Pilot Journal
Thursday, March 1, 2007

Logbook Love Affair


Confessions of a type hunter


logbook love affairYou 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.”
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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.




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