane when it’s hot.

At 7:00 in the morning, we took off from Arapahoe County airport (now Centennial – APA). I asked her to fly to the Larkspur airport (now the private field Perry Park), still under construction at the time. Larkspur was on the 180 radial of the old Denver VOR as well as an airport that she had not been to before, perfect for accomplishing both goals—tracking “from” a VOR and entering the pattern to a new airport. The Larkspur airport elevation is about 6,700 feet and, importantly, the density altitude that morning was over 8,000 feet.

We successfully tracked the 180 radial to Larkspur and I helped her to determine the method to find the 45-degree entry leg to the downwind leg. She proceeded to fly the pattern legs followed by the final approach to landing. About 100 feet above the runway, I told her to go around since the runway, still under construction, was closed. She dutifully applied full throttle, pushed the carburetor heat knob to full cold, and raised the flaps from 40 degrees to 20 degrees. She also pitched up to maintain 65 knots and initiate a climb, since there was a significant hill about 200 feet above us on the other end of the runway.

As we flew over the runway surface, I immediately noted we were neither climbing nor gaining any speed. The hill at the departure end of the runway, on the other hand, was coming up fast. I told my student “I got it” and gently banked the airplane to the left, where we saw a busy Interstate 25. Despite full throttle, the airplane was still not gaining any airspeed, so I made the decision to fly low over the highway to pick up speed in ground effect. As we lumbered over to the highway (only a quarter mile from the airport), my brother-in-law pointed out that our flaps were still down. Surprised, I looked outside and saw that, indeed, our “barn doors” were still hanging. Looking back in the cockpit, I could see the flap handle was right where it was supposed to be (up), but the flaps themselves looked fully extended (later, inspection determined them to be at 40 degrees). Getting a little desperate for airspeed, I then jiggled the flap handle a number of times. Contacts finally closed, and I was able to get the flaps up.

By this time, however, we were over the highway, a mere 50 feet above the traffic and not flying much faster. I assessed our options as few and bad: the highway ahead was rising faster than we could climb. Additionally, a large tractor-trailer rig directly in front of us made our effective AGL altitude even lower. To the left was oncoming freeway traffic. The terrain to our right was dense with trees. I decided our only realistic option was to “merge” into the traffic from above and land on the highway.

In a stroke of amazing luck, a rest stop turnoff presented itself as soon as we touched down, giving us a “high-speed taxiway” I gratefully used to get out of the stream of auto traffic. As an interesting aside, the driver of the big rig in front of us saw our rotating red beacon in his rearview mirrors. Thinking we were a “bear in the air,” he also pulled into the turnoff and got out of his truck to see why he was being pulled over by an airborne Highway Patrol!

signal 2021 07 26 202735 300x200 - A landing and a one-wheel takeoff on Interstate 25

Sometimes only one option presents itself.

When the Highway Patrol arrived, the trooper invited me to join him in his car and informed me the FAA desired the pleasure of a phone call. “I’m sure they do,” I thought to myself. Since this was back before everyone on the planet had a mobile phone, I was grateful to find a pay phone (remember those?) at the rest stop. Fortunately (and completely by chance), the FAA Ops Inspector answering my call was my former private and commercial pilot instructor from Bozeman, MT, where he had also been a crop duster pilot.

Not only was I a former student, I had also flagged fields for him while he sprayed chemicals from his crop duster (this was before GPS made that chore unnecessary!). On one trip, I drove the chemical truck to a remote location to refill the chemical tanks on his plane. He landed on a deserted stretch of US 10 and taxied to my truck. As we talked on the phone, I said to him, “Hey, remember in Montana you showed me how to land on a highway? Well, I finally got it right!”

The FAA inspector gave me a choice: he would tell the CHP officer I was free to go, so I could either leave immediately or wait for a ferry permit so my insurance would still be valid. I decided to wait (giving me time to think about the details of getting airborne again), and a series of troopers carried the ferry permit to me by “passing the baton” between adjacent patrol areas.

While I waited, with passing drivers gawking at the sight of a Cessna parked in a highway rest area, the trooper drove my student and brother-in-law back to Centennial. My brother-in-law returned with my car and a camera. A couple of hours later the ferry permit finally arrived in another highway patrol unit. Since I knew the problem with the airplane was the now-retracted flaps, I knew it would be safe to take off in the airplane by myself.

I asked the highway patrolman to pull onto the highway and stop all traffic. I then asked the TV reporter to drive 1.5 miles down the road to make sure the highway was clear. That gave me about 7,500 feet of “runway”–an adequate distance, even with the high density altitude.

While waiting for my ferry permit, I took stock of the stretch of highway where I would be taking off. I noted the highway curved to the left almost immediately, so I closely watched the tractor-trailer rigs going around the corner to see how much they leaned to the outside of the curve. It appeared they didn’t lean at all at about 60 mph so I figured that when I took off, I could make the curve at takeoff power.

Well—not so. At full throttle in the curve, my 172 started to skid to the outside. I instinctively turned the ailerons to the left and went around the corner on only the left main gear, going airborne while flying on one wheel. Success! I was especially lucky (in our “pictures or it didn’t happen” world) that my brother-in-law, who had driven down beyond the curve with his camera, captured the one-wheel takeoff for posterity.

signal 2021 07 26 202644 180x300 - A landing and a one-wheel takeoff on Interstate 25

One of the perks of working at Jeppesen!

After a normal landing back at Centennial, inspection determined that the Cessna 172 had a defective flap actuator handle. When the flap handle was set to 20 degrees, the flaps would only retract to 33 degrees. Further, when the flaps were selected full up, they would not move at all unless the handle was pressed hard to the left to close the actuator switch.

While I like a tidy cockpit, my Jeppesen desk was typically cluttered. When I arrived at work the next day, my desk had been cleared of everything – except the brand-new Jeppesen “approach plate,” describing the I-25 VOR 2-Lane approach procedure!

Now retired from Jeppesen, instructing is still my passion. If it ever starts to feel like work, I’ll quit. What I learned from this experience was that things can go wrong even if you–or your student–don’t make any mistakes. Also, don’t panic: remain calm so that you can think of all possible options that might be available. Finally, remember it’s always best to be very polite when discussing your choice of landing runway with a Colorado state trooper!

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The big surprise: an unexpected fly-by

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After reading Steve Mosier’s great story about the non-flyby at Osan, Korea, it triggered some of my old memory cells and I recalled the following event.

F 104Cs 198th TFS Puerto Rico ANG 300x202 - The big surprise: an unexpected fly-by

Flying F-104s for the National Guard was a fun way for airline pilots to try something new.

During the 1970s, I was a pilot in the Puerto Rico Air National Guard (PRANG). We flew the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter from San Juan International around Puerto Rico and the islands and practiced our various air-to-air and air-to-ground missions.

Many of us were airline pilots for our real jobs. We lived all over the East Coast and commuted to San Juan to fly the “Zipper,” as it was affectionately known. The F-104 was a great Air Guard airplane because it had a very short endurance and we rarely flew more than one hour and thirty for a day’s pay.

A good friend of mine and fellow Zipper jock, Bill, had come down with a very serious health problem and subsequently passed away after a short illness. We were all shocked at his passing and wanted to have a proper send-off for he and his family.

We both lived in Miami, and his family said his wishes were to have his ashes scattered at sea. This was no problem as I had a boat and we could accommodate that. But we pilots, many of us who lived in Miami, wanted to give him a proper Air Force send-off.

We asked the squadron in San Juan if they could send a flight of Starfighters to nearby Homestead AFB in South Florida to do a missing man fly-by, but the logistics and expense of such an endeavor was prohibitive and they reluctantly declined. We asked the Air Force at Homestead if they would support a similar fly-by with their Phantoms, but they also declined for similar reasons.

So, we planned a small ceremony at a county park along Biscayne Bay near Homestead, where we could gather to send off Bill’s ashes in my small boat and bid him farewell.

K10916 P 300x231 - The big surprise: an unexpected fly-by

Not your typical airplane for a low level fly-by.

Now, Bill had been an airline pilot for Pan American for many years and quite a few of his airline friends and family were in attendance, along with his family and our PRANG friends. We were all disappointed that the Air Force could not participate, but then we spotted a very large Pan American Boeing 707 out across Biscayne Bay that was turning and descending towards our gathering.

I don’t know who the crew was or how they knew about the timing and location of the gathering but here came this huge airplane with four engines burning black clouds of kerosene at maximum power and descending very, very low over the water aiming straight at us! There was a deafening noise right over the top of our small gathering and then a beautiful pull-up and 180-degree turn, climbing out on course to the east.

There was not a dry eye in the crowd and to this day it was the most impressive fly over I have ever witnessed.

I do know that there were no passengers on board because it was a cargo flight, but I never asked any questions after that and I don’t think that Pan American’s management ever had a clue about it. We never heard of any complaints and we were so grateful to the crew, whoever they were, for making a sad day a little brighter for all of us.

SportStar-ing it around Australia

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My first flight was in a Cessna 152, on my eldest brother’s 10th birthday. He got to go on a flight as a present and, seeing my long face, the pilot took pity and took me for flight. I was about 7 years old, but I still remember with awe seeing my fox terrier dog lying on the lawn in the sun as we flew over our house. It would have been a 10-minute flight—but wow.

SportStar coastline 224x300 - SportStar-ing it around Australia

The views from a small airplane, once you’ve seen them, are hard to forget.

At 14 I flew quite a few times, as our family had moved to Darwin in the Northern Territory. My horse-riding instructor was a pilot with a charter airline and flew parts and mail out to stations. It was a great adventure traveling to stations such as Delamare and Victoria River Downs. How could I forget flying over the large cattle feed lot and the experimental growing of sorghum to feed them? After cyclone Tracey destroyed Darwin on Christmas Day, all the horses in the Darwin area were trucked to Tipperary Station. My father and I had to go down to the station with the brands book and draft off the horses for the pony club. What an adventure flying back into Darwin, skirting around tropical thunderstorms, then some low flying around the mangrove areas looking for debris and carcasses from the disaster.

I had many interests and so while the thought of flying never left me, there seemed to be endless opportunities to do other things. Married and in my early twenties, I went for a trial flight in a new Jabiru. Sadly, with three kids and a mortgage (when rates hit 16% in Australia), it was unaffordable to learn to fly. Then came an open day at the local gliding club. Off a winch in a Blanik—how exciting was that! Yes, nearly affordable, so did a total of 12 hours. The spin training was unforgettable. Alas for flying, kid number four came along, work was more intense, and I decided to do a university degree part time so I could continue to work. No time or money.

My elder brother shared my passion for flight and obtained his pilot’s licence. Envious? You bet. Unfortunately, we lived hundreds of kilometres apart, so I didn’t fly with him often. One of his great mates was an aerobatic pilot. Now that’s experience you will never forget: having a spin (and I mean a spin in a Pitts Special!). As an agribusiness consultant I did get to fly quite a bit, both with airlines and charter. Every charter flight was memorable and would bring back the hankering of, “I really want to do this one day.” One memorable flight took place in a King Air on a trip to the US, sitting up front with an Aussie pilot. But owning my own business and intensive farm just took all my time.

The really “want to do this one day” day finally came, but not at my instigation. I sold my farming interests and was working as project manager five and a half days week. My wife had stopped working, so she took over all domestic chores. After being used to doing something seven days a week, I developed a habit of saying “I’m bored” about 15 minutes after getting home Saturday at lunchtime. My wife, bless her heart, bought me a Trial Instruction Flight voucher at the local flying school. That was it. Not only did I get my licence, I made a new friend—the CFI.

SportStar on ramp 300x224 - SportStar-ing it around Australia

The SportStar is a fun and economical way to see Australia.

Before I had finished my licence, I was a proud owner of a Evektor Sportstar. I cross hire it to the flying school, where it gets used for the navigation training, and this pays for the fixed costs of hangarage and insurance.

This has opened up a new world for my wife and me. While I would never plan to fly if it was an essential birthday party of one of our 13 grandchildren, out of fear of getting a dose of get-there-itis, what a great blessing to wake up, look out the window and say, “let’s bomb in on some of the grandies.”

“Which ones?” the wife would say.

“Let me check the weather.” I’m flying a Sportstar; tailwinds are important!

All the family is within 2-3 hours flying time. A dash up to Waikerie, flying over the Coonawarra Vineyards and the Mallee grain producing districts, means I am greeted by the Murray River and Riverland vineyards and citrus orchards.

I approach over the river to eagerly awaiting grandchildren, spend the day and am home that evening. There might be a dash to Echuca across the edge of the Grampians Ranges—spectacular from the air—the Wimmera grain districts again to the dairy irrigation districts approaching Echuca. Perhaps even on to Henty to see another group of grandies.

I might take the coastal route to Adelaide over the unique Coorong mouth of the mighty Murray and sneak under the C class airspace into Gawler, keeping the eyes peeled for the gliders that utilise the strip. Family and grandchildren at every destination.

Maybe let’s have a day together and fly to the coastal town of Robe and walk in and have lunch, taking in the beautiful view of the coast and lakes along the way. There are stunning, contrasting greens of pasture and multitudes of deep green pine forests. Always a welcome sight, the volcanic Blue Lake and its eerie iridescent blue is on the way back home to the Mount Gambier airport.

We have had some adventures flying across the vast expanses of station country to Broken Hill, seeing the Murray Darling system at its worst. Rivers turned to puddles and lakes dry. Vast stations are measured in square miles devoid of stock and the only green splotches are around the station residences. The drought has broken and it’s time to fly the area again and see all its beauty.

SportStar in cruise 300x223 - SportStar-ing it around Australia

It really is all about the journey, not the destination.

Our 40th wedding anniversary is coming up, so I am planning a trip to Kangaroo Island off the coast of South Australia and then to Yorke’s Peninsula and across to Streaky Bay. Then it will be across the outback and salt lakes to the famous Wilpena Pound and Flinders Ranges. Then on to Broken Hill to see the changes with the drought-breaking rains over the Murray-Darling System.

When I am not flying or reading about flying, I am planning trips using the Oz Runways app. When the COVID thing breaks, we will be off. The little Sportstar has flown around Australia once with her previous owner and she will be doing it again in the future.

Flying: what a wonderful privilege and blessing to be able to fly and have a wife eager to share the experiences. Cherish every moment and share it with all you can. I hope all who aspire to fly finally get to, just as I have been fortunate enough too.

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Little details are important

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I came to flying late in life. Busy with work and no one to act as a mentor, I didn’t seriously consider pursuing my dream of becoming a private pilot until retiring after 31 years in the fire service. A move from the hectic pace of South Florida to the laid back life on the Upper Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee, and coming to know Bill Williams, reignited my desire to learn how to fly.

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Learning to fly later in life does give you a new perspective.

Bill was in his late 70s when I met him. He still maintains certifications as a CFII and A&P/IA, and worked for years with Eastern Airlines, retiring as one of their most senior captains. Bill would assign me work in a basic handbook on flying, and when I thought I was ready he would come over to the house and quiz me on what I had been studying. I will always remember our first session. He sat across the kitchen table from me and asked a seemingly simple question: why do airplanes fly? After an hour of discussion about Bernoulli’s principle, drawing in my notebook (upside down so that I could read it as he was drawing!) to explain yaw, pitch and roll, P factor, angle of attack, and a myriad of other what (at the time were) baffling concepts, we moved on to other lessons.

After each lesson he would leave NTSB reports on fatal accidents, and I would be quizzed on those as well. By this time I was receiving flight instruction from Joey Fowler. Bill was very good and I continued for a time with him in the airplane, but he was an old school instructor (he kept telling me I was dragging my left wing, and with all of two or three hours in the airplane I had no idea what he was talking about.) Joey was a better fit for me. After many hours of one-on-one instruction and online study, I was ready to take my written exam. I didn’t think I was prepared to take the exam but passed with a score of 89. And after 15 hours of flight training I was allowed to solo.

I’m very fortunate to have an airport 15 minutes from my house, and even more fortunate to rent a beautiful Cessna 172 straight tail for $100/hour. I was flying every chance I had, checking off all the necessary boxes for prescribed maneuvers and cross country flights getting ready for my check ride. I knew I had a lifetime of learning ahead of me in aviation and often told people that if I had learned to fly when I was in my 20s I wouldn’t be here. A fair amount of wisdom and common sense does come with age. At 63 I was old enough to know what I didn’t know and young enough to still have good eye hand coordination and the mental faculties to keep it together in the airplane.

BasicMed was not available when I took my first flight physical, so I paid the money and passed the FAA Medical. However, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to one small admonition from the doctor. He told me I didn’t need to wear my reading glasses in the plane, but I needed to carry them with me. I use glasses to read, but my eyes are good enough that I can get by without them. That little detail almost led to a fatal accident. And after reading a lot of NTSB reports on fatal accidents, I realized that many of those accidents could have been avoided if the pilot had paid attention to the little details.

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Those glasses can sometimes make a big difference.

Several months after my first solo, I was getting ready for a long cross-country flight. Joey checked my navigation notes and listened in as I filed my flight plan. He told me to call him when I was back on the ground at my home airport (2A1) and wished me luck. After a thorough pre-flight, I hopped in the airplane and back-taxied to take off on 36. As I reached takeoff speed and pulled back on the yoke, I immediately noticed my angle of attack was far too steep to sustain flight.

Although I only had 25 or 30 hours, I knew I was about to have a stall. I pushed forward hard on the yoke and started trimming the nose down as I listened to the stall warning horn. I didn’t have time to even think that I might die. I thought about it a lot afterward and still do!

That beautiful straight tail C-172 had been flown a lot over the years, and the paint on the trim wheel designating takeoff position was kind of hard to see. In fact, I couldn’t see it clearly even with my glasses on. I had them in the airplane, just like the doctor admonished me to, but they were in my flight bag on the back seat.

It’s forgetting the little details that get pilots in trouble. I always use a checklist, but now when I visually look at the trim wheel to make sure it’s in takeoff position I wear my glasses. It was a scary lesson. Realizing how unforgiving flying can be has made me a more careful and much better pilot.

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How I got to fly the SR-71 simulator for NASA

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Back in the late 90s I was fortunate to work for a company that did consulting with NASA Dryden (now Armstrong) at Edwards AFB. At that time NASA was involved with a program named REVCON, or Revolutionary Concepts. My assignment was the X-33.

REVCON was to advance several concepts, of which the X-33 was one of many. That program was to test the feasibility of a single stage to orbit vehicle, mostly of composite materials, including the fuel and liquid oxygen tank. The X-33 was to employ a Rocketdyne engine referred to as an aerospike engine, or in this case a linear aerospike engine. Strangely enough, this type of rocket had been around since the early 60s.

rocket emgines 300x258 - How I got to fly the SR-71 simulator for NASA

Working with NASA Dryden meant working with interesting technology like a linear aerospike engine.

My immediate focus at this time was lunch, so I wandered into the cafeteria to see what was on the menu. As I was standing in the check out line, I noticed the chief test pilot having an earnest, in-depth discussion with one of the test pilots—who was not happy with his assignment. With the opportunity to fly NASA’s F-18s, highly modified F-15 (NASA 837), the SR-71, and other fun toys available for their amusement, spending time conducting flight test in a simulator… well, let’s just say there was no long line waiting to do that.

It was at this time I was noticed by the chief test pilot: “Hey, you’re a driver, aren’t you?” He got my attention and most everyone else in the checkout line too.

I think I answered with something clever, but I can only report I said something like, “what? Hum, yes why?” (Translation: Driver, in military aviation slang, is a fellow pilot of equal respect. The opposite would be Nugget, FNG, an new flying officer)

“Look,” he said, “we need someone to pilot the 71 simulator while the engineers and sim operator conduct some conditions on stability for the 33 programs. Any interest?”

“Sure,” I said, “happy to help out.” (I refrained from screaming “hell yes!” while turning a few handsprings.)

“Great, I will tell the principal investigator you be there after lunch; I think you already know him.”

This phase of the 33 program involving the SR-71 was called LASRE, or Lockheed Martin Liner Aerospike SR-71 Experiment. LASRE was a half scale model of a lifting body, referred to as a canoe. The aerospike engine, with eight thrust cells, was mounted on top of the canoe, which was placed on the back of the SR-71. This was to function as a “flying wind tunnel,” to study flow dynamics and interaction of the aero spike with the lifting body, aka canoe.

The liner aerospike engine differs from existing rocket engines as it does not employ a bell-shaped rocket nozzle. Instead, it is made up of a “spike” or a tapered, wedge-shaped plate, allowing a stacking smaller engine—making one large engine. These increase thrust efficiency and lower fuel burn rate by an estimated 30 percent.

As the aerospike rocket engine had never been flown before, one of NASA’s SR-71 was pressed into service. Placing any structure of the back of an SR-71 would definitely affect the stability and control on this and any other high performance aircraft. If you really want to get a test pilot’s attention, tell him you are going to change the stability and control of a very high performance aircraft, or any aircraft he might be flying.

SR 71 with canoe 300x200 - How I got to fly the SR-71 simulator for NASA

The SR-71 featured a “canoe” on top for this experiment.

I would love to report that the cockpit was something wonderful, akin to Luke Skywalker’s X-wing, as fantastic and advanced as the aircraft itself. I was expecting a mainyard of advanced technology that only a favored few could understand. Wow, was I surprised. The aircraft was built in the early 60s and the cockpit layout and instrument arrangement showed that. Other than a Mach meter without a “barber pole,” which indicated Mach critical, or Mach limits, I could report that it was not that much different from other high performance jet aircraft, from that time. It was all steam gauges; the only difference was there were a lot more of them.

The principal engineer invited me to slide into the pilot’s cockpit (the rear cockpit is in another section of the simulator room). Nothing unusual here so far. I thought it was curious that the simulator had a seat belt with shoulder harness… There were no visuals out of the front, but he said I might want to use the seat belt as the simulator had two degrees of motion: pitch and roll.

Of more interest was a two by four-inch red light that said UNSTART at the top right corner of the simulator’s instrument panel. I had heard that referenced before, both in rumor and several times in aerodynamic classes I had taken. However, what that would mean not in theory but in this airplane simulator, I was about to find out.

OK, so just what is an UNSTART? The term was first coined when early wind tunnels first reached supersonic. UNSTART is where the airflow is in reverse. In supersonic aerodynamics, a violent breakdown of the supersonic airflow at about Mach 2.2 is when the mass flow rate changes within an intake duct. This will cause violent, sometimes temporary, loss of control until the intake is restarted.

“So, if you’re ready I’ll set you up for the first run,” said the engineer. “We will start you at Mach 3 at 80,000 for awhile to let you get the feel for this one—do not make any corrective control inputs.”

Control inputs… in my experience having flown various high performance and not-so-high performance aircraft, handling qualities can and do vary a lot between aircraft types. Describing this to another pilot is easier than to someone who has no flight experience. To that end, the Cooper-Harper Rating Scale was developed. On that scale the type and intended use of the aircraft are the first consideration in handling qualities—i.e., you do not build airplanes that are hard to fly, if you do, they are not around long. Transports handle different that fighters, trainers are forgiving but tactical fighters are not. With respect to the SR-71 simulator, the designers had done a fantastic job.

In this case I could say: it was as one would expect for any jet aircraft employing a stick, but that does not help as a point of reference is needed. I found the stick and rudder control inputs to be light yet firm in roll and pitch inputs were light and not as responsive as I expected. My first impression was that of a high performance sailplane: light but firm, responsive yet stable in control feedback.

Here’s where the fun begins.

Just when I was getting the feel, BAM—a hard right roll followed by a sharp nose down! Then the simulator froze. I had failed to notice the UNSTART light was on; I would be seeing more of that light during the flights to come. “That is a good run, we will reset and collect some data,” the engineer said.

I responded, “OK, I think I will need a minute.” I took this time to get back off the cockpit floor and locate my headset. “I think I will use the seat belt now.”

71 cockpit trim 300x179 - How I got to fly the SR-71 simulator for NASA

The height of technology—in the 60s at least.

“Ready?” the sim operator said.

“Sure,” I responded.

“OK, this time do make corrective control inputs.” After about another minute, BAM again—the same violent roll and nose down pitch. I applied hard left rudder and pulled the stick back and to the left and fought the pitch and roll, but found the same result. Only this time the seat belt saved me from embarrassment and having to get back off the cockpit floor. That warning light, I decided, was not of much help.

This exercise continued the remainder of the day The engineer and sim operator varied the test conditions, control inputs and CN beta conditions. It took longer each time for the UNSTART condition to present itself, and I got much better at correcting the results—well, I thought so anyway. Sometimes they wanted me to make corrective actions, followed by just allowing the UNSTART to occur without taking any action.

The test ran the rest of the week, and each test run ended with the same results: that of me being bounced and slammed around in the seat. Several times I had to ask they turn off the motion base of the simulator.

Tests continued until finally enough data was collected to resolve any instability problems from the payload mounted on the actual SR-71 aircraft. By the end, I had logged about 40 hours in the simulator. Several things became clear: I began to suspect the chief test pilot had not done me a favor. Also, I can understand the test pilot complaining about his assignment. The second thing was the benefit of having a light lunch before riding this beast.

I am please to report the SR-71 completed seven research flights. This phase validated the aerospike and “canoe” configuration mounted on the back of the aircraft. The primary area of focus was the flow dynamics of the aero spike engine. I am proud to have provided a small contribution to these test flights. I was available to view the flights from my usual position in the control room at NASA.

Latest posts by Skip Stagg (see all)

A close call on the water in the Bahamas

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Rotating ten feet off the water, there was an ominous and very audible bang from the rear of the aircraft. Immediately the seaplane skewed 45 degrees into the east wind, heading us at 80mph toward a frightening scene.

Extrasensory perception becomes a gift to seasoned pilots: the slightest noise, even above the drone of an engine, can be heard or felt in milliseconds. Through a career spanning over 20 years, rest assured there are going to be noises. I have heard and felt something go quite wrong with the powerplant in front of me, noticing immediately, where my passengers remained oblivious.

On this day I was only halfway through my aviation journey but with enough experience for reaction time to be instantaneous; this time there would be no hiding it from my client seated in the co-pilot seat. One can scoff at that expression of “doing things by the book” but in near every case of incident, almost all were resolved safely by resorting to this method—except this was not in the book.

Harding on float 300x225 - A close call on the water in the Bahamas

A seaplane is a great way to get around the Bahamas.

After a hurricane had hit the islands, my insurance adjuster friend came to survey clientele damage. With the job complete I had elected to perform a seaplane crosswind takeoff for the departure, the lee of an island avoided rougher water further out. Split second reaction had me hit the opposite rudder pedal so hard that I broke the metal toe piece of the pedal clean in half. Nothing happened. The inhospitable, jagged rock face of the island with its torn shrubbery on a craggy apex came speeding toward us. Towering on top was an electric cable, appearing as if it were a tight-rope wire held aloft by its wooden poles that ran the length of the cay.

The approaching height of it all seemingly impossible to clear. We were headed to certain disaster at this low altitude with no directional control and mere seconds to play with. There was no choice; not enough distance remained ahead to land safely. If I pulled the power now we would have momentum enough to surely crash into the base of the rocky shoreline. I had to keep the seaplane flying, flat enough toward the solid rock, allowing it to gain valuable airspeed. Did we have enough time? When things are going horribly wrong the scene appears to take on an appearance of slow motion. Panic is no option—it becomes think, think, think. Those remaining precious seconds lasting forever, giving time to react.

In a flash of memory, I remembered the maneuver making BD Maule famous: his dramatic climb out of an aircraft hangar! I could see David’s body language shuffle awkwardly, bracing his hand on the interior windshield support that ran from the roof of the cockpit through the instrument panel, something solid to hold on to. We raced unabashed toward the land with its threatening wires above. I heard a slightly shaken “Oh Shit!” through my headset from my passenger as we came within the last few yards.

I heaved on the yoke and pumped the flap handle in that familiar movement from practice flying in tight places. The little seaplane obediently leaped skyward, like its factory name declared on its tail: “Super Rocket!” The wire whizzed just underneath and there was a very audible gulp of air coming from both occupants through their headsets.

“Damn that was a close!” David nearly shouted in excitement.

“I’m really glad I had an insurance adjuster onboard,” I replied, attempting to interject a little humour to ease the situation at hand.

“That was an amazing piece of flying Paul!” David exclaimed visibly inhaling.

“You can thank this amazing little plane for that one,” I said with conviction. “Now comes the fun part…”

“What do you mean?” he asked, facial expression becoming instantly serious, thinking all was saved and we could just go home.

“We have no rudder my friend,” I added gently, not wanting to raise further alarm. I demonstrated by showing him what happened when I pushed the rudder pedals from side to side: still nothing.

“Flying without a rudder is one thing but this aircraft is a rudder plane, that is one that you lead with your feet and follow with aileron control to co-ordinate,” I explained. “We can fly sort of straight but I’ll need rudder for the precision needed to land straight ahead, especially on water; slightly crooked and we could bury a float and cartwheel.”

“Oh crap!” came his short reply.

“We can land somewhere out here and try a fix but if it doesn’t work we could be stuck. I say we go home and use the harbour. At least we will be home and help close at hand if I screw up,” I said. I knew the only part of Nassau Harbour available to try this risky maneuver would be the large turning basin used by the cruise ships near the lighthouse entrance.

Landing at Highbourne 300x202 - A close call on the water in the Bahamas

Flying a Maule with no rudder control—not in the manual.

The seaplane flew all the way back to Nassau slightly skewed to one side. It was incredibly strange to have no rudder control and this next landing was going to really test my skills. The flight home gave us time to talk about what had happened and how things can go incredibly wrong in a blink of the eye.

There seemed no point in declaring my emergency to the air traffic controllers in Nassau. They were very familiar that I was a floatplane, not landing at the airport where emergency services could be offered. Reaching the harbour, the last thing I needed were additional watercraft from the Harbour Patrol or Police Force that could impede my landing zone.

I had quite enough on my plate having to deal with the constant daily traffic of a busy commercial harbour: glass-bottomed tour boats, water-taxis, racing jet skis, government tugs, booze-cruise party boats, private yachts entering or leaving the harbour. That thin body of water presented some unique challenges for a seaplane pilot, ones eyes would have to dart in every direction, absorbing the movement of water traffic and the wake they all produced, also noting the effects of wind direction in that tight area, all the time maintaining the safe performance of the seaplane.

Here was a crucial difference from those who simply had to cope with landing on a concrete runway. Quoting a senior captain of British Airways who had flown earlier with me, “you are a lot busier in the cockpit than I am in a 747 landing at Heathrow!” A seaplane’s landing surface could be so disturbed simply from water traffic that has already cleared the area; wake, swells, tide, and wind can add untold hazards, forcing me to fly around until it settled suitable enough to safely put down on a calmer surface. Accomplishing this without a rudder was going to take a load of luck and all that I could muster from thousands of hours in the air.

Landing assured, I declared to my controller who bid me “good evening.” We were on our own from here. Circling the turning basin I could see clearly the wind lines drawing their clue of direction on the surface, favouring slightly to the northeast, a direction immediately favouring us, offering the longest portion of water to put down while praying the wind would hold us long enough in a straight line. The next visible problems became all too clear. There was a large cruise ship preparing to pull away from the wharf for its departure to Florida and those marker buoys that lined the entranceway of the channel where the ships followed the deep channel. I had to draw a mental line directly into the wind—not a degree off if I could help it—keeping free of any obstacles such as a 12-foot high ton of floating metal buoy chained to the ocean floor.

I alined the aircraft into the wind, keeping the image of my chosen runway. Down to the water we flew with one degree of flap set in. Closer and feeling confident, I applied the second notch of flap carefully, slowing the approach safely. It looked as if I would nail this first time with my feet trying in vain automatically for some rudder control that did not exist. Very near the water now and a sudden slight gust of wind slightly from one side had us careening toward a tall green buoy.

“Damn it,” I muttered, not able to control the drift. Full-power now, a go-around being my only option. “This is how we must keep trying it,” I explained to David through my headset microphone, who watched and wondered our chances without saying a word. I climbed out successfully over Paradise Island, making a left turn to set up the approach again.

Back down to the water we went, repeating the procedure for hopeful touchdown. The small seaplane this time stayed true into the wind. A quick, yet smoothly applied third degree of flap while we floated a few feet above the water, setting up the slight nose-high flare that would ensure an admired touchdown. Flying is an art form; strangely, landings in particular were not ever taught by any flight instructor or examiner during the learning phases of my own training. That short sensation of floating above the landing surface and wait, wait, wait, without moving the controls more than a fraction, waiting patiently for the surface to meet its mark and the floats or wheels. kiss the water or concrete hardly noticed by all onboard. This harbour landing today, even under these conditions, still had me strive for that effect with power now all the way off and the welcome sound of gentle slapping water against the metal floats. Success!

“Well done, very nice!” David sighed.

“More fun coming my friend, this time it’s you who will save the day!” I smiled at him.

“What now?” he asked with a furrowed brow as we taxied forwards.

“Well, we still have no way of controlling this thing. The rudders are linked to the water-rudders which steer us on the water!”

“Oh crap!” came the familiar response in a deep Scottish brogue.

Thunderstorm 300x200 - A close call on the water in the Bahamas

Once you’re on the water, the work is not done.

“I need you to exit the plane and crawl on your knees to the back of the float to push the rudder in the direction I yell out to you.” He laughed at the idea, removing his headset and starting to exit.

“Do me a favour David,” I said as he looked back at me. “Please don’t go for a swim because I won’t be able to come back for you; it’s only about 18 inches wide down there and to make it really interesting you now have an audience of several hundred people,” I said, pointing at the large cruise ship that had cast her lines. He rolled his eyes and headed aft, smiling in confidence as we both saw the humour of this insane method of getting back to the beach near the Hilton Hotel.

“Ready,” I heard his call.

“Push full left,” I yelled out of the open window of his door. The plane obeyed and turned around.

“Straight now!” I barked another command. Straight ahead we went. David was now on all fours facing backwards, recognising that he had full control of where we were going. We taxied across the waters of Nassau Harbour much to the amazement of hundreds of passengers watching from the deck railings of their ship as she passed behind us. They must have all been asking the same question: “what the hell was that crazy man doing on all fours on the float of a taxing seaplane?”

We approached the beach head-on and I pull the mixture to shut off fuel flow. The propeller suddenly stopped as we bumped gently onto the soft sand. Ignition and master switch turned off, I could hear clearly the instrument gyros spooling down from under the panel inside my cockpit.

“Good job crew!” I called back to my balancing passenger. Carrying small articles inside the passenger side float compartment needed for that quick fix was a necessary part of bush flying, and I soon found a small length of stainless safety-wire to repair the easily spotted culprit: a broken rudder turnbuckle that now fell limp under the rear of the plane.

Temporary fix in place, we restarted the engine and with both of us back inside we taxied eastward the full length of the harbour, pulling successfully onto my wooden ramp at the restaurant base I had rented since opening the Bahamas’ first commercial seaplane operation in 1990. We smiled at each other, shaking hands in a celebration of a good save—a very spooky situation that had a good ending. The ice cold beer found just a couple yards away went down very easily. David recalled in later years retelling that story several times in many bars around the world during his career. He exclaimed with glee in broad Scottish brogue, “I nay had ter embellish that tale wee one bit!”

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