Dateline: Abbotsford, British Columbia, August 1966
There is a saying somewhere that in moments of stress, you revert to what you know.
In 1966, two short years after the disbandment of the RCAF Golden Hawks, Canada’s premier formation aerobatic team, the powers-that-be decided that one of the military contributions to the celebration of Canada’s one hundredth birthday would be another formation aerobatic team that would travel across the country during the centennial year and give exactly 100 performances. The aircraft selected would be the new trainer introduced into the military a year or two previously – the Canadair CL-41 Tutor fitted with the General Electric J-85 turbojet engine producing some 2700 pounds of thrust.
To make up for the small size of the aircraft, the team would be expanded from the Golden Hawk six-plane model to nine planes: a six-plane formation and three solos. As news of the proposed new team spread across the air force, applications flooded in; nearly 30 in all.
Of those who volunteered, 14 pilots were gathered in Portage La Prairie, Manitoba, in late June for a three-week period to vie for the seven slots available (team lead and lead solo had been appointed). After a week of aircraft familiarity and a second week of intense practice flying in all positions, the third week saw every pilot fly an assessment trip in each position with the commanding officer, the team lead, or the lead solo. At the end of the last week, the pilots were individually advised of their status and all hands retired to the “O” Club to celebrate their success or drown their sorrow.
To raise public awareness of the new team, it was decided that Golden Centennaires would make an appearance at the Abbotsford Airshow using three aircraft even though the team had not even officially started practicing. The group would consist of two solo pilots and one of the formation pilots: Dave, Bill, and I were appointed. My inclusion may have had more to do with being available than being good.
The plan was to do a couple of formation passes and then have number three (me) split off and the two solos would execute an opposing solo routine (both Dave and Bill had an extensive low level aerobatic backgrounds). I would circle discretely high out of view and when the solos finished their last pass, I would dive down, join up, and we’d swing back for a three-plane pitch and landing. As I was flying the number three position from the right seat, another team member, Gord, was to sit in the left seat to raise and lower the gear (the addition of a right seat gear lever would come later)
The first day routine went off without a hitch. A couple of formation maneuvers, some solo maneuvers, a quick join-up and back for the three-plane landing and a beer at the pub. As Bartholomew Bandy said in WW1: “piece of cake.” Piece of cake, indeed! The next day would be a little different.
Now, although the J-85 engine was small, the 400-pound powerplant put out a lot of thrust for its size. Its eight-stage compressor section worked overtime to supply the air required for cooling and combustion. Although efficient, the engine did have one drawback: it did not like over-pressure situations such as those that develop when the throttle is reduced from high power to low power. There is no time for the pressure to bleed off smoothly as in previous engines such as those that powered the F-86 and the T-33. To address the problem, bleed valves were installed. Activated by mechanical linkage from the throttle, the valves were closed when power was advanced beyond a set engine RPM and would open again when the throttle was closed to allow excess pressure to spill to atmosphere. It was a simple system that worked well… Unless a bleed valve stuck closed.
August 14, 1966 in Abbotsford dawned warm and clear; a great day for flying and a great day for an airshow. After the normal start-up and taxi, we were off to our rendezvous point to await our time on stage. Gord and I chit-chatted about this and that until Dave called the wingmen into close formation for the run-in at which time Gord reached over and selected the intercom “off.” This was to preclude any involuntary verbal exclamations that might startle one of us as formation aerobatics sometimes aren’t as smooth and controlled as they seem from the ground.
In we go for the formation maneuvers after which I pull off while the solos do their magic. Then they’re off and Gord and I streak down for the re-join. With an airspeed hovering somewhere in the 400 mph region, Gord and I close in on the solos: at a point several hundred feet to the rear and with an overtake in excess of 100 miles an hour; I pull the throttle to idle and throw out the speed brakes. For my efforts, I am rewarded with a loud explosion. One or both bleed valves have hung up. I’m thinking “Compressor stall!”
Now, the last time I experienced such a loud airborne noise, the aircraft and I returned to earth separated in time and space. On this occasion, however, I have airspeed to play with. I check the instrument and warning panels. Not only do I have lights coming on all over the place, but I also note that the engine RPM is unwinding rapidly and the exhaust gas temperature is following it. I amend my thinking to “Not compressor stall… FLAME OUT.”
By now it should be apparent that the adrenalin is running rampant throughout my body. My mind has kicked into high gear; I’m running a multitude of possible outcomes through the decision making part of the processor situated between my ears. In today’s parlance, I’m multi-tasking with four gigs of RAM at a fetch rate measured in yocto-seconds. I ease back on the control column trading airspeed for altitude to maximize our chances of making the airport. As I’m going up, I take my hand off my throttle and reach across Gord trying to gain access to the left side of the cockpit. My hand is not hitting what I want and I keep pushing Gord back to get at his side of the airplane. After a few seconds of this, Gord reaches down and selects the intercom “ON.”
“What are you doing?” he asks calmly.
“What am I doing?” I squeak. “We’ve compressor stalled and flamed out and all the lights have come on and we’re gaining altitude and we’re losing airspeed and I’m trying to get to the airstart button on your throttle to get us going again.”
“I know we’ve flamed out,” replied Gord in the same “Nice day, isn’t it?” voice. “Why don’t you use the airstart button on your own throttle?”
I look down at my throttle and note that it is indeed a duplicate of the one on the left side; fitted with all the same switches in all the same places. Novel! “Good idea,” I respond.
After that, things were a bit anti-climactic: the airstart button on my throttle worked as advertised, we got the fire back, the power up, the adrenalin under control, and even managed to re-join the solos prior to the run-in for the pitchout and landing. Just another day at the office.
As I said at the outset, in moments of stress you revert to what you know: the majority of my limited hours in the Tutor had been in the left seat. Re-starts were accomplished by pushing the airstart button on the left throttle. That’s the way I was trained and by the Lord Harry, that’s the way I was going to do it! Other than an “oops” moment and losing a few seconds, the only harm was to one’s ego.
Gord was good about it, though; for the most part he kept the story to himself. Well, he told the bartender within the first hour, but that was because the bartender wanted to know why I was buying all the drinks. Then there were the two USAF pilots at a corner table telling “Dilbert” stories that Gord just had to outdo. Of course, around midnight, he’d forgotten all about “this will be our little secret” and had not only informed Dave and Bill, but had taken the pizza guy and two lost motorists into his confidence.
Sometimes show biz ain’t what it’s cracked up to be.
Note: The second-to-last paragraph took place in my head, but it’s appropriate, don’t you think?