CEO of the Cockpit #44: Raise The Nina!

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For modern airline pilots like AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit -- who spend all day in an FMS-guided autopilot-flown aviation wonder -- the appeal of flying old, low and slow during their days off (or in retirement) is understandable. But why would someone spend millions to rescue something that would be cheaper to build from scratch?

It is nice to once again find myself within the confines of my trusty 767 cockpit. A lamb's wool seat cover caresses my ample behind, as I sit ensconced in my little home away from home.

This home has its advantages over my earthbound abode. I can get coffee just for the asking up here, people occasionally call me "sir" and I have a much better view out of my window.

This trip is a relief from the hurly-burly of the few days I spent at Sun 'n Fun in Lakeland. I couldn't help but notice as we took off from Tampa this morning that our ATC controller was not actually on the runway with orange wands like in Lakeland but instead communicated with us over the more sophisticated and modern VHF radio.

Not that the ATC system at Sun 'n Fun didn't work well. It was very impressive and resembled O'Hare a lot more than any other airport I can think of. As a matter of fact, if the controllers at O'Hare ever want to add one more improvement to an already pretty neat system, they might consider physically putting controllers at the end of each active departure runway. I'm sure the controllers wouldn't mind it in the summer months, but I imagine they would balk during the winter.

Climbing out on our usual northbound course from Tampa we were given our usual "direct Cross City" and climb to FL230; and shortly after that, 350. Chop wasn't worse than light to moderate and whatever thunderstorms that were out there seemed to be turning up quite nicely on the radar. Passing eleven grand I pushed the "command" button on the center autopilot and leaned my seat back to talk with my posse.

Two jumpseat riders today, both old friends and fellow Sun 'n Funners who had spent a few more days at the fair than I did this time. They too were enjoying the latest in designer-yet-cheap coffee in Styrofoam cups and they too were eager to talk about the event with my majorette-domo (co-pilot) Wendy.

Jason, my old classmate and apartment co-inhabitor from way back in the late 1970s had planted his butt firmly in the center jumpseat, leaving Bill -- who was younger and more junior -- the less-comfortable jumpseat behind and to the left of me. I warned him first, but then I made his situation a little less comfortable when I ran my seat back a little for additional comfort now that "George" was flying the plane.

The New And The Old

"What, if anything, was new this year?" asked Wendy. "I haven't been to the fly-in for the past four years or so. Do they still have that weird ultralight area?"

Bite your tongue, young lady. The ultralight people are of the finest kind and are just about my favorite people there. They inhabit an area of the airport property where, believe it or not, my Boy Scout troop used to camp in the early 1960s. Back then, all we had to keep us company beside the trees that have since been removed was the occasional cow flop deposit or -- even more rarely -- the cow that deposited the deposit.

That having been said, the ultralight people look at aviation in an entirely different way than most of us airline types do. I didn't say less safe, just different. To get the right mental picture of the ultralight area, think more "Pirates of the Caribbean" and less "Top Gun."

The warbird area was where Jason, Bill and I spent an inordinate amount of our free time. Not because there were that many interesting warbirds there; Now that good old "WW-B" is so far behind us, there aren't that many vintage warbirds left. Most of the ramp was made up of T-28s flown in by retired oral surgeons or lawyers with their silicone-enhanced trophy wives either riding in the back or, better yet, driving the Caddy in support.

The real reason we spent a lot time in the warbird area, other than all the high-maintenance females around, was the Exxon hospitality area. An old friend who is a magazine editor got us all free passes to this air-conditioned area right on the warbird flight line. Because of the largess of my editor friend, I was able to look like a big shot. Free soft drinks, beer and sandwiches were provided and, thanks to the people of Exxon, we had a great time.

I felt a little guilty about drinking Exxon's beer until I realized that I had burnt perhaps a million of pounds of their Jet A over the years.

No Price Too High

"Glacier Girl was there on the warbird ramp," Jason said. "I don't want to throw cold water on anybody's parade and I'm sure the whole thing is quite an accomplishment, but personally, I don't see the point."

That opinion is probably some sort of heresy in the wacky world of aircraft recovery and rebuilding, but I have to agree. The Glacier Girl story made for great magazine copy and an even greater TV special; but for the amount of money and time they spent on finding, digging up and rebuilding the P-38, they probably could have found the manufacturing jigs and manufactured 20 new zero-time aircraft. Except for its historical significance and the fact that people find it interesting, that was an awful lot of money to spend on one plane.

"I don't know," Wendy said. "What if somebody somehow found the wreckage of the Nina from Columbus's voyage to the Americas and was able to raise it, restore it and put it under sail? Would it have value to you then? It is notoriety and the passage of time that makes an aircraft like Glacier Girl valuable. Check back in two hundred years and see how much money an original WWII aircraft that has a story like that is worth."

"Think about it," she continued. "If you could find and restore one aircraft that has been lost to time, which one would you pick? If you were able to find it, would money be that big of a factor?"

Build Me A Dream

You have a good point there, Wendy. I can think of dozens of aircraft, both specifically and generally, that I would like to see as real things again. Any early aircraft flown by Jimmy Doolittle would be a favorite for me. Rigid airships -- why doesn't somebody build an exact copy of the Macon? Or the Hindenberg? Talk about vintage aircraft! Has anybody ever reconstructed a Civil War observation balloon?

"One thing I'd really like to see them rebuild from plans," said Bill, "is a Saturn V launch vehicle. I'd pay money to see that."

Unfortunately, that is never going to happen. Believe it or not, there are no plans for the Saturn V in existence. NASA threw the plans away years ago when they were cleaning their files. As unbelievable as that sounds, I know it is true because my grandfather told me in a bar.

"You can't get more accurate information anywhere," said Jason, "then from your grandfather in a bar."

Nods all around on that one.

"Any TBM from the ill-fated attack on the Japanese carrier force during the early part of the Battle of Midway," Wendy added. "I know they would be impossible to recover now, but I don't think our wish list should be limited by what is possible. After all, the recovery of Glacier Girl would have been considered impossible in the 1950s."

First Ride in Heavy Iron

Personally -- and I know this is too recent to be a historical aircraft -- I'd like to see and fly good old ship #490 again. She was an aging 727-200 when I planted my ass in the engineer seat for my first trip as a plumber, but it sure would be a hoot to see her and fly her again. I got to fly in all three seats in that bird. Pneumatic pressurization, a block four autopilot and black & white radar.

Last time I flew her she was getting on in years and rattled like an old wagon when we got going faster than .80 Mach. The airline sold her and by now she is probably either running drugs in Columbia or is wrecked in a South American jungle. That is a recovery effort I would support.

"I've left a lot of sweat in a lot of airplanes," said Jason, "including ship #490. I wonder how many airplanes are out there that I've flown, worked on, fueled or slept in?"

Glass and Plastic

How about the brave new world of modern aircraft? Did anybody but me get a demo ride in the Cirrus? The nice youngsters over on the other end of the field were kind enough to show this old 777 driver what was new in general aviation.

Nice little airplane, and it was more modern in some ways than the 777. For example, you could get almost-real-time weather on the second CRT in the cockpit, including up-linked ground radar. You can't do that in a 777.

"I got to fly in it too," Bill chimed in. "The Cirrus and other designs like it are probably the newest thing in general aviation and I'm sure that lots of people will go for it. I'm probably showing my age here, or maybe it is because I fly in a glass cockpit for about 80 hours a month, but I got the feeling that I was spending too much time 'heads down' in that cockpit and not enough time enjoying the flight."

Yeah, maybe it just isn't our cup of tea. It was a nice airplane and the people who showed it to me were even nicer; but after all these years of intercepting magenta lines, following flight director cues and programming FMS databases, I think when I settle down and get my retirement plane I'll probably go used, cheap and old.

There is something about the smell and feel of an older airplane -- whether it is a creaky 727 or a dusty Ercoupe -- that makes me feel good and like I'm home. Memories of leather seats, one-lever power control and integrated auto flight systems are for the next generation of pilots. It isn't that either group is better. They are just different.

"This cockpit is beginning to smell like spilt coffee," said Wendy. "It's been moderate chop here ever since you started going on and on about that free beer at Exxon. It's reported smoother at four-one-oh -- how about I ask for higher?"

I nodded, Wendy got the clearance and we did something that neither Glacier Girl nor the most expensive Cirrus extant could do: We climbed to 410 at 2200 feet per minute at .82 Mach.