The North American SNJ is the U.S. Navy's version of the venerable T-6 "Texan," a big, noisy, radial-engine trainer aircraft from the WWII-era. The T-6 equals "airplane" in the mind's eye of every kid who dreams of flight, as just about every airplane that every kid has ever drawn looks like one. That's not to say the T-6/SNJ is a toy; quite the contrary. The T-6 and the SNJ were used to train thousands of pilots to fly, to fly in combat, and do it better than the enemy. But its elegant lines, its sensible proportions and its cute little triangular vertical stabilizer all suggest "flying machine" better than many planes. The big round nose tells you it has a radial engine; the huge prop tells you that there is horsepower behind it to turn it; the stenciled painted labels tattooed all over the plane's body tell you -- in no uncertain terms -- what the deal is: "HANDS OFF," "NO STEP," "FUEL CAPACITY 55 GALS."
Get this: I flew one today.
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Simply viewing pictures of these things does not do them justice. They are big, substantial pieces of equipment. You don't "hop into" an SNJ -- you scale it. When I first sat in it, I had a feeling of wonder, that sense of awe that drapes over you when you are confronted by something so beyond your normal range of experience. "How the hell does anyone get it in their head that they can fly something like this?" I thought. I had room to maneuver in this thing. At 6'-2", and flying mostly small single-engine airplanes, I'm used to a slight feeling of claustrophobia when I fly. But in the SNJ, I had room, room all around me. The rudder pedals -- pretty, sculpted planes of aluminum -- were a stretch to reach, even for my longish legs. But once the balls of my feet had settled on them, my god, the smoothness of their action was amazing. Grabbing the stick and moving it through its range of motion, I was similarly floored by the silky-smooth action.
A quick look around reveals that everything in the plane has a purpose, and is manufactured to deliver on that purpose, time and time again. Handles and levers are all cast metal, and the purpose of each lever is even cast in the metal and painted in bold relief: "FLAP," "ELEVATOR TRIM". The throttle lever's stature belies its power; the single lever that modulates six hundred horsepower is topped with a demure 3/4" black knob, emblazoned with a single white letter "T". T for Throttle. T for "Touch this lever at your peril." I start to imagine what it will be like to see that lever move forward, and to feel the plane start its charge. Soon I won't have to imagine it.
How did I get here, you ask? Simple. I have selected my friends wisely. In all seriousness, I am rather lucky to have met a great flight instructor who doubles as a great friend, and his friends have interesting airplanes that they let others go for rides in. The generosity of these people is as awe inspiring as the airplanes they own, and I'm quietly thanking them here now. Anyway, today was my lucky day.
Strapped into the rear seat I slide the canopy closed, which trundles down the track and closes with a positive clunk. My friend starts up the big radial engine. There's a whine as the starter's flywheel spins up, a vibration, a bump and a black cloud wafts past as the engine gets itself organized into a steady ballet. Seated far behind all that power, especially with the canopy closed, it's not too terribly loud, but I know outside it sounds oh so great. I know, because I've been a spectator for a long time. I've watched these things taxi past at air shows, listened to their takeoff song, savored the sights, sounds & smells they make. I realize that now I am experiencing the wonder of a warbird from within the very creature, rather than from the sideline. I'm in the show, the major leagues. I pinch myself.
The run-up is performed at 2,000 RPM. Running that big engine to 2,000 RPM and keeping the plane stationary is like jabbing a thoroughbred in the hindquarters with a warm, pointed stick, yet holding him up in the starting gate. The entire plane is trembling & shaking. The grass behind us is waving about, as it's being beaten by a continuous wave of accelerated airflow, thanks to the huge prop up front. We're generating our own hurricane, and it's like a little preview of what the plane is really capable of.
My head is filling up; every aspect of this flight so far -- and mind you, we haven't even left the ground yet -- has differed from all my other flying experience, and I'm trying to mentally catalogue all of it. Everything is bigger, noisier, more authoritative, and more fun. We're swinging around at the end of the runway, about to take off. Time to make more room in my head. The "T" lever is moving forward.
Noise. Vibration. Noise. Looking outside, the ground races by, impossibly fast. We're taking off from a short grass runway, the very same one I learned to fly Cubs on. My Piper Cub-based worldview is nothing like this one. The plane's owner's son and his girlfriend -- our spectators today -- whiz past on the left side, gone in an eye blink; now the earth is falling away from us, we're flying. This giant assemblage of aluminum is levitating, and quite gracefully so. Gear up, flaps up, power reduction. My friend is walking me through all the procedures, over the intercom. A lot of things just happened in rapid succession back there. The plane settles into a nice cruise-climb, with 30 inches of manifold pressure and 2,000 RPM. The plane is a bit underpowered, according to my friend. "It'd be nice to have a bit more climb performance," he says. I'm still awed by what that big radial is doing for us. Looking out the canopy to the right, my eye sweeps across the landscape. The panoramic view is severed by a slab of gray aluminum -- the elegant wing. It's a visual interruption that I don't mind at all. I continue scanning the horizon, unimpeded by structure. I'm enclosed in a Plexiglas canopy that affords a 360-degree view of the current environment; it's like flying in a greenhouse. The view is, quite simply, breathtaking.
Once we get up to altitude, my friend levels out, trims the plane and sets cruise power. Cruise power, he says, is based on how much gas you wanna burn. "Low cruise is 22 and 19-ish, which gives about 140 KTS, with a fuel burn of 25-30 GPH; the basic aerobatic setting is about 25/20." Twenty-five inches and 2000 RPM is exactly what I see the gauges starting to reflect. Then he says, "OK, it's your plane. Do whatever you want."
I pinch myself, again.
I set my feet on those massive rudder pedals, grab the stick, and start pointing this bird around the sky. I recall my first flight in a tandem-seat aircraft, and how I felt like a fighter pilot then. Well, now I am a fighter pilot! (OK, I'm a fighter trainer pilot.) I am surprised to see that the stick forces that had been so light on the ground are still just as light, even though now they are diverting control surfaces into a 140-knot airstream, moving 5,000 pounds of aluminum around the sky. The plane flies so gracefully it almost brings tears to your eyes. The plane does whatever you ask it to do, with a minimum of fuss. It's built like a Kenworth, yet it handles like a Porsche. I lazily trace some arcs over the western New Jersey farmland, and I get comfier and comfier with the idea that I am actually flying this beast.
The date going well, I decide to try for second base. I had taken some aerobatics training last year, and decided I would cash in on that experience right now. "So, you think I could roll this thing?" I ask, and now my friend is pinching himself. He loves this stuff, you see. It's his reason for living. Me, I get queasy at the drop of a hat, but I realize that flying an SNJ straight and level is a sad waste of the plane's ability.
My friend reviews the aileron roll procedure, and explains the particulars for the SNJ: Push over to pick up airspeed, at 150 KIAS pitch up, at 20 degrees of pitch up push the stick to the left and hold it, a touch of top rudder will keep things clean and straight in the last part of the roll, enjoy the ride. He does one. I do about eight. I consider having my stomach surgically removed, so that I can come back here next week and do these forever. I'm flying a military aircraft upside down. I'm making it do that. This is unbelievable.
I pitch down again. "Uh, I guess this means we're doing another one?" my friend asks. Damn straight we're doing another one. The horizon twirls around the nose. The sun is shining, the winds are calm, and following a long hiatus, I'm flying once again. What a homecoming. I lose myself in the joy of it all.
Several rolls later, they are getting worse, not better. I'm not concentrating. My cursed stomach is beginning to tap me on the shoulder, reminding me that I do not have the Right Stuff; it's time to "fly normally." My friend asks if I have one loop in me, before we go back to the airport. Of course I do. Down we go, picking up speed. The wind noise is up there, way up there. At 175 knots, it's time to draw a circle. I watch the ground slide down, out of view, replaced with sky. My friend is getting shorter before my eyes, as three Gs pull him down into his seat. Wind noise diminishing, we approach the top of the loop. A slight unloading of the stick keeps the loop, well, loop-like. (In most planes, this avoids creating an elliptical "pinching of the loop," but in this heavy and slightly underpowered beast it actually avoids ruining the moment with a wicked snap roll.) Over the top, picking up speed now, the ground slides into view, followed by sky; the horizon settles into its customary place off the nose and we're right side up again. Loop. Wheee!
Now, when you are carried through three dimensions at great speed, tracing geometrically perfect shapes through thin air, in an extremely heavy object, you make discoveries. You discover that roller coasters will never again do it for you. You discover that human ambition -- the thirst for knowledge -- knows no bounds, and that that is a good thing. You discover that aviating is what makes you feel alive, and that this -- this kind of flying -- is the purest aviation of all.
It was time to return to the airport. As per the unwritten regulation, we did a low pass back at the airport, followed by a graceful, steep climbing turn to downwind, and an uneventful landing. Like the little flat stretch of track at the end of a roller coaster ride, the taxi back to the pumps is that perfect time to reflect on what you just did, the madness of the ride over, relatively calm now. All I can think about is how I'd very much like to do that again. I'd like to be good at aileron rolls in an SNJ. I'd like to know more. I'd like to do more. Aviation is like that. Aviation is a massive collection of challenges, and pilots live for them. Today was an introduction to aviation at a whole other level, and I find myself pressing my nose to the glass, wanting to know more. Maybe I will someday.
Sitting on a lawn chair, I stare at the plane. It's parked about 20 feet from me, and is silhouetted against a lovely sunset that is beginning to form. It looks like a postcard, but it's real. Better still, I was in that thing just a little while ago. I lived the dream. I look at pictures of these magnificent planes all the time, imagining what it must be like to fly one. Now I know. It's glorious.
The plane is talking back to me now: tick, tick, tick. As the engine cools, the plane's pieces contract. It's as if the plane is letting out a long slow sigh at the end of its workout. I sit for a while, listening. Tick, tick, tick ...
Special thanks to T6 pilot John Tremper and camera platform pilot Matt Seltmann.