Test Pilot

 It was not an auspicious start to the morning. Tiptoeing downstairs in the pre-dawn dark to avoid disturbing anyone, I misjudged the last step and clattered down to the landing on my butt, dumping my flightbag and knapsack in a clatter that probably woke the neighbors. Poise? Bruised. Posterior? Not so much.

I was aiming for poise here, because poise can often pass for confidence, and confidence, in the right measure, can help bolster a competence that’s lurking under the surface. I knew I had the competence for today’s challenge: almost half my flight time – about 800 hours worth – is in Commonwealth Skyrangers. But I really wanted a confidence booster. In a few hours I’d be strapping myself in to one that had spent the past seven years being put back together again, Humpty Dumpty style, from a trailer worth of parts. The guys who took over the project and reconstituted her back into a museum-quality work of aviation art know their stuff, and I’d trust them with my life. Wait – that’s exactly what I was going to be doing, wasn’t it?
But it made sense: somebody had to fly her first. She was my plane, and I had more experience in Skyrangers than anyone I knew west of the Mississippi, so… there I was, a few hours later on the ramp at Calaveras County airport, looking like an honest to God test pilot. Nomex flight suit, crash helmet, parachute. It wasn’t that any of us thought they’d be needed – it was just the thought that, if a fuel fitting should give way (Rich had a sobering story about that happening one time), or something come loose under the floor and jam the stick (I’ve read that in the NTSB reports)? Well, I’d feel awfully sheepish dealing with an in-flight fire or control failure thinking “If only I’d worn the Nomex, if only I’d brought that chute along….” Today, I am a test pilot. So I’d better be dressed for the job.
Steve and Andrew had washed, buffed, tightened, aligned and checked everything about as many times as they could without it starting to look like a nervous habit. I’d done more laps in my walkaround than Mario Andretti. Finally, there really wasn’t anything else to do but fly the plane. The morning heat was already coming up, and the sooner we got this over with the better.
Engine had been run on a test cell before installation, which reduced some of the challenges of a first flight. Low speed taxi tests seemed normal. We went back and forth on the merits of a high speed taxi test. Flight test protocol called for a series of high-speed taxi tests when flying an unproven design – they were intended to verify controllability and check stability at gradually increasing speeds, drawing lines on a chart to point to the predicted speed at which the plane would have to commit to flight. As the restoration of a well-understood plane, we knew exactly at what speed the Skyranger would want to fly (65 mph), and the narrow toed-in gear made every second spent on the runway another opportunity to wheelbarrow the damned thing into a ball that would vindicate my decision to wear the borrowed helmet.
We had 3600 feet of runway to deal with, and I’ve regularly operated the Skyranger out of airports with less than half that. We reached a compromise: first third of the runway would be a controllability test – pitch, roll and lateral stability. If everything looked good there, including the airspeed and engine indicators, I would have another 1200 feet to decide whether to commit aviation, and another 1200 ahead in which to stop if, at the end of the first 2400, I decided not to.
The shiny new C-85 started right up, and I talked through my actions with Andrew and Steve on the radio. “Okay – Calaveras County traffic, Debonair 9756… no, wait, Citabria… no….” It took me an embarrassingly long time to get those long disused words out: “Ah…Commonwealth Three Niner Five – I’m going to take her up to full static RPM here in the runup area; Andrew – what do you think I should be seeing here?”
Two incoming Zenairs were on the downwind to land when I made the call “Calaveras County traffic, Commonwealth 395 will take the runway after the Zenairs clear; initial flight test.” Encouraging words came from one of the two, and another voice I didn’t recognize wished me luck and said that they’d say a prayer for me. Now some of you may know that my own flavor of spirituality doesn’t put a lot of stock in prayer-induced divine intervention. But the voice on the radio was reaching out – offering a serious gift deeply rooted in their faith. Who was I not to thank them for their kindness? And besides, you know? As a scientist, I’m always open to the possibility that I’m wrong. I radioed back my appreciation and – once the Zenairs cleared – taxied onto the runway.
Oil temperature was finally starting to come up on the fancy 5-in-1 Stewart Warner tach. I let my eyes rest on the gauge for a minute – the crown jewel of the panel. I’d spent four years trying to track down a salvageable Stewart Warner tach, and a couple more getting it sent place to place to get it working again.
Full run-up was predictably slow – we’d put a new McCauley prop on, and it had a few inches more pitch in it than my old Sensenich. It was going to grab at the air more, in theory giving a faster cruise speed, but at the expense of low speed acceleration and climb. The McCauley thwub-thwubbed against the pressure of the brakes. Then…
“Commonwealth ‘395 – on the roll.” I kept the mic keyed, narrating the initial acceleration for Andrew and Steve. I knew I was going to have too much going on to remember all the quirks and ticks I was checking off – I wanted to make sure someone else heard them.
“Airspeed’s alive, looks linear so far. Tail comes up nicely, not too much stick forc…whoa – rudder’s effective! [dancing quickly] Ailerons are balanced… Good… Rocking the wings each sid…Geez she’s squirrely!”
Less than a thousand feet into the test, two things were clear: 1) she would fly, and fly well. 2) she was going to give me more trouble with her wheels on the runway than off it. I let her accelerate to 65 mph indicated, cross checking my speed against the GPS, then eased back on the stick. She made one more attempt at a sideways dodge before consenting, and gradually, oh-so gradually we rose into the already sweltering Calaveras morning.
Flying. We’re flying. Damn, this helmet doesn’t fit, and my head hurts. But we’re flying! Very controllable – rocking the wings gently as we leave the runway below and behind. Climb rate… getting 400 fpm. Not spectacular. Prop is thwubbing ahead, but only showing 2200 rpm – we definitely need a flatter prop. But that can wait. Right now? We’re flying. Oh crap, we’re flying! I catch up with the moment and start around on a right turn to keep us close to the airport. During these first 30 seconds we’re especially vulnerable – an engine failure here, and we wouldn’t be able to get the nose pointed back at the runway before we ran out of altitude. So I tuck it in tighter in the turn.
But not too tight – I want to explore the control envelope slowly. Yes, she’s a certified aircraft and, when properly assembled, should exhibit gentle, well-studied behavior. But she’s also been taken as far apart as an airplane can be and still survive re-assembly. Don’t. Want. Surprises.
We’re quickly back in the “glide cone” – the range from which I can reach the airport in event that the engine quits, and I realize that I’ve still got my thumb on the transmit button. I mumble “oops” and let up, hoping that Andrew hasn’t been trying to reach me with a message about trailing smoke or anything.
He hasn’t. After a few seconds, all I get is a laconic “So – how does she feel?” Like a Skyranger, boys – like a Skyranger.
Climb is still sluggish as I circle, but I don’t want to keep the nose too far up. Oil temperature is rising, and early in an engine’s life is when it’s prone to glazing the cylinders if you let it get too hot. So I waffle between altitude (which will make me more comfortable) and airspeed (which will make the engine more comfortable). By now I’m rocking the wings a bit more, getting a feel for the control balance. It feels – remarkable that I can remember this after eight years – just like it used to. They did it right, they did.
We’d decided to start out with 10 gallons of fuel on board. That gave me, in theory, almost two hours of flight time, but we’d agreed that on this first hop, I’d plan to just stay up for 15 minutes. Between the heat of the oil temperature making me nervous and the helmet crushing my forehead, I’m ready to set her down. Which involves… landing.
Wasn’t there that medieval monk whose famous last words were something along the lines of “I know how to fly; it’s alighting that I haven’t mastered yet”? Apparently uttered in perfect confidence as he took his one brief, vertical flight from the abbey tower. And I’m fairly certain he didn’t flare for landing.
As followers of the Spitfire chronicles know from last month, landings have been on my mind. They’re the most delicate phase of a flight, and you really can’t get away with flying without doing one. I radioed Andrew and Steve that I was going to do some slow flight characterization. A landing, in practice, is just the process of flying the airplane more and more slowly while you inch toward the ground, in theory getting to the point where the wing stalls just as the distance between you and terra firma reaches zero. Best to practice this at altitude first.
So I brought the power back and felt my way through the controls at lower and lower airspeeds, finally setting up a power-off (not really off, just at idle) glide, and simulating a landing flare 3000′ up. She dutifully raised her nose and settled, finally giving me a clean but gentle stall break straight ahead after the airspeed indicator had wound down past 40. Just like I remembered.
I radioed Andrew and Steve that I was coming in, first overflying the field again to position myself for a standard right-hand traffic pattern. Somewhere on the outbound 45, another pilot fumbled through a broadcast announcing that they were entering a traffic pattern. Somewhere. A lot of these fields share frequencies, so without a clear designator, I had no idea whether he was coming up my tail or 50 miles away.
I decided not to be shy: “Calaveras County traffic (this is the part where we announce which airport we’re at), Commonwealth ‘395 on outbound 45, right traffic runway 31. INITIAL FLIGHT TEST.” I said the last three words with as much gravity as I could muster, hoping that if my inarticulate companion in the air were near by, they’d give me a bit of leeway.
I heard no further word, and returned my attention to the business of a gentle reunion with the intended runway. At this point, the drill was fairly straightforward. I’d been practicing landings in Martin’s Citabria to get my competence (and confidence) up. The Citabria’s a very different airplane in many respects, but it’s still a lightly loaded taildragger that can bite you in all the same ways as an errant Skyranger can. So I went through the pre-landing checklist: power back, carb heat on, trim for… oh, let’s say 75 mph. Keep the turn from base to final gradual, and aim, in this case, for about a third of the way down the runway. It’s plenty long, and there’s no point in keeping all our margin of error on one side. Stay high on the glideslope – Skyrangers, I now remember, do not so much fly as plummet at flight idle – and add a little power back in. There – that’s good.
And the rest was… uneventful. Came over the threshold at 65 mph, eased into the roundout about three or four feet up and got the tail down into “three point” attitude. And then she settled gently until all three tires chirped at the same moment.
Then, of course, realizing that she was a terrestrial vehicle again, she made one last attempt to squirrel off for the weeds, but I was ready for her, and in a few seconds we were gently thuwb thwubbing off onto the taxiway at the first turnoff.
Whew.
Enormous, enormous gratitude to Andrew Turpen and Steve Cook for the patient work on this project. They’re going to put another week of work into after this, to fix up a few things and finish off a few others, but wow. We’ve got an airplane. And boy is she gorgeous!

6 responses to “Test Pilot

  1. Congrats David! This sounds like a nice ending to a long story, and the beginning of a wonderful new adventure. I have a lot of questions and comments, but here's the most pressing: did your borrowed crash helmet have a tinted visor, and if so, why the sunglasses?

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  2. Thanks for sharing this story. I enjoyed going along for the ride.Congratulations on the restoration completion. It's beautiful, indeed.I'd love for my brothers to see your skyranger. They have fond childhood memories of flying with our Dad in his Skyranger.

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  3. Thanks for sharing this story. I enjoyed going along for the ride.Congrats on the restoration, its beautiful indeed. I wish my brothers could see your plane. They have fond childhood memories of flying with our Dad in his '46 Skyranger.

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  4. Thanks Erin! Weather permitting, I'm always happy to give rides if you or your brothers happen to find yourselves in the San Francisco Bay area. Do you remember the tail number or serial number of your dad's plane?

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  5. Pingback: Whew. | David Pablo Cohn·

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