The warbird ramp is usually one of the more popular places at air shows and fly-ins. There’s something about those old airplanes with the radial engines that draws people to them. If you’re lucky, you might even get a ride in one.
During Sun ’n Fun I had the opportunity to ride in the back seat of a North American AT-6 flown by Steve Gustafson of the Aeroshell Aerobatic Team.
The ride was set up by Aspen Avionics, one of the many sponsors of the team. Pilots joke that it doesn’t take airflow over the wing to make these airplanes fly — it takes money. And sponsorships. And sponsorships. And more sponsorships.
The T-6 is sometimes called “the pilot maker” because of its widespread use. Introduced in 1938, it was used as a training aircraft for the United States Air Corps during World War II. Close to 15,500 were built by North American Aviation. After the war they were available for a few hundred dollars each. Many were bought by flight schools and used as complex trainers. The T-6 and its variations are still used today as training and light attack aircraft by the military forces around the world.
Although the T-6 is one of the more common warbirds around, the Aeroshell team is very much uncommon because of their skill. In flight, the four-ship team moves as one.
Gustafson flies the left wing slot. He told me that aviation runs in his family. After a few minutes talking to him I became convinced that he was born in a hangar, an E6-B in one hand.
The rest of the backseaters for the media flights came from The Aviators, the public broadcasting television program. Some were armed with video cameras. I warned then to set their cameras to wide angle, hit the on switch and DON’T look into the view finder because it will induce vomiting. I have vomited with the best of them while shooting from the back seats of aircraft and felt compelled to warn them. We made a No Hurl Pact and went to our respective aircraft.
For the media flight I was put into the back seat. I say put because it took a bit of an effort — and a boost — for me to climb into the airplane while wearing a parachute. It’s awkward and kind of heavy.
I got myself situated and made sure that none of my camera gear was going to obstruct the throttle or prop lever. I didn’t have to worry about impacting the controls because the back seat had been neutered — no stick — and I couldn’t reach the rudder pedals.
Gustafson made sure I was strapped in securely, my headset was working, and I knew how to unlatch the canopy, unplug the headset cord, undo the seatbelt, and push back the canopy all the way and pull the ripcord should a speedy egress be called for. The short form of that is “canopy, cord, belt and butt,” as in get the latter out of the airplane if necessary.
Gustafson ran the checklist, called clear prop and the aircraft roared to life. We trundled out to the runway in a four-ship formation.
If you think the Aeroshell team does a good show as seen from the ground, you should see it from the backseat. We were flying so close together that I was sure, had I opened the canopy, that I could have spit and hit the tail of the other aircraft. As if the proximity to the other aircraft wasn’t exciting enough, the team performs the first three maneuvers of the show on these media flights. Climbs. Loops. Steep turns. Smoke on. Smoke off. More loops.
Maybe it’s the sound of the engine. Maybe it’s the close formation. Maybe it’s the G-forces. Maybe it is the combination of all three, but the flight induces screaming, as in pure joy and unbridled passion.
All good things, such as airplane rides, have to come to an end. As we touched down on the runway Gustafson sort of sighed and remarked, “And now back to reality.”
For more information: NAAT.net
See Part II here.