Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Air Capital Tanker Chase

Hot-rod flight test in a TA-4 Skyhawk

As a flight test engineer for the Boeing Company assigned to Wichita, Kans. (“the Air Capital”), I’m among the fortunate people who truly love their work. And as the lead FTE on the KC-767 international tanker program, my usual perch is in the first observer seat of the KC-767 (the most advanced tanker in service). From that seat, I work with some of the world’s most talented flight testers, engineers and maintainers.

The mission was to test the drogue air refueling system, which consists of two wing air refueling pods (WARPs) and the centerline air refueling hose. Probe-and-drogue air refueling uses drogue baskets on the ends of the tanker’s hoses and a probe on the receiver through which fuel is passed.

Little did I know that, this time, I’d end up in the rear seat of a TA-4 Skyhawk. To achieve our flight test goals, Boeing had partnered with Advanced Training Systems International (ATSI), which specializes in fighter flight training, tactical air training, flight-testing and flying chase. ATSI operates 10 A-4s equipped with probe-and-drogue refueling systems.

My first flight was with Vinny Newstrom—a retired Navy lieutenant commander and, at the time, ATSI’s chief pilot—in N250WL, a 1968 McDonnell Douglas TA-4J Skyhawk. Climbing into this aircraft takes a little stretch—grab the canopy hydraulic cylinder with your right hand, swing your left leg over and in, get onto the seat, then step in with your other leg and shimmy down. Harnessing up feels as though you’re strapping the jet to your back instead of strapping into the jet.

The canopy rails were set right to the mid-bicep, with the seat height I like. My shoulders were touching both rails, which meant that whenever the canopy was coming down, I had to pull my shoulders together. Four more inches outboard were the inlets to the J52 engine, and with the canopy open, anything loose in the rear seat became an ingestion hazard, so everything was strapped down (on a kneeboard or in a pocket). Visibility was exceptional, and noise wasn’t excessive, but you couldn’t use VOX effectively until the canopy was closed.


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