Aerobatics and Other Hoots

    While my day job was flying for Bell Helicopter, I also flew for the Forty-Ninth Armored Division of the Texas National Guard. We had L-19s, L-20s and Hiller H-23Cs, and I flew them all. Eventually I moved to Connecticut, where I was again in a flight department, this time with the Forty-Third Infantry Division.

    Our main hanger was in Hartford, about 100 miles north and east of where several other Guard pilots and I lived. Headquarters allowed us to hanger an L-19 at Danbury Airport, which had no lights at the time. We were nevertheless required to fly fairly often at night so we improvised. We managed to get hold of several kerosene-fueled construction smudge pots. If the wind was generally blowing from the west, we spaced them about 100 paces apart along the south side of the east-west runway (runway 26). Then we’d line up and make instrument take-offs on a 260 degree heading. We’d climb to about a thousand feet and make a 90 degree left turn and leave the area.

    There was a well-lit radio tower about half a mile slightly off center from the runway threshold, and some lights from Wooster School just beyond the far end. As we set up our approach, we’d over-fly the field and could easily see the smudge pots as we looked more or less straight down. Then we’d fly south and turn east on our improvised downwind leg, all the while keeping the lighted pots on our left. The tricky part was knowing when to turn onto base leg and final approach, because we couldn’t see the pots obliquely until we crested a small hill just to the east of the approach end.

    As I reconstruct this caper I realize it sounds kind of dangerous, but it was actually quite safe, and we never had any problems. I also realize how it all pales by comparison with the kinds of things the early mail pilots did routinely.

    Keeping up my flying minimums, attending mandatory drills in Hartford, and taking a week off for National Guard summer encampments became burdensome, so I had to drop out. I soon missed flying and would fly civilian aircraft whenever I could.

    I carried sky divers in a Cessna 172 from a short field in Monroe, Connecticut. We’d take off the right door, and three jumpers would pile in. With their regular and reserve chutes, we were right close to max gross, so I’d take on the minimum amount of fuel. I’d start my takeoff run about 90 degrees from my eventual takeoff heading, skid around the corner, and barely make it over the trees.

    Friends let me fly a variety of aircraft, including a few light twins such as Cessna 310s and Piper Navajos.

    Malcolm Doak was one of my closest friends, and he was chief pilot for Wayfarer Ketch. Named after the Rockefeller family yacht, this was a super-sophisticated flight operation owned and patronized by the Rockefeller family, Chase Bank and Time Life. There were several aircraft, including a Grumman G-2, a Fairchild F-27, a Cessna Citation, two twin Beechcrafts and a beautifully equipped and appointed Bell Huey. As long as none of the dignitaries representing the owners were aboard, the pilots could carry anyone they wanted, and Malcolm frequently invited me on training flights and even long distance flights – providing I found my own way to or from destinations where owners would be deposited or picked up.

    When Nelson Rockefeller was vice president, he wanted to use these or “his” airplanes rather than what the Air Force offered up. The Secret Service did not like this arrangement, but acquiesced with strict provisos. One day the Bell Huey loaded with Time, Inc., executives lost power and had to make an emergency landing. There was no damage, but the executives took alternative transportation. Wayfarer mechanics found the problem was a clogged oil screen, and the aircraft was flown back to Westchester Airport where it was based.

    Vice President Rockefeller planned to ride in this helicopter a couple of days later, but the Secret Service insisted it be flown five hours before he could do so. On hearing this, Malcolm called me and asked if I’d like a ride in the Vice President’s Huey. So my son and I took off for the airport pronto. We found Jeff Gerstein hovering in front of operations. He landed and motioned my son and me aboard. He said “Malcolm tells me you used to fly for Bell – it’s all yours!” For the next two hours I flew this special bird up the Connecticut coast and inland. It had been several years since I’d flown a helicopter and never a Huey. When I was with Bell, the company had just finished flight tests on three experimental XH-40s and was testing six prototype YH-40s. These were forerunners of hundreds of Bell’s HU-1 series that would be used so extensively in Vietnam.

    I was pleased it all came back to me so fast. In fact, I found the Huey much easier to fly than Bell Model 47s or Hiller H-23Cs.

    In 2002, I wrote an article about the effects of pilot sleep deprivation. Entitled “Too Tired to Fly,” it was published in AOPA Pilot magazine. I summarized problems of sleeplessness experienced by Charles Lindbergh and Dick Rutan, who flew Voyager around the world in just over nine days. Later, I flew with Dick in the Long E-Z he had flown to four world records.

    Then I flew aerobatics in a Citabria and the Pitts S2-C. These were among the most fascinating flight experiences of my life. My instructor and mentor in the Pitts was Bill Finagin, a former world aerobatic champion. I only had a few hours in these aircraft, but it was plenty to make me wish I had started flying aerobatics earlier in life. It also convinced me that aerobatic experience, like sailplane flying, makes for safer pilots.

– end –


     The following copy is adapted from descriptive information about Pitts Aircraft in Wikipedia.

    Pitts Aircraft were designed by Curtis Pitts. The Pitts Special has won more aerobatic competitions than any other airplane in history. It is the only fully FAA-certified competition airplane made in America and one of the very few which are manufactured in the world.

    The two-seat S-2 Special has the same configuration as the single seat S-1 but is larger overall, and it is generally regarded as a more capable aerobatic aircraft due to its larger size and heavier weight, with more power and aerodynamic changes.

    The current model is the Pitts S-2C, a two-place airplane capable of unlimited category competition and universally recognized as “the” aerobatic trainer, as it can legally carry both instructor and student, including fuel reserves, during all hard aerobatic training sessions.

    There have been some 700 factory manufactured Pitts and an estimated 600 that were built from plans or kits in the period before 1984.

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