It started out to be just one of those days.
Arrived at the airport for a 0900 'show time' for a 0930 takeoff on a one hour flight (an otherwise 6 hour drive) to Tehachapi in the C-45 to see one of our former Top Dog air combat pilots, now Student Test Pilot*, MAJ Matt Taylor USMC, sir. Also going to meet some of the honchos from Navy Test Pilot School (TPS) with an eye toward getting them to use our birds for handling evaluation flights.
Crew/passenger list: Jessica, a multi-engine instrument instructor as safety/co-pilot, our mechanic Skip and son/assistant Jason recently out of the Army, mechanic helper and passenger-loader Mark, plus Steve and Russell—two of the neatest kids I've ever met. Their grandma knew Pancho Barnes and was a DC-3 stewardess. She makes sure they hang out at the airport, "Where the good people are."
Mission: fly up to a glider strip near Edwards AFB to see Matt who is forced, as part of the TPS curriculum, to fly cool stuff like an Albatross HU-16 seaplane, a Beaver, an Otter and other esoteric flying machines, plus—at Tehachapi—gliders.
Only problem, the weather was dogshit (that's a scientific meteorological term) at 300 and half. So we all trudge up to the cafe for tales of daring-do aloft with American Airlines lineal number #3 pilot who said he landed in Hong Kong with a crosswind so strong that in the flare, before de-crab, the cockpit of the L-1011 was over the grass beside the runway although the main gear was about to touch down on the pavement centerline.
Coffee. Repeated checks of the ATIS by cell phone waiting for something to change. More coffee. No way we're going to launch with homebase and everything west of the mountains weathered in at minimums. If something happens where do you go? If we flew together everyday that'd be one thing. If we were flying a King Air that be another thing. But I'm not IFR current (1920s biplanes don't do IFR) and Jessica'd never been in a taildragger, much less a big 60 year old Twin Beech. Most conservative option: wait for it to clear up. Finally went to 900 and two and a half, and the inland fields cleared off completely so, "mount 'em up, move 'em out!"
Prestart and start go fine, Jessica snapping off checklist items like the pro she is. But we waited endlessly for other aircraft to request and copy clearances while we're solidly ignored. Finally we had a clearance, taxied, did our runups, and launched, into the wild, if not so blue, yonder. Route was radar vectors Oceanside, Victor 23 to Seal Beach just south of LAX, Victor something to Berri intersection near Hollywood thence Palmdale, home of the famous Lockheed plant, flight plan route (that is, direct). Climb and maintain 3000, expect 9000 ten minutes after departure.
On climb out we were IFR for maybe 2 minutes and then into clear blue skies, cotton ball fog below, with visibility more than 100 miles. Meteorological magic for the kids, this being their first experience breaking out on top. Radar vectors for traffic took us about half way out to Catalina Island, peak sticking up through the fog, and then direct Seal Beach. Glad we had to two big reliable Pratt & Whitneys rumbling outside the windows. Don't like swimming in cold water. Soon we're almost 2 miles high looking down at 747s as they approach LAX and I point out the huge HOLLYWOOD sign on the hillside looking tiny way below. With ground speed at 160 knots we were soon over Palmdale looking at the huge Edwards AFB dry lakebed, the Space Shuttle landing strip to the northeast, and Dick Rutan's base at Mojave to the north.
GPS said we were 20 miles out of Tahachapi, so we cancelled IFR but couldn't pick out the gliderport behind the ridge covered with a forest of huge white windmills. Calls on Unicom produced no response from anyone. Forecast and actual winds aloft were light and variable, and we quickly found the field. From an orbit overhead we hawked the windsock which seemed to be indecisive, and decided to land to the west, uphill. On short final a voice comes on the radio and recommends a landing to the east, so we buttonhook around, trying to avoid the mountains to the south and gliders to the north, airspeed high to avoid dangerous low speed steep turn stall crash burn syndrome and come screaming down final, engines at idle, everything hanging out wondering if 5400 feet is going to be long enough when 2300 usually is. But all's well that ends well, with nary a bounce, and we're down, taxiing in with wheels in the dirt on either side of the narrow taxiways. Jessica says something about that was exciting, never flew an approach quite like that before. I though she was being sarcastic, but the twinkle in her eye indicated otherwise.
Matt is waiting and proudly introduces us around as the crew disperses to find a bathroom to drain coffee and to look at airplanes and gliders. At 4200' MSL the sun is hot, the air desert dry, and it reminds me of learning to fly forty years ago in Santa Fe. But here we are out in the boonies. Not the edge of the earth, but you can see it from here, as they say.
Somehow you imagine test pilots decked out in G-suit, helmet under their arm, steely-eyed glint in their eye as they scan the skies. Not these guys. Fraternity brothers in Ray-Bans, jeans and ball caps. But the give-away is T-shirts that say Shuttle Test Team, and F-22 R&D, and Hooters with a picture of a double breasted twin engine rocket. Yup, just hanging out with the boys, your basic hometown Mercury 7 types. Regret not embarrassing myself and asking for a group picture with the two boys. In 10-20 years they'd be able to say, "See, there I am when I was 10 with John Glenn!" Or his 21st century equivalent, anyway.
Trigger and Mad Dog climb in the Beech and oogle the gauges and controls, commenting how much fun it must be to fly. That morning they were flying T-38C supersonic lawn darts doing special-waiver gear down Space Shuttle Approaches from 60,000 feet to the long shuttle landing strip at Edwards. Yeah, must be fun to fly!
Finally corral the honchos to talk a little business, and part way through what's turning into a sho-thing all we gotta do is get the paperwork handled, I realizing I'm sitting in my own big twin-engine beyond-my-wildest-adolescent-dreams 1942 C-45H a few miles from the dry lake bed where Chuck Yeager went supersonic for the first time, talking to the #2 man at the USAF Test Pilot School and the #3 man at the Navy Test Pilot school and it's all about a twice-annual week-long gathering with 3 of our planes at Edwards to fly with tomorrow's heros. Not only that, they'll pay us to do it. Holy Space Ship, Batman!
Nervous about recent weather trends at home and yesterday's change from CAVU to dogshit in 20 minutes. I don't feature having to bingo to Ramona and then rousting out the troops to come get us by car. So we all scramble back aboard, sweltering in the desert sun just like thousands of C-45 crews had done before us, fire up the P&Ws to the applause of a crowd of test pilots who appreciate good music when they hear it, and taxi out.
Chase prairie dogs across the field, bouncing through the dirt with a contrail of dust behind us. Run up over the one small piece of concrete we can find to protect the props from gravel nicks and GO right from the power check. Bend her around for the obligatory low pass salute, Matt jumping up and down in glee, waving like a mad man. Pitch up break and climb away, back to reality.
Flight home is uneventful except for cranky controllers who complain when we're 1.5 miles off the airway (how's a 60 year old airplane supposed to fly with 21st century precision?). Again over LAX watching the constant stream of heavies arriving from London, Tokyo, New Zealand, and Anchorage. Follow the beach south over the Queen Mary eying the encroaching marine layer fog, but happy to hear the Palomar ATIS report 900 and 2. We're vectored around endlessly, eventually within sight of the 200 inch Hale telescope observatory on Palomar Mountain way off to the east. Cleared for the approach. Report DEASY. Oops, we don't know where that is with only one VOR. Jessica is exasperated with herself (or me) for not catching that during our approach briefing. She asks the controller to call it.
At the last minute, everything otherwise under control, Approach asks if we can give her 120 knots to the marker and we agree adding power and fighting to keep the needles center. Jessica in best flight instructor voice orders me to watch my speed and get on that localizer, if you don't turn toward it you're just going to parallel it. Capture the glide slope, needles centered. "Marker Inbound." "Warbird One Eight Cleared to land." Going high, power back. Still high. Full flaps, still one dot high. "Field in sight, take over visually," she says. Grease her on, maybe best landing ever. Adrenalin will do that. Roll off at Alpha Three, cleared to the barn.
Former CEO of Polygram Records, acting now as lowly plane director, waves us into our parking spot. Shut down check list. Switches off. 3.1 hours on the hobbs. Applause from the back. Sure wish Kate could have enjoyed it with us; she's home doing the taxes. Some fun, that.
Arrive home and smell Kate's signature perfume. She looks up from her spread sheets, "You have fun honey?" Start talking about the beauty of a 'bread-and-butter' gig like a week of flying at government expense that would cover fixed costs. "Did you ask them if they could have any kind of planes they wanted what would they want?" We ponder what insurance on a $1.5 million, better than new, TF-51 would cost.
Later, after dinner, we getting ready for bed and the phone rings. It's Matt saying how much fun it was to see us, and how did the talk with the honchos go? Bring him up to date and chat about what he's going to be doing the next few days. Fun stuff he says. They have some of the F-18E/F software in the "baby Hornet" F-18C and they're gonna go do some high alpha stuff which is fully controllable 70 degree angle of attach hi-jinks. Even some tailsides, a definite no-no in the fleet—or practically any jet, actually, that depends on air coming in the front of the engine, not the back. Then some hi-alpha wifferdills in an F-16, which he's never flown.
But talk keeps coming back to the 51. He tells me he sat in one for the first time a few days earlier.
The two Italian guys with him got in trouble flying in a Falco without permission (their pink hairy bodies are valuable assets), but Matt said if they'd thrown him the keys to the P-51 he'd have run the risk of incurring the skipper's wrath. Says his assignment will be flight test at PAX River, the choice job for a new test pilot. Says it's bitter sweet though, 'cause "I won't be out there near you guys."
Hang up stunned. The best of the best, the next Chuck Yeager is disappointed with his assignment 'cause he won't be near us? Head back to the bedroom to tell Kate and she's asleep on the bed in the sexiest outfit I've ever seen. As I tenderly cover her up and apologize for letting plane talk interfere with her obviously attractive plans, she says, "That's okay honey, I just wanted to show you how proud of you I am."
What fun to fly that wonderful airplane. What a joy to share it with such good people. What a privilege, and how grateful I am, for Kate who understands and encourages it.
And now for the rest of the story: seems the honchos thought the low pass was a hot dog move. Don't need our boys flyin' with no hot dog. Actually, I think it was more that I made an ass of myself bragging to guys I wanted to impress about how lucky I was to have a wife like Kate and seven cool old airplanes to fly. Called Matt to see if he'd heard any skuttlebutt. He said no, he was shocked to hear they didn't want to play, and thought the low pass accussation was bogus. Will die still agast that I allowed my ego to screw up such a good thing.
*Matt went on to become one of the F-35 test pilots, and eventually Deputy Air Wing Commander at Eglin AFB where the USAF, Navy, and Marine pilots train to fly the F-35. Here's a picture from his retirement ceremony.