Sticks for Hire

“Uh oh. Why is this piston rod left over?” Meet the pilots who are gutsy enough to fly freshly restored airplanes

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John Mohr has tested about 30 one-of-a-kind aircraft, like a 1938 Cunningham-Hall and a 1936 Stinson Model A Tri-Motor. Though he relishes flying them, he warns that they can be a handful. “You can get yourself in a box in these airplanes if you are not careful,” he says. “They don’t fly well at all. The rudders are stiff. The elevators are mushy. The ailerons are heavy. The brakes are poor, and the braking systems are all different. You need to be pretty savvy on the brakes.” Consequently, Mohr still approaches each test flight carefully, doing extensive ground run-ups and taking other precautions. Nevertheless, “a lot of stuff doesn’t work when you first go up and fly it,” he says.

While Jackson is restoring an airplane, he simultaneously prepares himself for test flying it. “When I get in an airplane, I know every aspect of that airplane: how it works, what it took to put it together, what it takes to break it,” he says. “You’re basically becoming part of the airplane as far as systems go, and that’s done over a period of months, rather than just hop in and blast off into the sunset.”

On first flights after restoration or major maintenance, Jackson brings a long sheet of paper for writing down maintenance problems, or squawks; some of the things he typically finds are sticky cockpit canopies, radios that don’t work, and inoperative landing-gear lights, problems that are more of a nuisance than cause for alarm. In fact, Jackson says that most of his test flights pass without incident. “The majority of a test pilot’s job is not dealing with a problem, it’s noting to see if there’s a problem. The only reason why you want somebody that’s qualified there to deal with it is when there is a problem, you want the plane brought back. I mean anybody can jump out of one, and anyone can crash one. So the trick is to find somebody that can deal with an emergency, to bring it back so you can fix it.”

When a serious problem does arise, however, Jackson says that his response is measured, not heroic. “The flying is calculated because it’s the ‘You know what’s going to happen before it happens’ kind of thing,” he says. “Really, we’re not reinventing the wheel here. The [type of warbirds] that I fly after restoration have thousands and thousands of proven hours in them.”

Vlado Lenoch knows a thing or two about measured responses to inflight emergencies. An aerospace engineer with degrees from Purdue and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lenoch worked for Boeing as a test engineer and later for several major airlines as a pilot. In 1988 he bought a P-51 Mustang, which he raced at Reno. Within the Midwest’s Mustang community he soon earned a reputation as a skilled stick, and he occasionally would ferry the pricey warbirds for their owners.

When Mike Vadeboncoeur and his employee David Young needed someone to test fly a Mustang they had spent hundreds of hours restoring, they decided Lenoch was their man. Vadeboncoeur owns Midwest Aero Restorations, based in Danville, Illinois. Since 1999 he and Young had been working on Cripes A’Mighty, a P-51D owned by Ken Wagnon of Wichita, Kansas. Wagnon’s aim was to restore Cripes A’Mighty back to the colors and specifications of the U.S. Army Air Force’s World War II 352nd Fighter Group, and he spared no expense. The 12-cylinder Rolls-Royce Merlin engine had been completely rebuilt. New aluminum skins and new side cowling were fabricated. The colors were meticulously researched. At the 352nd’s old headquarters in England, the men’s room had been painted with the group’s original colors, so Vadeboncoeur and Young had a brick liberated from the wall and shipped Stateside so they could exactly duplicate the blue needed for Cripes A’Mighty’s nose.

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.

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