Logbook Love Affair
Pilot Journal, March-April 2007
You donít have to have lived very long to
realize that some moments stay with you forever. A few airplanes are like
that: As with a first kiss, you replay those flights over and over in the
theater of your mind. For instance, it seems as if only 15 minutesónot
several decadesóhave elapsed since my first takeoff in a Grumman F8F
Bearcat. I was researching a school article on warbird pilotsóthe Bearcat
wasnít on the list to be flown. The Vought Corsair that was on the list,
however, blew a hydraulic line, so the owner, Jr. Burchinal, proprietor of
the wildest flying school in history said, ďCome on, fly the Bearcat.Ē
In reality, I wasnít qualified to fly any of
those airplanes, much less the Bearcat. Iíd worked up a sweat training for
10 hours in the back of a North American T-6 Texan and had about 1,500
hours of total time, half of it as an instructor in taildraggers, but
could I fly a 2,100 hp rocketship like the Bearcat? Absolutely not! I was
a rag-tag Citabria instructor, not a warbird pilot.
By that time, Iíd already soloed the North American P-51 Mustang and
gotten type rated in the North American B-25 and Lockheed P-38 Lightning
(more on that later). Because Iíd spent so much time sitting in the
airplanes and studying their flight manuals, Iíd become part of them
before even flying them. But the Bearcat? I hadnít even seen the flight
manual and had definitely never sat in one. After a failed attempt at
digging my heels in resistance, the owner had me strapped in and the
engine was running.
After reviewing the important numbers in preparation for flying, the owner
offered three pieces of not-to-be-forgotten information:
1) Remember to lock the tailwheelóthatís where the name
ďBearcatĒ comes from.
2) Make sure the direction youíre pointed when you drop
the hammer is the direction you want to go because you wonít change
once the power is up.
3) Donít attempt to raise the gear on takeoff. Because
right through gear speed on takeoff, wait until youíve climbed to
I only have to close my eyes to see the view of the runway rocketing past,
the airplane plastering me against the seat as all that horsepower ripped
past me. I kept waiting for the airplane to torque to the left, but it
didnít. In fact, keeping a Citabria straight on takeoff was more
challenging, but as soon as the tail came up, the airplane launched. And I
mean launched! I was going up at an unbelievable angle!
On that first hop, he had me leave the gear
down for a quick trip around the pattern, but on the next flight, it was
gear up, climbing at 6,000 fpm and pure heaven! The next hour will forever
be etched in my mind as one of the best in my life. The controls were
light and quick, the cockpit tight and made specifically for me, the
concept of gravity forgotten. Want to go up? Just point the nose up. Want
to roll? Ease in a little aileron and rudder. And the landing? You
shouldnít even be able to log tailwheel time in it. It was unbelievable!
The Bearcat will always top my list of favorites.
I replay my inaugural takeoff in a Pitts as often as I do the Bearcat.
After touching down the Pitts for the first time, I needed a surgeon to
perform two tasks. First, the grin needed to be removed from my face. It
had been there so long that it was painful. And the seat cushion needed
abstraction from my posterior. Today, after 35 unbroken years of Pitts
instructing, I no longer require medical attention, but the grin is still
there. A gravity-ignorant airplane goes hand-in-hand with a perpetual
grin. Everything from light control pressures, the way you can ignore
airspeed, and the way up and down can be commingled while you cavort like
a sea otterónot something you experience in many other flying machines.
Iíll be the first to admit that practicality and utility score low on the
list of things that turn me on about any particular airplane. Itís the
airplanes that reach inside and touch me that attract me. Even so, at
least one of those does have a modicum of practicality attached, such as
the Siai-Marchetti SF-260. The moment you fly this 200 mph, cross-country
airplane, you realize its personality is silky in the same way that a
panther is silkyósmooth with raw performance and danger intertwined just
below the surface. I prefer the early straight-wing models with their
absolutely unforgiving low-speed characteristics, which constantly remind
you that youíre in an honest-to-God high-performance airplane.
Over the years, Iíve been granted many fabulous hours of Marchetti time
through the largess of various owners, and Iíve quickly found that an hour
cavorting (or straight and level, for that matter) in an SF-260 canít be
compared to any amount of spam-can time. A thousand hours of Cessna 172
time? A million hours? It doesnít compute. Absolutely nothing compares.
Well, maybe a North American F-86.
As the nose comes up into a loop, for
instance, the Marchetti is so solid and so unwilling to give up speed that
itís as if the airplane is standing still and the world is rotating around
you. The overwhelming visibility, the sure knowledge that you can pull
vertical out of the bottom of a loop and disappear from sight, is
delightfully chilling. Even the way the stick lays in your hand is
aggressive and lets you know that itís ready to do anything youíre willing
to try. Itís a kinship between man and machine thatís hard to match. And
hereís a personal promise: Within 24 hours of my winning the lottery,
thereíll be an SF-260B sharing the hangar with my Pitts. And I always keep
Another of those lifetime images that repeatedly pops up in my mindís eye
is of the I-canít-believe-Iím-doing-this variety. This image has me
perched on a huge aluminum barn door, a pair of Allison V-12s sitting
ahead of me on either side, each spinning a huge Curtiss electric prop: I
was taxiing out for my type-rating ride in a P-38 Lightning.
How do you get a type rating in a single-place airplane, you may ask? Itís
easy: The examiner stands on the ground with a radio and says things like,
ďOkay, now show me a stall with the gear down. Okay, now zero thrust the
left engine and make a pass.Ē If you survive, I guess you pass. It wasóand
still seemsóvery surreal.
On takeoff in a Lightning, the engine noise is entirely different than a
Mustangís. Rather than reaching in and crushing you, as in a Mustang, the
noise builds to a mind-numbing, indescribably visceral feeling thatís
excruciatingly painful if youíre not wearing a headset. Itís not exhaust
noiseóthe exhaust is routed out through the turbochargers behind you on
each boomóbut a combination of prop noise, turbochargers and an audibly
toxic sound that canít be identified.
In the air, even though the airplane is huge, itís surprisingly nimble and
the controls are surprisingly light. It was, however, incredibly
intimidating to a low-time, multi-engine pilot. If I made a power change
and didnít have the two engines exactly matched, the mismatch in power
would cause the airplane to yaw uncomfortably. It took several flights
before I came to grips with that particular characteristic.
Landing the airplane was essentially childís play. It did, however, take a
while to get used to the massive amount of drag that resulted from the
gear doors staying open when the gear was down. (Mustang gear doors
reclose once the gear is down.) Just flying the Lightning level on
downwind took an enormous amount of power. But even my first landing
looked good: touch on the mains, hold the nose off until gracefully
lowering it. Unfortunately, all signs of grace vanished the instant I
barely touched the brakes. Theyíre multi-disk units that take practically
no pressure, so every time Iíd touch them, the nose would dip and Iíd look
like a fool. Oh, well. When Iím reliving the experience, I edit that
detail out of the mental playback.
The footage in my mental projector seems endless. Thereís the
nimble-beyond-belief Bucker Jungmeister and the Iím-in-it-for-the-fun
Piper Clipped-Wing Cub. And letís not forget the brutish North American
B-25 Mitchell and the Packard-like feel of the Beech Staggerwing. Even
though I know it all by heart, itís one show I never tire of watching.