US Air Force Technical Order 1-1-300: “…Check flights are performed to determine if an aircraft is fit to fly. Check flights are normally conducted following maintenance work on primary aircraft systems…”
“I’m taking 2304 up for a check ride today,” announced Major Crowley, one of the two pilots assigned to Keesler Air Force Base’s 3380th Maintenance Squadron for the specific purpose of flying check flights. Crowley was one of Keesler’s most experienced and versatile pilots. He probably had more flying hours in the T-28 than any other pilot on base. In 1969 he was about a year from retiring after 30 years. He had flown combat missions in World War II. He had taught more people to fly the T-28 “Trojan” trainer than any other instructor pilot.
So Crowley was the perfect check pilot for the T-28. Check pilots worked directly for the Chief of Maintenance, Colonel Slaughter, my boss, in this case.
The 50s vintage T-28 trainer looks clunky compared to modern planes. But the D-model with its three-bladed prop has a much bigger nine-cylinder radial engine than the original two-bladed A-model. In combination with its high-lift wing design, the more powerful T-28D has a performance profile that rivals the much more well-known P-51 Mustang patrol/fighter made famous in World War II. The D-model can approach Mach 1.0 in a steep dive (although not recommended), can fly inverted for up to ten seconds without losing oil pressure, and with its high-lift wing can glide without power much further than its sleeker counterparts. With enough run-up or dive speed it can even do a near-vertical climb straight up for several seconds. A wealthy Houston attorney named J. Gary Trichter has his own rehabbed T-28-D and calls it “The poor man’s P-51.”
Trichter maintains that “the Trojan can out-climb, out-roll and out-turn a Mustang,” and quotes author Robert Genat as saying, “The T-28 is arguably the best kept secret in aviation … and may be the most complex propeller driven warbird around, but it is also one of the easiest to maintain. … The whole craft is designed around its engine. It certainly doesn’t fly like it looks, stubby and chunky, not at all pretty on the ground, and it doesn’t sound too good, either. But in the air, it’s a thoroughbred. Drive a Mustang, a T-6 or a T-34 above 200 to 250 knots, and their controls get very heavy. Take a T-28 out to the redline and you can still fly it with two fingers, just as if you had servo-boosted controls. It’s a sweet-flying airplane.”
"Hey Lieutenant! How’d you like to come along on the check ride today?" asked Major Crowley as he peeked his head into my office in Hangar 5.
"No thanks, sir. You guys get all that extra flight pay for being pilots and I have never had much interest in it."
Crowley walked on in and took a chair.
"Well, I need someone in the front seat."
"Why? The T.O. [Technical Order] says ‘minimum crew’."
I was proud of that little factoid that I’d picked up in AMOC, (Aircraft Maintenance Officer Course: “Check flights will be conducted by the minimum aircrew defined by the technical manual and MAJCOM directives plus any personnel designated by the OG/CC or equivalent as required for the mission…” I thought I had cleverly refuted Major Crowley by citing the Air Force technical order on check flights.
"Yeah, yeah, I know the T.O.,” Crowley replied, annoyed, “but I need someone in the front seat to check the instruments."
"Can't you see the instruments from the back seat?"
"Not really. Not all of them. And some are too small to read."
"I don't know how to read the instruments."
"That's okay. I'll explain it while we’re up in the air."
"No thanks, Major. I think you should get a student pilot or another pilot who knows what they’re looking at if you need somebody to check front seat instruments."
"You mean you don't want to get into an aircraft that your people just worked on? You don't trust your own crew?"
(My propulsion shop had just replaced the engine the previous day.)
"Of course I trust them. I just don't see any need for me to go along on a check ride."
Then Major Crowley pulled his trump card.
"I'm sure Colonel Slaughter will be glad to hear that you refuse to fly in an airplane that your people just worked on."
Damn. That did it. He had me. As a young lieutenant I did not want to look bad in front of the boss, Colonel Slaughter. I reluctantly agreed to go up with the Major.
Not much later I was in the office of the Squadron’s Maintenance Superintendent, the imposing, famously irritable 29-year veteran 6’-4” 250-pound Chief Master Sergeant Ralph Johns. I explained that Major Crowley had convinced me, against my better judgment, to go along on a check ride. I asked Chief Johns if he had any advice.
"He'll probably jerk you around a little," said Johns. "But it's no big deal. If you feel like you're going to puke, just open your shirt and puke into your shirt. If you puke on the instrument panel, tradition requires that you clean it up yourself."
"But this is just a check ride. The Major’s not going to do anything funny when he’s just checking things out, is he?"
"I don't think so — sir."
Chief Johns was a master at the prominent, almost sarcastic, pause before saying “sir” whenever he spoke to officers, pilots or not. “I hate officers — sir,” he once told me. Johns also said, “You’re full of shit — sir” on numerous occasions in response to some of my ill-conceived newbie maintenance procedure suggestions.
I went over to the Flight Operations building where Major Crowley told me that I had to first undergo parachute practice.
Parachute practice? This was starting to sound more dicey than I thought.
They had a cross-section mockup of a cockpit and right wing in a special room where pilots could suit up and become familiar with the basic cockpit layout including how to jettison the canopy, climb out on to the wing, and basically dive off the wing to parachute to the ground. You had to dive off because just jumping off might cause the tail to hit you in the head before you got below the tail in flight. There were a few air mattresses under the wing to practice diving onto. After a few somersaults Crowley said, “That's enough, that's all there is to it."
Next was back to the flight line to tail number 2304.
Fortunately, one of my personal protection gear (PPG) shop guys was nearby and he showed me how to suit up. First you buckled the parachute around your chest, then pulled over the shoulder strap and pulled up the crotch straps. The airman told me that the shoulder and crotch straps had to be good and tight. If you had to bail out, he said, the last thing you wanted was to have loose crotch straps because they could do serious, painful damage to your scrotum when the parachute jerked opened. If the crotch straps pinched a little bit down there, they were just right. There were several other buckles and straps which he helped me with as I was strapped into the front student seat with Major Crowley right behind me in the instructor’s position.
The T-28 is bigger than it looks from a distance. Strapped in and helmeted, your head is probably around ten feet off the ground. Crowley slid the bubble canopy closed, and as it latched, I could feel those oh-so snug crotch straps.
Crowley taxied out and off we went into the wild blue yonder.
Things were going smoothly as Major Crowley slowly ascended to 8,000-9,000 feet and flew straight and level for a couple of minutes giving me a fantastic panoramic view of the South Coast of Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico.
Then, all of a sudden, WHUMP! — the plane nosed over and was descending straight down. It happened so fast that I had no time to even consider pulling my shirt out, so I barfed all over the canopy and the instrument panel. As I recovered and looked out over the nose I could see the ground rapidly approaching.
I was about to die!
But no sooner had my life unreeled before me in all its pre-death glory Crowley pulled out of the dive and headed up into what's called a hammerhead stall where he climbed almost straight up until the plane would no longer keep going up, at which point it fell off to the right side and pulled into another dive — which caused me to puke again.
By this time I could hear over the roar of the engine that Major Crowley was laughing his head off as he put me and the plane through several more aerobatic maneuvers — barrel rolls, a few seconds of inverted flight, a loop or two, and some other maneuvers I don't know the names of. Each move came as a complete and somewhat painful surprise because I had no idea when it was about to occur. I must have dry-heaved three or four more times during the rest of the flight, but I had long ago emptied. Immobilized by the seat straps, there was no way to even turn around and glare at the giddy Major.
When Major Crowley finally finished the check ride he performed one of his patented Air Force style ever-so gentle floating, gliding landings (not like the much harder and steeper Navy style carrier landings which Crowley said were rough on the landing gear) and then taxied back to the tiedown area where Sergeant Johns was waiting. Johns was smiling as well.
At that point it finally dawned on me that I had been tricked into a maintenance officer initiation ride which Crowley and Johns were obviously enjoying. It was a conspiracy!
Chief Johns bent over and picked up a mop bucket and some rags and handed them to me and, turning deadpan, said, "We’ll be back in a while to make sure you got everything — sir."
Maybe an hour later Major Crowley and Chief Johns returned and made a big show of inspecting the cockpit to make sure that it was fully cleaned up, pointing out a few places I missed.
"Ok. You passed — sir." Johns finally said. "You are now a real maintenance officer."
“Congratulations,” Major Crowley said, as he handed me a beat up old gray flight jacket with a “3380th Flight Ops” patch over the left pocket and “SCARAMELLA” stitched over the right pocket.