Learning more about flying at Corry Field

Published 11:55 am Wednesday, September 19, 2012

by James D. Howell

The machine rests on the wheels — two main mounts and a tail wheel.

It has a powerful radial engine; it is strong beyond my imagination and has been training novices like me since before my birth.

It is capable of every phase of military aircraft operations, including gunnery and bombing. I run my hand along the leading edge of a wing and feel the thrill and agony of a thousand students, or more.

This is the most recent incarnation of the SNJ, the Navy’s longest lasting operational trainer. It has several names in Navy slang; I will learn to operate and respect this beast over the next six months.

Ground school for the aircraft reveals just how old and reliable the SNJ is; it has no automatic features and no floorboards.

Objects dropped in the cockpit disappear quickly into the bowels of the machine. I learn to secure everything, including myself.

Parachutes are a seat pack, the same as World War II; a harness (uni-size) and parachute are checked out and in for each flight. The parachute becomes a seat cushion; there are no soft spots in this aircraft.

The aircraft has idiosyncrasies learned from a lot of mistakes by would-be airmen. On the ground, it’s impossible to see straight ahead; so taxiing is a side-to-side waddle to the runway.

Once there, alignment with the runway is from reference to the compass, and a guess as to equal distance from the edge. Forward visibility is not possible until some airspeed is attained and the tail can be lifted to a more horizontal position.

It does require a lot of practice for all that to come together in some semblance of smoothness — and I’m not even off the ground.

I will learn this aircraft as I learned the last. First is ground school, then a half-day school, a half flight, beginning with simple maneuvers, aerobatics, basic instrument, then formation flying.

I learn the machine has stall tendencies always to roll right and must be led significantly if it is to perform satisfactorily. I learn the machine has a tendency to pitch over straight ahead if brakes are applied improperly.

I learn the strong teepee-like structure behind my head is a roll bar to prevent the aircraft from crushing the pilot if that occurs. Some forethought certainly went into that design.

Other things are taught during this phase. Morse Code recognition and communication are required. I learn to print in the approved telecommunications script; it will become a standard for most written communications. I receive a telecommunications license, permitting me to operate radios.

Ground school for basic instrument flying includes a series of sessions in the Link Trainer, affectionately called “The Blue Box.”

Students have many colorful names for this trainer; it is a flight simulator, before real flight simulators were developed. It is powered by air vacuum, the same as the instrumentation on the aircraft.

Direction control, turns, climbs and descents at a precise rate are introduced and practiced. It’s all done inside an enclosed, cockpit-simulated, large blue box-like apparatus. The technique and equipment has been in place since World War II.

It is a challenging part of flight training, and I feel I’m not quite up to par in some respects. Conversations with other students quickly reassure me that very few are really comfortable with this phase. Students with previous civilian flying experience (there are a few) tend to do a little better. It is not a confidence builder for me.

I manage basic instrument flying reasonably well in the aircraft; I only have one unsatisfactory flight. That is quickly corrected; it doesn’t seem too unusual. I complete all other phases without mishap and move on to radio instrument training at Barin Field, close to Mobile Bay.

All instruction at Barin Field is about navigating with electronic instruments and radios; it’s done in the T-28 aircraft. I will not learn to fly this plane; I will strictly learn to use its instrumentation.

There is the usual ground school about airways, air route structures, types of radios and navigational facilities. Airborne instruction is mostly navigating from point “A” to point “B” along electronic roads.

I complete the short course and move on to advanced training at Corpus Christi, Texas. Now I can (and do) proudly wear a double bar insignia above my left shirt pocket.

I pack all my belongings, as I have before, into my car and set out on the long drive; I feel a major milestone has passed. I now look to the sky as a friend that beckons; my vision has extended beyond the horizon.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at archiepix@kingwoodcable.com.