Sunday, August 01, 2004

Why I Fly (Chapter 0)

Note: I originally wrote this in the summer of 2004. In November of the previous year, the same company had lost a T-34 due to metal fatigue and the wing breaking off in flight. At the time of my training, the planes had been inspected and upgraded -- or so they thought.

This year for vacation, my family and I went to Houston Texas to visit my in-laws. I know the in-law jokes are coming, so I'll start by saying I like these people. They fed and housed the five of us, entertained the kids at the pool, and more to the point of this article, provided us housing 4.3 miles from David Wayne Hooks Airport.

DWH is not much to look at. It has two parallel runways, one well cared for 7000 by 100, and the other looking as if it has been abandoned with grass growing through the cracking 4000 by 35 asphalt. But this is an active airport, it has four flight schools, and is not far from several military training facilities, thus providing a constant stream of Navy, Army, and Air Force labeled King Airs, a menacing Apache helicopter, and a stray JPATS T-6 Texan II trainer. It is also the home of Texas Air Aces. That’s what caught my attention.

Texas Air Aces (TAA) got its start as an air combat company, giving regular people the chance to fly simulated air combat in Beechcraft T-34 airplanes against real people. They have since added aerobatic, formation, and unusual attitude recovery training.

So I rationalized that if I had to spend time with the wife's family (that I really like) I ought to reward myself with a little flight training. I signed up for the unusual attitude recovery training. This seemed like sound reasoning to me.

TAA started their Advance Maneuvering Program (AMP) after a couple of notable crashes of airliners that resulted in the manufacturer doing extensive redesign of rudder actuators.

The class attempts to familiarize students with the sight picture of various unusual attitudes in hopes of reducing the element of surprise to the pilot, and then trains on the control inputs to return the plane to normal flight.

I showed up at 0800 at their rather unassuming hangar situated well to the south end of the airport. I was met by their enthusiastic staff, escorted to an air-conditioned classroom, and given a cup of coffee. My instructor, Chuck Michaeson, discussed the aerodynamics of upset flight, described recovery techniques, and regaled me his flying conquests as a Navy pilot and then later as a 777 pilot for Continental.

It was agonizing. My mind twisted trying to figure what I wanted more. Do I stay and listen to the years of wisdom, or do I run for the plane and do the yankin' and bankin'? The class was through in its presentation of G-loading, accelerated stalls, inverted flight, techniques for recovery from different attitudes, static stability, run-away trim and the best presentation of Va I had seen.

A little before noon, I was escorted to the dressing room and given a helmet and a "speed bag" or flight suit, and we were soon climbing into the T-34 -- where I was handed an airsickness bag and told to "keep this where you can get to it quickly."

The T-34 is a low wing, tricycle gear, two seat military trainer with an IO-550 engine. I emphasize trainer. The only thing I found difficult about the plane was making the decision to get out. Taxiing is a bit tricky as it has no nose wheel steering, just differential braking and a big rudder.

Departing the airport, we climbed out staying below the Houston Class-B until we were outside of the 30-mile ring.

Upon reaching our maneuvering altitude we started with some simple aileron rolls, focusing on keeping the nose pointed above the horizon as the plane goes wing over wing. It sounds so easy when I write it, but I took several attempts to learn the techniques. Much of which involves "Stepping on the Sky." This is one of the AMP mantras, and it works.

Once capable of rolling the plane while losing minimal altitude, we rolled the plane inverted. And left it there.

As experienced pilots, we know that if you pull on the controls, the houses get smaller, and if you push the houses get bigger. We know this so well that it becomes the natural response to trouble. But just the opposite occurs when the plane is inverted. In an inverted airplane, pulling increases the trouble. In this case the correct action is to push the nose back to the horizon.

Chuck would then have me close my eyes while he inverted the plane, I would then open my eyes, push the nose above the horizon, "step on the sky," and roll the airplane back to normal flight. After several of these recoveries I was capable of recovering the plane to level flight from a 165-degree roll while loosing about 100 feet. We then progressed into vertical upsets. This is where the pitch angle is so great that the horizon is no longer visible out the front window. Pushing forward in this situation may or may not work depending on the bank angle and how far over the pitch has gone. Additionally, pushing forward will create negative G forces causing the contents of the aircraft, including passengers and possibly their most recent meals to float about the cabin. It can also cause the fuel to lift away from the pick-up feeds resulting in the engine dying due to fuel starvation.

The better response is to look out the side windows for the nearest horizon, and step hard on that rudder pedal. That will cause the nose to drop towards the horizon with out generating the negative G’s. Once at the horizon, step on the sky, and rolling wings level returning the plane to normal flight.

We practiced this several times, and discovered in planes with high horsepower engines, P-factor causes the plane to fight the roll to the right horizon, making it better to pick the left rudder in a tie.

Chuck then simulated runaway trim – with the low tech spinning of the trim wheel full aft. When this occurs the plane will pull up abruptly and can stall. If not corrected it can result in a secondary and deeper stall. In this situation, I was taught to roll the plane to the side, entering a controlled high bank turn and most importantly, no stall. While in this turn the airplane continues to fly and the trim condition can be dealt with calmly.

The training went on to demonstrate static stability with fugoids, accelerated stalls where I was taught to unload the wing to regain flight control, minimum controllable airspeed, and spin recovery.

Far too soon we were back at the airport doing a 360 overhead approach with the smoke on, back to the runway. The T-34 was easy to land with just small chirps from the tires (it must have great shock absorbers).

Taxing up the same enthusiastic staff met us with cold drinks and assistance out of the plane.

Much to my surprise, the entire flight had been video taped by three cameras mounted on the plane -- one in the wing (the gun camera), one in the tail (the god view camera) and one on the instrument panel (the hero camera).

The god view was used for the majority of the flight as it shows best the canopy of the plane and the horizon. The hero camera caught the bad case of perma-grin I had caught from the flight.

Chuck and I sat down at the VCR and reviewed the flight, discussing what went well, and how to correct the things that did not. I was sent home with my video and told to return the next day at 0800.

Day two started with by meeting a new instructor, and review of what I had learned on day one and then back to the plane where we did most of the previous days flying again -- by instrument reference.

Again the flight was recorded and there was a post–flight review. While I maintained the perma-grin. How much did all this cost? $1,875.00 And more important was it worth it? I hope not. You see, this training is only useful if something goes horribly wrong. And I don’t want to face that.

Playing into the value assessment, I may be victim of the "Volvo Syndrome." Growing up, my family owned many Volvos and I learned you will rarely catch a Volvo owner bad-mouthing their cars -- for to do so would be to admit they paid an very high price for what appears to be "just a car." You find this same phenomenon with Bonanza owners.

So for my money, I got "just" two days of flying and a couple of video tapes and a certificate suitable for framing. But I’ll take my new knowledge and big grin and call it even.

Epilog: a couple months later in December, Texas Air Aces lost the second of their T-34s.  This second one for a technically different reason, but in a similarly spectacular fashion.  This crash killed their founder, shortly after Texas Air Aces halted operation.  This was the third T-34 to fail in a short time frame and resulted in much hand wringing with NTSB and the T-34 community.