Sticks for Hire
"Uh oh. Why is this piston rod left over?" Meet the pilots who are gutsy enough to fly freshly restored airplanes.
- By Mark Huber
- Air & Space magazine, July 2003
(Page 3 of 4)
Finally, in May 2002, Cripes A’Mighty was ready for its first flight. Over the course of 45 minutes, Lenoch took the Mustang to 8,000 feet and pushed it to 260 mph (“I didn’t want to crack the paint or load up the airplane too much,” he says). Aside from a few problems related to trim and engine instrumentation, all was well.
On the second flight, Lenoch took the airplane to 7,000 feet. “Everything checked out fine,” he says. “Then I reduced power to come back and land.” As he descended through 3,000 feet, Vadeboncoeur, who was watching from the ground, radioed, “Hey, you’re streaming fluids.” Lenoch radioed back, “Yeah. The oil pressure is at zero.”
A piston rod had separated from the top of the piston, and, while still attached to the crankshaft, broke out the side of the engine. “It basically sawed the engine in half,” says Vadeboncoeur. Lenoch, who characterized the failure as “almost instantaneous engine destruction,” shut down the engine and set up for a dead stick landing. “He pitched up, threw out the gear, dropped the flaps, and made a great landing,” says Vadeboncoeur. And saved one very expensive restoration.
In rebuilt airplanes, engine failure is not uncommon. Last February, Matt Jackson was hired by his friend, Howard Keck, to test fly a civilian transport that had been converted from a Douglas A-26 Invader. During the three weeks it took to ensure that the airplane was ready to return to service after being refurbished at Jackson’s Van Nuys shop, Jackson made five test flights. On the third flight, the transport’s right engine failed on takeoff. Jackson wanted to land as soon as possible, but his most immediate concern was clearing the power lines that loomed ahead. After that, he worked to keep the aircraft from crashing into the densely populated area surrounding the airport, then he landed safely. “It was a dangerous situation, but it was still routine for an engine failure,” he says.
During Jackson’s final test flight in the transport, which lasted two and a half hours, the airplane performed flawlessly. Afterward, Jackson signed off on the aircraft, authorizing its return to service. Since then, it has logged more than 150 hours as Keck’s personal aircraft (“I use it like it’s a King Air, but it’s a lot more fun to fly,” he says).
Keck and Jackson are part of a group of warbird owners and pilots based at Van Nuys. When not flying, they often gather at nearby Millie’s Café to talk shop. Test pilot Skip Holm is one of the regulars, and also a perennial rival of Jackson’s at the Reno air races (“We’re all friends and we’re all trying to get one up on each other,” confides Jackson).
Unlike Jackson, Holm got into the business of test flying warbirds based on his experience as a pilot for the U.S. Air Force. During the Vietnam war, Holm flew three tours of duty in F-105s and F-4s, and by the end of the war he had become the U.S. fighter pilot with the highest combat time: more than 1,000 hours. After Vietnam, Holm joined Lockheed’s Skunk Works, where he became a test pilot for the F-117 stealth fighter program. Fellow Skunk Works pilot Bill Park introduced Holm to Mustang enthusiast Dave Zeuschel, and in 1981 Zeuschel asked Holm to fly a P-51, Jeannie 69, at the Reno air races.
Holm had barely any experience flying World War II aircraft, but he ended up winning his race with an average course speed of 450 mph. The phone hasn’t stopped ringing since. Over the last 20 years, Holm has flown a dozen different racers at Reno, including well-known winners like Dago Red, Stiletto, Out-of-Bounds, and Rare Bear. Charging $600 a day plus expenses, Holm also test flies 15 to 20 client aircraft a year and has flown for a number of movies, including The Right Stuff and Hot Shots.