One of the perks of this job is the chance to fly a wide variety of airplanes. My hours and ratings aren’t anything special, but I’m happy that I’ve been allowed to fly a little of everything at one time or another.
A friend in Oklahoma invited me to fly his newly restored Cessna 195, and we met in Ponca City, Okla., for the flight. Jack was a recently retired Braniff captain who had owned the Cessna for about 20 years, and he flew it like breathing. Typical of Oklahoma, the wind was whipping down the plain on the day of my flights, and I expressed some concerns about the ground handling of his big taildragger. Jack dismissed them with a knowing wave of his hand, and we climbed aboard and prepared to launch.
The 300-hp Jacobs radial started without complaint, and after things settled down, I began to taxi toward the active. I knew that I was in trouble as soon as we cleared the wind shadow of the hangar. Naturally, the airplane wanted to weathercock into the wind, and no sooner had I applied appropriate corrective rudder and brake than it did just that—while continuing to track straight ahead. I had completely forgotten that Cessna 195s featured a crosswind gear system that allowed the wheels to caster as much as 15 to 20 degrees.
Jack coached me through the subsequent takeoff and landing, and it was eerie to fly a landing approach in a crab and not kick it out at the bottom. The airplane would land happily with its nose at what seemed like 45 degrees to the left or right of the runway heading and roll out straight down the centerline.
A few years later during a delivery flight to Alaska, I spotted an immaculate Antonov Colt on the ramp at Chehalis, Wash., made some inquiries, located the owner and arranged for a pilot report. The AN-2 Colt was and remains the world’s largest single-engine airplane, a huge biplane with a max 14-seat capacity. This one belonged to a former Sealand ship’s captain who had seen it sitting derelict on a ramp at the Bombay, India, airport, purchased it for next to nothing, shipped it home to the port of Seattle on his freighter and rebuilt it from the ground up in Chehalis.
My flight went well, and everything worked as advertised, although the airplane seemed much faster than I had expected, and it was interesting trying to interpret the Russian markings on the instruments. When it came time for some stalls, the owner in the right seat had me lower the flaps, throttle the big 1,000-hp Shvetsov radial engine back to idle and watch the airspeed bleed off.
Finally, with leading-edge slats fully extended and the airspeed needle vibrating just below 30, the huge, 7,250-pound biplane bucked a few times and ducked its nose gently toward the rolling, green hills of southern Washington. “Wow, that’s amazing for such a big airplane,” I said. “The stall is only 30 knots.”
The owner smiled and said quietly, “Those aren’t knots.”
“You mean to tell me that this thing flies at 30 mph? That’s even more impressive,” I effused.
“Those aren’t mph, either,” commented the owner.
The airspeed indicator was calibrated in kilometers per hour. The dirty stall was about 17 knots.
Then, there was the Goodyear airship Columbia. When I flew with chief pilot Nick Nicolari out of Goodyear’s Carson, Calif., base for ABC’s TV series “Wide World of Flying,” Nicolari allowed me to take the left seat for most of the flight (notably excluding takeoff and landing). Nothing happens too fast in a blimp, and it was fun to drone along at 30 knots at 1,000 feet above the city with my elbow casually extended out the side window, occasionally waving at folks below.
One aspect of the slow cruise speed that I hadn’t considered became obvious as we flew over an oil refinery. The nose slowly began to rise, and just as I was rolling the giant pitch wheel forward to return to level flight, the airship began to pitch back down on its own. We had flown through a thermal updraft generated by the refinery. As the nose entered the updraft, the blimp pitched up. A full five seconds later, as the nose exited the updraft and the tail entered it—some 180 feet behind—the Columbia pitched back down. Now, that’s slow flight.
At the opposite end of the speed regime, I was one of the first non-government, non-McDonnell Douglas, non-military pilots to be allowed the privilege of driving an F-15 Eagle around the sky, and as you might imagine, it was one of the biggest thrills of my career. I’m aware that most of the hot dogfighters are no big deal to jaded military aviators, but flying those powerful planes is an amazing experience for those of us who have never flown anything faster than a Lear or Citation.
Although I had previously flown the T-37 and T-38 for a dozen or so hours at Williams and Reese AFBs, the F-15 taught me just how talented a jet fighter can be. In order to extend our flight as long as possible, we were carrying a
300-gallon centerline fuel tank beneath the airplane.
My demo pilot, USAF Lt. Col. Tim O’Keefe, explained that the airplane was limited to Mach 1.6 with the center tank in place. I was disappointed, as I had hoped to see Mach 2.0. O’Keefe explained that the airplane could still easily reach Mach 2.0, but the tank would depart the airplane at Mach 1.6—not a good idea. We settled for Mach 1.6.
One of the more interesting maneuvers we flew in the F-15 was a dirty loop. After climbing vertically out of Nellis AFB, Nev., to 35,000 feet in just under two minutes and flying to a restricted area north of Las Vegas, Col. O’Keefe asked me what I had flown up from Los Angeles. When I told him that I had flown my Mooney 231 into North Las Vegas, he asked what would happen if I extended the gear and flaps in my Mooney, reduced the speed to 110 knots, then tried to fly a loop. I told him that the airplane would probably stall at 20 to 30 degrees of pitch.
“Let’s try it in the F-15,” he suggested. I extended the gear and flaps, reduced the speed to about 110 knots and followed O’Keefe’s orders: “Okay, push the power up to fifth-stage afterburner and bring the stick all the way back.”
I slid the dual thrust levers all the way to the forward stops, felt the airplane leap forward and simultaneously brought the stick back to the rear stop. The 44,000-pound F-15 Eagle transitioned from level to vertical, and 50,000 pounds of thrust blasted us right on up and over to inverted, with the airspeed reading zero at the top of the loop.
“Do you ever get used to all of this power?” I asked O’Keefe after I had pulled out of the burner, cleaned up the airplane and returned to a more sedate 300 knots, straight and level.
“Nope, you never do,” he answered.
Bill Cox is entering his third decade as a senior contributor to Plane & Pilot® and provides consulting for media, entertainment and aviation concerns worldwide.
E-mail him at [email protected].