By Lex, on June 9, 2008
As I hinted earlier, Tailspin Tom offered your correspondent the right seat of a C-45H from Palomar all the way up to French Valley, near Riverside. Hating to let a good man down, I reluctantly said, “Sure!”
An uneventful toodle up the 5, and and eager transit back towards the private hangars until, there she is. The first thing that strikes you is what a beautifully maintained machine the Beech Belle is. And then your eyes are inevitably drawn to those two, big Pratt and Whitney R-985s, each of them holding 450 trembling horses in check. These were built when Wildcats and Hellcats ruled the skies. It can make a man ret pondersome.
Hisself was seeing to the refueling – $5.45 to the gallon – and a spinning of the props. Manual, like. Listening. So I bundled my way up the narrow passageway to the even more cramped cockpit to puzzle over the checklist and do my best to match challenge to response. Particularly on my side of the cockpit, not wanting to be a burden when the time came. Soon enough Tom was done with his preflight duties and joined me in the cabin, followed by Skip, an eternal raconteur turned ex-Army artilleryman turned attack helo pilot turned aircraft maintainer, among many other things.
Although Tom is the reluctant owner of the machine, Skip maintains it and he hovered over our shoulders watching the engine gauges on start, taxi and in flight like an anxious mother. Starting the two big motors was an exercise in prestidigitatorial dexterity. My task was to hold the control wheel(s) aft while Tom simultaneously mashed the starter, primer and some other button whose purpose I could not divine while simultaneously playing piccolo on the magnetos with his left elbow and blowing into his harmonica, like. The big props whirled through the air in a desultory fashion until Tom started talking to her, at which time first number one, then number two caught and fired with a hearty thrum. It looked like this might happen.
Taxiing from the cramped parking ramp to the main taxiway at Palomar was… interesting. As a taildragger, the Beech Belle sits pretty close to her stall angle of attack on the ground, leaving very little over-the-nose visibility. We made it to the ground run-up area at the hold short to runway 24 without running over anything or anybody – that we know of – but attracting curious stares from the crews doing their biz jet walkarounds by the tower along the way.
I learned that on account of an unusual drag brace arrangement on the main landing gear, the C-45 has the curious and disconcerting habit of walking forward a bit under the 1800 RPM run-up power. Wheel brakes not withstanding. Multiple throttle, propeller speed, manifold heat, oil shutter and magneto combinations were attempted and declared successful, while I – for my own part – tried my best to stay out of his way with a detached, I’ve seen all this an untold number of times before demeanor. Simultaneously impressed and hopeful that he knew what he was doing.
Which he did, for moments later we had broken the surly bonds and were making a downwind departure to the north, climbing easily at 121 MPH (Vy) towards Interstate 15 – our guide rail for the journey. Tom gave me the machine passing around 1500 feet, and I climbed her out at about 1000 feet per minute to our cruise altitude of 5500. For a guy accustomed to fingertip flying, control pressures were moderately heavy but unobjectionable at 150 knots, 26 inches of manifold pressure and 1800 RPM. About what you’d expect of a transport plane. In just a few minutes we were in a working area south of French Valley where Tom invited me to explore the aircraft’s handling characteristics.
We did a couple of level turn patterns before exploring the power off stall and recovery. The big twin had no vices that I could discover and recovery from moderate buffet at around 80 MPH was made by a smooth application of climb power and the loss of only a hundred feet. After that I lined the plane up on a highway, slowed to 100 MPH, lowered the landing gear and flaps and set us up for a 500 foot per minute rate of descent for a simulated approach and go around. Tom told me that the most important thing to do after adding power was to raise the landing gear, them being the primary source of drag, and then bring the flaps up by degrees once a positive rate of command had been established.
There were two things to look out for: Not letting the manifold pressure go below 20 inches on the descent, since that might tend to shock cool the cylinder heads, he said. Shock cooling, I quickly agreed: Quite right. Ought to be avoided on principle. The other was throttle run-up speed: Engine response is right away on demand, but a Hornet with digital electronic fuel controls she ain’t, and mashing the throttles to the firewall all regardless is considered bad form.
I flew the pattern entry to the uncontrolled field, with Tom making the VHF calls. Set us up on final and configured for landing with gear and flaps down before Tom wisely took over at about 3/4 of a mile. It’s a strange visual picture in a taildragger – you never quite flare for landing, just ease out the rate of descent. Tom made a wheel landing (vice a three-point) and kept busy on the rudder pedals as she slowed to stall speed. He eased the tail back on deck right around stall, and then held the stabs in the air until we were well and fully slow – the moment when the tailwheel first touches down is the diciest, since a taildragger’s CG is aft of the mains and more than anything else she’d love to swap ends and set things to rights. This would be called a “ground loop” and it’s the bane of the taildragging community. “So-and-so ground looped 15-Charlie on Tuesday,” you might hear someone say at the FBO. And everyone else would cluck disapprovingly. Silly git. To ground loop it.
All of them knowing full well it might happen to anyone, and the tricycle set keeping their own counsel.
A burger followed the landing, in the best tradition of the going-there-because-we-were-able-to service. Combined with ice tea and a bit of hangar flying, the things we’d done and seen. For aviators it’s like talking in patois, or maybe like exchanging the private signals of a secret society. By these we are known.
In just a little while we were back out to the plane, and after going through his engine start gymnastics Tom gave me the jet for taxi, run-up and take-off.
You can do good directional work on taxi in a twin-prop aircraft with split throttles, and an unlocked tailwheel makes sport of small spaces. Before much time had passed I had worked my way through the same combination of throttle, prop, oil shutter, manifold heat and magneto checks as had my mentor, and: Hey, presto! We were on the actual runway, with your correspondent still at the actual controls.
Full power at 30 inches of manifold pressure and props at full increase, with the left throttle leading the dance just a bit to keep her tracking down the yellow. At around 60 miles per hour the tail just sort of came unstuck of its own accord and a few moments later we were flying. No rotation to a fly-away attitude required, which is passing strange. One moment we were trundling along on the pavement, and the next we… just sort of went flying. And then we were climbing. A quick tap of the brakes to stop the mains from spinning, gear handle up and we were on our way.
The return to Palomar took no time at all. I gooned the straight-in approach – too high and fast – so we converted it into a face-saving if not particularly impressive overhead break to downwind, configuring for landing. Tailspin gave me a good look at the runway before taking the controls, a Learjet eating our lunch from behind and tower insisting on an early off. Right you are, governor, said I, and gave it back with enthusiasm. There’s a time to learn taildragger landings in a crosswind, but I’m not so certain that a 9000 pound transport is the way to start. I was happy – very happy – just to be there.
And anyway, there’s always next week.
It was a treat.