Monday, October 18, 2010

Count the Rivets

Bainbridge Air Base, Georgia. June 1957

I taxi into the takeoff position and hold the brakes on with my feet pressed against the brakes on the rudder pedals. Today, it’s a solo flight to practice coordination maneuvers and aerobatics.

The plane in front of me has lifted off, so I slowly apply full power. The big radial engine has a comforting sound as I feel the propeller torque try to turn me to the left and I apply right rudder and keep the Trojan headed straight down the runway. The prop seems to be turning very s-l-o-w-l-y, but it’s a typical illusion of the T-28’s paddle-bladed propeller after flying the smaller T-34. The airspeed is increasing normally and I lift off at around 85 knots. “Gear Up”, and I climb straight ahead to 500 feet, raise the flaps then make a right, then a left climbing turn and I’m clear of the traffic pattern. I check the cowl flaps closed and set the power for Climb.

A beautiful spring day with big woolly clouds against a clear, blue Georgia sky. But I don’t day dream – I’ve work to do. I clear the sky to my left to see if anyone else is close and continue climbing and turning to 8,000 feet. The Georgia farmland, as indeed all of the land in the U.S., is laid out in sections with the boundaries running north, south, east and west. As I climb, I practice staying lined up with the section lines. Today, the fields are irrigated, the section lines less prominent and are replaced by the circles made by the watering systems.

Using an imaginary line across the windshield, I begin to practice steep turns. We have not been taught to fly on instruments yet, and I refer to them only to check my ability to fly while looking outside.

I talk to myself. “Throttle up a bit. More back pressure on the stick. Keep that imaginary spot on the horizon. Oops, I can feel I’m losing altitude! Add power. Raise the nose a bit. I’m skidding. Ease out some bank and use a little top rudder – keep the ball centered, keep it coordinated. Now, more bank again, back to 60 degrees. Fly the plane, don’t let it fly you!” I work at turns for about 15 minutes till I’m tired of it.

Now for some chandelles. This maneuver, that I seem to have little trouble performing, feels like flying is meant to: a rapid change in altitude, pitch angle, speed, and the sense of a rapid climb out of some dangerous situation. I imagine myself flying into a fjord or into a box canyon and finding that I must immediately reverse direction and climb back out. This is a situation that can easily happen and indeed, several later, I put this maneuver to good use when flying in Greenland.

Next snap rolls, horizontal reverses and the exhilarating Cuban Eight. I don’t know why it’s called a Cuban Eight but it is two loops joined together like an infinity sign.

I try to remember what the acrobatic section of the flight manual says as I talk myself through the maneuver:

“Mixture..Rich.
Prop…Full Forward
Airspeed…descend to increase to 220 Knots.”

I begin to dive and enter a loop. Easing in the back pressure, I feel the g’s as I begin the loop. I arch my back to look straight up and keep the North/South section lines fore and aft. At the top of the loop, I ease back on the throttle and dive upside down at a 45 degree angle until the nose passes through the horizon. Then I half-roll till I’m ‘blue side up’ and commence another loop all the time keeping the plane properly aligned. Over top again, down at 45 degrees and roll out at my original entry altitude. Wow! Fun, fun, fun. Oops, lost a thousand feet or so – better do another, and another. I’m charged!

Before I realize it, my two hour solo is almost over and I’m going to be cutting it pretty fine to land in time so that the next student can have the plane.

I can see Bainbridge Airbase from this altitude and also can see that the line of trainers preparing to land is stretched out by five or six miles. Yikes! How will I squeeze in? Like the ‘tiger’ I’d like to be, I make a high speed descent and parallel the 45 degree entry for the south east runway. I see a gap and whip into a steep 180 degree turn and bully my way in front of another T-28 who has left a bit wider spacing than usual. What I don’t know is that the ship I have pushed in front of has a student AND an instructor.

I turn right 45 degrees on to ‘initial’ and can see I’m too close to the plane in front, so I extend my pitch-out point a bit further down the runway. What I don’t hear is the mobile control van say to me, “Solo T-28 on initial, go around.” They can see I’m extending the pattern too far, but my attention is already divided with spacing and landing. For all intents, I’m deaf to their request and I begin my 60 degree ‘pitch-out’ to the right.

“Throttle back until the horn sounds, Gear Down, Horn silent…..” I say as I turn.

Suddenly I become instantly aware of a blur ten or fifteen feet above my canopy. I can almost count the rivets in the underside of another trainer’s fuselage.

I have barely survived a near miss at less than 1,000 feet. If he’d hit me, nobody would have survived; we would both be a pile of burning metal at the end of the runway.

I continue my descending turn towards the runway, but something doesn’t feel right. I’m descending too fast. I add power, and the descent slows. I touch down much faster than usual and do not make the first turn off but taxi further down the runway causing the next T-28 to go-around.

While ‘cleaning up’ after landing, I realize why I landed long and fast. After the near miss, my train of thought was interrupted and I forget to put down ‘landing flaps’. What a ‘tiger’ I am. More like a scared pussy cat.

Entering the line shack, I decide to say nothing about the near-miss to Earl Wederbrook, my instructor. Glancing out of the window, I see an old nemesis, P.D. Bridges, my ex-instructor, the southern boy who doesn’t like slow Yankees with an Australian accent. Earl sees him coming, flicks his eyes towards the parachute loft and I beat a hasty retreat. I put it together! P.D. was the guy I cut out of the pattern and with whom I almost shared a common pile of burning rubble.

Five minutes later having checked in my parachute, I look inside the line shack. P.D. and Earl are nose to nose, except that my instructor is about six inches taller, 50 pounds heavier and who is looking down on a red faced Bridges who is obviously yelling. My protector is saying nothing, and shortly P.D. turns on his heel and leaves.

Earl has a wry smile during the debriefing and after I discuss my maneuvers, Earl says, “By the way, next time you cut someone out of the landing pattern, be sure he’s shorter than me. I’m a lover, not a fighter.”

Back in the barracks before supper, I look at my log book and realize that I have just passed 100 hours of flight time and in an airplane which 15 years ago would have been considered a high performance machine.

And I am sad knowing that neither my mother nor father will ever know their grown up son.

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