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A List Of My Favorite Airplanes
My First Flight
For years, I was a typical kid. I played baseball, rode my bike, and (attempted) to put together the myriad of plastic pieces in a model airplane kit in order to have a perfect model airplane to hang from the ceiling in my room. More often than not, I failed miserably but not enough that I hated my creations.
Then one day my father informed me that we were going to Canada, and flying in to a distant lake. Canada! Flying! Flying? Awesome!!!
We packed up and drove the 1,000 miles or so to Fort Frances, Ontario. Crossing the border at International Falls, Minnesota we withstood the less than desirable scent of the paper mill there and entered another country. A short drive led us to the headquarters of the outfitter who would be flying us into our lake, some 100 miles or so deep into an area with no roads, no nearby people or cities, nothing but a tent, our cooler full of food, an our fishing gear and cloths. nothing else. One must remember this was in those days prior to cell phones so we would truly be on our own for seven days.
We stood on the dock awaiting our plane to arrive from its trip into another lake picking up a party of fisherman. Finally, we saw it on the horizon, a small dark speck that eventually became a small dark plane. It landed on the water, acting much like a flat stone one throws across the water, skipping and bouncing along until its momentum lost, it settled quietly down into the water. As it taxied up to the dock, it didn't get much bigger. The pontoon floats in place of wheels were the biggest things about it.
Four people fell out of the plane onto the dock, then began pulling bags of gear out onto the dock itself. Coolers followed, filled to the brim with fish fillets. As the travelers made an enormous pile there, up walked a Canadian Fish and Game officer. He proceeded to count the fillets, and arrived at a number one half a fish (one single fillet) over their limit. Writing a ticket, the officer handed it to the travelers then gathered the fillets up, placed them into his truck and drove away.
Stiff penalty for miscounting!
So what kind of plane was it? It was a Cessna, the first I had ever seen. We handed our stuff to the pilot (who didn't even have a hair on his chinny, chin, chin) who tossed the bags into the back, then we climbed in. Dad and I sat in the back seat so Steve, who was a grandfatherly old man, could sit up front. Looking back, he probably wasn't much older then than I am now. Anyway, we shut the door and the pilot started the engine. A little power and we pulled away from the dock and taxied (taxied?) out across the choppy water and into the wind. More power and we headed out. Now, I don't know if any of you have been on a float plane before, but that first experience was mild terror for me. First off, when the power went up the nose did too, with the tail sinking low. As we skittered and skipped across the waves, we were unable to see in front of us. I mean WE COULD NOT SEE WERE WE WERE GOING!! After a few soul searching seconds, it smoothed out and we were airborne. Up, up, up we went until the whole world lay beneath us. A few points North and we were on our way.
After about an hour, the pilot took his hands off the wheel and took a map from the pocket behind his seat. Spreading it open, he laid it across the wheel and dashboard, and windshield. Panic took hold as I saw he couldn't see where he was going, then we dropped. Must have dropped hundreds of feet and he never touched the wheel, just kept looking at that map. Finally he pointed down and said "That's your lake!". He turned the plane on its wingtip, dropped the rest of the way towards the earth, my stomach flip-flopping as we descended. Then he straightened out, became level, and skipped to a halt in front of the camp.
I will never forget the flight, nor the others I took on those small bush planes. So with no more preface, here is a list of my favorites, beginning with those venerable bush planes.
de Havilland Beaver
The Beaver has held its place as perhaps the preeminent workhorse of the skies over Canada and Alaska since its inception in the late 1940's. Rugged, dependable and strong enough to carry whatever one required (within reason) to the furthest reaches of the Wild, the Beaver was perfectly suited for the job. Production ceased some twenty years later after over 1,600 had been produced, yet they are still found in the air, carrying fishermen and hunters, sightseers and such to some of the wildest locations on Earth. They may be land based (tires, both regular and tundra) or water (pontoons, or floats) or skis (for snow); or they may a combination that changes as the seasons change. Whatever their makeup, they are exactly what they were designed to be: tough, strong, dependable. I have had the privilege to fly on these amazing planes several times and I can assure you there is no better plane suited for its environment the the Beaver.
I have seen pictures of them taped together and still remaining flyable. I have read of them being tied to a tree on some long lost lake that was too small to land and takeoff from, then as the pilot brings his plane to full power, held to the lake by a rope around its tail the rsope is severed and the Beaver jump almost majestically into the air. Ultimately, if you are going "where no man has gone before" this is the air-frame you want to have your life depend on.
Is there a sweeter looking prop plane in existence? Not to me! The North American Aviation P-51 Mustang came into being in the 1940's and made an appearance in WWII in late 1943 into 1944 and lasted through the beginning of the Korean War until jet fighters such as the F-86 took over the skies, yet even then it continued in a fighter/bomber capacity. The last one was retired from active service in 1984 from the Dominican Air Force.
With a speed approaching 450 mph the P-51 was capable of flying with and downing even a V-1 rocket being shot towards England in WWII. Today, Mustangs dominate much of the air race circuit and perform in many air shows across the nation.
Do you remember Top Gun? Tom Cruise as Maverick; Val Kilmer as Iceman, Tom Skerritt as Viper? Remember driving your car like you were flying one of those Tomcat's in a dogfight? No? Oops!
How many of us fell in love with the Tomcat, produced by Grumman in the early 1970's? The variable swept Delta wing design that allowed a single aircraft to be efficient and deadly both as a dog fighter and as a high speed attack plane? The power it represented flying off a carrier, capable of striking anywhere, anytime? Firing missiles, dropping bombs, shooting 20 mm bullets at a speed that will boggle one's mind? Deadly, yet beautiful and graceful; at least to me.
One time I was awaiting a connecting flight in St Louis, Mo when I spied a long, long line of people waiting to play a video game. Having plenty of time, I wandered over to see what was going on. There was a game there called F-14 I believe that had men, women, children, old people all waiting to play it. I mean, women with babies on their hips to TWA pilots all stood in line, peering around those in front of them to see this game! There must have been forty or fifty people in line! So I took my place and waited almost an hour just to see what this game was all about.
When I finally got my chance, I set down in cockpit like seat, surrounded by lights and pictures and gadgets. Dropping my quarter I watched on a big screen in front of me as it displayed a realistic F-14 waiting for me to fly it. Taking off, I promptly found myself in a dogfight with multiple jets, bullets and missiles all around me. The seat jerked this way and that, twisting and turning as I moved my joystick hither and yon, sighting in and shooting down jets and helicopters one after another before I was finally shot out of the sky.
What an amazing game! I understood the attraction, but what bothered me was the next player turned out to be the pilot of the airline flight that I ended up getting on later that day! I recognized him as I boarded the plane, and a shiver went through me as I worried whether he was going to shake our plane up like he'd done that game!
Often called the hot rod of the sky, the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon is a multi-role fighter/bomber that was, in a word, vicious. A frame-less bubble canopy offering unparalleled visibility, fly by wire computer assisted controls that required as little as 1/8" movement to perform a maneuver, speed to burn and incredible get up and go, the Falcon is one of those air-frames other countries were both fearful of, and desirous of at the same time.
One of, if not the only, fighter with a thrust to weight ratio of greater than 1:1, the Falcon can literally accelerate going straight up, even topping Mach I in a perpendicular flight away from the Earth. Top speed hit Mach 2 with a Pratt & Whitney 25,000+ pound thrust power plant. Small, less than 50 feet long and 33 feet wing tip to wing tip, the Falcon is a fighter pilot's dream. I have long loved these nimble masters of the air, and even today, some 40 years after they hit the runway, they are still an effective form of air defense across the world.
The SR-71 Blackbird; aahhhh the jet of my dreams! Sleek, dark, mysterious, fast. Fast, oh boy is it fast! Try this on for size: sustained flight 2,200 mph or Mach 3.2. One pilot reported his touched Mach 3.5 once over Libya while outrunning a missile! Literally nothing could shoot it down until Russia developed the MiG 31 and combined its Mach 2.8 speed with the Mach 4.5 R-33 missile. How high could it fly? Oh, the reported ceiling was 85, 000 feet, which is sixteen (16) miles high. One could literally see the curvature of the Earth and the stars of space in broad daylight it was up so high.
Designed by the famed Skunk Works division of Lockheed, it had many advanced features. One item which just blew me away was that the chines, the edge you notice running along the side of the plane, were designed using a slide rule. Not a computer; not some high powered system. A man and a slide rule. Incredible.
Just about everything on the jet is incredible, from its Ram Air engines to its Titanium Alloy construction to its quartz windshield to its aluminum composite tires that were nitrogen filled. Did you know that the skin was basically corrugated and wrinkled? It had to be that way for when flying at speed it would stretch and change shape, often becoming a full foot longer while flying than it was on the ground. It also leaked fuel like a sieve, so they would give just enough to get it airborne and up to speed, thus heating and expanding the jet and its tanks before refueling and setting off. Now think about that for a moment as you recall its speed records (which were takeoff to landing times). L.A. to Washington, D.C.: 64 minutes 20 seconds. West Coast to East Coast: 67 minutes 54 seconds. Kansas City to Washington, D.C. 24 minuted 59 seconds. And perhaps the most impressive of all: New York to London, 3,461.53 miles in 1 hour, 54 minutes, 56 seconds. To put that into perspective, the Concord could cover that same distance in an additional hour, while the Boeing 747 takes 6 hours and 15 minutes to cover the same distance.
And while traveling at Mach 3+, it could photograph an astounding 100,000 square miles. To put that into perspective, Wyoming has some 97,000 square miles s the SR-71 could conceivably take pictures of the entire state of Wyoming in just under an hour; pictures that could (legend has it) supply pictures that were good enough to read newsprint on. Or it could photograph a swath of America 30 miles wide coast to coast, all in under an hour.
So, altogether this adds up to make the SR-71 my all time favorite airplane.