You don’t 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 minutes—not several decades—have elapsed since my first takeoff in a Grumman F8F Bearcat. I was researching a school article on warbird pilots—the Bearcat wasn’t 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, “Come on, fly the Bearcat.”
In reality, I wasn’t qualified to fly any of those airplanes, much less the Bearcat. I’d 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, I’d 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 I’d spent so much time sitting in the airplanes and studying their flight manuals, I’d become part of them before even flying them. But the Bearcat? I hadn’t 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 tailwheel—that’s where the name “Bearcat” comes from.
2) Make sure the direction you’re pointed when you drop the hammer is the direction you want to go because you won’t change direction once the power is up.
3) Don’t attempt to raise the gear on takeoff. Because you’ll accelerate right through gear speed on takeoff, wait until you’ve climbed to altitude.
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 didn’t. 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 shouldn’t 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 otter—not something you experience in many other flying machines.
I’ll be the first to admit that practicality and utility score low on the list of things that turn me on about any particular airplane. It’s 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 silky—smooth 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 you’re in an honest-to-God high-performance airplane.
Over the years, I’ve been granted many fabulous hours of Marchetti time through the largess of various owners, and I’ve quickly found that an hour cavorting (or straight and level, for that matter) in an SF-260 can’t be compared to any amount of spam-can time. A thousand hours of Cessna 172 time? A million hours? It doesn’t 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 it’s 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 it’s ready to do anything you’re willing to try. It’s a kinship between man and machine that’s hard to match. And here’s a personal promise: Within 24 hours of my winning the lottery, there’ll be an SF-260B sharing the hangar with my Pitts. And I always keep my promises.
Another of those lifetime images that repeatedly pops up in my mind’s eye is of the I-can’t-believe-I’m-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? It’s easy: The examiner stands on the ground with a radio and says things like, “Okay, now show me a stall with the gear down. Okay, now zero thrust the left engine and make a pass.” If you survive, I guess you pass. It was—and still seems—very surreal.
On takeoff in a Lightning, the engine noise is entirely different than a Mustang’s. Rather than reaching in and crushing you, as in a Mustang, the noise builds to a mind-numbing, indescribably visceral feeling that’s excruciatingly painful if you’re not wearing a headset. It’s not exhaust noise—the exhaust is routed out through the turbochargers behind you on each boom—but a combination of prop noise, turbochargers and an audibly toxic sound that can’t be identified.
In the air, even though the airplane is huge, it’s 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 didn’t 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 child’s 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. They’re multi-disk units that take practically no pressure, so every time I’d touch them, the nose would dip and I’d look like a fool. Oh, well. When I’m reliving the experience, I edit that detail out of the mental playback.
The footage in my mental projector seems endless. There’s the nimble-beyond-belief Bucker Jungmeister and the I’m-in-it-for-the-fun Piper Clipped-Wing Cub. And let’s 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, it’s one show I never tire of watching.