“Welcome to Able Dog Five. My name is Mike Hendrix, and I’ll be your co-pilot this afternoon.We hope you’ll enjoy your flight…..”
A phrase guaranteed to strike terror into the hearts of any passengers with an ounce of sense left, and yet strangely, no one asked for permission to disembark.
Yep, I got to play flyboy for a day on Friday and even got some stick time in, which is remarkable considering the amount of time I’ve spent actually taking control of an aircraft and making it wallow like a drunken pig across a few square miles of sky. Which is none whatsoever. Perhaps a powerful and fairly squirrely plane like the Douglas Skyraider ain’t the best of places to begin educating oneself, but I must say it wasn’t bad at all. In fact, it was pretty damned good.
First off, here’s a good pic I found of a Skyraider-on-a-stick:
This is the variant we flew Friday, with seating inside for six. Five of us went up: myself, the pilot (known to me only as Doc), the BP’s drummer and Reggie’s cousin (and mine) Mark, one of Reg’s other relatives, and another fella I didn’t know at all. Now, some general background on the aircraft.
The Douglas Skyraider came along at the dawn of the jet age in 1945 and should have been obsolete even before it was built. But they turned out to be damned useful, and were flown extensively in Korea and Vietnam as everything from ground-attack aircraft to dive-bombers to target-pullers until being replaced by the A6 Intruder in 1968 (the A6 is the plane Reg made his bones in in the first Gulf War before moving on to the Super Hornet, which ties all this legacy stuff together pretty nicely, I think). The Skyraiders sported the Wright R-3350 “Cyclone” engine, which produces almost 3000 horsepower and was first used in the B-29. The Skyraider was capable of just over 400 knots max, and could deliver 8000 pounds of ordnance on-time, on-target, in any weather. Yeah, useful — quite.
We arrived at the Hickory airport, site of the Warbirds over Hickory show put together by Reg for the last several years, around 4 PM and were whisked off to the hanger and offered a beer before going up by the Carolina Saber Society. We were introduced to the owner and pilot of the Skyraider, who promptly asked for a copilot and qualified it by saying “who’s got the best eyes here?” I told him that would be me, since Mark has worn glasses or contacts since we were kids, and I told Doc that if Mark attempted to deny that, he should refuse to believe a word of it for the good of us all. So I got the front seat. The grin had already started to spread across my ugly mug as we did the walkaround, and it wasn’t going to be going away anytime soon.
Doc very carefully pointed out the hand-painted red line on the main gear on my side of the aircraft, telling me that I’d need to check on its position once we were in flight and again before landing; it was a seat-of-the-pants backup indicator that would tell us if the gear was positioned properly and locked in place. He showed me how the noise-cancelling headset worked and then it was time to saddle up.
Climbing into the aircraft was a real trick; a lot of oil gets burped down the side of the aircraft by the big radial engine, and my HD engineer boots don’t do all that well traction-wise when marinated in 50-weight. We all managed to make it into the cockpit without falling off the wing and strapped in. I handed over the logbook for the preflight check, and Doc fired her up. I can never resist big loud noises of almost any kind, so naturally I had to remove my headset several times during the flight so as to soak in the sound of those eighteen cylinders pounding away at full volume. I needn’t have bothered, really; you could hardly miss it even if you tried.
We taxied around to Runway 24 and revved up for takeoff. A year ago I posted this pilot’s description of a Skyraider takeoff:
I was strapped in the maw of a hurricane. As the throttle went forward, the gigantic prop, which at idle had been a racheting circle of nearly-visible blades, vanished. My legs were spread wide, my heels off the floor as my toes strained to keep the brake pedals nailed to the stop. Angry air beat it’s way down the fuselage, hammering at the tail surfaces while my right arm tensed to keep the stick sucked into my lap. The throttle kept moving. 20 inches of manifold pressure. 30 inches. The noise built until thinking took a concentrated effort.
I visually fixated on the runway centerline so visible over the hulking nose. At least, I was thinking, Skyraiders have great visibility. Brakes off, throttle to 45 inches. It could go as high as 58 inches. The horse power doubled. 2,000 horses plus and, as the brakes came off, the airplane stopped fighting me. It lunged ahead. We were perched on an invisible torrent of horsepower converted to thrust through the miracle of aerodynamics.
There was a pesky little ten knot crosswind at nearly ninety degrees. I thought this big honker would ignore it. I was wrong. The nose headed into it. A little rudder. Then a little more. Time to bring the tail up. I eased the stick forward and watched the nose move down. Although I’d expected to feel the hard rubber deck tire behind us leave the runway, I didn’t. That feeling was lost in the cacophony of noise and vibration that surrounded me.
In seconds the gear was skipping on the runway. It was ready to fly. I tightened up on the stick the tiniest amount and the airplane gracefully flowed into the air. I’d just made my first takeoff in a Skyraider!
That pretty much says it. I looked over at Doc and grinned at him but didn’t bother to speak because he probably couldn’t have heard much anyway. He grinned back and mouthed “3000 horsepower.” ‘Nuff said. The engine acted as if it wanted to break free of the airframe and take off on its own. We were perched on top of the wildest bronco I’ve ever mounted yet, shaking and shuddering like a Frenchman in a thunderstorm, and this was the view from my seat:
Once we were in flight, Doc turned and asked if I was prone to airsickness. I told him “never yet” and braced myself for what I knew was coming; next thing I know, we’re rolling hard left and I’m pulling G’s and laughing out loud like a fiend:
This is what a bank like that looks like on the instruments; note the horizon reference at top center:
Best damned roller coaster I’ve ever been on. After some meandering around in the direction of the mountains west of our position, Doc asks if I want to take the stick, which was a completely silly question for an otherwise sensible fellow to be asking. So, as Kramer once said, and with similar inflection, emphasis, and delight, now I’m drivin’ the bus.
The stick was amazingly sensitive and light; I expected the controls to be a lot heavier, but the Skyraider felt astonishingly agile for such a big bird. It was hard just to keep the nose straight and on course, and maintaining a steady altitude was tricky too. The slightest movement of the stick would get immediate and almost drastic results from the aircraft, but after a few minutes I felt I was doing okay. We were fast approaching a hilltop with a couple of radio antennas and some houses on it, and Doc looked over at me and pointed out my side of the canopy: “See those houses over there? My two kids and four grandkids live there. Maybe I’ll just take back the stick now.” “Don’t trust me, eh?” I laughed back at him. Not that I blame him, of course.
After buzzing the Hickory area at various altitudes and angles of attack for about a half hour, we started back towards the field. When we radioed in to approach control, they apprised us of a flight of four Stearmans coming in for the airshow ahead of us. It was a bright day out and not all that easy to see, so Doc asked for help spotting them. I acquired them right away: three biplanes a couple of miles off, with one a half-mile or so back in trail, all of which appeared through the canopy as nothing more than bright glints above the darker backdrop of the hills as the sun flashed off their brightly-painted wings:
In the pic the first Stearman is obscured by the pilot-side canopy bow; I don’t think Doc ever did see ’em. As we made the downwind leg prior to turning onto final, he instructed me to maintain visual contact with the Stearmans. He rolled hard into the break — the last wild maneuvering I’ll likely be doing, at least until I get back on the Sportster again, which could actually be any minute now — and suddenly in my mind the Stearmans below and ahead of us (the photo was taken after we made the break) were a flight of MiG-17s and we were in Korea over the DMZ, rolling in hot, in full attack mode. Couch-potato-wannabe daydreaming, I know. But it was fun anyway.
We made a smooth, easy landing and folded the wings as we taxied around to the hangars. And as we did, I saw this nice little tableau:
Allies then, allies now. Unlike some. The black smear at top left is our prop, of course. So we spotted the plane, clambered out like the earthbound slugs we are, and drove away after profuse thank-you’s and a most sincere offer on my part to be at Doc’s permanent full-time beck and call for copilot duty anytime he’d care to have me.
What a complete blast. My warmest thanks to Doc for letting us slip the surly bonds for a while on a hot Friday afternoon, and to Reg for setting it all up. And yes, Doc, I was damned serious about that copilot offer. Anytime, anywhere, my friend. Oh, and here’s a good little bit I found on Skyraiders and the men who flew them:
As aristocratic, elegant, and elite fighter pilots, my mates and I always tended to avoid association with Able Dog drivers.¬†For one thing their military appearance and grooming habits were atrocious!¬†Their flights suits were always sodden and black with oil, grease, and other foul smelling liquids. Their aircraft were always spotted back on the aft part of the flight deck in the “cheap seats” where the snipes blew tubes over them on a regular basis and they were always filthy with stack soot and clinkers.¬†Everything they were around soon became grimy and disgusting and their ready room looked and smelled like a garbage heap. On top of that they were loathe to bathe and carried their own atmosphere, like a large bubble, around with them wherever they went causing more genteel folk to veer out of their way, their sensibilities deeply offended.¬†What is worse, Able Dog drivers prided themselves in these disgusting habits!
In addition to this they were unfair and unscrupulous in the air.¬†They were fond of grinding around at low altitude and when they saw one of our gallant fighters start to make a run on them they immediately turned on a dime and positioned themselves directly under the heroic fighter pilot who, upon being pulled vertical, directly saw nothing but water in his windshield and was forced to frantically pull out with frazzled nerves, sweating heavily, and with pucker string two-blocked. This maneuver was a killer. And the Able Dog drivers gloried in this un-sportsmanlike conduct!!, gleefully sneering to themselves and applying spit wetted fingers to the insides of canopies to mark up points.¬† It must be known that I still harbor a deep resentment over this ungentlemanly and scandalous behavior.
Despite it’s lack of speed the old Able Dog could surely take care of itself and I always marveled at the veritable junkyard of nasty stuff it could haul around to drop on the bad guys.
Heh. Sounds like I’d have fit right in in an Able Dog ready room.