Saturday, April 3, 2010

Chapter 28: Biplane Reprise

The Stearman biplane had enough struts, wires and exposed engine parts to provoke a wave of nostalgia in onlookers and pilots alike. Once the engine was fired up and the wooden propeller was turning, the rumbling sound of the radial engine came echoing back between the lines of T-hangars on the field.

Chino, in Southern California, is another of those magic airports which exist, like Aladdin’s cave, for the delight of the soul. Among the hangars on any weekend one could find a range of P-51 Mustangs, a Swedish Draken supersonic jet fighter, a Korean-war vintage F-86 Sabre, and all kinds of strange and expensive aircraft. However the majority of pilots at Chino flew aircraft more suited to average wallets.

A clearing mist shrouded the perimeter of the field as a Stearman biplane was pulled out of the hangar. A silver N2S-5, this 220HP version was in complete contrast to the sophisticated jets I had been flying. Pre-flighting this biplane was necessarily a leisurely affair. The fabric-covered wings and empennage looked OK. All the wires and struts looked secure. The engine was the most complex item. One by one I checked the exposed plug leads on the radial engine. Then it was time to check the oil. Hangar lore said that if a radial engine was dripping oil, it was OK. The time to worry was when the ground underneath the engine was dry. As I looked at the state of the oil-spattered concrete under the Stearman we cwertainly seemed to have a sufficiency of oil. Nevertheless I climbed up on the port main wheel, unscrewed the oil filler cap and pulled out the dipstick. With nearly four gallons indicated, the oil level was sufficient. I jumped back down off the wheel.

As this was the first flight of the day I had to laboriously turn the wooden propeller through eighteen blades to clear the oil from the lower cylinders. Then I gave five strokes of the pump on the left hand cowling to prime the engine.

I swung back up onto the wing root walkway and carefully climbed into the cockpit, being careful of the fabric on the wings and fuselage sides while sliding into the leather-rimmed rear cockpit. Once my feet were on the floorboards, I wriggled down into the seat and carefully went through the ritual of donning the parachute and then the seat harness. It was a simple but roomy cockpit, designed to accept the bulkiest trainee pilot wearing heavy winter flight gear.

My hands and eyes worked together as I reacquainted myself with this simpler and older form of levitation. Checking from left to right around the cockpit, I set the trim lever down to the left of my seat to the takeoff position. On the power quadrant the throttle was closed and the mixture lever set to rich. The gust lock lever, further forward, was disengaged and the fuel was ON. Now I moved my attention to the instrument panel. Magnetos were OFF, altimeter and engine instruments were OK, with the familiar old E2B compass floating serenely behind its glass window. The radio on the right–hand cockpit wall was the only concession to the modern-day world of aviation. As I checked round the cockpit I was becoming aware of the unique smell of leather, dope and fabric unique to old aircraft. It was indeed a different age of flying.

One last look round to make sure we were clear to start, and I was ready to go. Flipping the master switch on, I cracked the throttle open a touch and pulled the stick back into my lap. With brakes set, I was clear to start. I turned the starter key and a rising wail assailed my ears as the inertia starter began to wind up. When the flywheel had reached maximum speed and was really screaming, I pulled the starting T-handle on the right side of the panel.

The big wooden prop kicked over. There was a coughing roar from the engine and a blast of blue-gray smoke belched out of the big exhaust collector stack on the right side of the engine.
As I checked that oil temperature and pressure were rising, the big radial engine settled down into a steady grumbling roar. It was time to check with the tower and then taxi out to the runway. We started between two lines of T-hangars and cautiously made our way out to the taxiway. Ground movement in this taildragger required lots of weaving to see past the nose, requiring much footwork on the brakes to maintain some semblance of visibility of the taxiway. I slowly made my way out to the main taxiway, slotting in between a P-51 Mustang and an SBD Dauntless from the Planes of Fame Museum further up the field.

I had a momentary feeling of déjà vue. It was an eerie sensation as I realized that momentarily there were only 1940s era military aircraft in sight. Perhaps I was in a time warp, the first step into the twilight zone…

Dragging myself back to the task in hand, I ruddered the Stearman into the run-up area, ran up the engine against the brakes and checked the magnetos and the carburetor heat. As usual I muttered imprecations against the designer who hid the carburetor heat control in the lower recesses of the fuselage; it required a good stretch to reach the carburetor heat lever, and it was easier from the front cockpit than the rear.

By the time I had finished, the Mustang was howling past on his takeoff. I switched to tower frequency and got clearance to takeoff, did a final check that the stick and rudder were free and moved their control surfaces correctly, released the brakes and rumbled out onto the runway.

Lining up as best I could because of the atrocious forward visibility from the back seat, and making sure I kept my feet off the brakes, I gently opened the throttle. The idling propeller vanished in a blur and a wave of sound erupted from the exhaust. The Stearman needed right rudder to keep straight. I eased the stick forward. Once the tail came up, visibility improved dramatically. There was a tremendous racket from the open exhaust. The wind wailing round the struts and flying wires added to the cacophony of sound as the Stearman decided to fly and lifted off the runway.

Once airborne, the Stearman climbed slowly into the sky, taking me back to an older era of aviation in the thirties and forties. This biplane trainer would be the aircraft that taught many of the pilots who would go on to fly the fighters and bombers of the US Army Air Corps and the Navy during the Second World War.

A glance at the airspeed indicator showed that we now had 70 mph, enough to start a climb. I throttled back slightly and slowly the Stearman climbed above the haze layer. It was crystal clear up here, with the San Gabriel mountains forming an impressive backdrop to the North as I lazily circled. It was summer , and the air was warm even with the torrent of air rushing past my cheeks. It was great fun. Navigating by following the roads and railroad tracks, I headed south to Lake Mathews, turning over the mirror-like lake.

Three dots in the distance slowly crept closer. Three of the T-34 Mentors from March Air Force Base, practicing their formation flying. The formation passed safely overhead and I continued on my slow perambulation round the lake. Another minute and it was a different situation. The
P-51D Mustang appeared over the lake, circling above me and obviously ready for some fast maneuvering.

I felt like a minnow, with a hungry shark circling overhead in the water. This was not the place to be. Eyes scanning the sky and craning my neck round to keep track of this speeding fighter, I decided to clear the area for a few minutes and head South in the direction of Lake Elsinore. It was well that I did, as the big fighter appeared high over my shoulder, inverted and in the middle of a beautiful slow roll. Ah well….
After a few minute’s sightseeing it was time to head back to Chino. As I banked round onto the downwind leg a black speck appeared in front of the biplane, one of the ubiquitous hawks that abound in this area. He refused to budge at the approach of this noisy interloper, but just continued circling in a thermal. Flight feathers outspread, the hawk ignored me, so I jinked to the right, evaded the hawk and came back to the correct heading.

My simple downwind checks complete, I frowned as a voice intruded into my small world. It was the tower, warning me that the Mustang was coming back into the pattern. I searched the sky to my right. There he was, speeding along, a silhouette of his plan view visible as he was already in the break for a right-hand pattern. The Stearman continued to rumble downwind.

The Mustang, now gear down, was lining up for a final approach to runway 21, which intersected runway 25 which I would be using. I came round onto final approach with the ASI needle quivering on seventy…don’t crowd the Mustang…I started gently S-turning, aiming to let the Mustang get well in front. I peered past the clattering engine and the exposed cylinders to see the Mustang crossing a mile ahead of me. Now that the runway was clear, I could bring the throttle back and start descending. That was enough. With the drag of those wires and struts, the Stearman would sink like a brick once the throttle came back.

Near the ground, flying the Stearman always started to get interesting. During the flare, the runway vanished behind the engine and peripheral vision came into play. Judging the instant to flare consistently was easier said than done. The Stearman could be a humbling machine and even very experienced pilots occasionally had trouble landing the beast.

As the speed dropped, it went quiet as the biplane floated over the runway. I brought the stick right back into my lap and the Stearman quit flying, with a squeak of tires. Working hard on the rudder pedals to keep the biplane heading straight, I kept the stick back to force the tail down and keep some directional control. I had to remind myself not to touch the brakes. A forceful application would flip the Stearman on its nose in the twinkling of an eye. The speed eventually dropped to walking pace, and I gently turned off the runway and taxied back to the hangar.
Flying the Stearman was an unabashed nostalgic return to the earlier age of flying. This open-cockpit aviating was a delight and completely different from the complex disciplines of jet flying.

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