I Learned About Flying From That: Taking an Old Bird to Oshkosh

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Around 1950 the Air Force decided it needed a new trainer airplane. As you know, the Beech T-34 was the winner. My story comes from one of the airplanes that did not win.

The Temco T-35 Buckaroo was a spinoff of the Globe Swift. Saudi Arabia ordered about 15 of the T-35As, armed, to be used as trainers for its air force. Many years passed, and what was left of them was sitting in a military boneyard in the desert.

The Swift on the other hand had gained a loyal following with a well-organized type club. One member, an overseas airline pilot, discovered the remains of the T-35s. Thus started an eight-year saga to have one of these military versions placed in the club's museum. Needless to say there was not one complete aircraft in the bunch. The conclusion of this large effort was a Saudi C-130 headed to Lockheed Martin in Marietta, Georgia, loaded with enough parts and pieces to "build" one T-35A. The Saudis had agreed upon one airplane being restored exactly as they had operated it. When completed they would officially inspect the T-35A and transfer ownership to the museum. This ceremony would be done at Oshkosh during the annual fly-in.

The subassemblies were unloaded in Georgia and carried all over the United States for restoration. After several years of "after-hours shop time," all of these parts migrated to Athens, Tennessee, home of the Swift Museum Foundation. At this point I joined the team and began working on the project. Some of the original assemblies were corroded so badly they could be used only as patterns to make new parts. Mating these assemblies into one airplane was interesting. Once assembled and put through a short test hop, the T-35 was delivered to a paint shop south of Atlanta.

Oshkosh was drawing near. The Saudi generals' travel plans were set, and the paint shop was running on the very trailing edge of its promised date.

A group of us flew to south Atlanta to pick up the airplane. We had three days to be in Oshkosh. We entered the paint shop as workers were removing the masking. The finish and detail of the Saudi markings was right on. When the canopy was uncovered, however, panic set in. The painting chemicals had turned the canopy milky white. There was no spare canopy.

The painters were very apologetic and said they thought they could polish it out. But the airplane would not be leaving that day. We checked into a motel, and the paint shop got out the polish, ordered 10 gallons of coffee and prepared for a long night. Many thanks to the paint shop, those hard hours produced a shiny, clear canopy.

However, the overnight hours had brought a change in weather. The conditions were on the marginal side of marginal. We did an intensive post-paint-shop preflight, topped off the tanks and briefed our flight strategy: Stay low and skirt around the west side of Atlanta. Since the "Saudi Buck" had only a comm radio, we decided to fly a loose formation. That way my navigation of finger on paper could be aided by others with lorans and VORs. We would stop at Athens, load our gear and head north.

The weather finally lifted enough and we headed out. Other than flying centerline, the "Buck" handled like a Swift, no surprises there. But about 15 minutes into the flight I began to smell gasoline. I radioed the others and suggested we stop at the next airport to take a look. It took about five minutes to get into the pattern at Cartersville, and by then the smell was strong, making me sick. I opened the canopy and stuck my hand out to direct fresh air onto my face. The landing was uneventful, and we removed the panels and conducted a thorough search that revealed only a "not really loose" nut on a gas line. Meanwhile the weather had started going down again. So we got back in the air and on our way. Just short of Athens the weather took another turn and plunged into the ground. By now it was getting late, and the only option was to backtrack to Dalton and start again in the morning. The next morning was beautiful. With one day left to get to Oshkosh, we grabbed our gear and headed for Wisconsin.

From takeoff it was a steady climb to 10,000 feet, and we leveled off with a seldom found tailwind. The smells from yesterday were almost forgotten. Somewhere over Ohio a cloud layer began to form around 8,000 feet. We decided to run under it. Swapping altitude for airspeed, I was thinking of the bragging rights that old airspeed would give me later. I was brought back to the present when something tapped my face. I felt and there was nothing, but then it came again — it was wet. The cockpit of an old military airplane is not exactly airtight. I looked down and saw gasoline sloshing back and forth on the floor. The breeze was whipping little drops everywhere. This got my attention. Do I key the mic or not? Memory kicked in: These are sealed switches. I called to the group, "Use your loran airport locator. Let's get this thing on the ground."

I made another uneventful landing. By the time we got to the ramp, the avgas had evaporated. We pulled the panels, tightened all of the fuel lines, and touched everything. There was no obvious culprit. We topped off and headed out again. The smell was light to nonexistent — good.

Our next stop was Kankakee, Illinois. Even with our extra events we were running ahead of Oshkosh time. Calculating our departure time so we arrived in the Oshkosh holding pattern at the end of the airshow, off we went. There were no strong gas odors — good. Our timing was about right. It was late afternoon and the radio chatter indicated the show was over. The idea was to circle a small lake, nose to tail, well spaced for safety. We spent a half-hour in the holding pattern and someone asked how much longer before we could start landing. "Not too long, we have about 2,000 more airplanes to let out before you can land." The sun kept getting lower. The Saudi Buck is a day/VFR airplane. Even though we had planned extra time, we should have known Murphy was around somewhere close by.

By now the pattern was saturated with airplanes. The spacing had dropped to about 100 to 150 feet, and a few of them were two abreast. And still around we went. There was another radio call. A Bonanza had run dry. There was silence on the airway; then a ground handler started talking very fast, directing the V-tail to a grass strip below. The pilot found a little fuel in his aux and the handler was good. It became a nonincident.

The sun was just a sliver now. The handler announced the field open and instructed a specific airplane to break out of the circle and head down a railroad track toward the airport with everyone in trail. At about this time a Cessna 150 lapped its right wing over my left wing. I couldn't see the pilot, but the passenger's eyes were as big as saucers. Later, I ­wondered what I looked like to him.

As it became dark it was a challenge to keep spacing on the Swift ahead. Our pattern took us out over the lake, through two right turns and on final for a huge piece of well-lit concrete. It was black dark at this point, and the Buck has no interior lights or instrument lights. Murphy must be in the back seat. The gear-down lights are located next to the airspeed, and I realized I could use a map or something to reflect light back on the airspeed. With that, my first night landing in the Buck became uneventful.

Oshkosh is a big place. Add in thousands of airplanes and darkness and you can get sensory overload. My hat is off to the great work done by the volunteer ground handlers. About 10 p.m. I got to pull the mixture and set the chocks on a very long day, one I will remember for a long time.

Looking back, I can see where our flight planning went out the window as events unfolded. It was the ability to think through situations and change plans as needed that got us safely to our destination.

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