AirVenture Adventure in a DC-3

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In many ways, my AirVenture experience at Oshkosh this year was one of my best. On the day before the official opening of the show, I won a Garmin 496. It was during Garmin's press conference where the new top-of-the-line GPSMAP was introduced. The contest was to guess closest to the number of handheld aviation GPS units Garmin has sold since it began selling them. The actual number is something more than 360,000. I was off by some 70,000 but closer than any of the other entries. Not a bad way to start an AirVenture.

And this year, I followed through on a promise and flew in to Oshkosh in my Cardinal and camped under its wing in the "North 40." The camping went much better than I (or those who know me) expected. Even with a number of storms, including one that blew tents over and sent one cart wheeling down the row of parked airplanes, I stayed relatively dry. Camping with a "gaggle of 16" airplanes connected with Women Fly and sharing meals and entertainment made for an I'd-definitely-do-it-again experience.

If the new GPS and copasetic camping comrades weren't enough, another high point of the week was that I got to fly left seat in a DC-3 painted to match a model made by Herpa Miniature Models.

Although decorated in Herpa's colors, the DC-3 is actually owned by Dan Gryder, who provides DC-3 flights and flight training from a base at Griffin Spalding Airport, just south of Atlanta. According to Dan, Herpa essentially leases the airplane's exterior surface. "The DC-3 is the company's all-time bestselling model airplane in the history of the company and they wanted an actual airplane in their paint scheme to promote the company. Initially, they just wanted pictures of it, but then agreed to put it on static display at Sun 'n Fun. That was so successful they decided to have me take it to Oshkosh. It was Herpa's idea, since we had plenty of staff at Oshkosh to operate the airplane, to donate flights to Women in Aviation."

As a result, Dan spent the week at Oshkosh fulfilling lifelong dreams for some 42 aviation fans and supporters of Women in Aviation who never thought they'd get to ride in a DC-3, let alone actually fly one.

Anyone familiar with aviation history knows the place the airplane has earned for itself. The DC-3 (the DC stands for Douglas Commercial), which along with the Jeep was credited by Dwight D. Eisenhower as being one of the most influential contributors to the Allies' victory in the Second World War, made its first flight on December 17, 1935, the 32nd anniversary to the day of the Wright brothers' first flight. During the war, the DC-3 soldiered in many guises: C-47, Dakota, Gooney Bird and the R4D. In all, some 10,655 DC-3s were built in Santa Monica and Long Beach, California. Another 2,000 or so were built in Russia under license as the Lizunov Li-2, and 485 were built in Japan as the L2D. Today a number of variants, including turboprop conversions, continue to ply the skies.

The Herpa DC-3, N143D, was built in 1938, which means it's even older than many of us who flew in it. It served as an airliner for Swiss Air, based in Switzerland. Eventually, it was flown back to the states where it flew for Ozark Airlines until 1967. Following its airline service, N143D performed executive and cargo missions. Today, christened Darla Dee (after owner Dan Gryder's wife), the DC-3 has logged more than 56,500 hours.

When Women in Aviation came up with an open slot I got the nod and shared my flight with Tom Horne, AOPA Pilot editor-at-large. Tom got the left seat first and with Dan coaching from the right and with me sitting on the fold down seat in the aisle behind them, they worked through the checklist and got the Pratt & Whitney radial engines thrumming.

The DC-3 is not a small airplane. The wingspan is close to 100 feet. When you enter the DC-3, you're reminded that this is a tailwheel airplane since the climb to the flight deck is steep and, for someone used to smaller airplanes, it seems a long way.

Taxiing the DC-3 takes some practice. The tailwheel casters. There's no linkage so, as Dan explained, "It's like riding on a ball of grease that slips and slides. The only things you have to steer with are differential power, rudder and brake. Hit the brakes and it'll nose over, lurch to the right or left." For takeoff, you lock the tailwheel so it's aligned with the fuselage. You can set the lock as you come around the corner onto the active runway. There's a spring with some four pounds of pressure that sets a pin in a hole when the tailwheel lines up with a channel.

As the throttles are advanced for takeoff the power is set at 48 inches of manifold pressure, for a total of 2,400 horsepower, and the six knobs are locked in position. At 30 to 40 knots, you ease forward on the wheel and the tail flies off. With the tail up the airplane accelerates quickly but you have to continue to hold forward pressure on the yoke. According to Dan, if you don't push the nose forward to raise the tail, the airplane will come off the ground in a three-point attitude at 65 or 70 knots. It's a recipe for disaster, he said, because the airplane stalls at 68 knots clean and 64 knots with flaps and it'll come off well below Vmc. If you lost an engine on takeoff you wouldn't be able to recover. So for takeoff, you hold the airplane in a wheel-landing stance until you reach 84 to 90 knots minimum for rotation. Once there's a positive rate of climb, the gear comes up.

Low speed cruise is at 25-inches manifold pressure and 2050 rpm, which earns you about 120 to125 knots true air speed. There's something very refreshing about cruising majestically along with the cockpit windows open.

Preparing for landing, you lower the first notch of flaps when the airspeed is below 135 knots (it usually is), lower the gear and run through the landing checklist. To be sure the gear is down and locked there are four steps. Lowering the latch handle mechanically pins the gear in place. The gear handle is put in the neutral position to seal off the gear and trap the hydraulic pressure. Gauges on the cockpit wall are checked to see that the trapped hydraulic pressure is 975 psi, and finally the green light confirms the gear is down and locked. "If you've done everything correctly you get a green light. But it's really just icing on the cake to see the green light. If there's no light and everything else checks, then it's a burned out bulb and I'll go ahead and land," Dan said.

You don't really rely on reducing power to slow down. In order to care for the radial engines, Dan uses 21 inches and 2050 rpm as the lowest operating limits. Once you've reduced the power, getting down is a matter of flying the pattern appropriately for the wind and adding drag in order for it all to come out the way you want. Of course, he said, you can close the throttles on a radial engine airplane if it's necessary, but it's an expensive maneuver to do if you do it over and over again. The over the fence speed is between 80 and 85 knots. Interestingly, both Tom and I initially started our turn from base to final too early and had to adjust our course before lining up on final.

Comparing notes later, both Tom and I felt that the approach angle seemed steep. "Your profiles were textbook normal," Dan explained, "you were right on the VASI and touched down right in the touchdown zone. During the approach you can't wipe off too much power early, so you have to keep a lot of nose-down pressure and the three-to-one glide angle appears steeper than it really is. There's so much drag with full flaps, if you pull the nose up a little bit, you lose 10 knots in seconds, so you don't raise it at all. You keep the nose down until you can't stand it and then you raise it just a little bit when you're about a foot off the runway. If you raise the nose when you're 20 feet up it'll just stall and quit flying. You won't hurt anything but you'll bounce down the runway. It's ugly!"

Tom flew us to Appleton, Wisconsin, where he made a couple of touch-and-goes on Runway 21 and then a low pass on Runway 29. And then it was my turn. We carefully switched seats and I made two touch-and-goes.

As we climbed out after the second touch-and-go, there was some thin smoke and the smell of burning oil in the cockpit. "Does the engine on your side look okay?" Dan asked. "Looks normal to me," I answered, looking out the open window.

"I've got it! It's my airplane!" Dan said as he took the controls and turned back. He called the tower, "143D is coming back to land." As he continued the turn to the downwind for 29, Dan told the controller we'd be "no radio." Although it smelled like oil, he switched off the electronics in case there was an electrical fire.

All the instruments looked good. There was nothing obviously wrong, but a precautionary landing was prudent. We landed and rolled out to the end of the runway. Dan turned the radios back on. "We had smoke in the cockpit and needed to land," he told the controller. "Can you see anything with your binoculars?" "I don't see anything," she answered after a moment. "I wondered what was up when you said, 'No radio.' Do you want the equipment?"

Although the smell and smoke had dissipated, it was wise to be cautious. "It might not be a bad idea to have it follow us in," he said.

With the airplane shut down there was still a slight smell of burning oil, but no indication of where or why. In addition to the airport emergency equipment, local firemen responded and surveyed the entire airplane inside and out with a thermal imaging device looking for hot spots. They found nothing.

After Dan conferred with his ground crew back at Oshkosh, and with no indication of a problem, it was decided to return to Oshkosh while carefully monitoring the instruments. "In five years of flying the DC-3 that's the first time I've ever had to say, 'I've got it!' "

Coming back to Oshkosh the tower asked me to call five miles out and then cleared me to enter a right downwind for Runway 27 when I did. As I lined the airplane up to enter the downwind, the tower controller called and asked us to do a 360 to the left, "or make it a 270 to rollout on the downwind." As we completed the turn and got established on the downwind, Dan asked if we could do a low pass down the runway. "Low pass with a right turn out approved," the controller answered.

With the airplane clean we were picking up speed as we dove toward the approach end of the runway on the base leg. The tower called us again as we turned and sped down final, "Unable the low pass, cleared to land."

"Unable," Dan radioed. "We can't get slowed down now to land."

There was a pause and then the controller said, "Okay, make a 270 to the left and re-enter the final to land on the orange dot."

So, we did.

Some details about N143D: The airplane holds 822 gallons of fuel - enough for nine hours - and each engine oil tank holds almost 30 gallons of oil. The two engines produce 2,400 horsepower for takeoff and the airplane can operate from a 2,500-foot runway carrying some 6,000 pounds.

After Oshkosh, Dan flew it back nonstop to its base south of Atlanta with 3,500 pounds of cargo and nine people on board. The trip took 4 hours and 20 minutes. "Name any other airplane that can do that," Dan said. "You can carry anything you want and go that far with little more than the tanks half full."

Although the airplane is heavy and turning works best if you lead with the rudder, the DC-3 is still a basic airplane. "There's a pair of throttles, rudders and yokes. You push the right rudder and go right, push the left rudder and go left," Dan said. "At 25,000 pounds, it's a big airplane, but you're the pilot and do the pilot thing. If you need to pull back, you pull back and add trim," he said. The DC-3 flies like a heavy 172 - or maybe a 172 flies like a light DC-3.

A lucky group of us are indebted to Dan, Herpa and Women in Aviation for helping to make AirVenture 2006 so memorable. If you want DC-3 memories of your own, you can make arrangements for a flight or flight training in the DC-3 by calling 800/644-7382 or contacting www.incredible-adventures.com.