Chris Prevost has been operating Vintage Aircraft for who-knows-how-many years, giving rides in his two Stearmans and SNJ-4 out of Schellville. He’s out there almost every day of the week, giving rides around the patch to anyone who’ll walk up and drop the right number of twenties across the desk. Good old fashioned barnstorming aviation, on a good old-fashioned airfield, the way it used to be.
Aside from maintaining the Texan and Stearmans (Chris estimates he owns the equivalent of an extra 1.5 Stearmans in spare parts), Chris has been putting his spare hours in working on a special project in the north hangar. For the last 8 years, he’s been meticulously rebuilding and restoring a P-40N that he bought as a salvage project in Australia. The history of the restoration is enough material for a long story in and of itself – along the way, Chris ended up as owner of the P-40 type certificate.
Interesting thing about this one was that Chris was actually rebuilding it as a TP-40N, where the rear fuselage tank had been replaced by a roomy second cockpit with nearly a full set of controls.
I’d managed to stop by Schellville a few times over the past year and get a peek into the hangar where the restoration was going on. I suggested to Chris (as tactfully as I could) that – when the plane was ready to fly – I was pretty eager to be his new best friend. He responded with equal tact that, when the plane was ready to fly he’d have more “new best friends” than the could beat with a stick. But, he allowed, he was planning to give “instructional and demonstration” flights in the plane, and I should feel free to get in line.
I guess it was about a month ago that I was overflying Schellville on my way back from lunch at Petaluma, and looked down at the field to see an unfamiliar plane taxiing along the ramp. It wasn’t a Stearman or T-6, nor any of the dozen or so other, smaller planes that lived at Schellville. It was big and brown, and darned near unmistakeable. I entered an improvised pattern, landed, and taxied up in time to watch Chris shut the P-40 down at the gas pump and climb out. He’d just returned from a test flight, and was almost “open for business” in his new pride and joy.
Once he’d finished chatting with Denny the mechanic, I cornered him and asked how much he thought it would cost to be his new best friend. The number was a bit startling: about $2600/hour. Yow. But then, you can go almost anywhere and fly a Mustang, or at least cram yourself into a jumpseat and ride along. But fly a P-40? I mean really fly one? This was probably your only chance. Or rather, mine.
I figured “well, someday I’m going to do it.” But on the flight home from Schellville, I found myself thinking about that Spitfire I’d always wanted to fly. I’d known for years that a fellow in Colorado was giving rides in a dual-control Spitfire (my all-time favorite airplane, even surpassing the P-40). After years of thinking “someday”, I’d finally given him a call to arrange a flight, only to be told that the plane had just gotten mixed up with a Hawker Hurricane in a ground accident, and wasn’t likely to be flying again for a loooooong time.
The P-40 was flying NOW. My sense of “carpe diem” came screaming out, so when I got home, I sent Chris email and asked “When can we fly?”
After a few exchanges with Sheryl, who does the booking, we settled on Sunday, May 17th. I was nervous as all get-out the night before, but that morning, the weather raised an unusual complication: the temperature for Sonoma that day was forecast to exceed 100 degrees F. I was scheduled to fly in the early afternoon. I thought about spending that time in the closed greenhouse canopy. I thought a moment about what I would be paying for the experience, and called north to ask if we could postpone a few days until the weather cooled down. Sheryl readily agreed, and we set the new date as Friday the 22nd.
Weather that Friday was cool (or at least cooler) and gorgeous. I hopped north over the Berkeley hills in Martin’s Citabria (no way I was going to show up flying anything with the tailwheel up front!).
The broken layer at 800 was just burning off as I circled Schellville for a wind reading. The ramp and hangars sit at the west end of 7-25, and since most days the wind comes from the west, you get to taxi straight off the end of the runway to the tie-down area.
The field was already in full operation as I rolled up; both Stearmans were loaded with passengers and ready to go. I tied down and made my way in to the hangar/office of Vintage Aircraft. Sheryl Carlucci, who runs the books and ground operations, told me that Chris was pulling the plane out of the hangar and would be here shortly.
Sure enough, moments later, they came around the corner, pulling N540TP along hangar in their vintage jeep-tug. I introduced myself as they shut down and asked if I could be of any assistance. Chris isn’t a man of many words – at least not with folks he hasn’t flown with – so he just said that I should make myself at home while he preflighted.
I flipped a coin between following close around the preflight and taking the opportunity for some cockpit familiarization, and decided to let him be and go for the latter.
I’d been memorizing the “Pilot’s Flight Operating Manual” I’d purchased at Amazon (preview pages on Google Book Search), and was eager to see the levers, switches and knobs in person. The manual had been written with T-6 pilots in mind, full of comparisons: “Unlike the T-6 you’ve been flying, the P-40 is equipped with…”, so I felt I had a good idea what I was getting into.
I was, of course, going to spend my actual flight time in rear cockpit, which had a more spartan set of controls. Stick and throttle quadrant, airspeed, altimeter and turn coordinator, manifold pressure, RPM and oil temperature. No way to mess with flaps or gear, nor adjust trim, switch tanks work radios or… a lot of other stuff. But with someone up front in the main office, it was definitely enough to fly with.
Having satisfied myself that I’d adequately sussed out my seat, I peered forward into the much-more cluttered front cockpit. Things were pretty much where the manual said they’d be, and the entire setup looked a lot like the front office of a T-6, with a few extra gizmos scattered around.
There were relatively few major differences from a T-6, the main ones being the electric propeller, hydraulic system, and the extra plumbing associated with the liquid-cooled 1040 horsepower Allison V-12 up front.
When everything was operating normally, the electrically-adjusted propeller worked just like the oil-driven ones I was familiar with. The added complication was a circuit breaker and four-way switch that could be flipped either straight out, up, down-left or down right. When “up”, the prop was in “automatic” mode, adjusting pitch to match the RPM setting determined by the propeller control on the throttle quadrant. Basically, what we’d consider “normal” for a constant speed prop. When the switch was pulled straight out, the prop held its current fixed pitch, regardless of what the engine RPM or prop control on the throttle quadrant did. That fixed pitch could be manually increased or decreased by moving the switch down-left or down-right.
Operating the hydraulics for gear and flaps also has a few extra twists. The gear handle is a short “Johnson bar” on the pilot’s left, with a small locking pin near the base of the handle that needs to be pulled out to allow the handle to move into the “up” position. Once the handle is up, you squeeze a toggle on the control stick (right hand) to activate the hydraulics. Beyond the wheel indicator gauge, you’re supposed to be able to tell that the gear is up by because the hydraulics will start “whining” – I kid you not. At that point, you pump the hydraulic hand pump a couple of times (using your other right hand – resembles the T-6’s fuel wobble pump), then return the gear handle to neutral to lock the system. Gear down is the same dance, vaguely in reverse.
The attention to detail in the plane’s finish was impressive. In our T-6, the first activity after settling into your seat is always to reach down and fish underneath for the fallen ends of the seat harness. In Chris’ plane, the ends hung neatly within reach from small hooks on either side. The headset too had its own small perch.
As I strapped in (four-point harness with double lap belt), Chris briefed me on emergency egress: Canopy – via either the release-and-slide lever or overhead jettison, then Cords – get the headset off, and only then release the seat harness to get the heck out.
The plan was fairly loose: he’d handle start, taxi and takeoff, then turn the controls over to me once we were cleaned up and established in cruise climb. From there, I was to keep us right side up, with the airspeed over 150 mph – for cooling – but other than that, I was free to do what I wanted.
This plane had originally been equipped with an inertial starter (“energize” spins the starter up, then “engage” transfers that momentum to the propeller). But Chris had replaced it with a lighter and more reliable direct starter that was more familiar to me. This made the start old hat for anyone with experience behind a fuel-injected engine: mixture full, boost on, throttle cracked, mixture to idle cutoff, boost off, then engage. Bring the mixture forward as the engine catches, and watch for oil pressure gauge to move within a couple of seconds.
At that point, the engine’s generating heat, so you’ve got to get moving. The Stearmans were back, and for some reason, one of them had shut down on the runway. Chris taxied out on the grass that paralleled 7-25 and waxed philosophically about the pilot’s wisdom in blocking the only usable runway.
Chris explained to me that the Stearman on the runway was more than just an issue of courtesy; it could materially affect our flight if he didn’t clear in a minute or two. You see, the weak point of the P-40 seems to be insufficient engine cooling. That big air scoop on the nose looks great with a shark’s mouth painted on it, but the two radiators it houses just aren’t enough to keep the Allison cool on the ground. For all we think of the P-40 defending the steaming jungles of Burma, this plane absolutely wilts in hot weather. Even on a day like this, if we weren’t airborne within about five minutes of engine start, we were going to have to shut down where we were and let the engine cool before departure.
Fortunately, the Stearman got his problems sorted about the same time Chris finished the runup (again, pretty standard stuff with the exception of the need to test manual and fixed pitch functions of the prop control). He lined us up on 25 pointing west and fed the power in smoothly.
The manual calls for 45″ and 3000 rpm during takeoff (for up to five minutes) – having never spent time in something with that kind of power, the acceleration was a bit startling. Visibility over the nose was no worse than on a T-6, and the tail came up so quickly that it didn’t much matter.
On the roll, backseat felt (not surprisingly) much like that of the T-6. It’s a bit far back from the center of rotation, so you really feel yourself come up when the tail lifts, and every small wag of the tail is amplified. What surprised me, though, was how quiet the plane was as we broke ground and climbed away. The T-6 always felt like it was barging loudly through the air, belching noise from the P&W 1340 up front. Even at the P-40’s target climb speed of 160 mph, there was remarkably little wind or engine noise (given the 1040 horsepower grinding up front); it felt more like we were slicing cleanly through the atmosphere with relatively little effort.
With the gear up, Chris began a climbing right turn into a sort of oval traffic pattern at about 800′. Ah yes – what better way to start than to buzz the field. The Stearmans were still taxiing back on the grass as we rocketed by not too far from the deck.
On the second climbout, Chris set recommended climb power – 35″ and 2500 rpm – and handed the controls over to me. The manual calls best rate climb at “between 150 and 160 mph”, and Chris asked me to keep it above 150 for cooling, so I aimed for 160 as we climbed westward.
In climb, the P-40’s controls were light all around. I s-turned to keep visibility over the Chris’ shoulders and the long nose stretching out ahead of him as we climbed to our target altitude of 5000′. We’d originally planned to head out over the ocean, but the solid undercast to the west didn’t afford much in the way of emergency landing opportunities, so we doubled back over Napa and north.
Once we’d reached target altitude, I leveled off and let Chris trim the plane after we’d gone to cruise power: 30″ and 2300 rpm. Airspeed picked up to about 220 mph, which Chris told me was the plane’s favorite place to be. At that speed, everything tightened up and harmonized nicely. It was light in pitch and stiff in roll (like the T-6), but responded very quickly if you forced it.
I started out with a pair of steep turns – roughly 60 degree banks each way, first right, then left. The aft seating made it almost trivial to stay coordinated, and despite what I’d heard, the long nose seemed to help keep us pinned on the horizon. Hauling out of the first turn, reversing into the second and pulling back really got the Walter Mitty juices flowing: here I was, flying a fighter plane!
Came out of the steep turns only 100′ off altitude, and set up for a pair of lazy eights. Pulling these off within parameters turned out to be a bit more complicated because of the airspeed-for-cooling restriction. Even during the brief time coming around the top of the “8” you could visibly watch the water temperature rise as the airspeed dipped to (and briefly below) 150 mph.
I tried a few more turns, dutch rolls and eights before deciding that I should let Chris show me what he liked to do in the plane. He gave me an eager “Oh yeah” and started gently down toward the deck. We headed south towards the Bay, cruising downhill and slowly picking up speed. Passed the dormant Infineon Racetrack on our left at about 1000′, and Chris went wings up and hauled us around the perimeter like it was a race pylon. Now eastbound, and still descending over open farmland, I noticed that he seemed to be eyeing a tractor making its way along a set of furrows. “Friend of yours?” I asked. “Oh yeah, old friend.”
We came up behind the tractor doing somewhere north of 250, right on the deck. The farmer gave us a slow, knowing wave (apparently this wasn’t the first time Chris had said hello to him this way), and we hauled back again, peeling off the bombing run to convert our speed back into the safety of altitude.
Once we were back in the “normal” flight envelope, Chris handed the stick back to me and asked what else I wanted to try. I’d originally been interested in exploring the slow flight handling, but given the warmth of the day, that just wasn’t going to happen. When buckling in, we’d briefed the need to not have anything lying around unsecured, in the event that we “found ourselves upside down”, so I was confident that Chris wouldn’t have objected to some light acro. But we’d been up for about 40 minutes by then, and I found myself feeling kind of “done”.
I let Chris know my thoughts and steered us back toward Schellville. Approaching the pattern, I handed the back controls over and resumed my “passenger” duties: sitting back and enjoying the view.
Over the field on an outbound 45 leg, we heard a Bonanza call in, same position. We did our best “where the hell is he?” head swivels and got radio confirmation that he was behind us, also entering the pattern to land. While we were on the turning inbound on the 45, however, he cut in straight to downwind ahead of us, dropped his gear and flaps and slowed to what must’ve been about 90 mph in a Sunday-in-the-park extended pattern.
I expected some strong words from Chris, but he was ever the gentleman: “Uh.. Bonanza on exteeeeeeeended downwind, I’m sorry but Curtiss Zero Tango Papa’s going to have to cut ahead of you for the landing.” They gave us a collegial “Ooookey – what kind of Curtiss did you say you were?”. At this point, we were already downwind, abeam the numbers. Chris must’ve dropped the gear on the inbound leg (Vle is 170) without me noticing. Just past the abeam point, he threw the flaps down (below 140 mph), pulled into a gentle but continuous downwind-to-base-to-final arc and set up the power and airspeed for landing.
Manual calls for radiator shutters to be open for landing; prop at 2600 rpm, with airspeed between 110 and 115 mph. While it warns that you might be disturbed by the lack of visibility over the nose in landing configuration, I found it to be no worse than (yes, you guessed it) the T-6.
Power came most of way – but not all the way – back across the numbers, and the nose came up into a standard three-point attitude. There was surprisingly little float, and we settled quickly with one bounce. Stick all the way back and a dance on the rudder pedals to keep us centered on Schellville’s runway; 45′ doesn’t seem that wide when you’re can’t see where you’re going at 80 mph!
Chris had us slowed down with plenty of room to spare, and we trundled off the end, onto the ramp area, and in front of the fuel pumps. Shutdown was uneventful. We’d used 30 gallons of fuel in about 45 minutes of flight. More than the T-6, but not staggeringly so, as you’d expect from something with almost twice the horsepower. Also remarkably little oil sprayed everywhere – the joys of a V-12, I suppose.
[Need some clever wrap-up here, I suppose, but at this point, I think I’ve said everything I had to say. It was great fun – I’m glad I did it, and I now have a shiny little bit of PIC time logged in a P-40; that’s something that a rapidly-diminishing number of pilots can claim these days.]
Full photo album at picasaweb.google.com/david.cohn/P40Flight
Vintage Aircraft Company site: http://vintageaircraft.com/