"Okay, push her forward. That's it, a little more forward pressure." I do as instructed. The runway appears to be coming up at an alarming rate, filling the windshield inches from my eyes. Since this is a takeoff, shouldn't the runway be disappearing? I feel as if I'm nosing her over onto the frantically oscillating pavement. The centerline looks like a corkscrew ribbon; at least when it passes into view from right to left and then from left to right. It is not the runway that is wavy, it is me. As our excursions magnify and my rudder work is exactly timed to make things worse, Scott drawls, "Well, Dick, let's get her airborne." With that he hauls back on the wheel and we barely clear the runway lights, climbing at 100 feet per minute, at least 50 degrees to the left of the runway heading. "Good job," says Scott ("aw, shucks") Edwards. You could buy a DC-3 from this guy.
Actually, it is a DC-3, though not for sale. This one is the proud possession of the Carolinas Aviation Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina. I came to the left seat of this magnificent machine by boneheaded luck. You see, I ran into Randy Breedlove at Oshkosh. He and others with the museum had flown 44V, a beautifully restored 1942 model, to AirVenture this year, which is where I bumped into the airplane and the good luck to be invited to visit the museum and fly this jewel. Randy and Scott made a date for me; I could bring a friend if I wished.
Doug Commins wrangled a day off, hopped in his truck and drove over from Atlanta for a "career topper of an experience." This from a man who makes a living flying Citation Xs around at Mach .92.
We assemble midday as the low overcast clears. Scott and Bobby Woodson are tricked out in matching blue CAM golf shirts. We start the walk around but are almost immediately arrested by other museum folks, visitors and random gawkers. For this is a magnificent sight: A shiny aluminum throwback to the past, resplendent in Piedmont livery, sitting on her haunches, pointed towards the active. The sun is reflected with a retina-searing glint off of what has to be the shiniest wing root on the planet; or above it, for that matter.
We marvel at the huge Pratt & Whitney 1830-94s and their two rows of seven cylinders each, remembering to calculate the wind direction so as to avoid the emblem of any DC-3 lover: oil stains on your shirt. Scott tells us about this particular airplane, built as a C-47 during the war, later used mostly for corporate work and restored by Piedmont Airlines in its heyday. The engines are capable of 1,350 horsepower per side, but we're limited to 1,200 on this ship because it doesn't own a geared rudder. More about this rudder thing in a moment.
We board and walk up the incline towards a cockpit that features something old and something new. As I pass Randy sitting in the front row of the 19 seats, it occurs to me that we're in a time machine -- wouldn't it be something to take off and head to New York, say, and find ourselves landing at La Guardia in 1950? Steamships on the Hudson and post-war bustle down on Wall Street?
I am standing behind Bobby as he settles in the left seat. The throttle quadrant and nose trim are all original -- something old. The flight director, radar and radios are modern -- something new. The hydraulics are way beyond my comprehension, but Scott is busy with the levers that accumulate pressure, then he bleeds it off. Left to right on the quadrant features huge prop levers with white balls at their tips, black throttle levers and red-tipped mixture levers. Overhead there are start, boost and prime switches.
Cleared to start number two. Bobby hits the starter and Scott calls out "three blades, six, nine, 12 blades." At that Bobby responds with "Contact," as the ignition is turned on. He plays the starter, boost and primer switches like a piano player and, as the huge engine cranks to life with that noise that many talented authors have attempted to describe, advances the mixture. Those writers may come close, but to me it is a distinctive roar-rumble that defies accurate elaboration. There's a rewarding billow of smoke, too.
We do the same on number one and then, with gear pins and gust locks safely removed, taxi out of the Carolinas Aviation Museum gates onto the active taxiway near 18L. We're cleared for the Hugo 7 departure and these two pros make a big show of not knowing what that is. They see that the initial altitude is 4,000 feet and then laugh. Maybe we'll make it up to 2,000 feet, if we're lucky. Somehow I am oblivious to the deft rudder and brake work that Bobby executes without comment.
We line up on 18L and start down the runway. As we gain speed, Bobby pushes forward to elevate the tail. At first he steers with differential braking, then lots of rudder excursion until the fat fuselage becomes horizontal, at which point the tail gets some air and he has a semblance of rudder authority. This seems quite simple and we are soon airborne, climbing at 500 feet a minute. We head for Concord (KJQF), enter the right downwind, and I watch slack-jawed as we roll into the right base for 20. Scott reaches behind his seat and fiddles with the hydraulics and somehow flaps and gear are deployed. We're shooting for 90 knots. Bobby chirps the mains down and we slow down on the centerline, "planting" the locked tailwheel onto the pavement.
We're cleared to back taxi for takeoff and I am cleared into the left seat. The throttle quadrant is at shoulder height and the elevator trim, big as a dinner plate, is obvious on my side of the quadrant. Scott begins his reassuring patter and we lurch down the runway as I lunge at the rudder pedals. When I apply full right rudder, the left pedal comes back and raises my left knee into the pedestal, forcing the wheel back. "Got to be careful of that," says Scott. I slow and start to turn around. "Wait a sec," say Scott. "Got to be sure you don't have the tailwheel tangled up with the runway light back there." Oh my.