Flying the Thrush
The two-seat version of the 510G is designed primarily for pilot training, although some buyers like having the extra seat so they can bring along a spotter or relief pilot or even extra gear. When flown as a trainer, the instructor sits in the rear seat, where the visibility isn’t great and the instrumentation is sparse. On the ground, the view from the back seat is especially poor, owing to the Thrush’s tailwheel configuration.
Once Terry landed back at Albany, he asked the tower for permission to taxi to a quiet area of the airport so we could switch seats. To my surprise, the change involved both of us getting out of the airplane and standing on the wing while the engine still ran, the propeller wafting a steady flow of warm jet exhaust over us. I scrambled into the front seat as quickly as I could as Terry gave me a briefing on the controls and instruments.
Once I was settled in, I realized the view from the front seat was much better. If I sat up tall, I could even see some concrete ahead over the nose. For the taxi back to the active runway, Terry had this advice: “Just pretend it’s a P-51,” he said over the intercom. Actually, with its long, tapered nose and tail-low stance, the airplane was sort of reminiscent of a Mustang. Taxiing and takeoff were similar to that of other tailwheel airplanes I’ve flown, although none of them had this much power or weighed as much. On the ground, the Thrush’s handling reminded me of a Pilatus PC-12 — but one with a tailwheel — maybe not surprising since the 510G’s max takeoff weight of 10,500 pounds is nearly identical to that of the Pilatus.
In the air, it was a totally different story. The takeoff run was about what I’d expected, with slight forward pressure required to make the tail come up, followed by slight back pressure to raise the nose and get us climbing at 100 mph. Once we reached 1,000 feet I leveled us off and was surprised to find the airplane seemed to want to keep climbing. Then I looked out each window to the left and right and realized what was going on.
With the nose about where I thought it ought to be to maintain straight-and-level flight, the wings still showed a climb. This was due to the fact that the Thrush in level flight rides slightly tail-high and nose-low. I eased the stick forward to put the wing’s chord line level with the horizon and noted the view out over the nose, which fell away dramatically.
Next, I tried some aggressive turns. That’s when I got my second lesson in flying a Thrush. The airplane has a wide wing, a relatively short fuselage, a big tail and lots of adverse yaw to overcome. It all adds up to an airplane that demands coordinated use of the stick and rudder to keep the ball centered. Let it sling out to one side even a little and it will want to travel a lot as the airplane lurches in protest.
After some time at the controls, my touch improved. Performing a series of Dutch rolls gave me a good feel for the Thrush, which is quite responsive and has the maneuverability you’d expect of an airplane designed for aerial application. Next I performed some simulated spray runs at altitude to give me the chance to see if I could come close to matching Terry’s handling over the peanut fields. I decided I’d need a few more hours of practice and instruction — still, of all the flying jobs a pilot might consider, ag spraying would have to rank near the top in terms of fun factor.
That’s why I was so surprised to learn that the aerial spraying industry is facing a looming pilot shortage as the current crop of pilots nears retirement. I would have guessed pilots would be lining up to do this sort of work. But as Rick and Terry explained, ag flying tends to run in families, and when an ag pilot’s kids don’t have the desire to follow in their parent’s footsteps, a pilot supply line runs dry.
Returning to Albany to try my hand at landing the Thrush, I found it easy to maintain the 510G’s 90 mph approach speed and ideal glidepath toward the numbers at the power setting Terry suggested. I touched down on the main wheels, slightly tail-low right on the centerline, feeling rather proud that my first landing was a greaser. That’s when I got my third lesson of the day in the Thrush.
During the rollout I never shifted the position of my feet on the rudder pedals so that I could press the toe brakes. As the speed slowed and rudder effectiveness lessened, the big taildragger began to wallow on the runway, my feeble corrections with the rudder failing to get the job done. Terry stabbed at the brakes to straighten us out, and I thanked him for the help. It was a lesson I’d need to experience only once.
Thrush is offering the 510G for about the same money as the Pratt-powered 510P. The airplane I flew for this report carried a list price of $869,000 — downright affordable for big farms that think nothing of spending hundreds of thousand of dollars for a new combine. Not surprisingly, many are buying their own airplanes and bringing aerial spraying duties in-house. The trend is helping to fuel demand for airplanes like the turbine Thrush 510G.
For pilots who view the low-and-fast flying of aerial application as a fun challenge, a new career as an ag pilot beckons. After my experience in the 510G in Georgia, I’ll never look at crop-dusters the same way again.