Monday, May 12, 2008

Count the Rivets 1957

(The author, William (Bill) Critch a resident of AZ was in 1957, a USAF aviation cadet in Class 58H. After graduation, he was commissioned a 2nd Lt and assigned to the Military Air Transport Service as a co-pilot.)

Bainbridge Air Base, Georgia. June 1957

I taxi into the takeoff position and hold the brakes on with my feet pressed against the top of the rudder pedals. Today, it’s a solo flight to practice coordination maneuvers and aerobatics.

The plane in front of me has lifted off, so I apply full power. The big radial engine has a comforting sound and I feel the propeller torque trying to turn me to the left. I press in right rudder and keep the Trojan headed straight down the runway. The prop seems to be turning very s-l-o-w-l-y, but it’s a typical illusion of the T-28’s two-bladed propeller and not at all like the smaller T-34 in which I soloed. The airspeed is increasing normally and I lift off at around 85 knots. I say out loud to myself, “Gear Up”, and climb straight ahead to 500 feet, increase the airspeed, raise the flaps and then make a right, then a left climbing turn and I’m clear of the traffic pattern. I check the cowl flaps closed and set the power for Climb.

A beautiful spring day. Big woolly clouds against a clear, blue Georgia sky. But I don’t day dream – I’ve work to do. I clear the sky to my left to see if anyone else is close and continue climbing and turning to 8,000 feet. The farmland underneath, as indeed most of the land in the U.S., is laid out in sections with the boundaries running north, south, east and west. As I climb, I practice staying lined up with the section lines.

Using an imaginary line I mentally draw across the windshield, I practice steep turns. We have not been taught to fly on instruments yet, and refer I to them only to check my ability to maintain altitude while looking outside. I talk to myself while turning.

“Throttle up a bit. More back pressure on the stick. Keep that imaginary line on the horizon. Oops, I can feel I’m losing altitude! Add power. Raise the nose a bit. I’m skidding. Ease out some bank and use a little top rudder – keep the ball centered, keep it coordinated. Now, more bank again, back to 60 degrees. Fly the plane, don’t let it fly you!” I work at turns for about 15 minutes till I’m tired of it.

Now for some chandelles. This maneuver, that I seem to have little trouble performing, feels like flying is meant to: a rapid change in altitude, pitch angle, speed, and the sense of a rapid climb out of some dangerous situation. I imagine myself flying into a fjord or into a box canyon and finding that I must immediately reverse direction and climb back out. This is a situation that can easily happen and indeed, several later, I put this maneuver to good use when flying in Greenland.

Next snap rolls, horizontal reverses and the exhilarating Cuban Eight. I don’t know why it’s called a Cuban Eight but it is two loops joined together like an infinity sign.

I try to remember what the acrobatic section of the flight manual says as I talk myself through the maneuver:

Prop…Full Forward
Airspeed…descend to increase to 200 Knots.”

I begin to dive and enter a loop. Easing in the back pressure, I feel the gravitational force – “g’s” - as I begin the loop looking over my head to keep the North/South section lines fore and aft. Over the top, back on the throttle and dive upside down at a 45 degree angle until the nose passes through the horizon. Then I half-roll till I’m right side up and commence another loop all the time keeping the plane properly aligned. Over top again, down at 45 degrees and roll out at my original entry altitude. Wow! Fun, fun, fun. Oops, lost a thousand feet or so – better do another, and another. I’m charged!

Before I realize it, my two hour solo is almost over and I’m going to be cutting it pretty fine to land in time so that the next student can have the plane.

I can see the field from this altitude and also can see that the line of trainers preparing to land is stretched out five or six miles. Yikes! How will I squeeze in? Like the ‘tiger’ I’d like to be, I make a high speed descent and parallel the 45 degree entry for the south east runway. I see a gap and whip into a steep 180 degree turn and bully my way in front of another T-28 who has left a bit wider spacing than usual. What I don’t know is that the ship I have pushed in front of has a student and an instructor.

I turn right 45 degrees on to ‘initial’ and can see I’m too close to the plane in front, so I extend my pitch-out point a bit further down the runway. What I don’t hear is the mobile control tower say to me, “Solo T-28 on initial, go around.” They can see I’m extending the pattern too far, but my attention is already divided with spacing and landing. For all intents, I’m deaf to their request and I begin my 60 degree ‘pitch-out’ to the right.

“Throttle back until the horn sounds, Gear Down, Horn silent…..” I say as I turn.

Suddenly I become instantly aware of a blur ten or fifteen feet above my canopy. I can almost count the rivets in the underside of another trainer’s fuselage.

I have barely survived a near miss at less than 1,000 feet. If he’d hit me, nobody would have survived; we would both be a pile of burning metal at the end of the runway.

I continue my descending turn towards the runway, but something doesn’t feel right. I’m descending too fast. I add power, and the descent slows. I touch down much faster than usual and do not make the first turn off but taxi further down the runway causing the next T-28 to go-around.

While ‘cleaning up’ after landing, I realize why I landed long and fast. After the near miss with the other plane, my train of thought was interrupted and I forget to put down ‘landing flaps’. What a ‘tiger’ I am. More like a scared pussy cat.

Entering the line shack, I decide to say nothing about the near-miss to Earl Wederbrook, my instructor. Glancing out of the window, I see a short instructor walking very quickly toward our building. Earl also sees him coming, and flicks his eyes towards the parachute loft. I take the hint beat a hasty retreat. I put it together! The approaching instructor is my old nemesis, P.D. Bridges, the southern boy who doesn’t like slow Yankees with an Australian accent and it was he who I cut out of the pattern and with whom I almost shared a common pile of burning rubble.

Five minutes later having checked in my parachute, I look inside the line shack. P.D. and Earl are nose to nose, except that my instructor is about six inches taller, 50 pounds heavier and who is looking down on a red faced Bridges who is obviously yelling. My protector is saying nothing, and shortly P.D. turns on his heel and leaves.

Earl has a wry smile during the debriefing and after I discuss my maneuvers, Earl says, “By the way, next time you cut someone out of the landing pattern, be sure he’s shorter than me. I’m a lover, not a fighter.”

Back in the barracks before supper, I look at my log book and realize that I have just passed 100 hours of flight time and in an airplane which 15 years ago would have been considered a high performance machine.

And I am sad knowing that neither my mother nor father will ever know their grown up son.

How To Get That Job In Aviation 1954

Saturday morning at the Insurance Company of North America, Australian Home Office, Spring Street, Sydney.

"Strewth, what a day. If I wasn't working I could'a done my grocery shopping at King's Cross before the rush, now it'll be off the tram, into the deli before it closes at two, back on the tram and hope there's something goin' on tonight in Bondi. Hope I've got time to hit the Pitt Street Rhineskeller Wine Shop for a jug."

Just the three of us: Crazy Kath Sherlock in her gray Red Cross uniform, sucking Cure 'Em Quicks, and that new honey, Judy Stutchbury who won't even give me the time o'day. Y'know, the other day I asked her to type some stuff and she said that it wasn't her job? Who the heck does she think she is? I've been here longer than she has, and besides, isn't that what the girls are supposed to do?

Who's this at the door?

"Yes, madam, you want to renew your Household policy? Do you have the renewal slip?"

"No? Not a bother at all. Now what is that address again?"

Go to the ledger, find the address, find the policy number, go to the pending folder. Let's see, City Account? She must be one of our agents' shirt-tail rellies getting the 15% discount.

Good, she's done and gone.


God, 2 hours till I get off at 1 o'clock. I'll read the Herald want ads.

Needs Mechanics' HelpersPositions at Mascot AerodromeGood working conditions.Interviewing today at Wentworth House 10.00 am until 4.00 PM

Hmm. Wonder what Mechanic's Helpers do?

If I was in aviation, maybe Polly would let me take her out to the flicks instead of up the hill to St Patrick's to Confession where I know she confesses fooling with her court reporter boyfriend. She only takes me along as 'cover'.

(Wentworth House is no longer standing, but it was just across the street from Polly's weekly confessional and it was the headquarters of QANTAS Empire Airways, Australia's locally grown, aerial connection with the outside world. Probably because of Australia's dedication to the British Empire and her assistance to General Douglas McArthur's drive to defeat the Yellow Peril, Australia had been granted a round-the-world route. QANTAS had been flying the U.S. built Lockheed Super Constellation: Sydney, Darwin, Singapore, Delhi, Cairo, and the long leg to London. Then, London to New York, nonstop to San Francisco, Honolulu, Nandi and Sydney.)

I look for the Employment Office but instead find a sign, 'Interviews' and nearby a varnished, glass enclosed office with an old coot reading the Saturday Daily Telegraph with his feet propped up on a empty desk.

This is aviation?

"Sir, is this where you're hiring mechanics helpers?"

Bill Grove, Maintenance Foreman of Hangar 85 at Mascot, takes a look at me in my blue, double-breasted, tailor-made suit, white shirt and Windsor knotted club tie and wonders what the hell I'm doing there, but it's a slow, late, spring afternoon and there are no other applicants lined up.
"Yairs, son. Come on in."

Bill is a balding, stocky, middle-aged man dressed in a nondescript plaid suit which is not near the cut of mine. He too is having a boring day, seconded by the Personnel Department to do interviews as Saturday is their day off and managers don't get overtime.

We talk father to son stuff. His son is attending Scotts College, a GPS school at the west end of Rose Bay, where I am, at great expense, currently subletting and sharing a house.

"Why would you want to be a mechanic's helper?" asks Bill.

My enthusiasm has always been a door opener and it flows out to open this unexpected portal.

"Well sir, I've always wanted to get into aviation, in fact, it's really my first love."

This was not totally untrue as I had been the class 'drawrer' since 1st grade and could draw the best aeroplanes and rocket ships ever to adorn the covers of my mates' exercise books. I regularly buy and devour a weekly periodical from England, "The Aeroplane", and if I can afford "Flight", I buy it too. The smell of airplanes in a hangar is totally intoxicating. I dream of layovers on Pacific islands exploring abandoned Japanese Army fortifications and tunnels finding souvenirs of the war I have only read about. I also dream about 'hosties' like Pauline and how they get all gooey when talking about pilots.

"Well, you look as though you could do the job, but frankly it's a greasy, sweaty job cleaning parts that have been taken off our Connies and I don't think it would interest you for more than a week or two. But, I tell you what, if you can afford a tool box and a pair of overalls, I'll take you under my wing and see that you stay out of trouble. I need someone to work just outside my office door to take care of the Maintenance Manuals and tag the airplane parts that the mechanics have removed for repairs. When I can find them, the apprentices aren't interested and do a lousy job and the mechanics hate paperwork."

I don't have a clue as to what 'take me under his wing' means but he seems to be a straight bloke and just may have my interests at heart. Perhaps it's the Riverview/Scotts College connection - both are members of the elite Great Public Schools of New South Wales and I am after all, a Riverview bloke. Well, kind of.

I lie about my age and he doesn't seem to care. The better wages start at age 21, so for QANTAS purposes, I'm 21.

"You may have to live closer to Mascot. Do you have a bike, or a car?"

He knew I do have a tool box, but a car? A motor bike? Last time I saw my push bike, it was a year ago and it was leaning against the wall of the Public Bar of the Commercial Hotel in Gunnedah. Who knows which drunk had ridden it home.

"Ah, no I don't, but I can get one!"

"Righto then, you can start in a coupla weeks. I'll set it up. Keep your mouth shut, or tell anyone who asks that you worked in Clegg and Tyrell's Gunnedah Garage instead of working in the Parts Department. When you start, I'll check your tool box over so's no-one will question it. By the way, you'll have to join the Union and you might consider taking the evening classes at Ultimo Technical College."

I leave Wentworth House flying just a little higher than those Connies I hope see in two weeks.

Little did I know that this would be the beginning of a career in aviation which lasted over 40 years.