FLYING THE FAIRCHILD

By the end of 1941, the United States was in a pack of trouble. Adolph Hitler had decided he wanted to rule most of the world, but the British didn't want him to, so their respective Air Forces were bombing one another. The Japanese also thought world domination was a cool idea so they joined the Germans and started grabbing the other half of the globe, presumably, the part the Germans didn't want. We stayed out of it as long as we could, but when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and sunk most of our Navy, we got really mad.

We built about a zillion bombers and fighters and trained about ten zillion pilots. Everybody and their girlfriends went to flight school, but there weren't enough training airplanes to go around. So, everyone who wasn't already making bombers and fighters got contracts to build trainers.

The Primary Trainers, called the PT's, were used for about the first fifty hours of flight training. Pilots who passed the Primary course moved into the Basic Trainers, called the BT's, to learn formation flying, aerobatics, etc. The lucky devils who survived the BT's went on to the Advanced Trainers, called AT's, where they learned to bomb, strafe and generally raise hell. From the AT's, they went off to war.

The Fairchild company built the PT-19, PT-23 and the PT-26 trainers. They were made out of steel and spruce and cotton cloth. There was a big shortage of aluminum at the time, but we had plenty of trees and cotton fields. All of the light metals were pounded into bombers and fighters.

There's a PT-26A at John Cooper's airport in Warrensburg, Tennessee. It has its original colors and markings; a Fairchild "Cornell II" of the R.C.A.F. This particular PT-26A was actually manufactured by the Fleet Aircraft company of Canada. The Fairchild company couldn't build them fast enough, so they let other companies have the recipe. This one is serial number FC 121 and flew as Royal Canadian Air Force #10620 from 19 Mar 42 until 21 Aug 46. It served at # 34 E.F.T.S. (Empire Flight Training School), Assiniboia, Saskatchewan. After the war it went to the Provincial Institute of Technology in Calgary, Alberta for "instructional purposes." It was a museum display.

Bill Goins bought the PT-26A in 1972. He answered an ad in Trade-A-Plane and brought the airplane by truck to Morristown, TN. Bill had a dream. He loved the looks of the PT-26 and he wanted to fly one. It was slow going, but he worked on it when he had the time. His friend, Joe Brooks, devoted all of his spare time to the project, and others at Cooper's field helped when they could. By September of 1993, it was ready to fly.

The PT-19s and the PT-26s have Ranger engines. These in-line six cylinder engines are probably the most unusual powerplants flying today. A glance down the throat of the PT's long snout reveals rows of cooling fins on cylinders that are upside down. That's right, upside down. If they were up the other way, the propeller, which is bolted to the end of the crankshaft, would be too close to the ground. The PT's had wooden propellers, but even those were too expensive to replace every day. So the cylinders are upside down and the prop is way up high.

There is a little problem with oil seeping into the cylinders after shut down, but if you are careful to pull the engine over a few times before starting, it's no big problem. Engine start is always accompanied by a big cloud of blue smoke as the oil burns out of the cylinders, but that just adds to the excitement. The Ranger engines had a good reputation. The company ads said, "We never let you down."

Bill's PT has an electric starter on it ... what the original owners called a "self commencer." It's a wonderful thing, being able to start an engine by just pushing a button. Most of the earlier models used a hand crank. That gizmo required another person to stand beside the nose, just behind the prop, and turn a crank that was connected to a flywheel inside the cowling. Once the whine of the spinning flywheel got about two octaves above middle C, the assistant removed the crank handle and pulled a lever that engaged the starter. The Ranger engine would turn over about five times or so, depending on the condition of the rings and valves, and if it didn't start, the assistant had start all over again.

Bill's PT has probably never seen a paved runway, so Cooper's field was the perfect place for the first flight. The sky was blue and the first autumn colors tinged the trees behind the hangar. A small crowd had gathered to watch. Most of them had helped put the airplane together and wanted to see if it really worked. I had been selected for the honor of the first flight, so they gave me little bits of advice and encouragement.

The huge military seat belt and shoulder straps felt comforting. The seat was designed for a seat pack parachute, but we didn't have one, so it had cushions instead. It felt good. The engine started right up and the airframe quivered with excitement. It strained at the brakes and felt like it wanted to fly.

The Ranger takes a little time to warm up. It's a dry-sump engine with a five gallon oil tank and it takes a while for all that oil to get up to temperature. This Ranger has six stubby little exhausts which give it a throaty sound, deep and serious. It sounds like it means business.

There is an oil cooler door on the Fairchild. It wasn't mentioned on the checklist and I never noticed it. I guess if you fly in Saskatchewan, you need things like that. Bill had kept the oil cooler door closed to keep the birds out of the nose. Somehow it escaped my attention.

The first half of Cooper's runway, about a thousand feet, had been mowed with a lawn mower and was in great shape. That was the only part Cooper ever needed for his Skyhawk. The second half had been mowed with a farm tractor and wasn't as smooth. My plan was to make a decision at the point where the grass got taller. If it wasn't ready to fly at the midpoint, I wanted plenty room to stop. The western boundary of Cooper's strip is the Nolichucky River, with trees on both banks.

The magnetos checked O.K. The controls were free, the brakes unlocked, nose trimmed and all that stuff. I ran up to full power. The Ranger gave me 1975 RPM's. I would have liked some more, but that was enough. I pointed it toward the river and released the brakes.

The tail came off the ground quickly and the rudder was very responsive. The pressures and temperatures looked good, but the airspeed was slow in coming up. I had hoped for 50 MPH at the decision point and didn't have it, but the plane still felt like it wanted to fly. The wings lifted a little as the landing gear struts extended, first the left wing, then the right.

As the decision point passed, I went with my instincts and kept the power on. I could feel the taller grass tugging at the wheels, so I lifted the nose to put more of the weight onto the wings. The RPM's were up to 2050 now and the airspeed looked better. It came off at about 55 and we rode the ground effect cushion to build up a comfortable airspeed. I was glad Cooper had cut the taller trees on his side of the river.

I trimmed to climb at 70 MPH and circled back over the little gathering of PT builders, each of them looking up and worrying about the parts they had installed. Bill had begun to wonder if he would ever see this thing fly. Now, here, after twenty years of tinkering, it was in the air. I banked left, then right, to show him everything worked.

The oil pressure held steady at seventy pounds and the oil temperature looked a little high, so I backed the power down to 2000 RPM and leveled off. The airplane was trimmed well. I took my hands off the stick and watched it turn slightly to the left. I brought the RPM's down to 1900 and tried it again. It flew straight. Not bad, boys, not bad for guess work anyway. On the third circle around the airport, the oil temperature was even higher, so I figured it was time to land and let it cool.

I had been cruising at about 90 MPH indicated and continued that speed in a descent at reduced power. The oil temperature began dropping back into the comfortable zone. On the base leg I slowed to 70 and pulled the flaps handle.

The Fairchilds have a split flap arrangement that creates a lot of drag and not much lift. I could find only two settings: JUST A LITTLE and A WHOLE LOT. I selected JUST A LITTLE on the base leg, then the rest of them on the final approach.

There was very little wind, so I landed in the opposite direction from the take-off. You see, as if a river on the west end wasn't bad enough, Cooper has a highway on the east end of his strip. I had visions of meeting a truck on short final and the driver not realizing that I had the right-of-way. You never know.

I greased it on, rolled to a stop before an admiring crowd and climbed out onto the wing like an ace. After answering all the questions about how it flew and how it felt and all, I mentioned that it was running a little hot.

Bill pointed out the oil cooler door arrangement and showed me a little lever inside marked, "oil cooler door, push to close."

O.K., so I can't read, but they all had to admit. It was a great landing. I've got a video to prove it.