The Flying T-Bird and Me
Originally posted Aug 20, 2014
The photo of the T-33 jet trainer is from the Offutt “Defenders of Freedom” air show this past July. It was a terrific show featuring a standout performance by the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels flight demonstration team.
I enjoyed it all, but the two performing aircraft that really made the hairs on my arms stand up were the P-38, that the late Everett Phillips – who got me my pilot’s license and opened up a whole new magic world for me all those decades ago – flew in the European Theater in WW-II, and the T-33 “T-Bird” that I myself got to fly one unbelievable Sunday afternoon back in the late-sixties.
I’ve talked here before about Phil, but I’ve never revealed the hop in the T-33 to very many folks, probably because it’s just fantastic enough to be pure b.s., but I swear it’s true. Although all these years later, it does seems almost fantasy-like.
The way it happened was, in the summer of 1967 – when we were expecting Kristi in a few months – Gene Budig was a first lieutenant and the public information officer for the Nebraska National Guard. In that capacity, he fairly frequently got to go for a hop himself in the T-33 and described it as pretty neat. At that time, I’d had about six or eight hours of flying lessons before getting discouraged (landing is a lot harder than one might think) and running out of money and allowed as how, if there were ever an opportunity to go up in that airplane, I’d jump on it like a mongoose on a snake.
Well, leave it to Gene; he managed to arrange for me to go up, on an August Sunday afternoon, with then-Colonel Morgan Batten, a WW-II fighter jockey who would eventually retire as Adjutant General of the Nebraska Air Guard! (Gene also managed over the years to become President of Illinois State, West Virginia, the University of Kansas, and the American League before retiring.)
I showed up at the Air Guard hangar at the appointed hour, was issued a flight suit, helmet, parachute, and the nicest kid leather gloves I had ever seen and was led by Gene out to the flight-line, where the T-33 literally gleamed in the sun. There was a ladder hanging from the cockpit which I needed to climb with the parachute – which isn’t light – hanging from by back and centered behind/under my butt (in the aircraft, it actually becomes your seat cushion), and Gene said, “There’s no graceful way to scramble up there – you just have to grab the ladder and do your best.” So, I did, and the crew chief for that airplane climbed up after me and helped me get belted in.
Shortly, the chief climbed down, Colonel Batten climbed up, introduced himself and said, “I’m going to brief you on what you’ll need to do if we have to leave this airplane. Assuming I’m conscious and know what’s going on, I’ll send us both, but if I can’t do that, you are going to have to execute the ejection procedure yourself.” He went on to describe how to raise the arm rests on the seat, which blows the canopy, how to brace yourself before simultaneously pulling the two triggers that will fire you out of the canopy, and warning me not to touch any of that stuff unless I truly wanted to be blasted out of the aircraft. Oh, and those cool gloves? You were required to wear those in case of fire in the cockpit.
Batten had me repeat the briefing to him, and it was at that time that the smallest part of me whispered that maybe this wasn’t such a great idea after all, especially when the grizzled crew chief reappeared on the ladder, gave me a hard look, pointed to the ejection controls and said, “Don’t ____with that.”
But those misgivings lasted only so long as it took the Colonel to settle into the front seat, lower the canopy and commence the startup procedure while explaining it all to me on the intercom, which along with the communications radios was wired in through my helmet, which also contained a mic and provided oxygen. He told me that the T-33 was a great little airplane, easy to fly and very forgiving, and that once we were airborne, he would turn the controls over to me. Well now!!!
We took off on what was then known as LNK “runway 17 right” and began gobbling up altitude like no 90 mph Piper Colt I had ever flown. We were probably no more than a thousand feet off the deck when he raised his hands in the air and said, “Your airplane.” And I started out just great, but when we penetrated a forming cumulus cloud and I lost reference to the horizon, the instruments started spinning fast and in some really strange ways, when Batten calmly said, “I’ve got it.”
What I’d experienced, of course, was the spatial dis-orientation that happens to folks not qualified for instrument flight who wander into clouds or fog, lose track of which way is up and dive into what aviators have since the beginning of flight called “the graveyard spiral.” But once we were up to cruise altitude – and it’s always nice up there between the sun and the clouds – the Colonel turned the airplane over to me again, and I flew it out to the Harlan County Reservoir, where we intended to overfly my in-laws’ house. When we began a descent to announce ourselves with a low-level pass, Batten once again took over the airplane, and in a flash we were past the house and pulling up into a graceful chandelle. We circled around and made another pass, and could see my in-laws out in the side yard waving, quite clearly in fact, as we were really, really low.
At that point, Colonel Batten said, “Okay, let’s go around and do one more, and you fly the airplane this time” and again raised his hands in the air and said, “Your airplane.” Now, when you’re a kid, you don’t know what you can’t do, and I kicked some left rudder, rolled in a little aileron and oh-so-gently, and then not-so-gently pulled back on the stick, and it still seemed like it took several miles to bend the T-Bird around in about a sixty degree bank with my cheeks actually sagging from the G-force. But I got us back there and did another pass, but not quite as low as the real pilot had done it.
At that point, the Colonel said that we had about reached the point where the T-33’s fuel range said “Go home.” But then he seemed to have a second thought and said, “How are you feeling?” Well, I was feeling outstandingly and magnificently terrific and told him so, when he said, “Let’s do one more pass – I’ll fly it and do a slow roll for them on climb-out.” To appreciate just what that meant to a junior birdman, you have to understand that the planes we fly around in as civilians…any of them except the aerobatic models…don’t do rolls unless you are okay with the wings falling off.
In any case we headed back down to the deck, overflew the house, entered into a sharp climb and the world seemed to revolve. Just like that – no G-forces; no real physical sensation other than the world did a 360 right in front of my eyes.
But wait…there’s more. After taking the T-33 back up to cruise, Batten once again turned the controls over to the 8-hour student pilot in the rear seat and told me, “Now you’re going to do a roll. Just lower the nose slightly, let the airspeed build to [I forget what], then raise the nose back to level flight and firmly take the stick all the way to the left or right and center it when you are level once again. Just go left or right and don’t tell me which before you do it.”
So I did. And it was just like when he did it. I went left, and the world just did one revolution before settling back to where it had been before. The Colonel said that was good. Try it the other way, and I did. Then he said, “Hold onto approximately the same heading, to get us to Lincoln, and take the airplane and just fly it down and around through these cloud canyons and have fun with it.” And I did that too. There was getting to be quite an afternoon cumulus buildup by then, and it was pretty much unbelievable.
And then all of a sudden and way too soon, Batten said, “I’ll take the airplane back now and get it setup for landing.” If I were making this up, I’d tell you how I shot the landing and that it lives in Air Guard memory for being one of the smoothest anyone had ever seen. But I’m not, and I didn’t. Colonel Batten did, and it was indeed a grease job. The man could fly airplanes.
And that was it. I jabbered on about it for a few days to anyone who’d listen. I swore I’d enlist if I were not already too old for flight training, But as someone once said, time passes; things change; life goes on, and people got tired of hearing about my adventure, and eventually I even got a little tired of telling it. Today, it does indeed seem kind of like a dream, and I seriously doubt that anything even remotely like that experience could happen in today’s world.
But for a couple of hours one Sunday afternoon in August, a few decades ago, I knew what it felt like to actually “slip the surly bonds of earth.” Something I’ll probably be telling them about in the nursing home.
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