Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Gettin’ In Dance

You can’t fly ‘em, if you can’t get in ‘em

The other "vehicle" was my first flight in an F8F Bearcat in 19mumblemumble. As I stepped over the side of the cockpit and let myself down inside, the dance pretty much explained itself and did so in a thoroughly exciting fashion. As I stepped off the seat onto the floor pan and let myself down inside, my arms had to come inboard to clear the canopy rails. And I had to turn slightly sideways to let the canopy clear both shoulders while cranking it shut. The dance ended with the amazing view of a huge (I mean HUGE) propeller, seemingly a few feet in front of me, and these tiny wings projecting off to both sides. Feet spread wide to the rudder pedals, hands on a manly throttle and control stick, 2,100 horsepower just ahead of my feet, it was obvious this dancing partner would be "interesting." And she didn't disappoint.

There are some airplanes that if no one has given you the secret dance steps to you'll never get in. When boarding a Mustang, for instance, if you don't see the spring-loaded steps and handholds hiding here and there, you'll think each airplane came equipped with an rope ladder. Or all Mustang pilots had/have 38-inch inseams. Of course, for the Mustang, there's an alternate dance that has you clambering up on a main-gear tire and crawling over the leading edge. But that leaves footprints on the wing, which is okay when someone is shooting at you and looks don't count, but not acceptable on the fly-in circuit where every warbird has a contrail of groupies eager to wipe and wax at the appearance of a single smudge.

A P-38's boarding dance is the most secretive of all. Unless you know the "secret," you're going to have to pole-vault up on the wing to get to the cockpit. The secret is that there's a skinny little "ladder," and I use that word only because I don't know what else to call it. It's barely an inch thick and vaguely triangular shaped, and is buried in a slot hidden in the very back of the fuselage, or whatever you call the people pod. You pull it down out of the slot, and then execute an awkward dance that has you sidestepping because the ladder is facing the wrong way: It faces left/right, not fore/aft, so your feet are twisted around in an unnatural angle, making you feel like a severely pigeon-toed newbie trying to tango.

A B-25 Mitchell's gettin'-in dance is pure simplicity: Open the belly hatch and a ladder drops down that looks as if it were bought at Costco. No aero-disco moves needed here. The B-17, on the other hand, derives its boarding process from a gymnastic routine, specifically the parallel bars: You have to reach up and grab the edge of the belly hatch that's well over your head. Then you swing your feet up inside. This is no small feat. It's one of the reasons wars are bought by the young. If you're not young, you can't get in some of the airplanes.

Oh sure, it makes much more sense, if you can stand on a wing and simply step down into the cockpit Cirrus/Warrior style or climb in ala Cessna. But, that's too easy. Where's the challenge in that? Some of us like our airplanes to be rife with challenge and personality and, if that requires a demanding boarding dance, so be it. Besides, there's nothing like a good dance to set a warm relationship in motion.


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