“This is Ghost Rider, requesting a fly-by.”
“Negative – the pattern is full.”
(Maverick puts the nose down and hits the throttle)
“No Mav, this is not a good idea…”
“Sorry Goose, but it’s time to buzz the tower.”
Raise your hand if “Top Gun” was a formative experience in your life. Yeah, me too. I saw that movie the end of July, 1986 when I had a summer job down at Moffett Field - it was still a Navy base back then. It was a few days later (August 4th, according to my logbook), that I found myself in the left seat of a tired old Cessna 150 at Palo Alto airport for my first real flying lesson. And I guess I’ve never really looked back since then.
I’ve been out at Moffett most of the week so far, helping the Collings Foundation folks wipe oil off planes, chatting with visitors, running the PX sales and – when I can, hitching rides. Yesterday evening, Jim flagged me down and said there was an empty seat in the back of the B-25 if I wanted. Did I want? Silly question.
Now, I’ve jumpseated the B-24 and flown right seat twice in the B-17 – honking big four engine bombers weighing in upwards of 50,000 pounds a piece. By comparison, the B-25 is a sportscar. Mid-fuselage wing and a pair of enormous R-2600 engines with twelve and a half foot paddle-blade props, it cruises at over 200 mph and maneuvers more like a fighter. I’d noticed that Jim (who you’ll remember as the guy who gave me my intro to the P-51) got a goofy kind of teenage crush grin whenever he talked about flying the B-25. Did I want? Yeah.
The spare seat was in the rear section, near the waist guns. Elaine briefed us on safety procedures and saw that we were strapped in (there’s something especially lovely about a Georgia accent when describing emergency egress), and then we were off.
Ty and Syd were up front, driving, and when they pushed the throttles forward, wow – I understood what Jim meant about the “sportscar” thing. Seemed like only five minutes later we were halfway up the bay, hauling north over Oakland at 1500 feet. Left turn at the Bay Bridge, another one at Treasure Island and a quick run for home. We took turns alternating between the waist section windows and the tailgunner slot, watching the Bay Bridge and Treasure Island fly by backwards at 200 mph.
Too soon, we were back on the ground.
“Fun?” Jim asked. I nodded. Enthusiastically. “Good. Now we’ve got to get you some stick time up front. You available tomorrow morning? Around eight? I need to get some practice.”
Yeah, it was hard to get to sleep last night.
We took our time helping folks get set up this morning, so it was probably a touch past nine by the time Jim had walked me through the procedures up to the point of engine start. “I’ll do the left, you watch me, and to the right.” Mixture idle cutoff, prop forward and throttle cracked until it clicks. Fuel boost low initially, then up to high once pressure has built. Wait for the signal from your ground handler, crank the starter through three blades with your index finger, pull the primer with your middle finger, flip the mags to “both” and wait for it to catch. When it does, push mixture to full rich and…you know, I don’t really need to walk you through the whole procedure, do I? I’ll just jump to the point where I get to push the twin throttles forward and we head down the runway like we’ve been launched from a slingshot. One word? “Woooohooo!” Yeah, she gets going in a hurry. And while she’s heavier than a Bonanza, she’s got about ten times the horsepower of my usual ride.
“You doing okay?” I think Jim asked the question more out of curiosity over what words I would choose than any concern over their sentiment. I believe I answered with the sort of maniacal laugh that would seem out of place if we weren’t barrelling southbound, low over Los Gatos, with an enormous 1400 horsepower windmill churning behind each ear. I was doing okay. I was doing more than okay. Andrea had come along, technically as flight engineer, but mostly because it was another chance to fly, and crawled up into the nose to get some scenic shots. We did a few turns around the hills around South County then headed north up the valley.
The ‘25 is a lovely, stable ship, and turns like she’s on rails. I started scheming with Jim about all the places we need to convince Collings to let us take it. Seattle? Burning Man? Just saying – it would be a crowd pleaser.
I started feeling guilty about all the gas we were burning, but as we hooked back into air traffic control, another, less ambitious plan wormed its way into my head.
“Hey – you don’t suppose Palo Alto would give us a low pass, do you?”
“Never know unless you ask.”
So we asked. Moffett handed us off to Palo Alto tower, who cleared us “for the option”. Now, “the option” means you can do pretty much anything you want with respect to the runway – low approach, go-around, touch and go or full stop. Doolittle Raiders notwithstanding, there was no way we were going to try to touch pavement at Palo Alto in this plane, but I have to admit that line from Top Gun was loud in my ear. Only unlike Maverick, we had permission. We crossed the threshold at 100 feet doing 240 mph and pulled up into a high left break. I may have been making whooping noises the whole way – I don’t really remember. But I do know that the three of us had uncontrollable giggles going most of the short way back down to Moffett.
Palo Alto tower thanked us for the show and handed us back to Moffett Tower, who cleared us for an overhead break. Another couple of turns and we were set up (geez you come in steep in a B-25!) for 32 Left. Flare over the numbers and keeeeeeeeep the nose up like it’s a soft field landing, then just let it keep rolling to the end. And see if I can stop giggling, because I’m not sure I’ve had that much fun in, oh, ever. Which, as you know, is saying a lot.