Forty-Seven Years in Aviation -- A Memoir: Chapter 3 -- Primary Flight Training Part 2
The ink has faded, but the certificate reads:
Patience is one of the hallmarks of a good flight instructor and Ray Petty had that quality in spades. But just a few days into the primary program, his forbearance wore a bit thin. A quick lesson in the Cub's architecture is in order to understand what happened.
This is to certify that on this, the fourteenth day of March 1955,
Richard L. Taylor in a PA-18 did, alone and unassisted take off from and return to Jackson Field, Stallings Air Base,
thereby successfully completing his First Solo Flight.
(signed) Raymond A. Petty, Most Worthy and Gray Haired Flight Instructor.
Entry to the cabin was accomplished through a two-piece door on the right side, hinged at the top and bottom and locked into the closed position with the half-turn of a handle. The door is normally closed and locked in flight, but when it's unlocked, the top half flies up, the bottom half falls down and the student is suddenly and completely exposed to thin air. One of my original tablemates was out of his depth from the very first day; he was nearly incapacitated by his fear of flying and became ill every time he left the ground. After trying everything he knew to resolve the problem, Ray lost his cool and took a draconian step: As he related to us later, at 2000 feet or so he rolled the Cub on its beam ends with the right wing pointing straight down, unlocked the door and shouted "Jones [not his real name], why don't you just jump out now and get it over with!" When they got back, Jones -- white as a sheet -- disappeared, never to be seen again in flight training. Having broken through the solo barrier, the balance of our time in the PA-18 was spent practicing takeoffs and landings. Learning to fly a taildragger is no more difficult than learning to fly any other airplane -- except for taxiing, takeoff and landing, when the main wheels are in contact with the ground and providing a point around which the airplane can rotate. All taildraggers try to swap ends on the ground because the center of gravity is behind the main wheels. Given this characteristic, taildragger pilots become very adept on the rudder pedals. The problem is exacerbated when you're flying any light airplane in strong winds; keep in mind a PA-18 with one occupant weighed only about 1500 pounds and 20-knot surface winds were common conditions on the North Carolina coastal plain. There were days when we probably shouldn't have been flying but we flew anyway; the school contractor had a limited number of Cubs so we had to press on to get finished and out of the way for the next class. Several times during our initial training the wind was so strong the non-flying students were detailed to the far end of the runway where three of them would walk a just-landed Cub back to the ramp, one holding down the tail, the other two at the wing struts to keep the airplane from blowing over.
Near the end of the PA-18 phase, one of the instructors flew a T-6 to Jackson Field so we could get a close look at our airborne classroom for the next 120 hours of training. In general, the T-6 is not considered a big airplane ... but for student pilots with only 20 hours total flying time and faced with the imminent transition from the Piper Cub to an all-metal, 600-horsepower airplane with retractable landing gear, wing flaps, constant-speed propeller and a top speed of 200 miles per hour, the T-6 loomed large. The T-6 "Texan" has a long and illustrious history, beginning with the North American Aviation NA-26, a design that won the U.S. Army competition for a basic combat (BC) aircraft in 1937. The airplane went into production soon thereafter and 180 airplanes known as BC-1s were delivered to the Army. Somewhere along the line the airplane became an advanced trainer, resulting in the AT-6 designation, later shortened to T-6; it was the only single-engine advanced trainer for the Army Air Corps during WW II. Thousands of U.S. Naval aviators earned their wings in the SNJ (a T-6 with a tail hook) and almost every foreign nation that could muster enough pilots to call it an air force used the T-6 in various roles. The Texan was deployed early in the Korean War as a forward air control platform and continued to train Air Force pilots until 1957, when the T-34/T-28 program was implemented in all the civilian contract schools.
The T-6 went through a number of modifications over the years. The final version in the series was the "G" model (ca. early 1950s), equipped with a more powerful engine, a steerable tailwheel and a full-time hydraulic system. The T-6G became the standard for the rest of the production run that ended in the 1950s; all variants considered, a total of 15,495 Texans were built. Our upgrade from the Cub to the T-6 included the use of crash helmets ("brain buckets" in the often-morbid vocabulary of aviators) and throat microphones. The helmets made us feel more like military pilots and the throat mike (an elastic "choker" necklace with two button microphones that picked up sound waves from one's larynx) were indispensable. I can't imagine all those hours of flight instruction in a really noisy airplane using hand-held microphones ... or worse, shouting back and forth. The T-6 was powered by an R-1340, nine-cylinder, radial engine introduced by Pratt and Whitney in 1925. It was the first engine built by P&W and the design proved to be a good one; when production ceased in the 1950s, nearly 35,000 of these engines had gone out the door. Unlike most turbine engines that require only the press of a button to light the fire, starting the R-1340 (or any radial engine for that matter) required the pilot to orchestrate fuel, air and ignition to arrive at a combustible mixture. The cylinders would belch and cough and blow smoke and occasionally backfire until all nine jugs were happy ... and then the sound became a pleasant rumble, something like the exhaust of a big Harley.
Once you are strapped into the front seat of a T-6 you have a clear picture of ... well, you don't have a clear view of anything straight ahead except the aluminum that wraps around the engine. You can see directly ahead only from the time you raise the tail on takeoff until the time you lower the tail on landing, and not at all while you're taxiing. This problem -- common to all round-engined taildraggers and even worse in the back seat -- leads to a lot of neck-craning and S-turning on the ground. It also led to some consternation for my father, who had come to Kinston for a visit. He was not at all familiar with airplanes and seemed a bit confused as he watched a group of T-6s S-turning along the taxiway. He wondered, "For all the money they're spending on your flight training, why can't they teach you to drive these airplanes in a straight line?" No matter how you slice it, the transition from Piper Cub to T-6 was a giant leap in complexity and pilot technique; the Texan was six times as powerful, two tons heavier and carried enough fuel to keep a Cub in the air all day. Student pilots in primary flight training were required to develop a working knowledge of the engine and propeller combination, the operation of the retractable landing gear and the wing flaps, fuel, oil and electrical systems. With regard to pilot technique, 20 hours in the Cub gave us a leg up on flying the airplane "from chock to chock" ... an absolute necessity in the T-6 and one of the most valuable lessons any pilot can learn.
An airplane this complex came equipped with a dazzling (for us) array of flight and engine instruments. The front cockpit panel contained the usual primary flight instruments as well as gauges to monitor engine operation and all the other onboard systems. Radio navigation equipment was limited to a low-frequency receiver; the VHF transmitter and receiver controls were located below the canopy sill on the right side of the cockpit. The rear cockpit was much less adorned but had enough gauges to get us through the basic instrument-flying part of the program. The steerable tailwheel was perhaps the most practical modification to the basic T-6, especially at low taxi speeds; trying to maintain a straight line without positive steering would be nothing short of artistry in braking. With the tailwheel locked -- accomplished by holding the stick all the way back and centering the tailwheel so a locking pin could fall into place -- 17 degrees of steering was available with the rudder pedals. With the tailwheel unlocked and in the full-castering mode, you could use the brakes (gently, gently) to turn the airplane at will. T-6 transition began with several dual rides that emphasized takeoffs and landings, stalls and simulated engine failures. Ray Petty was big on engine-failure procedures and I came to expect he would close the throttle at some point on virtually every takeoff and ask, "Now what are you going to do?" He emphasized the folly of trying to get back to the runway unless there was a lot of air (at least a thousand feet) between the airplane and the ground. My first solo in the T-6 was a memorable event. It took place on a beautiful spring morning, warm enough to have the canopy rolled back, and for the first time I realized the airplane was responding properly even though I was not consciously moving the controls. It was that magic moment when an airplane seems to become an extension of the pilot's thinking ... I have experienced the same feeling sooner or later with every aircraft I have flown since. The training curriculum included a series of stalls, the nastiest of which was the "top rudder" stall. This pilot-tester began from straight and level flight, then we would roll into a steep bank to the left, holding the bank with aileron and adding right rudder until the airplane stalled. Of course everything was working against us; we had essentially set up the airplane for a cross-control stall (a truly wicked thing) in an already steep bank, and when the wings quit flying it was nearly impossible to recover without going inverted. We were also required to complete a series of landing "stages," in which we flew (solo) six repetitions of the several types of landings we had been taught -- three-point, wheelies, flaps and no flaps, crosswind, etc. -- with instructors posted near the end of the runway grading our performance. At the completion of each landing we exited the runway and taxied back for another repetition; this required taxiing via two legs of the runway triangle, something many of us considered a waste of time ... we were there to fly, not drive. In order to get back into the air ASAP, we resorted to taxiing faster than normal with the tailwheel off the ground. It was also a great way to develop a fine touch on the rudder during takeoff and landing.
At this point you need to know the infield had been leased to a local farmer whose corn crop had grown higher than an elephant's eye, high enough to hide us from the observers -- we thought. What we failed to consider was the height of the vertical stabilizer with the tail off the ground; it was just high enough for an instructor to see it, whereupon the fast-taxi procedure was declared verboten ... oh well, back to the S-turns. Despite its size, weight and reputation (some pilots called it the "Terrible Texan," or the "torque tube," both unwarranted slurs) the T-6 was a bit of a pussycat in a spin; the first turn put the nose down to nearly vertical, but during the second turn the nose came up to perhaps 30 or 40 degrees below the horizon, where it stayed until recovery. As spin training progressed we were required to make a complete recovery at a predetermined point such as after two turns, or aimed at a specific target on the ground. [Continued with Chapter 4.]