Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Mighty T-28 Trojan

On Friday 18th November 2011, I got to fly the North American T-28 Trojan!

Two T-28s arrived for the last SARL air race of the season, at Taylor, TX. One flown by Joe Dickerson and the other flown by Chip Lamb. They are two of several pilots to fly these particular airplanes. The two aircraft are often seen at air shows, known as the Trojan Phlyers. Here they are in 2008 at the Bluebonnet Airshow in Burnet, TX:

No sooner had they shut down, than Joe jumped out and beckoned me over. We made our introductions, and he began to show me his aircraft.

This particular aircraft is a T-28B model, flown by the Marines. Built during the 1950s, these aircraft were used as primary training aircraft by the US Air Force, Marines and Navy. The original A models had 800hp engines and were replaced by the B model, which has a 1425hp 9-cylinder Wright Cyclone engine. Top speed is over 340 mph. The Navy chose C models which had shorter prop blades for better ground clearance, and tailhooks for carrier use, although they were not as fast. The B model is the rocketship of them all.

The T-28 is a really tall aircraft, over 12 feet high. Standing next to it, there is a wall of fuselage reaching above you. It has massive ramp presence. Getting in requires some climbing. The flap hangs down at a steep angle. It contains two foot holes with sprung covers that push back when you put your foot in there. A hand hold on the wing allows for some purchase, from which you can haul yourself up onto the walking surface at the wing root.

Once up there, Joe showed me how to get into the cockpit. There is another step set into the fuselage wall. Put one foot in there, grab both sides of the canopy edges and step over onto the seat. Drop down into the surprisingly roomy cockpit. He had me sit in there for a few minutes while I signed the inevitable waiver (three pages of close-typed legalese) before climbing out again in a reverse sequence.

Now I was to put on the parachute. Chip gave me a hand putting on the harness - much like putting on a jacket - before the webbing straps are pulled through from underneath and crossed over in front. It ends up nice and snug. It's not going anywhere (which is a good thing!) although it feels odd having your centre of gravity moved further back, with the weight of the parachute under your bum. Although it would most certainly be welcome if anything went wrong, its main duty is as seat padding.
Thanks to Mike Thompson for this picture:

Climbing back into my seat, it was time for a safety briefing. The T-28 has a hydraulic canopy. If we lose hydraulics and have to get out, there is a yellow handle to the left of the seat, which discharges a compressed air bottle to blow the canopy back. This is for emergencies only, naturally. Normal exit procedure is for the pilot to command the canopy to roll back, then we would stand on the seat, grab the parachute ripcord handle with the right hand, and dive out to aim for the wing. You're not going to hit the wing, but you want to avoid hitting the tail. After that, pull the rip cord and hopefully float back to Earth.

I was soon strapped into my seat. The strap harness has a locking mechanism, controlled with a small black handle to my left. For takeoff and landing, this must be locked down, which holds you fast in your seat. In level flight this can be unlocked, which allows you to lean forward and move more freely.

While Chip had been dealing with me, Joe had been doing his walk-round checks, and now we were going to fly! Joe settled himself in his seat up front and made his cockpit checks. Then he started the engine. This is always a momentous event in a T-28, when the relative peace of the airfield is shattered by the whine-cough-clatter of that big Wright motor beginning to turn the shiny three-blade prop. Smoke billows from the exhaust as avgas is converted into colossal amounts of noise, then the smoke clears as the engine spins faster. We sit for a while as the engine warms up.

Joe closes the canopy to allow me to mount my cameras. He gives me warning to stay clear, then both halves slide forward smoothly on the rails. He would normally do this later on, as it can get very warm inside, but it's actually a pretty cold day for Central Texas so we're OK. I plug two cameras onto the canopy with sucker mounts and set them going.

We start to taxi from the ramp towards the runway, but only for a short distance. Joe stops us at a taxiway intersection for power checks and run-up. This takes a little while, longer than for smaller aircraft; I guess there's a lot of engine to manage, and oil to get warm. After a few minutes of this, he turns us around and we continue towards the runway.

We hold short for a moment to check for traffic, then take the runway. Joe holds us on the brakes while he increases power, then he lets go and we surge forward. The T-28 gains speed quickly and we are soon airborne. It climbs quickly too; we are whisked up into the sky in very short order. You can see here that I am enjoying this.

However we don't gain much altitude before Joe dives for the race start line at Macho Grande, which is very close to Taylor. He wants to make a practice start for the race tomorrow. We come swooping in and zoom down the runway there, before climbing back up seemingly effortlessly, but only up to 2500 feet. We can't go much higher due to the cloud base; it's not the most aviation-friendly weather but that's the luck of the draw.

I can feel already that this is one big, solid airplane. The wind is gusting to 30 knots but we are not bouncing around the sky as a light aircraft would do. Joe makes a turn to the left and the T-28 just takes us there. Joe wants to go around the Dam Turn (turn 4 of the race) to go back and practice finding Turn 5, a small and elusive farmhouse lake, not like the dead giveaway Granger Lake in the picture here:

He swung us around that turn and we headed back south. We found the lake and flew around it so that Joe could recognize the local area during the race. Then, to my very great surprise, he asked if I wanted to fly the T-28! I was certainly not expecting to be able to take control of this aircraft, so I was delighted. Taking the stick, I began to get a feel for the plane.

Here's the panel:

The throttle is to my left, along with elevator and aileron trim. To my right is a small lockbox with barf bags in. I am happy to report that I did not need those ;-)

I already mentioned that this is a big, heavy aircraft - you can feel this even more when in control of it. After a short amount of straight and level flight, Joe suggested I make some turns, so I did. Nice, ordinary normal rate turns to begin with. These were not hard to do; the control forces are relatively heavy but they are consistent. There's a lot of mass to this aircraft. I've been lucky to have a good amount of stick time in several light aircraft, mostly Vans models, which have very light stick forces. A Vans RV-7 weighs around 1400 pounds. This is certainly a contrast to the T-28, whose empty weight is over 6400 pounds. You have to definitely tell the T-28 you want to turn; really move that stick over and then the aircraft will happily comply. Here's me flying it:

I found it easier to maintain my altitude in the T-28 than in other aircraft. Perhaps being so heavy on the controls, I am not making enough movement in this aircraft to affect it so much. Or maybe the large mass and momentum just take longer to overcome. Either way, I was happy about this, and was able to make some fairly level turns. Last week's lesson from the PT-22 about rudder pedals helped too; the ball stayed mostly centered during the turns. See, Joe's hands are up on top of the panel - this is my airplane!

Joe suggested I make some steeper turns, so I banked it over to 45-50 degrees and we went around in some tighter circles which was fun. The aircraft feels very planted the whole time; even with the gusty winds it did not twitch around the sky. We skirted Taylor airfield to the south; I made sure to give it a wide berth with all the other racers flying in and out for their own practice. Joe had me make a gentle descent down to the 1600 foot circuit height, and we made a turn towards the airfield. Joe took back the aircraft and slotted us into the pattern.

We slowed down and rounded the corner from downwind to base to final, approaching the runway at around 100 knots. We touched down with a slight crosswind, the aircraft landing in its solid fashion. Rollout, then taxi back to the ramp. Joe ran the engine for a short while; it seems to be standard practice to run it at a reasonable speed for a few minutes before shutdown. Eventually he cut the engine and the prop wound down to a stop. Magnetos off, and the whine faded to leave that relative peace and quiet once more.

Here's Joe (standing) and Chip (on the wing) fueling the aircraft after the flight. It drinks a lot of fuel. Don't even ask!

I am very grateful to Joe and Chip for such a fabulous experience. What a way to fly!

More photos from the race, and video from the flight will be forthcoming soon. Watch this space :-)


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