Careening Towards the Grass

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"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.

Clear, we line up and I apply power. At 40 inches of manifold, Scott taps my hand and I raise it straight up in the air to signal that he has the power. I should have given him the rudder, the elevator and the ailerons, too, but I didn't think to do so. We are soon oscillating down the runway with ever more dramatic and frightening heading changes until, at Scott's divine intervention, we lurch into the air. Holy shit.

I am stunned by this lack of airmanship. My handling of this beautifully restored glorious workhorse that built this country could only be described by one word: Appalling.

| | |** Dick Karl with Scott Edwards and Bobby Woodson**|

I can't even think, I am so chagrinned. Some passengers come forward to congratulate not me, but themselves, for surviving this amazing brush with instant death by immolation. Perhaps I should have picked a different airpane for my initial taildragger experience.

We zoom around barely 1,000 feet above the ground. This is Scott's home territory and he knows every inch and every farm by heart. We overfly Corky Carson's house and head for Salisbury (KRUQ), where the runway is long and the gas is cheap. With a dry mouth I anticipate my first and maybe last attempt at landing a DC-3. Scott wisely has us fly the full deal, downwind to base to final. Things look okay for most of it, too. All the while, he is almost cooing, "You're doing great, flaps 30, gear down, perfect." I am not fooled.

We touchdown on the centerline and then the dance begins almost immediately. Scott, now aware of the mass murderer sitting in the left seat, is quick to get on the rudder pedals and disaster is averted. We taxi for gas, shut down and I finally exhale. Unfortunately, two of the passengers are high-ranking FAA officials and it occurs to me that one of them might just ask for my license.

After taking on 400 gallons of gas, it becomes clear that there is sentiment that another takeoff and landing by me will be a good thing. Sadly, it isn't. I taxi down to the departure end of 20, lock the tailwheel by releasing a handle under the throttle quadrant that I can feel but never do see, line up and wiggle down the runway. There is no time to catch a glimpse of the airspeed indicator. This takeoff is marginally, just marginally, better. We head back for another landing and although it looks the same to me as the first landing, I hear Scott say, "Remember, we're a lot heavier than before."

Before I can fully comprehend this information, we've landed, bounced and landed again. Scott is soon busy on the yoke; whether he was pushing or pulling, I forget to ask.

To everyone's relief, including my own, I am released from any further possibility of destroying the airplane and Doug Commins is given the nod. Doug acts as if he was born in a DC-3. He later tells me that the rudder thing reminded him of the Yak. Sure, I think.

He flies us off with aplomb and lands the same way. I'll never speak to him again. Once again the difference between a professional and a hobbyist is clear. We're soon en route back to Charlotte; low. It is beautiful. This is flying, I think to myself. As I look around it appears that everyone else feels the same way, each looking out over verdant farmland from low altitude, lost in contemplation.

Bobby replaces Doug at the helm and we land effortlessly at Charlotte. We're cleared to taxi towards the museum and Randy points out a Lufthansa Airbus 340 taxiing the other way. I snap a picture of the new as seen over the cowl of the old. Without the DC-3 and its proof of concept, there would be no airlines. And then this: Bobby rapidly unsnaps his seat belt and rushes to the back of the airplane, flings open the door and jumps out.

What? We're on an active taxiway. We're heading right for an RJ joining the taxiway up ahead. We stop. Bobby reappears with a cut on the side of his face. The engines are shut down. It eventuates that the brakes have failed. We are off to the side of the taxiway. The left main has just missed a taxiway light and the tail wheel has stopped inches from another one. Bobby has jumped out and chocked the airplane to a stop. Scott seems cool with this. He later tells me that his 1,500 hours over 20 years has made him "comfortable" in the airplane. "You learn a lot about an airplane while flying it in the dark with a flashlight in your mouth," he says.

Soon we're hooked to a tug, the runway is shut down for a minute and we're towed right into the hangar, hydraulic fluid all over the right main. Smiles all around. Scott and Bobby remain calm despite all the excitement. Scott admits to getting type rated in this beast at age 19; he flew with a waiver until he was 23, allowed to haul freight but not passengers. We talk a little about my inability to fly. They are generous. "It'll want to switch ends on you, that's for sure. Sometimes I think it would just be easier to turn around and take off the other way. The fuselage blocks out the rudder so much." The trick? "Just point her where you want to go and if she doesn't, point harder."

When I ask about our airspeed just prior to Scott's life-saving heave on the yoke at Concord, he says, "Yeah, I got a glimpse at the airspeed indicator. We shoot for 84, but we were doin' about 65. She'll fly when she's light like that at 58."

Pause.

"Just."