This is such a pretty plane, a 1943 North American SNJ-4, WW2 fighter pilot training plane (also known as a T6 Texan but the SNJ is the Navy version?):
And I got to fly it this morning!!! This plane is visiting Fairbanks, Alaska this summer with its amazing pilot, Andy Bibber (long time Alaskan bush pilot and CFII). Rumor has it that he is self taught in aerobatics (that statement is hearsay but I really believe it to be true) which is fascinating to me because he is so sharp, so on top of every little thing that happens in the air. If you are in Fairbanks between now and September 2015, I highly recommend calling him to take a flight – it’s worth the money because let’s be honest, where/when else are you going to be able to fly in a machine so unique? (call 907-474-0099 – that isn’t his direct number but I will update this post when I find his card) Andy is also bringing a biplane to Fairbanks that quite a few pilots are really excited to be trying out in mid-July.
So you approach the plane from the left:
Put on a parachute that also doubles as a seat cushion. Something like this:
And climb into the back seat. I don’t feel my pictures accurately show how big the plane is. I’m about 5’1″ and I was just tall enough to grab one foot peg and still swing my left leg onto the black grippy portion of the wing.
4 point seatbelt attached. Was told I could leave the canopy open – heck yes, it was lovely outside. Safety briefing paraphrased by me: Pilot: ‘if anything happens I’ll say “bail-out, bail-out, bail-out”. You open the canopy by pulling the red handle and pushing the clear overhead dome forward.’
Safety briefing continued: ‘Detach seatbelt and dive for the trailing edge of the wing. The plane is moving so the horizontal stabilizer (attached to plane tail) won’t hit you.’ Gee thanks for that last line?
I’m left to ponder the instrument panel and other plane parts as the pilot put on his parachute and climbed in.
Five shots of primer sounded [and looked] like 20 (I could see some moving parts from the back). Engine was turned on and we were waiting the good long while needed for the oil temperature to rise high enough. It was as this point that I dropped my phone like a n00b. It fell into the large open area underneath my seat, at least a foot and a half below where I could reach. Darn it. The pilot climbed out, removed his parachute, opened the rear storage, climbed into the open space beneath my seat, and retrieved my phone. Embarrassing. Reminder for all future flights where I intend to go upside down: bring the phone holster and clip to attach it to my body for hands free pictures.
Taxi to the runnup area at 2R. It’s funny that none of the plane’s occupants can see out the front of the plane (extreme tailwheel). Taxiing was accomplished with wide S turns across the entire width of the taxiway for the long haul out to 2R (taxiway length traveled: approximately 6500ft (1.2 miles!)) – nice to go crazy with large slow turns (from my perspective as a student pilot in a Cessna who is required to do normal boring straight taxis).
Normal runnup as I’ve done in the Cessnas but with the added step of checking the propeller (as I’ve seen from flights in any of my flight school’s Pipers).
Takeoff felt the same as it always does except that the cockpit was open. Similar to my ride in a biplane, the air rushing by felt amazing. It was an incredible morning in Fairbanks: so beautiful and the colors so vivid.
As soon as we got the ‘turn on course’ okay from Fairbanks departure, the pilot took us for a [unexpected from my perspective] steep left turn. Oh boy, what have I signed up for?!? Exciting! The controls were handed fully over to me (pilot put his hands in the air above his head at one point, haha) and we flew out to the Goldstream area. This plane is so fast compared to anything I’ve piloted! Exhilarating!
When leveling out at 4000 ft, CFI suggested I use trim. I turned the wheel for nose down trim as much as I normally would in a 152 … and the plane did a dramatic-feeling pitch down- oops, light touch, tiny movements – must remember that. I was told to do two turns, did shallow left and right turns (15 degrees or so) because I was too nervous to go steeper – AHHH, I missed out. I was happy with my altitude holding on the right turn, but the left felt like a sine wave disaster (wavering about 300ft off my desired altitude at the worst of it).
Then we moved to the aerobatics portion of the flight. We closed the front and back canopies because if the engine caught fire in a maneuver and the canopy was open, the flames would come into the cockpit – yeah, let’s avoid that. Pilot said we should head 180 degrees away from the hills before starting an aileron roll; he just pulls the stick so we go up and over – no time for this straight and level turn business I suppose! 🙂 Pilot talked through the main points of each maneuver; I did my best to remember and follow everything going on, but I make no guarantees to the accuracy of anything I’ve typed here. I also suggest watching the following video clips without sound because it is just loud engine noise.
First up: aileron roll to left and the right. (I thought we started at 4000 ft, pitched down for airspeed of 140 kts, pulled up, entered roll…this isn’t supported by my video as far as I can tell…..but I feel my memory was allowed to be wonky today; after the first roll, I suddenly realized I hadn’t taken my motion sickness pill [because I got the dizzy feeling I remember from my time on boats], oh no).
Did 2 loops. Started at 4000 ft, pitch down for airspeed of 160 kts and pull back for loop. Had extra airspeed after the loops so we also ended the loops with some rolls.
Hammerhead maneuver, I don’t even remember any airspeed numbers. Textbook says: 1/4 of a loop; executed by pulling up from level flight. All I remember are the words ‘and we don’t stall because the plane doesn’t stop flying’ (?)….but I was definitely feeling the effects of motion sickness (sudden extreme headache, a desire to find a plastic bag….[but never needed the bag, yay!]) by this point, so take what you will from my words. Also had enough airspeed to end in a roll I believe. The hammerhead was striking to me because it felt so gentle. Nothing like a stall in a C150/C152 (which was what I was expecting).
Then, all too soon, going back to PAFA:
Opening the canopy for fresh air helped immensely. I haven’t gotten motion sickness in small planes before, but I now thoroughly understand the importance of (and will appreciate) fresh air vents.
A marvelous flight overall and 0.6 hours of SNJ-4 time in my logbook. Would love to learn more aerobatics in the future (as long as I set reminders to take my meclizine – even now, 12 hours later, my head still aches if I turn my head too fast).
Ah Fairbanks, no wonder people save up for years to visit here. I love living here.