TRIPLE TREE AND THE MAKING OF A WW II PILOT (IN 2015)

Rob Traynham – Triple Tree Communications       

INTRODUCTION AND A LITTLE EXPLANATION

First, as the writer, perhaps I should introduce myself. My name is Rob Traynham and I have the great pleasure of working with Mr. Pat and all of the volunteers at Triple Tree. My job is to try to put into words what is planned, currently happening or what is on the list for the future. It seems that even after doing this for three years, the magic of Triple Tree continues to just keep me excited about life and flying. You’d think after spending my entire professional life involved in military or corporate aviation that there just wouldn’t be much left to excite this 64 year old retired guy. I personally didn’t think there was going to be much new and exciting (from an aviation perspective) left for me at this age and I had resigned myself to the fact that my best flying days were probably behind me. Then, one day many months ago, I received a call from Mr. Pat and he said, in a very excited voice, that Triple Tree was going to get a P-51 Mustang and that he wanted ME to be one of the pilots trained to fly it! I had to just let that sink in for a while before I could answer…ok, about 3 seconds elapsed before I said YES. The decision had been made that the Mustang was going to join the Triple Tree aeronautical hangar crowd and reside there with the Cub, Stearman, BT-13 and the Spartan and that ALL of these airplanes were going to start traveling to different venues. Therefore, a new, expanded group of pilots was going to be required. Of the group of five pilots selected, all of which had many thousands of hours, I had the least amount of both total tail wheel time (300) and “heavy” tail wheel time (0). It was clear that I was going to have to take a longer path to the Mustang than the others both from an experience/safety standpoint for sure but also from an insurance standpoint. The decision was made to go forward and Mr. Pat generously offered the Triple Tree Cub, Stearman and BT-13 for me to gain the required heavy tail wheel experience. All of us would be required to fly the T-6 before the Mustang as it was, and is, the world’s best trainer for the heavy, single-engine WWII fighters. As we were beginning to map out this specialized program for me, it occurred to us that “Wait a minute, this is the exact same program that was utilized by the Army Air Corp during WWII” so; the decision was made that I would progress through these famous trainers, one by one, just like the cadets of that time. I would give my impressions of the airplane, the instructors and the experience and perhaps contrast them with the experiences I had when I went through U.S. Air Force pilot training in the early 70’s.

So, here were go. The plan is that I will fly the exact trainers used to prepare pilots in WWII, in the exact same sequence and publish my experiences and feelings each month until, at the end of the series, hopefully, I will be a proud and excited, 64 year old, newly minted P-51 pilot. Just remember, there are no guarantees. In my class of pilot trainees in the 70’s around 50% of the total, year-long washouts occurred in the early stages of training.  I’m quite sure I’ve slowed down some since 1973 but for Triple Tree and Mr. Pat, I’m going to give it my best shot!  

Articles are in series. Please scroll down for all articles to date  

Part 1

THE CFTP AND THE CADET

In the late 1930’s, the U.S. government noticed that a particularly troublesome guy named Adolph Hitler was becoming very aggressive. It was known that he had set up a pilot training program whereby thousands of civilians were being trained as pilots. The stated purpose was that this program was to supply German civilian needs and boost aviation in Germany but the actual purpose was to establish a ready supply of future military pilot recruits that had significant flight experience. In 1938, the U.S. reacted by establishing our own, similar program called CFTP (Civilian Flight Training Program). President Roosevelt announced on Dec. 27, 1938 the establishment of this program with a goal to train 20,000 college students to fly. We too said it was “to provide a boost to general aviation!” but our intentions, like the Germans, was to have a pool of pilots that were pre-screened for military duty. The CFTP program was initially established at several colleges and universities (later expanded greatly) and utilized civilian instructors flying mostly Piper Cubs. Aeroncas and other aircraft types were also used but for the most part, the Cub was the very first airplane many of these future Air Corps flyers would experience. It’s a fact that eight out of ten WWII pilots experienced their first formal flight training in a Piper Cub.

As a new “cadet” in 2015, I can imagine both the thrill and anticipation of flight and the specter of, at some point, taking a very powerful machine into deadly combat that a 1940’s cadet experienced. It was similar in my time only “my” war in Viet Nam was over just a few months before I entered training. We had “signed up” two years earlier when the war was going full-speed and we all anticipated being a participant.  Luckily, none of the graduates in my class ever made it into combat.  For the WWII cadet, there was absolutely no light at the end of the war tunnel and many thousands were lost in combat. I try to remember and honor those brave people (men and women) on each and every flight I make in the Triple Tree historic aircraft.

So here we go. The program for a cadet (bound for fighters) in the late 30’s and early 40’s was to start out flying the Cub, then progress to at PT series airplane (PT17 Stearman for me) assuming that they made it through the Cub training. Next came the BT-13, the AT-6 and finally training in their assigned fighter. It was and is a long, difficult process that saw many fall by the wayside. I am truly fortunate to experience it pretty much like they did and, in fact, I’m going to venture to say that I could well be one of the very last to experience each airplane, in exactly the same sequence, with much of the same studying and training. It’s going to be quite a ride and I hope you enjoy being my copilot.

THE CUB

So, with that background, let’s go fly a Cub. The airplane itself is a featherweight. It weighs around 800 pounds empty and just over 1200 pounds with pilot(s) and a full tank of 12 gallons of gas.  It’s the epitome of the basic flying machine. It has a tubular steel framework, covered in fabric, a sixty five horsepower Continental engine, a wooden prop, no starter, no electrical system and a wing that is made up of ribs built up around a wooden spar that is covered in the same fabric as the fuselage. The landing gear shock absorbers are giant rubber bands hidden and protected beneath a couple of “streamlining” leather bags. The front seat is cramped and the back seat isn’t much better. It came equipped with “heel” brakes that, to this day, don’t seem very natural. The door is a two piece affair with one half folding down and the other half folding up against the bottom of the wing. The instrument panel has only what you need to fly; a tachometer, an airspeed indicator, an altimeter, an oil pressure gauge, an oil temp gauge and a magnetic compass…that’s it!

 

You may ask, “Where’s the fuel gauge?” Well, it’s the piece of wire (with a cork on the end that moves through a hole in the fuel cap) that you see just in front of the windshield! The length of the wire “shrinks” as the fuel supply in the tank is used up. Just to make things more interesting, the Cub is soloed from the rear seat where the view forward, while on the ground, is limited to the sky and birds flying by.

Ok, before any flight, the pilot must conduct a thorough preflight inspection. For the Cub, this means you start your checks at the cockpit and make absolutely certain that the magneto switch is off and the throttle is at idle. You then walk around the plane checking that everything is properly attached, the tail wheel assembly and the steering chains are intact, the engine isn’t missing any parts, the prop isn’t cracked, chipped or delaminating and that there’s no water in the fuel. You ALWAYS treat the prop carefully as the little Continental engines usually start VERY easily so making sure the mags are off and being careful with any movement of the prop is standard operating procedure. On the first few flights, the instructor provides the “ArmStrong” starter since there is no electrical system hence, no electrical starter. Once running, the instructor pulls the chocks and does a jungle gym exercise to get into the cramped front seat. Taxiing is a challenge since your limited view (sky and birds) is now, for the most part, blocked by the instructor sitting in front of you. Forget the instruments as any view of them is blocked by the same piece of humanity. For the first few lessons, just taxiing is a challenge. S- turns are required and you seem to over control everything.  Upon arrival at the end of the runway, you do a run-up to check the magnetos, check that the trim is set correctly, the carburetor heat is operational and  make certain all controls are free and clear. Then, after clearing for traffic, you somehow make it on to the runway and lineup. Once the power comes up, the Cub magic begins to happen. I’ll venture a guess that every pilot that has ever flown a Cub, even those that knew it was going to eventually lead to mortal combat, smiled broadly during the takeoff. The Cub gathers “speed” at a rate that just feels right. The controls “come alive” just right. The engine sounds “just right” and the wings assume lift and support you and the plane “just right.” The first flight in a Cub has got to be very close to what Wilbur and Orville experienced in the Wright Flyer. It’s pure, fun, enjoyable flight!

 Actually, the paragraph above describes the experience and set of emotions that comes after about five or six hours of training. The first few flights are frustrating exercises in over-controlling some things (elevator, rudder, ailerons) and under-controlling others (elevator, rudder, ailerons). It all depends on the wind, your speed and what the airplane needs. Learning to anticipate these needs and figuring out just the right amount of control input is the key. It’s been said that the important speeds in a Cub are as follows: takeoff-60mph, climb-60 mph, land-60 mph. That’s not factually correct (it will do all of them much slower) but it demonstrates that nothing happens real fast in a Cub. Speed is not an important factor though at this stage of the cadet’s training. Learning control coordination, basic aerodynamics, rudimentary emergency procedures, coping with different wind and weather conditions and most importantly, gaining spatial orientation (where am I horizontally AND vertically?) is the goal and the little Cub teaches these lessons better than any airplane that came before or, some say, after it.

Somewhere around six to eight hours of training, the on-track cadet takes the Cub into the air without the instructor! The performance of the airplane is noticeably better and all of a sudden you can see much better because that human body that has blocked the view is GONE! Takeoff distance is reduced and in fact, the takeoff is now a matter of going to full power, raising the tail and lifting off. It happens about as fast as you can read that sentence! Landings are no longer the swerving, over-controlling, getting yelled at (instructor survival shriek and volume required to overcome other noises – no intercom) experience of before. Even with a crosswind, the landings are now becoming a much more controlled event. You’re a long way from perfect but you’ve learned the basics. NOW, you really begin to feel and experience the joy of flight and the Cub. It’s a great airplane that deserves the world-wide reputation that it’s earned.  Basic navigation (compass and map) and further refinement of skills learned follows. Just about the time you’re beginning to get a little bit comfortable in the Cub, it’s time to move up.  In reality, some cadets just couldn’t figure all of this out within the hours allocated and went on to serve their country in other roles. The program was and is unforgiving. For those that did complete the first step in this program (and I am fortunate to be in that group) the Cub is behind you and the “Washing Machine” PT-17 Stearman waits.  See you next month.

Part 2 

MAKING A WWII PILOT – (THE STEARMAN)


Well, I've begun the long road to the P-51 checkout! The plan is, just like a WWII aviation cadet, to move me from the Cub, to the Stearman, to the BT-13, to the T-6 and finally to the Mustang. Just like the aviation cadets of WWII, the Cub is behind me and the next step up is the PT-17 Stearman.  It’s a big jump up (literally) both in size and horsepower (65 versus 220). In my experience during U.S. Air Force pilot training during the early 70’s, the move up from the very basic trainer (T-41 which was basically a Cessna 172 with a Cessna 182 engine) to the T-37 (another Cessna but this one with twin jets) was a huge step up. The exact same thing was experienced by the WWII cadets when they crossed the road from the Cub to the Stearman. While it isn’t very much faster than the Cub, the Stearman is MUCH more demanding.   So, let’s take a look at the Stearman and what it’s like to fly it.

First, walking around the Stearman, it seems bigger than you think it should be.  Looking at the struts, gear, cables and fittings, its military heritage is evident. The airplane is built like a tank! It sits high, on a narrow gear and the ramifications of that are going to be more evident once the Continental, 7 cylinder, 220 hp radial begins to move it. Pre-flight is normal except the oil dipstick is measured in gallons, not quarts! Pilot's seat is the rear one and getting into it is actually easier than I thought it would be for an old man. The cockpit is huge and the seat is adjustable as are the rudder pedals but Pat H. flew it last and they seemed about perfect for me so I left them alone. Start up was completely standard and 51WM came to life on about the third blade. The tailwheel steering is very direct and positive and the brakes are good but you stay off of them for the most part. Oh, you can't see squat over the nose so S turns are the norm. Did I say you can't see squat over the nose? And by the way, you can't see squat over the nose! Once at the runway end, run-up is completely normal and the checklist flow method is used to make certain all pre-takeoff checks are complete. Roll forward just a bit to make certain the tailwheel is straight and then smoothly add power to begin the takeoff run. Oh, and you can't see squat over the nose so you use your peripheral vision to match up items on the horizon (trees, clouds, runway edges, etc.) with the various upper wing structural supports so you can see ANY lateral movement and immediately correct. You need to keep your head upright and not be looking over the side because the tendency will be to turn in that direction. The controls are fairly light and the tail comes right up once speed (?) builds a little. Positive right rudder is required as the tail is making that transition. NOW, you can see over the nose!  This is one of those airplanes that you could just throw away everything in the cockpit. It talks to you and with just some gentle nudging, it flies when it’s ready and it happens sooner than you think even on a hot day with two big guys onboard. Climb out is leisurely but incredibly enjoyable. The airplane, I think, enjoys flying as much as we do. Stalls, in every configuration (power on, power off, turning, etc.) are “rock the baby” gentle and easily recoverable by just reducing AOA (angle of attack) slightly. Steep turns are fun and easily coordinated. I didn't quite hold my altitude but frankly, I was enjoying the airplane and looking outside so much that I just didn't discipline myself enough to exactly hold that altitude.

Back in the pattern, the landing approach is nicely settled and the airplane just sort of gets into and stays in a groove. The gear is long and I'm still trying to find out exactly where it is. One other thing I have to work on is not "stirring the stick" in the flare. The controls are light all the way to touchdown so small corrections need small stick movements. I'll get it. Perfect runway alignment is required so wheel landings (you can see over the nose) are most comfortable. Once on the ground, you hold the tail up until you begin to lose elevator effectiveness then, you positively lower it and oh, at this point, you can't see squat over the nose. Back to struts, peripheral vision and LOTS of rudder dancing that doesn't stop until the airplane does.

At this point, I want to mention the instructor pilots (IPs) that trained fledging pilots in these planes during WWII and the brave guys and girls that still do. I was incredibly lucky to have some great IPs during my stint in the military and the same holds true today. Pat Derrick has flown as my instructor in both the PT-17 Stearman and the BT-13 Vultee Vibrator. He has been incredibly patient and professional yet demanding. This is EXACTLY what you want when going through a program like this. I can never find the words to thank both Pat Derrick and Pat Hartness for this opportunity.
I started flying the Stearman in early July. Pat D. and I practiced takeoffs, landings, stalls, steep turns and everything else important for several weeks. Then, on August 11, 2015, Pat decided it was time to cut me loose! It was blistering hot when, after showing him three acceptable landings, he got out of the airplane and said “Don’t hurt yourself or my baby”. With Pat D. standing by the side of the Triple Tree runway, I taxied out for my first solo in the PT-17. I can tell you that even after 11,000 hours of flying; these first solo events still make your palms sweat. Just imagine the 19 year old during WWII whose flying experience was probably less than 30 hours! The flight was a non-event for me (a sure mark of great instruction). It was an incredible experience and the sense of accomplishment was sweet. Just like in WWII training, more hours followed to gain more experience but before long, it was time to move up again. The Stearman was certainly more demanding than the Cub. It would try to ground loop if you got sloppy but the next airplane, the BT-13 Vultee Vibrator is bigger, heavier, more powerful and more demanding. Things are going to get tougher for sure!
 

 

   PART THREE

Ok, for the moment, the Stearman has been relegated to the back of the incredible Triple Tree hangar and the burly BT has moved up to challenge my mind, eyes, hands and brain.  My intent, when I started this aeronautical journey, was to try to live this experience through the eyes of the eighteen year old aviation cadet in the early 1940's. Interestingly, I've found that emotionally, physically and mentally the experience is very much what I personally experienced as a member of USAF class 74-07 at Moody, AFB, Georgia which started in June of 1973. For me, joining that class was a mixture of excitement (going to fly some really neat airplanes), anxiousness (can I cut it?) and a little anxiety.  For me, I was fortunate in that “my” war had wound down. For the cadets in the early 1940’s, there was no end in sight. I want to stop here for a minute and just say that both in my USAF experience and in my Triple Tree experience, I have been blessed with talented instructors that really know how to get the best from you. Lt. Dennis Daley expertly taught me the fine art of flying a Northrop T-38 with its high landing speeds and tricky no-flap landings. Pat Derrick has done an equally great job of teaching me the important "got to knows" of the Stearman and the Vibrator. Thanks Pat!

So, an excited 64 year "aviation cadet" has made it through the Stearman "washing machine." I call it that because in the forties, just like in the 70's, about thirty percent of your buddies that started pilot training did not advance past the primary training aircraft. For whatever reason, lack of ability, couldn't mentally stay ahead of the airplane, airsickness, whatever the reason, one day they were there, the next day they were gone. It was a real feeling of accomplishment to be a "survivor" in the primary stage but you realize this journey can end quickly. The program waits for no one. Pat Derrick and Pat Hartness are very patient but there is a finite limit on the expense of their time and money getting me checked out. I either advance in an orderly, safe manner or it's back to mowing for me! Both pilot training experiences required dedication, work and a desire to do the very best you can. It's a seemingly endless cycle of study, sleep, fly.......repeat.