Triple Tree and the Making of a WWII Pilot (in 2015)

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by: Rob Traynham
Triple Tree Communications

Introduction and a Little Explanation

First, as the writer, perhaps I should introduce myself. My name is Rob Traynham and I have the great pleasure of working with Mr. Pat and all of the volunteers at Triple Tree. My job is to try to put into words what is planned, currently happening or what is on the list for the future. It seems that even after doing this for three years, the magic of Triple Tree continues to just keep me excited about life and flying. You’d think after spending my entire professional life involved in military or corporate aviation that there just wouldn’t be much left to excite this 64 year old retired guy. I personally didn’t think there was going to be much new and exciting (from an aviation perspective) left for me at this age and I had resigned myself to the fact that my best flying days were probably behind me. Then, one day many months ago, I received a call from Mr. Pat and he said, in a very excited voice, that Triple Tree was going to get a P-51 Mustang and that he wanted ME to be one of the pilots trained to fly it! I had to just let that sink in for a while before I could answer…ok, about 3 seconds elapsed before I said YES. The decision had been made that the Mustang was going to join the Triple Tree aeronautical hangar crowd and reside there with the Cub, Stearman, BT-13 and the Spartan and that ALL of these airplanes were going to start traveling to different venues. Therefore, a new, expanded group of pilots was going to be required. Of the group of five pilots selected, all of which had many thousands of hours, I had the least amount of both total tail wheel time (300) and “heavy” tail wheel time (0). It was clear that I was going to have to take a longer path to the Mustang than the others both from an experience/safety standpoint for sure but also from an insurance standpoint. The decision was made to go forward and Mr. Pat generously offered the Triple Tree Cub, Stearman and BT-13 for me to gain the required heavy tail wheel experience. All of us would be required to fly the T-6 before the Mustang as it was, and is, the world’s best trainer for the heavy, single-engine WWII fighters. As we were beginning to map out this specialized program for me, it occurred to us that “Wait a minute, this is the exact same program that was utilized by the Army Air Corp during WWII” so; the decision was made that I would progress through these famous trainers, one by one, just like the cadets of that time. I would give my impressions of the airplane, the instructors and the experience and perhaps contrast them with the experiences I had when I went through U.S. Air Force pilot training in the early 70’s.

So, here we go. The plan is that I will fly the exact trainers used to prepare pilots in WWII, in the exact same sequence and publish my experiences and feelings each month until, at the end of the series, hopefully, I will be a proud and excited, 64 year old, newly minted P-51 pilot. Just remember, there are no guarantees. In my class of pilot trainees in the 70’s around 50% of the total, year-long washouts occurred in the early stages of training. I’m quite sure I’ve slowed down some since 1973 but for Triple Tree and Mr. Pat, I’m going to give it my best shot!

Articles are in series. Please scroll down for all articles to date.

Part 1
THE CFTP AND THE CADET

In the late 1930’s, the U.S. government noticed that a particularly troublesome guy named Adolph Hitler was becoming very aggressive. It was known that he had set up a pilot training program whereby thousands of civilians were being trained as pilots. The stated purpose was that this program was to supply German civilian needs and boost aviation in Germany but the actual purpose was to establish a ready supply of future military pilot recruits that had significant flight experience. In 1938, the U.S. reacted by establishing our own, similar program called CFTP (Civilian Flight Training Program). President Roosevelt announced on Dec. 27, 1938 the establishment of this program with a goal to train 20,000 college students to fly. We too said it was “to provide a boost to general aviation!” but our intentions, like the Germans, was to have a pool of pilots that were pre-screened for military duty. The CFTP program was initially established at several colleges and universities (later expanded greatly) and utilized civilian instructors flying mostly Piper Cubs. Aeroncas and other aircraft types were also used but for the most part, the Cub was the very first airplane many of these future Air Corps flyers would experience. It’s a fact that eight out of ten WWII pilots experienced their first formal flight training in a Piper Cub.
As a new “cadet” in 2015, I can imagine both the thrill and anticipation of flight and the specter of, at some point, taking a very powerful machine into deadly combat that a 1940’s cadet experienced. It was similar in my time only “my” war in Viet Nam was over just a few months before I entered training. We had “signed up” two years earlier when the war was going full-speed and we all anticipated being a participant. Luckily, none of the graduates in my class ever made it into combat. For the WWII cadet, there was absolutely no light at the end of the war tunnel and many thousands were lost in combat. I try to remember and honor those brave people (men and women) on each and every flight I make in the Triple Tree historic aircraft.

So here we go. The program for a cadet (bound for fighters) in the late 30’s and early 40’s was to start out flying the Cub, then progress to at PT series airplane (PT17 Stearman for me) assuming that they made it through the Cub training. Next came the BT-13, the AT-6 and finally training in their assigned fighter. It was and is a long, difficult process that saw many fall by the wayside. I am truly fortunate to experience it pretty much like they did and, in fact, I’m going to venture to say that I could well be one of the very last to experience each airplane, in exactly the same sequence, with much of the same studying and training. It’s going to be quite a ride and I hope you enjoy being my copilot.

THE CUB

So, with that background, let’s go fly a Cub. The airplane itself is a featherweight. It weighs around 800 pounds empty and just over 1200 pounds with pilot(s) and a full tank of 12 gallons of gas. It’s the epitome of the basic flying machine. It has a tubular steel framework, covered in fabric, a sixty five horsepower Continental engine, a wooden prop, no starter, no electrical system and a wing that is made up of ribs built up around a wooden spar that is covered in the same fabric as the fuselage. The landing gear shock absorbers are giant rubber bands hidden and protected beneath a couple of “streamlining” leather bags. The front seat is cramped and the back seat isn’t much better. It came equipped with “heel” brakes that, to this day, don’t seem very natural. The door is a two piece affair with one half folding down and the other half folding up against the bottom of the wing. The instrument panel has only what you need to fly; a tachometer, an airspeed indicator, an altimeter, an oil pressure gauge, an oil temp gauge and a magnetic compass…that’s it!

You may ask, “Where’s the fuel gauge?” Well, it’s the piece of wire (with a cork on the end that moves through a hole in the fuel cap) that you see just in front of the windshield! The length of the wire “shrinks” as the fuel supply in the tank is used up. Just to make things more interesting, the Cub is soloed from the rear seat where the view forward, while on the ground, is limited to the sky and birds flying by.

Ok, before any flight, the pilot must conduct a thorough preflight inspection. For the Cub, this means you start your checks at the cockpit and make absolutely certain that the magneto switch is off and the throttle is at idle. You then walk around the plane checking that everything is properly attached, the tail wheel assembly and the steering chains are intact, the engine isn’t missing any parts, the prop isn’t cracked, chipped or delaminating and that there’s no water in the fuel. You ALWAYS treat the prop carefully as the little Continental engines usually start VERY easily so making sure the mags are off and being careful with any movement of the prop is standard operating procedure. On the first few flights, the instructor provides the “ArmStrong” starter since there is no electrical system hence, no electrical starter. Once running, the instructor pulls the chocks and does a jungle gym exercise to get into the cramped front seat. Taxiing is a challenge since your limited view (sky and birds) is now, for the most part, blocked by the instructor sitting in front of you. Forget the instruments as any view of them is blocked by the same piece of humanity. For the first few lessons, just taxiing is a challenge. S- turns are required and you seem to over control everything. Upon arrival at the end of the runway, you do a run-up to check the magnetos, check that the trim is set correctly, the carburetor heat is operational and make certain all controls are free and clear. Then, after clearing for traffic, you somehow make it on to the runway and lineup. Once the power comes up, the Cub magic begins to happen. I’ll venture a guess that every pilot that has ever flown a Cub, even those that knew it was going to eventually lead to mortal combat, smiled broadly during the takeoff. The Cub gathers “speed” at a rate that just feels right. The controls “come alive” just right. The engine sounds “just right” and the wings assume lift and support you and the plane “just right.” The first flight in a Cub has got to be very close to what Wilbur and Orville experienced in the Wright Flyer. It’s pure, fun, enjoyable flight!

Actually, the paragraph above describes the experience and set of emotions that comes after about five or six hours of training. The first few flights are frustrating exercises in over-controlling some things (elevator, rudder, ailerons) and under-controlling others (elevator, rudder, ailerons). It all depends on the wind, your speed and what the airplane needs. Learning to anticipate these needs and figuring out just the right amount of control input is the key. It’s been said that the important speeds in a Cub are as follows: takeoff-60mph, climb-60 mph, land-60 mph. That’s not factually correct (it will do all of them much slower) but it demonstrates that nothing happens real fast in a Cub. Speed is not an important factor though at this stage of the cadet’s training. Learning control coordination, basic aerodynamics, rudimentary emergency procedures, coping with different wind and weather conditions and most importantly, gaining spatial orientation (where am I horizontally AND vertically?) is the goal and the little Cub teaches these lessons better than any airplane that came before or, some say, after it.

Somewhere around six to eight hours of training, the on-track cadet takes the Cub into the air without the instructor! The performance of the airplane is noticeably better and all of a sudden you can see much better because that human body that has blocked the view is GONE! Takeoff distance is reduced and in fact, the takeoff is now a matter of going to full power, raising the tail and lifting off. It happens about as fast as you can read that sentence! Landings are no longer the swerving, over-controlling, getting yelled at (instructor survival shriek and volume required to overcome other noises – no intercom) experience of before. Even with a crosswind, the landings are now becoming a much more controlled event. You’re a long way from perfect but you’ve learned the basics. NOW, you really begin to feel and experience the joy of flight and the Cub. It’s a great airplane that deserves the world-wide reputation that it’s earned. Basic navigation (compass and map) and further refinement of skills learned follows. Just about the time you’re beginning to get a little bit comfortable in the Cub, it’s time to move up. In reality, some cadets just couldn’t figure all of this out within the hours allocated and went on to serve their country in other roles. The program was and is unforgiving. For those that did complete the first step in this program (and I am fortunate to be in that group) the Cub is behind you and the “Washing Machine” PT-17 Stearman waits. See you next month.

Part 2
MAKING A WWII PILOT (THE STEARMAN)

Well, I’ve begun the long road to the P-51 checkout! The plan is, just like a WWII aviation cadet, to move me from the Cub, to the Stearman, to the BT-13, to the T-6 and finally to the Mustang. Just like the aviation cadets of WWII, the Cub is behind me and the next step up is the PT-17 Stearman. It’s a big jump up (literally) both in size and horsepower (65 versus 220). In my experience during U.S. Air Force pilot training during the early 70’s, the move up from the very basic trainer (T-41 which was basically a Cessna 172 with a Cessna 182 engine) to the T-37 (another Cessna but this one with twin jets) was a huge step up. The exact same thing was experienced by the WWII cadets when they crossed the road from the Cub to the Stearman. While it isn’t very much faster than the Cub, the Stearman is MUCH more demanding. So, let’s take a look at the Stearman and what it’s like to fly it.

First, walking around the Stearman, it seems bigger than you think it should be. Looking at the struts, gear, cables and fittings, its military heritage is evident. The airplane is built like a tank! It sits high, on a narrow gear and the ramifications of that are going to be more evident once the Continental, 7 cylinder, 220 hp radial begins to move it. Pre-flight is normal except the oil dipstick is measured in gallons, not quarts! Pilot’s seat is the rear one and getting into it is actually easier than I thought it would be for an old man. The cockpit is huge and the seat is adjustable as are the rudder pedals but Pat H. flew it last and they seemed about perfect for me so I left them alone. Start up was completely standard and 51WM came to life on about the third blade. The tailwheel steering is very direct and positive and the brakes are good but you stay off of them for the most part. Oh, you can’t see squat over the nose so S turns are the norm. Did I say you can’t see squat over the nose? And by the way, you can’t see squat over the nose! Once at the runway end, run-up is completely normal and the checklist flow method is used to make certain all pre-takeoff checks are complete. Roll forward just a bit to make certain the tailwheel is straight and then smoothly add power to begin the takeoff run. Oh, and you can’t see squat over the nose so you use your peripheral vision to match up items on the horizon (trees, clouds, runway edges, etc.) with the various upper wing structural supports so you can see ANY lateral movement and immediately correct. You need to keep your head upright and not be looking over the side because the tendency will be to turn in that direction. The controls are fairly light and the tail comes right up once speed (?) builds a little. Positive right rudder is required as the tail is making that transition. NOW, you can see over the nose! This is one of those airplanes that you could just throw away everything in the cockpit. It talks to you and with just some gentle nudging, it flies when it’s ready and it happens sooner than you think even on a hot day with two big guys onboard. Climb out is leisurely but incredibly enjoyable. The airplane, I think, enjoys flying as much as we do. Stalls, in every configuration (power on, power off, turning, etc.) are “rock the baby” gentle and easily recoverable by just reducing AOA (angle of attack) slightly. Steep turns are fun and easily coordinated. I didn’t quite hold my altitude but frankly, I was enjoying the airplane and looking outside so much that I just didn’t discipline myself enough to exactly hold that altitude.

Back in the pattern, the landing approach is nicely settled and the airplane just sort of gets into and stays in a groove. The gear is long and I’m still trying to find out exactly where it is. One other thing I have to work on is not “stirring the stick” in the flare. The controls are light all the way to touchdown so small corrections need small stick movements. I’ll get it. Perfect runway alignment is required so wheel landings (you can see over the nose) are most comfortable. Once on the ground, you hold the tail up until you begin to lose elevator effectiveness then, you positively lower it and oh, at this point, you can’t see squat over the nose. Back to struts, peripheral vision and LOTS of rudder dancing that doesn’t stop until the airplane does.

At this point, I want to mention the instructor pilots (IPs) that trained fledging pilots in these planes during WWII and the brave guys and girls that still do. I was incredibly lucky to have some great IPs during my stint in the military and the same holds true today. Pat Derrick has flown as my instructor in both the PT-17 Stearman and the BT-13 Vultee Vibrator. He has been incredibly patient and professional yet demanding. This is EXACTLY what you want when going through a program like this. I can never find the words to thank both Pat Derrick and Pat Hartness for this opportunity.

I started flying the Stearman in early July. Pat D. and I practiced takeoffs, landings, stalls, steep turns and everything else important for several weeks. Then, on August 11, 2015, Pat decided it was time to cut me loose! It was blistering hot when, after showing him three acceptable landings, he got out of the airplane and said “Don’t hurt yourself or my baby”. With Pat D. standing by the side of the Triple Tree runway, I taxied out for my first solo in the PT-17. I can tell you that even after 11,000 hours of flying; these first solo events still make your palms sweat. Just imagine the 19 year old during WWII whose flying experience was probably less than 30 hours! The flight was a non-event for me (a sure mark of great instruction). It was an incredible experience and the sense of accomplishment was sweet. Just like in WWII training, more hours followed to gain more experience but before long, it was time to move up again. The Stearman was certainly more demanding than the Cub. It would try to ground loop if you got sloppy but the next airplane, the BT-13 Vultee Vibrator is bigger, heavier, more powerful and more demanding. Things are going to get tougher for sure!

PART THREE

Ok, for the moment, the Stearman has been relegated to the back of the incredible Triple Tree hangar and the burly BT has moved up to challenge my mind, eyes, hands and brain. My intent, when I started this aeronautical journey, was to try to live this experience through the eyes of the eighteen year old aviation cadet in the early 1940’s. Interestingly, I’ve found that emotionally, physically and mentally the experience is very much what I personally experienced as a member of USAF class 74-07 at Moody, AFB, Georgia which started in June of 1973. For me, joining that class was a mixture of excitement (going to fly some really neat airplanes), anxiousness (can I cut it?) and a little anxiety. For me, I was fortunate in that “my” war had wound down. For the cadets in the early 1940’s, there was no end in sight. I want to stop here for a minute and just say that both in my USAF experience and in my Triple Tree experience, I have been blessed with talented instructors that really know how to get the best from you. Lt. Dennis Daley expertly taught me the fine art of flying a Northrop T-38 with its high landing speeds and tricky no-flap landings. Pat Derrick has done an equally great job of teaching me the important “got to knows” of the Stearman and the Vibrator. Thanks Pat!

So, an excited 64 year “aviation cadet” has made it through the Stearman “washing machine.” I call it that because in the forties, just like in the 70’s, about thirty percent of your buddies that started pilot training did not advance past the primary training aircraft. For whatever reason, lack of ability, couldn’t mentally stay ahead of the airplane, airsickness, whatever the reason, one day they were there, the next day they were gone. It was a real feeling of accomplishment to be a “survivor” in the primary stage but you realize this journey can end quickly. The program waits for no one. Pat Derrick and Pat Hartness are very patient but there is a finite limit on the expense of their time and money getting me checked out. I either advance in an orderly, safe manner or it’s back to mowing for me! Both pilot training experiences required dedication, work and a desire to do the very best you can. It’s a seemingly endless cycle of study, sleep, fly…….repeat.

On to the BT-13. Obviously, this is a different animal than the Stearman. Where the Stearman stands on its gear like a ballerina on pirouette, the BT-13 hunkers down like an all-american linebacker. The non- retractable fixed gear is wide and built hell-for-stout! Big oleos in each landing gear promise the possibility of consistently smooth touchdowns. You can’t help but notice as you walk around the airplane that unlike the fabric covered Stearman, this brute is all metal with the exception of the control surfaces and flaps. It has a sliding canopy that will hopefully lessen some of the noise a little and keep the wind from buffeting the top of your head. The engine attached to the front end, compared to the PT-17, is a Pratt and Whitney R985 that has two more cylinders (9 versus 7) and double the horsepower. You make a mental note that you’re probably going to have to pay attention during large power applications. Unlike the PT-17’s fixed pitch propeller, the BT-13 has a controllable pitch propeller. Next, you have flaps…not electric, computer-controlled flaps; nope these flaps are operated by you, the pilot, through a big old coffee-grinder type handle that is simply a gearbox driving a shaft that drives more shafts that ultimately drive worm gears that extend or retract the flaps. Lots more stuff to manage for sure. So, you check the oil (gallons again), sump the fuel drains (on your back under the wings) and pull the engine through to make absolutely certain that none of the cylinders are hydro locked with oil that seeped past the rings. Then, it’s time to climb up to the FRONT seat! That’s right, the pilot of the BT-13 sits up front like a real fighter pilot! As you step over the side of the canopy rail and slide into your seat, you can’t help but notice a myriad of dials, switches, levers, lights, instruments and gages. Strap in is military standard and after a quick brake check, it’s time to start this monster. I am convinced that the origination of the term “complex airplane” had absolutely nothing to do with props and retractable landing gear. I think the term originated with the BT-13 start procedure. The mother of all multitasking exercises begins on the right side and moves to left side of the cockpit. Check in order the following, avionics master – off (right side) then generator – off, master -on, check fuel low pressure light working (top center of panel), throttle – cracked, mixture – full rich, prop- set, mags -both (all of these items are on the left side) then, and this is where the “complex” fun starts, you begin to “wobble” the hand-operated fuel pump to build required fuel pressure and to fill the primer. That’s right, you now get to wobble non-stop with your left hand while you’re priming (5 strokes of an industrial sized primer) with your right! Ok, got the primer locked and now, while you’re still wobbling, reach down on the lower right panel and move the starter switch to start. Wobble. Wobble some more. Hopefully the engine comes to life within a few blades. If not, you get to wobble and prime until it does. Once it comes alive, check for oil pressure, wait for the oil temp to show a rise and check yourself into physical therapy!

Taxiing this beast is just a real pleasure. Like a linebacker, the wide stance gives it great stability. It steers easily and the tail wheel unlocks with full rudder and just a bump of the brake. It’s a joy on the ground. Like the PT-17, visibility over the nose is zero but you’ve adjusted to this by now and using s-turns and your peripheral vision gets you safely to the end of the runway. Run-up checks are standard but you now have flaps to set and a propeller check to do that wasn’t required in the PT-17. Line up on the runway, unleash 450 horsepower and you are delighted to see that this girl is a really nice dancing partner. The tail comes up surprisingly quick and once up, your front seat gives spectacular visibility. Acceleration is nice and before you know it, you’re airborne and climbing out at 100 indicated. A power reduction followed by a prop rpm adjustment followed by flap retraction follows soon after takeoff. Takeoff flaps are about 20 degrees which requires ten turns to retract. You don’t get bored flying the Vultee Vibrator.

So, it’s out to the practice area for steep turns, stalls, etc.. The controls are delightfully light and well harmonized. Rudder coordination is easier in the BT-13 than the Stearman. After some time to just get the feel for the airplane it’s time for stalls. Uh, stalls in this airplane are best described using the term my mom used to use to describe the eccentric old man in our neighborhood that kept pigeons in his house…..”different”. You can throw out all of the common airplane stall descriptors (controls get “mushy”, stall preceded by prolonged, noticeable buffet, nose drop at stall) when trying to explain the Vibrator stall. Something along the lines of “cheap, third-hand, pawn shop scaffolding failure” seems more appropriate. You don’t see it coming, it happens suddenly, it’s completely unpredictable which way it’s going to go and you’re along for the ride! Like the fighters you’re going to fly later, this lady requires real respect for the proper speeds. You don’t want to get the BT slow on final! The Air Corp knew exactly what they were doing when they progressively designed these traits into the trainers. Lesson taught here will save lives down the road.

The return to the pattern is uneventful and totally enjoyable. You land and takeoff with the canopy open so it feels great to feel the fresh air without the PT-17 buffeting. Everything in the pattern is done at 100 knots and the airplane just feels “right” and on rails. Once again, on downwind, you have to make sure the carb heat is on and you complete the ten turns of the flap “grinder” to get approach flaps. On final, prop goes full forward and the flaps come down another ten degrees (five turns). Now, it’s just an exercise in holding exactly 100 knots and driving it down the visual glideslope. Once in ground effect, the airplane actually seems to help you with the round out and there’s no tendency to balloon. Just hold it there and it will touchdown easily, gracefully and straight. It’s the same after the tailwheel comes down. Its not darty or squirrelly…..it just does its thing nicely and makes even the fledgling pilot look good.

After my experience, just like the cadet in the forties and the new 2nd lieutenant in the 70’s , I couldn’t help but think….By George, I just might make it!

PART FOUR
ON TO THE T-6 TEXAN

Well, just like my experience in U.S. Air Force pilot training in the 70’s, there’s no rest for the weary. I remember very well moving from the T-37 to the T-38 and how it felt to cross that threshold. Actually, it really was a threshold; ok, it was three concrete steps between buildings but for me, at the time, it was a giant step. It was moving from a very friendly, easy to operate, relatively simple (system wise) airplane to a much higher performing, more complex and less forgiving airplane. THIS (the T-38) was the airplane that would separate the men from the boys and determine first if we could complete the program and second, if we were going to eventually be classed as fighter/IP candidates or go to the heavies. I still remember experiencing a little bit of apprehension and a whole bunch of excitement.
Now, at age 64, I am experiencing the exact same emotions. The BT13 is just a little more complex than the Stearman and not really that much faster. It did give the new cadets (and me) their first experience with a heavier tail wheel airplane and added some new complexity via an adjustable pitch propeller and crank operated flaps. The stall characteristics were also a little more challenging but all in all, it was and is a pretty darn friendly airplane that will only bite you if you get sloppy. Given some time, I’m certain you can get pretty comfortable in the “Vibrator”. The Triple Tree fighter training program though, like my experience in the 70’s, doesn’t recognize the word “comfortable.” It’s been deemed by my master instructor, Pat Derrick, that it’s time for me to leave the Vibrator, cross that threshold, and head for the T-6 Texan.
The Texan, like the P-51, is the product of the genius that was North American Aviation. It was perfectly designed to be the airplane that proved, one way or another, if you, as a young cadet or an old ex-military aviator, have what it takes to fly the WWII fighters. If the BT13 and the T-6 were brothers, the BT13 would be the younger gentler one and the T-6 would be the older, more experienced and scrappier of the two. The airplane itself is larger, heavier, more complex and more challenging to fly well. It raises the pilot skill ante another notch. So, what’s different between them? They look similar don’t they? First, the T-6 is physically larger. It weighs more, actually about a ton more! The Texan has 600 horsepower versus the Vibrator’s 450. There’s more systems to manage as the T-6 adds a real hydraulic system and a fully retractable landing gear (almost – the tail wheel does not retract). Added to the T-6 complexity, is the fact that there’s just nothing automatic about the systems. You’ll still find the wobble pump to build fuel pressure for starting, non-electric trim and a hydraulic system (flaps and landing gear) that requires physical activation of the system for every cycle. So, just to be clear, to raise or lower either the flaps or gear requires that you hit the “power push” control before activating the desired gear or flap function. This “power push” control essentially “turns on” the hydraulic pressure through a timer that always seems to “time out” before you want it to. They look similar but they are actually two VERY different airplanes.
So, let’s go fly the beast. Preflight is pretty standard for a radial engine airplane. Be sure to check the mags off before pulling the prop through to ensure no oil is trapped in the lower cylinders. As you walk around checking all the normal stuff, you can’t help but notice that this airplane is a brute. Everything about it is military industrial strength. As you climb up on the wing to check the oil (all ten gallons of it) you can’t help but notice the gun barrel protruding from the top cowling! This summo wrestler of an airplane is definitely going to transition you out of the trainers and into the frontline combat airplanes! Everything about it just says “I mean business!”
Startup is normal and pretty much what you were used to in the BT-13. By now, you’re used to the limited visibility over the nose when taxing so s turns come naturally. The brakes are very effective and the tail wheel steering is positive. One note, if the stick is held anywhere other than forward, the tail wheel steering is engaged but neutralize the rudder pedals and push the stick all the way forward and the tail wheel steering unlocks. Be sure you’re going SLOW and straight when you do this or you may just get a 360 degree view of the airport! Run-up is standard with the exception of checking the hydraulic system operation by pushing that “power push” lever and checking that the hydraulic pressure gauge shows 800-1000 psi. Be sure to check trims are at the 10 and 2 o’clock positions (elevator and rudder) and check that you have the fuel selector in the “reserve” position. Just like the BT and the Stearman, you lineup and make certain you’re straight and the tail wheel steering is engaged. With 600 horses available, you don’t just push the throttle full forward to begin the takeoff roll. You slowly add power up to the 35 inches takeoff limit while feeding in the required right rudder. You keep the tail firmly planted during the initial part of the takeoff roll as the rudder isn’t that effective and the engine/prop is producing ever increasing amounts of torque. The manual says you should take five seconds to go from idle to takeoff power. It’s a NOISY, exciting and exhilarating experience to feel the Texan come into its environment. Acceleration is positive and for me, the airplane seems to track better than either of the two previous trainers once the rudder becomes effective. The tail comes up shortly after reaching full power and then within seconds, you’re airborne. Now, for the fun part. Remember that “power push” lever? Well, now you’ve got your hands full of raging Texan, a hundred feet in the air, useful runway behind you and it’s time to raise the gear. You have a fuel wobble pump lever, an emergency hydraulic pump lever, a flap control lever, a gear control lever and somewhere in all of this, there is also the required “power push” lever. Remember, nothing hydraulic happens in this airplane until you push that lever. You finally locate the power push and depress it and then you move your hand forward to this 2 foot long, industrial strength landing gear lever and move it out of a solid steel “down” detent (literally) and pull it up into the solid steel “up” detent. About this time, Mark Murphy, the world’s most patient instructor, is reminding you that you really should be reducing power to the climb setting so your attention is diverted to comply with his reasonable request. Whew, now you’re finally climbing our but you notice that the airplane sure isn’t climbing like you think it should. You check for proper power and prop settings and then, you notice that the sliding gear indicators show the gear is only partially retracted! Another push on the power push lever resets the timer and activates the hydraulic system and the gear smoothly finishes its retraction cycle. It seems that my search time for the correct lever exceeded the hydraulic timer’s patience.

Ok, after finally getting the airplane cleaned up and properly climbing, you and your instructor arrive in the practice area. You have been briefed that the first order of business is going to be steep turns, slow flight and stalls. I have been fortunate to fly a couple of T-6s and found that the steep turns and slow flight were similar in both but the stalls were quite different. The first, a beautifully restored airshow airplane, would abruptly stall without much warning during one g stalls but would absolutely instantly stall and snap roll to inverted when performing an accelerated stall. Unusual attitude recoveries were the norm with the airshow airplane. The other T-6, a seasoned, stock airplane was much gentler in every maneuver. I think it must have something to do with the altitude” of the airshow airplane! Since I can’t tell what “attitude” any T-6 may be dealing with on a given day, I make myself a mental note to NEVER try to “pull” a T-6 through the turn from base to final.

Once done in the practice area, we head for a local ex-military base airport to practice landings. For the first time in many years, I request an overhead pattern with a left break. Once on downwind, the fun begins. The first step is to get the gear down so, it’s “power push” – depressed (to get access to hydraulic pressure), gear lever to the down position. Check the sliding indicators inside the airplane and the visible gear pin indicators outside the airplane. Our airplane also has green lights which we check. Next comes half flaps. You move another industrial; strength lever to the down position but you overshoot the desired 20 degrees of flaps. It then comes back to you that there is no flap pre-select. You have to move the flaps to the down position and then stop them at the desired setting by moving the same lever back to the “lock” position. So you move the lever back to the “up” position but nothing happens! What the heck? Oh yeah, that darn timer had run out again so a quick power push depress and things hydraulic move again. You learn, after a while, to just automatically hit the power push any time you want something to move. Ok, you’ve finally got the flaps at 20 and the gear down with power set at around 20” of manifold pressure and the airplane settles into about 110 IAS. At the base turn point, you reduce power to around 15-16 Inches and begin a descending turn and shoot for 100 IAS. The airplane does fly like its on rails. Full flaps (remember the power push} come on base followed by one more quick GUMP check(Gas -on correct tank, Undercarriage- down, Mixture-full rich and finally Prop-full forward) and you’re slowing to 90 IAS on final. Hold 90 over the fence and round out just above the runway. A steady power reduction to idle slows the airplane just enough that wheels will just slide onto the pavement. Now, it’s time to have “soft but quick” feet and keep the airplane absolutely centered on the runway. DO NOT let the tail get going anywhere but straight. Also, don’t try to “stick the mains” by going forward with the stick or try to keep the tail up by doing the same. When done properly, you land with the stick pretty much neutral and just keep it there until the tail gently lowers itself. Once it’s down though, the stick comes full back to keep it there and to give you tail wheel steering. BY now, the rollout “dance” without much forward visibility is pretty natural so it’s not the impossible task it once seemed. Now, all you have to do is repeat that process a hundred times with varying winds to get your proficiency up to fighter pilot standards!

I like the T-6. It has a robust nature and character. It’s honest but challenging. It teaches you to respect airspeeds and angle of attack. It’s a great airplane and a great teacher. It is also the last step before heading to the mighty P-51.

Part 5
THE MUSTANG

I’ve got to start out by saying there were times during this fabulous, unforgettable Triple Tree WWII training program that I wasn’t sure that the old man of today had what it took to earn the right to fly this beautiful beast. There were times that it was hot, uncomfortable, stressful, challenging and downright hard. Mark Murphy had hammered all of us in the T-6 on everything from takeoffs and landings to accelerated stalls and emergency landings. He, like Pat Derrick in the Stearman and BT-13, was looking…..no expecting, perfection. Once soloed in the T-6, things didn’t let up either. It was their ever increasing demand for perfection that brought us (there was a group of five of us going through this training) to do our very best in the T-6. Then, just about the time you thought you had it a little bit figured out, Mark said it was time to move up. This was it, a real Mustang instructor just told me it was time to move up. There’s only one more move up and it’s to the Mustang!

How many years had I dreamed, only dreamed, of even just getting a ride in a P-51? How many hours had I “wasted” in school drawing pictures of Mustangs? How many turns around a vacant parking lot with a Cox plastic .049 powered Mustang at the end of two strings had I done? How many books about these heroic, iconic machines and the men that flew them had I enjoyed? How many times have I watched YouTube videos just to hear that wonderful almost turbine sound that a Rolls-Royce Merlin makes at full song? There is a one word answer to all of these questions………countless. I have found that many times, dreams are meant to be just that, dreams. As we age, we realize that some dreams, even the ones we want most to come true, probably aren’t going to happen. My Mustang dreams fell into that category years ago. But here I am, in December of 2015, and Mark Murphy is standing in front of the Triple Tree Mustang saying to me, Rob, tomorrow we’re going to start you in the Mustang. This program isn’t going to get easier. In fact, it’s going to get much harder. So, go home, get a good night’s sleep and be ready to hit it in the morning.” And with that, I began to realize the dreams of that little boy, the one drawing pictures, flying models and reading books was going to come true. Tomorrow, I was going to not only fly in a Mustang, I was going to begin the journey that would hopefully lead to becoming a fully qualified Mustang pilot.

A wise old pilot once told me “If it looks good, it’ll fly good”. If there has ever been an airplane that epitomizes that saying, it’s the North American P-51. The airplane just exudes beauty, grace, speed, power and yes lethality. Its beauty, performance and killing power were the result of brilliant aerodynamics and an engine that even by today’s standards, is still a work of mechanical art. The airplane is one of those once in a lifetime mixtures of genius and metal where everything just comes out perfect. It’s an airplane that in 2016 can make an F-18 pilot leave BOTH his state-of-the-art, supersonic fighter AND his very attractive girlfriend alone on the ramp when offered a ride. I know, I saw it happen and she (the girlfriend) wasn’t real happy. All I can say is she better get used to it if a relationship with a fighter pilot is in the future!

We started the program with ground school and there were lots of systems to learn before flying. The Mustang was light years ahead of the other planes of its day. All of the wobble pumping, hydraulic timing power switches and other manual tasks are pretty much gone in the Mustang. In its place comes a lower pilot systems workload but more complexity and a greater need to fully understand what’s going on. This is a FAST airplane with a top speed of 505 mph! You can’t get behind it, so understanding how it works and what to do if it isn’t working properly is critical. Mark kept us in school for many hours and drawing pictures of Mustangs while he was instructing was not acceptable!

The promised day arrived and Mark and I strapped in. I went through the prestart checklist that I had spent hours practicing in the hangar and made a few mistakes but the time came when it was time to start the Merlin. I could never adequately describe the feeling you get when you, yes YOU, hit the starter switch and you see that 14 foot diameter prop start to rotate. You count six blades then turn on both magnetos which supply electrical spark to the cylinders. You’re waiting. It’s still slowly turning…..turning…turning and then, a “chug”. Tickle the primer just a bit and here it comes; the most glorious sound ever devised by man….a Merlin sorting out all 12 cylinders and getting them in unison! I have to tell you also that the smell of the slightly, lightly burned avgas that has been Merlin processed is just incredible. The whole thing just sort of overloads your senses.

After a rather lengthy warm-up (it takes a while to get gallons of oil warm) you begin to taxi. The 51 steers really nice on the ground and after flying the Stearman, BT-13 and T-6, the fact that you can’t see anything over the nose really doesn’t bother you but you definitely want to keep S-turning to make absolutely certain nothing is front of you! Once at the end of the runway, you actually park nearly ninety degrees to the runway heading. As Mark told me, “Let everyone know you are a Mustang and you OWN the runway!” The real reason you park this way is so that you can make one last visual check down the runway once the run-up is complete and you are ready for takeoff. There are all of the normal pre-takeoff checks to do including the engine run-up, mag check, prop check and coolant temp checks. Coolant management in the Mustang is critical and it is closely monitored. Among the other really essential checks is that you make certain there is 6 degrees of right rudder trim dialed in. When you unleash the Merlin and that huge prop, your right leg is going to need the help!

So, my Mustang airborne flying lessons began just like all other airplanes with the first takeoff. This is always a thrilling moment but in the Mustang, it’s much, much more. The “more” is the noise! I can’t explain it but I’ve talked to the others and we all experienced the same thing. The airplane is LOUD at takeoff power. It just seems that hell is being unleashed as the throttle goes up. It is though, a very enjoyable hell! The amazing thing is you only really notice this on your first takeoff. After that, it’s like your brain just removes the sound track from the takeoff movie. To this day, I just don’t notice the sound very much but on that first takeoff, it made quite an impression.

You don’t just slam the throttle forward on a Mustang during takeoff. It’s a rather gradual affair. You make absolutely certain the stick is back (tailwheel locked) and that you are correctly aligned down the center of the runway. Then, you ease the throttle up to 30 inches of manifold pressure…..wait, make certain you’re going straight…..start exercising your right leg a bit and then go to 35 inches of manifold pressure. Same routine….going straight, more right leg and push it up to 40 inches. About this time, you ease forward on the stick and the tail will fly up nicely. This step-up power routine goes on until you hit 50 inches and you are now a freight train screaming down the Triple Tree runway at better than 100 mph. At about 110 mph, the 51 gets light on its feet and shortly thereafter you are positively airborne. Once a positive rate of climb is established, the gear lever is moved up and you can feel and hear it tuck up and lock. Acceleration is still building and once above about 500 feet above ground, it’s time to pull the power back to about 40 inches of manifold pressure and slow the prop back to 2500 rpm. Just a note; at takeoff power, the P-51 burns over 100 gallons an hour! No dang wonder there’s a bunch of noise!

The 51 quickly and very positively accelerates to your climb speed of 170. The airplane has a very jet-like feel to it. It’s light on the controls but not overly sensitive. It’s one of those planes that just seem to become one with the pilot. You are monitoring the engine instruments carefully (especially the coolant temp) but you definitely cannot keep your head in the cockpit. You’re moving fast, even in the climb, and the nose is up to keep the proper climb speed so you have to keep your eyes outside to watch for traffic. Visibility out of the later P-51 canopies is superb. It’s like you are sitting in a fishbowl! The WWII P-51 pilots used this to great advantage.

Very quickly, you arrive at 8,500 feet and set the Mustang up for “economy” cruise which equates to 32 inches of manifold pressure and 2350 rpm. The airplane will quickly accelerate to 220-230 mph and settle in nicely. You’re burning around 65 gallons an hour at this setting so with 92 gallons in each wing, you can plan on two hours of playtime plus reserves. During the war, the P-51s had an internal fuselage tank plus droppable wing tanks so they had significantly greater duration. Ok, it’s time to do some stalls. The power comes back to slow down and we start by doing a “clean” (no flaps or gear) straight ahead stall. You raise the nose to maintain altitude as the airplane slows down. After some of the wild rides that the T-6 showed you, you’re a little anxious……slower……slower… going below 100…slower then just some buffet and a gentle nose bob. What? That’s it? Seems that this Mustang is a pretty nice horse. It’s the same thing fully configured only you are even slower when the Mustang wing gives up flying. It may roll just a little one way or the other but it certainly isn’t violent and a little rudder and some power and you’re flying again. Accelerated stalls are more aggressive but you’ve come to expect that. One amazing demonstration Mark had us do is to fully configure the airplane, slow it to the buffet and then just fly it around in the buffet. We did turns left and right while in pretty heavy buffet and the airplane behaved perfectly. The Northrop T-38 was very similar in this regime in that it would “talk to you” with buffet and clearly let you know when you were approaching the aerodynamic limit. Remember the old “If it looks good, it’ll fly good?” I think the P-51 and the T-38 are two of the most beautiful airplanes ever.

Unusual attitudes gave me fits in the Mustang. The airplane is so clean and builds speed so fast that if you are upside down, in a dive, you MUST roll the shortest direction to FULLY upright before pulling. I would begin to pull before the roll was complete and the resulting “dish out” would lose too much altitude and build too much speed. Mark rightfully hammered me on this.

Basic aerobatics are beautifully done by this airplane but, I have to admit, at 65 years of age, I just don’t enjoy the 3-5 Gs required. I don’t remember even higher Gs bothering me at all when I was 21 years old and I don’t think I’ve changed at all so it must be that Mustang Gs are different!

Ok, enough of the practice area work, it’s on to Donaldson Airport and pattern and landing work. The pattern entry in a Mustang is either from a standard downwind or from an overhead initial where you fly down the runway, at pattern altitude and the break left or right (as instructed) to a downwind. In my military experience, we ALWAYS entered from an overhead so, to this day, it just feels comfortable to me. You keep the speed up (cruise speed) all the way to the break and then use reduced power and 20 degrees of flaps plus a 2 G pull to slow this horse down. While in the break, you’re also ensuring the coolant door is properly positioned so that the engine will have sufficient cooling once on the ground. You’re busy! Ok, so you roll out on downwind, check your speed and, once below 170, place the gear down and confirm three green lights. By now, you’ve slowed to 150 and you are at “the perch” (roughly abeam the touchdown point). Full flaps go down and you check that the power is at 25 inches and the prop at 2500 rpm. You should’ve already rolled that 6 degrees of right rudder trim back in so double check it now. The halfway point around the final turn comes fast and the airplane has slowed to 140 with the full flaps and a constant descent rate. At this point, if properly trimmed, you can let go of all controls and the airplane will just fly itself around the turn. It truly flies like its on rails. Rollout on final and make certain you aren’t getting low and then, slowly begin to reduce the power. One more check of the gear and you are over the numbers. Now, fly it down to inches above the runway (you’ll be at about 100) and just let the wheels touch the pavement. Then, and this is my absolute favorite Mustang experience, you reduce the power to idle and that big, beautiful Merlin “chuckles” at you. It’s kind of a crackling, popping noise that is just wonderful to hear. Now, keep the stick right where it was on touchdown and just let the tail fly down gently. Once the tail is down, smoothly ease the stick back to plant the tail and to lock the tailwheel steering. The Mustang tracks much better than the T-6 due to its wider gear but you still have to stay on top of it. It slows well once planted in a three point attitude so almost no brakes are required. For short runways, you can actually move the mixture to full lean and kill the engine. That huge prop has enough energy to keep it turning for some time so just about the time you can see individual blades, you move the mixture back to rich and she’ll crank right back up. The residual thrust reduction will noticeably reduce your ground roll!

Ok, you ask, what about a go-around? Will it immediately flip you over and bring a bad end to your day? It could if you mishandled it by getting really slow, with gear and flaps down, bounce a landing and then jam full power. At that point, the combination of engine torque and propeller gyroscopics could over power the ailerons. It’s happened. The answer is don’t use full power! Remember, the Mustang we fly today is much lighter than the WWII birds that had full armament and steel armor plates. We don’t need anywhere near full power for a go-around so we practice them at 40 inches of manifold pressure and the airplane flies away just about like any other airplane.

We practiced everything we’ve talked about here and much, much more. Hours were spent on emergency procedures including simulated engine-out landings. Mark told me when we started in the Mustang that the course was going to get harder, much harder before it got easier. He’s a man of his word. I can honestly say that I was as well prepared in the Mustang by Mark as I was when flying any Air Force jet.

So, after hours and hours of practice, On December 11, 2015, on a beautiful afternoon, Mark and I flew back to Donaldson. Before we left, he said, “I’m not going to say much today. In fact, I’m going to enjoy the ride.” He was a man of his word and we did a few landings and a go-around at Donaldson and then Mark said the words I never thought I’d hear….”Let’s land and I’m going to get out.”
We taxied to the Donaldson Jet Center and Mark got out, secured everything in the back seat and told me to do three full stop landings and “have a good time.”

With that, I cranked the Merlin and taxied out to runway 23. For the next 40 minutes, I enjoyed an airplane more than ever before. I’ve flown faster airplanes but none with the beauty, power, grace and, most of all, the HISTORY that this airplane has to offer. I wasn’t nervous as Mark had prepared us so well for this day that I was completely confident and comfortable. I must admit though that you do feel a real sense of responsibility when flying this national treasure. After the last landing, I cranked the canopy back and just let all of my senses take me somewhere I hadn’t been in many, many years. The sense of accomplishment, dreams realized, experiencing history firsthand, and much, much, more just kind of washed over me. I felt exactly the same way in 1974 taxiing in a T-38 after my first solo in that airplane. It’s a mixture of relief, pride, gratitude, and accomplishment. I realized then and now that this experience was the result of not just my efforts but the efforts of many.

Mark’s P-51 training, like my USAF training, didn’t pause for long and very soon he and I were back at it hammering away at perfecting takeoffs, stalls, normal, no-flap and simulated engine-out landings. The decision had been made that all five of us were going to go all the way to a FAA checkride so Mark worked us extra hard in prep for that day. I’ve got to tell you that after months of flying all of the WWII airplanes, I was getting tired. Pat Derrick, Tim Brown and Sean Hartness had all completed their checkride earlier so the pressure was on Ryan Miles and myself.

January 10, 2016 dawned partly cloudy but with the wind blowing 10-20 knots. Our FAA check airman (Charlie Tilghman) had arrived the night before so we were ready early the next morning. Here’s an interesting note on Charlie; if you need a B-29 check-ride, he’s authorized to give it! Ryan needed to go first as he had to drive back to Charleston and as expected, he did great! OK, it’s down to me.

The check-ride started with an hour and a half ground evaluation. Charlie asked me about all of the systems and limitations. It was well-done and low key with Charlie giving helpful advice along the way. Next, he briefed me on exactly what he expected to see on the check-ride which consisted of takeoff, climb to the practice area, steep turns, stalls and then a return to the pattern for various configuration landings. Once our briefing was complete. Charlie went ahead of me and strapped into the plane. After a very complete pre-flight check, I climbed in and went through the now familiar Merlin start checks. As we taxied out, the wind was blowing like crazy and varying from straight down the runway to nearly 60 degrees off to the right. Just before takeoff, Charlie said, “Going to make you work for it today!” The check-ride didn’t feel much different than my solo as Charlie didn’t say much at all. The practice area work went well and we returned to the pattern. The normal and no-flap landing went well and then Charlie asked for a full flap landing. As I was just about to touch down, Charlie said, “GO AROUND.” This was it, the last and most important check of my Mustang education. We were in that “dark corner – (minus a bounce). I pushed the power up to 40 inches, and gradually cleaned up the airplane as we climbed straight out. No Sweat!

With that, Charlie asked me for a full stop. Taxiing in, I was once again faced with a real emotional rush as I was pretty sure that I had passed the check-ride. The months of study, flying and mind-flying maneuvers was ending. After a quick debrief and some congratulatory comments from Mark and Charlie, I climbed into my Nissan Versa and drove home with my mind revisiting every minute of the check-ride. That night, a steak and a bottle of red wine was the perfect finish to an incredible journey. Finally, I was a P-51 pilot.

Epiloque

How do you ever thank everyone that made this possible? Pat Derrick provided great instruction in the Stearman and the BT-13. He really introduced me to heavy tailwheel flying since my previous tailwheel experience consisted of Cubs, Champs and Citabrias. When we were flying these airplanes, it was HOT and uncomfortable. Pat D. never complained or lost his patience even though there was nothing in it for him. We flew after his work day ended or during weekends when I’m certain he probably had better things to do. Thanks Pat Derrick!
Thanks also goes to my P-51 training buddies. Ryan Miles, Sean Hartness, Pat Derrick and Tim Brown made the experience truly enjoyable. Shared information and experiences meant we all learned more and faster. You guys will always be part of this great memory.

Next, Mark Murphy; I spent years as a U.S. Air Force instructor and I know first-hand how difficult it is to operate in a noisy, stressful environment with someone else controlling the airplane (sometimes poorly) and not ever lose your patience. Mark has a unique ability to stress you, push you, and drive you towards the needed performance without making you mad. At the end of months of intense training, all of us feel a special friendship with Mark. He’s definitely one of our Triple Tree buddies. Thanks Mark!

Lastly, I’m just at a loss for words of thanks for Pat Hartness. The generosity of this man is just unbelievable. He loves to say that he wants Triple Tree to offer people the time of their life. He literally dedicates his life and resources to sharing his deep love of aviation. I’ll never know exactly why Pat picked me to be on the pilot team for his incredible historic airplane collection but I am forever in his debt for that decision. Thanks Pat for making a little boy’s dream come true. You certainly provided me with the time of my life!

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