So Many Types, So Little Time
In the world of flying, the range of experiences and the fun to be had are never-ending
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.