If I Can Start It, I Can Fly It

When you are eighteen, you are invincible and especially so if you have a brand new commercial ticket in your pocket and have flown airplanes that most pilots can only dream about. I was fortunate to have become a pilot just when the military was selling the surplus WW-II airplanes and I had a friend who had been an instructor in them. He'd checked me out in most of the primary, basic and advanced trainers with far less than the normal time from one to the next. I was getting to the point where I could get one up and down in a relative level of safety with much less training than the military had spent training their pilots to fly fighters or bombers. Then I got tied in with a company in Indio, California which was buying surplus PT-17 Stearmans in Vernon, Texas and BT-13s in Lamesa, Texas. They were grafting the 450hp engines from the BT-13s onto the Stearmans to turn them into cropdusters. In military vernacular, PT meant Primary Trainer and BT was for Basic Trainer. Military pilots flew the primary trainers for about forty hours before they moved to a larger, faster and more complex airplanes known as Basic Trainers.

I started out by delivering the Stearmans for which they paid me $100 plus expenses for each delivery. This was 1947 when a hundred bucks was a considerable amount of money, especially for a kid just out of high school. In fact, I hadn't even graduated when I began and it gave me a great excuse to cut school. I already had more than enough credits to graduate so it was no big deal to either me or the school. I was more or less just marking time till graduation.

It was a hard thousand miles from Vernon to Indio and it took two days to get there in an open cockpit Stearman, which pounded along at about 90 mph on a good day. It was a rather tiresome ship to fly any distance. They didn't have electrical systems so each landing for fuel required finding one or two people strong and dumb enough to wind the inertia starters fast enough to get the engine going again. Known as the "Yellow Peril" it had been the ship in which about 90% of the US pilots were trained. It was a rather demanding ship to fly, strong enough to withstand the worst of pilots but agile enough to provide fast and efficient training. I delivered six of them in about that many weeks.

I don't know if it was a promotion or if it just happened but they told me my next delivery would be a BT-13 from Lamesa, Texas. Known by the nickname of "Vultee Vibrator" the BT-13 had a 450hp Pratt and Whitney engine, a two position propeller and flaps that were cranked down in about thirty turns on a large crank just to the left of the seat. It was also a step up in comfort with a sliding canopy but mostly that it had an electric starter for the engine. I delivered seven BT-13s over the next two or three months.

A month or so had gone by after my last delivery when I got a phone call from California. "I have another ship in Lamesa to fly out, it's a P-38, think you can fly that?"

"If I can start it, I can fly it," I boasted.

"Well, be careful, I just paid $1200 for it so don't bend it," he told me. Can you imagine the government selling an airplane that cost $165,000 for $1200 and delivered it with 410 gallons of high octane fuel, close to a barrel of antifreeze and new oil in the tanks. But in those days they were dumping airplanes for whatever someone was willing to pay, and there wasn't all that much use for airplanes like that. With servicing and filling them with gas, it probably cost the government more to sell each airplane than what it brought. With the War Assets Administration selling surplus airplanes for little more than the value of the gasoline they put in them when sold, they effectively killed the light airplane business. Why would someone pay a couple thousand dollars for a new Piper, Beechcraft or Cessna when they could by a surplus airplane for a tenth the price. They figured they could buy a lot of gasoline for what they saved. A few years later those surplus airplanes were lined up with weeds growing under them on just about every airport in the nation.

I caught the bus to Lamesa, arriving in the middle of the afternoon. It took about an hour signing out all the papers and getting the ferry permit from the CAA. Then I walked down the ramp to where the ship was tied down. My first impression was it was a lot bigger than I'd expected, I could walk under the wings. I'd never been closer to a P-38 than seeing one fly over and they looked rather small and lithe in the air. As I was walking around the ship, wondering how I was going to get in it, a guy who worked there walked up. He must have sensed my problem because he reached up on the wing just behind the cockpit nacelle, pressed a tab and a streamlined strut with several steps on it swung down. I climbed up on the wing, opened the canopy and he handed my seatpack parachute to me. I dropped the parachute into the seat and lowered myself into the cockpit.

There was little difference between the cockpit of the P-38 and that in the BT-13 except for the additional set of engine instruments and several more switches. The biggest difference was it had a wheel instead of the usual stick. I found later the reason for the wheel was so both hands could be used to fly it because the controls became very heavy at high speeds. I opened the metal box on the right side of the small cockpit and lifted out the "G" file. It was a heavy book the size of a Sears Roebuck catalog and twice as thick. It was the bible for that aircraft, written by engineers, pilots and instructors covering every facet of the operation, performance and maintenance of the ship. There was even a chapter telling how to bail out of the ship in an emergency. The old stand-up-and-jump method didn't work on the P-38 because you would hit the elevator. The proper way was to hold to the cockpit, lay flat on the wing and slide off the trailing edge. By doing this you would pass under the elevator.

I sat in the cockpit for perhaps an hour, just getting used to the view from it and locating the various controls, then I closed the canopy and climbed down carrying the G file with me. I got a room and spent the evening reading the G file, making notes on the back of an envelope about things like power settings, speeds for various situations plus a short checklist. I also discovered that the ship was a P-38L with less than 40 hours total time on it; just acceptance time, ferry time from the factory to Dallas where they replaced the gun mounts with camera racks, turning it into an F5B for photo reconnaissance. Then it was flown to Lamesa where it was picked and put into storage.

I was at the field early the next morning and about the time I finished the preflight, the guy from the day before arrived towing a start cart behind a tug. He plugged it in while I was fastening the chute straps and adjusted the seatbelt and shoulder harness. I flipped the masters on and set the controls for engine start. The guy who brought the start cart had removed a large fire extinguisher from the tug and was standing about half way from the left engine to the wingtip said, "Better close the canopy in case of a backfire."

I rolled the canopy closed and thumbed the starter switch for the left engine. The big black prop began to move slowly then came a few puffs of smoke from the exhaust stacks. The prop blades swung by faster and faster until they became a blur and the big V-twelve cylinder engine settled into a smooth roar. He moved to the right side and the starting procedure was repeated on that side.

With all the gauges in the green, I pulled the throttles to idle, applied the brakes and motioned to pull the chocks. When he was at the wingtip holding the ropes attached to the chocks, I released the brakes and it began to roll forward. I applied left rudder to turn between the rows of airplanes then realized that it was steered on the ground by brakes. At the end of the runway, I did a run-up on both engines, cycled the props and aligned the nose with the centerline. I prepared myself mentally for the upcoming rudder dance to keep the ship straight as the torque of the engines and thrust of the descending right blade on the prop combined forces trying to twist the ship into the sagebrush along the left side of the runway as I shoved the two red knobs the size of golfballs clutched in my left hand forward.

The happy burbling of the two big engines changed to a thundering crescendo with a thousand horsepower each pressing me against the seatback as the 12,800 pound ship carrying 2400 pounds of fuel surged forward. There wasn't the slightest tendency for the nose to swing as the throttles bumped against the gate keeping them out of combat power. Just think, by simply flipping the gate and shoving the throttles forward a couple more inches, I could have called up another 500 horsepower from each engine. The counter-rotating engines canceled out any tendency to turn as it hammered straight down the center of the runway. The lights and weed along either sides of the runway became a blur as I glanced at the instrument panel where the airspeed needle was swinging past 140mph; all needles in the green and the tachometer hands lay on top of one another so I eased back on the wheel, the nose rose and the sound of the tires pounding on the expansion joints in the runway ceased. Gear up, trim for climb and swing the nose to the west. Seminole slid under the wing as I reached 12,000 feet where I trimmed for level flight and set the power for best range.

Hobbs and Artesia slid behind me then I could see the brilliance of White Sands ahead. I'd been over that route enough times that I didn't even need the maps I had in the pockets below the knees in my flight suit. I felt the typical teenage urge to go balls to the wall to see what it would really do but good judgment prevailed and I settled back to watch the scenery slip under the wings at four miles per minute, the fastest I'd ever flown. The next major checkpoint after White Sands was Phoenix with its stifling desert heat while I was cruising in the coolness of 12,000 feet. It wasn't long until I could see the Salton Sea creep over the horizon, looking more like a mirage than actual water. Almost four hours on the dot found me with gear down on a long final for Indio. The tires chirped on the runway and all that was left was to taxi to the ramp. Throttles back against the stop, props all the way back followed by the mixture. The engines fell silent and the big props came to rest. Ignition off, masters off and the silence was broken only by the tinking of the exhausts as they cooled. The flight was over.

As I slid off the wing, dragging my chute behind me, the owner walked up and said, "I see you got it started."

"Piece of cake," I replied like I'd been doing it all my life.

Click on photos for a larger view

Stearman PT-17 BT-13 BT-13 instrument panel P-38 P-38 cockpit


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Copyright 2008 by Jim Foreman