By John DeThomas
It was Oct. 2, 1965 — my first solo flight in the T-34B Mentor as a young ensign starting flight training in Pensacola, Florida. I just verified that date in my musty old Navy log book.
Most of you will know that the roaring, snorting T-34B Mentor was a modified single-engine, piston Beechcraft Bonanza with a conventional tail, a stick and a tandem cockpit sporting a sliding glass, greenhouse canopy.
By the time of my first solo I had 11 previous instructed flights and a grand total of 13 flight hours.
The solo flight originated from Naval Auxiliary Field Saufley, just north of Pensacola. I remember the first part of the flight required a lot of mother-may-I on the radio with the control tower and relatively complex course rules for departure.
Somehow I ended up in the VFR practice area, which was actually in south Alabama. It was a nice day and after 20 minutes of gentle turns and timid sightseeing, I decided that this flying business might work out all right.
Can’t imagine why — most likely stupidity — but I decided to try something more adventurous, some sort of minor aerobatics.
I had seen a loop by an instructor earlier and that seemed as simple as any. One just increased the power a bit, pushed the nose down to pick up the required entry airspeed and pulled to a specified G level. The T-34 had an accelerometer on the panel and I want to remember the requirement was to pull and hold 3.5g.
If the maneuver was done correctly, there would be no roll motion, the blue sky would start out at the top of the windscreen and the brown dirt on the bottom. As one pulled, the brown would slip out of sight on the bottom of the windscreen and at some point the front would be all blue.
Continuing the pull, the brown would show up again on the top of the windscreen and would rather quickly fill the whole view. Keeping the pull going would result in the world coming back in place, sky on top and dirt on the bottom.
If done correctly, the maneuver was like swinging a bucket of water over one’s head: The water stays in the bucket if the swing is strong enough, meaning that during a proper loop, the pilot kept his butt in the seat with positive G throughout.
Anyway, I clearly remember pulling to the vertical and looking quickly out the side. It seemed to be going well!
I also remember thinking “don’t touch anything now or you’ll screw it up.”
Unfortunately, I forgot that as the airplane went vertical and the speed dropped, one needed to keep pulling the stick back further to keep the positive G going.
In this case, the plane kept going pretty much up, but was rapidly running out of airspeed. At some point close to the top of this oblong loop, the positive G turned into negative G and the water started to fall out of the bucket — the water being me, trying to come out of the seat, upside down.
Not to worry, I was secured in the seat with a strong web belt and shoulder harness.
Unfortunately, as I lightened in the seat, the cuff of my left hand flight glove caught the lever release of the seat harness, which released, causing me to fall, back-first, into the inside top of the canopy.
“There I was, at umpteen thousand feet,” on my back in the canopy, playing dying bug with my hands waving, unable to reach any of the controls.
This early temporary version of an unmanned aircraft went into an inverted stall. Not being much of an aerodynamic wizard, I sort of characterized the situation as the inverted falling leaf maneuver.
The houses were getting bigger, my eyes were probably the size of coffee saucers, and I remember thinking that this was going to be one short flying career.
After what seemed like five minutes but was more likely 10 seconds, the T-34 decided that the dummy had forgotten what to do, so it rolled off a bit on one wing and scooped out the bottom of what would technically be characterized as an uncontrolled, wild-ass octaflugeron.
Our young ensign fell back into the seat at that point and grabbed the stick like he was strangling a rattle snake. Somewhere in the Navy airplane boneyard there is still a T-34B with my finger impressions on the steel stick grip.
Wings level, power back at cruise, pulse about 200, I figured out where home was and spent the rest of the flight with the canopy cracked open, smoking a cigarette with shaking fingers, trying to decide if it was time to request a transfer to the Navy Supply Corps. Many of us smoked at that time; you could buy cigarettes for 10 cents a pack at sea. I guess it was the Navy’s plan to reduce long-term retirement costs.
Anyway, flying did get a bit better after that first solo, but it was a long time before I tried another loop.
John DeThomas is the owner of a Beech BE-35B Bonanza, a graduate of the US Navy Test Pilot School, was a Chief Test Pilot for Lockheed Aeronautical Systems Company, an Associate Fellow of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, Director of Flight Operations a Raytheon Aircraft Co.(Beechcraft/Hawker) from 1995-1997, Director of Flight Training at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Prescott, Arizona, campus from 1999-2002 and was administrator of the Idaho Division of Aeronautics from 2007-2012.