Friday, April 30, 2010

The Flight of A Lifetime

The Once in A Lifetime Flight

I am bursting to share the story of the trip that Lisa and I just made to Santa Fe, NM to celebrate our 26th wedding anniversary. Before departing Kansas City, a good friend of mine, Hunter Christophersen, provided me with information about a Jet Warbird Training Center that had opened at the Santa Fe Airport. He suggested that perhaps I would like to take a lesson in a high performance fighter trainer..... When I mentioned it to Lisa, she simply said - what else do we have to do - go for it; and so I did.


With my background, I qualified for an actual lesson, that to my surprise took all morning, followed by a one hour flight of a lifetime. The aircraft I was to fly was the L-39 Albatros, one of the most sought after aircraft on the Jet Warbird Market. It is a unique blend of Soviet-style simplicity and Czechoslovakian-style Western Technology. This aircraft is in use today as the current Russian Trainer, and was also produced as a close air support aircraft.

When I arrived at the airport I really had no idea what to expect. I guessed that the instructor would go over a short briefing and then take me for a flight, where with luck I would get to actually fly the aircraft in a few simple turns... Well, that proved to be completely inaccurate. Instead, the instructor, Larry Salganek (the local FAA Examiner), took Lisa and I through a quick but intense ground school for over an hour. We focused on systems, and using a photograph of the cockpit explored the operation of all the switches and controls. Lisa said that she was completely lost within 10 minutes. Fortunately with my formal training at Simcom, I was able to not only follow, but absorb most of what was said, and when I finally stepped into the aircraft, it all somehow seemed fairly familiar.

When the time came to actually board the aircraft, to my surprise and delight, I was strapped into the front of the cockpit where I would actually get to fly the airplane. Larry stood on the stairs outside the aircraft and walked me through the engine start which we had rehearsed in our lesson. It was all very simple - really.DSC_0103 The aircraft is equipped with what they call "Sapphire" which is an onboard turbo that is started first by simply pressing and holding one button and then allowing it to spool up. When the light on the panel labeled "Shappire" lit, I lifted a switch cover and pressed the Main Start button until the RPM indicator started to move. Then I released the button and moved the throttle from off to idle and that was all there was to it. At this point, Larry helped me secure my canopy and then he climbed into the back seat and likewise closed his canopy.

At this point I moved a few more switches, locked the canopies, engaged the pressurization, ran a few checks and it was time to go. The Albatros has what is known as a trailing nose wheel, meaning that you cannot use it to steer. Instead differential braking of the main brakes is used. Unlike the aircraft I have flown where the brakes are located on top of the foot pedals, on this aircraft the brakes are engaged by pulling (ever so gently) on a small handle located on the control column. To begin our taxi, Larry turned the aircraft around 180 degrees because we were close in to a number of other aircraft. However, from that point on, Larry never, never once touched the controls again - it was all up to me.

Taxing out to the runway was comical at best. I was reminded of my first lesson where I kept trying to steer the airplane with the yoke, while in reality it is necessary to use your feet. I found it awkward to push the rudder and then engage the handbrake, so I went back and forth, and back and forth, but by the time we reached the runway, I pretty much had it down. We were cleared directly onto the runway, where after lining up, I applied full brakes. Then I pushed the throttle to full power and waited. One,...two,...three...,four...and etc. until 9 seconds had elapsed; at that point we were at full power, all the gauges were normal, and I simply released the brakes. I was pushed back in my seat as the 3,800 lbs of thrust did their thing. Before I realized it, I had passed 100 kts, so I rotated 10 degrees nose up, pulled up the gear and the flaps, and started climbing at 4,000 to at times 5,000 ft/min with an indicated airspeed of around 210 kts. Now in the cockpit I was amazed at just how quiet the aircraft was. However, Lisa tells me that every time I took off every window at the airport rattled from the deafening noise.

I climbed very quickly to 15,500 ft and leveled off. I was just having a ball. I was tooling along around 350 kts with not a care in the world watching the mountains slide by. Larry suggested I try some turns right and left, and I very quickly learned that banking 45 degrees into a turn seemed almost natural and was accompanied by no loss in altitude. In fact if I let my training take over, a steep turn like that would require me to pull back on the stick quite a bit, but Larry had already warned me that it was not necessary and if I did that I could climb several thousand feet without realizing it.

Next came practice with stalls. I did two stalls. The first was a clean stall straight ahead. I got a stick shaker just as the aircraft stalled, and even though I dropped the nose and added full power I still entered a secondary stall, which Larry told me was quite normal. Then I did a stall with the gear down and full flaps, and this was actually more stable and easy to handle.

Looking down, I was amazed at how much ground I was covering. My "training" flight had already gone south of Albuquerque before I turned back North. Larry had me do some more practice, including pulling the engine to idle and setting up for a glide. What a sweet experience. In a glide I was doing 140 kts. and had a slow descent of around 500 ft/min. The aircraft was very stable and we could easily have glided all the way to Santa Fe.

My next assignment was to see if I could get the aircraft to its maximum rated speed. Larry had me climb to 17,500 ft and leaving the throttle wide open, initiate a 30 degree nose down dive. Faster than a speeding bullet the earth started coming at me. Our speed went right off the airspeed indicator and the Mach meter begin to function. When we reached a speed of .73 Mach and an altitude of around 8,000 ft. Larry kicked the speed brakes, and had me go to idle power and level off. To put what just happened in perspective, I was going around 550 mph just before we leveled off. Not too shabby an experience.

It was finally time to head back to the airport, but Larry suggested that I should do at least one barrel roll. Aerobatics are not my stick, which I had told Larry, but what the heck, I am only going to live once. So at full throttle he instructed me to quickly and smoothly throw the stick all the way against my left knee and hold it there until we had recovered. When I did that the aircraft abruptly rolled all the way over on its back and kept rolling until we righted up again - and it all happened in the blink of an eye.... Still not my thing, but it was fun.

So it was time to return to the airport and Larry presented me with a little challenge. He had me look down and to the right only to see that we were very close to the Santa Fe airport, but also quite high - at that point around 15,000 ft. He challenged me to enter the traffic pattern for runway 20 at 8,000 at the mid-field point. I remember from our ground school how to accomplish this, so I figured what the heck. Larry called the tower and got their permission, so I gave it a try. Power to idle, speed brakes full, nose down and we dropped like a brick. To my amazement I was able to enter the pattern at exactly the right point and correct altitude; pretty cool.

We did four landings, three of which were "touch and goes," and to my surprise Larry let me handle each of them, in spite of the fact that Santa Fe had some wicked winds at the time, gusting to over 40 mph. To a pilot, there is no greater thrill than getting to land a new aircraft, particularly one such as the Albatros. Incredibly the Albatros was a very easy plane to land.DSC_0176 On the downwind, power is put at 87% and mid-flaps are selected, which slows me down to 140 kts. Abeam the end of the runway the gear is dropped, and we slow down to 130 kts. After turning to final full flaps are applied and we are slowed to 120 kts. When making the runway is assured, I pulled the power to idle as I slowed to around 100 kts, and then heard the magic three chirps as the wheels touched down. Then I pushed the throttle full forward before we lost too much speed and once again found myself raising the gear and flaps and entering the pattern for another landing. All too soon it was time to make a full stop landing and taxi back, but what a lifetime moment.

I proudly got my logbook endorsed and received some kind words from Larry about my piloting skills. I have not touched the ground since then, nor do I want to.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Top Gun!!! You rock!

Brian W.