My accidental warbird flight

First, a little personal history to set the stage: in the early 1980s, I spent eight months in Denver, Colorado, living on Lowry Air Force Base and learning electronics fundamentals and related subjects to prepare for my job of maintaining the side-looking mapping radar on the venerable SR-71 Blackbird. The school was very casual as compared to the military basic training that preceded it, so it was very common to have both a completely open weekend and access to my car. We often went up into the Rocky Mountains or spent a nice day in beautiful Boulder. One of my favorite things to do was to go out to the airport and watch the gliders fly.

Glider on tow
One of the purest forms of flying.

Fast forward to this year, when business needs had me spending a couple days in Boulder. As is often the case when travelling east to west, I arrived in town with a half day of freedom with which to enjoy the city. What to do, what to do?

It didn’t take very long for the long-dormant clarion call of the gliderport to beckon. A quick internet search revealed that it was possible to purchase a glider ride. In fact, there were a number of options on offer, the most robust of which was called the Mile High Flight. The 1990s era web site promised the following:

“Our best ride! This flight has everything. You’ll be towed to 5,280 feet above airport, deep into the mountains west of Boulder, with a beautiful [view] of the Continental Divide and its 14,000-foot snow-capped peaks. After soaring free near Gross Reservoir or Nugget Ridge, you may wish to have your pilot burn up extra altitude flying roller-coaster maneuvers, or let you handle the controls for a portion of the flight. An experience you’ll remember forever!”

Well then. Sign me up!

Of course, I did not have a means of transportation, but I thought this to be the perfect time to try out this new-fangled Uber thing. That would have gone swimmingly, if not for my typical luck: I was picked up by an Uber driver that was only in Boulder because he had picked up a fare in Denver that needed to go to Boulder, and he figured he’d just spend the afternoon working the streets of Boulder. The net result of which was neither of us having even a glimmer of an idea as to how to get to the Boulder airport.

Glider port office
It’s quite the glider port office!

That problem resolved itself with a little iPhone GPS detective work and I soon arrived at the Mile High Gliders “office,” which can best be described as a small building glommed onto an extremely old Airstream camper. It was just the kind of “casual” I was nostalgic for.

Of course, nostalgia is a double-edged sword. It often occupies the same place in the lexicon as “old,” “antique,” and “tired.” I realized this as we walked out through a row of modern-looking, sleek, and pleasantly curvaceous high-performance gliders to arrive at what looked like, well… something that could be described as the antonym of that entire string of adjectives.

If I’m being honest, my first thought was, uncharitably to be sure, “What a rotten old bucket!”

Still, I was a guest, albeit a paying guest, so good manners dictated that I ignore the ignoble trappings of the proffered transport and just enjoy the flight and the incumbent scenery. As I was looking over the glider, a Schweizer 2-32 for those keeping score at home, I couldn’t help noticing an area on the spine of the fuselage, just behind the canopy, with a circular panel embedded in the metal and ringed with a couple rows of relatively large and closely spaced rivets. That’s indicative of one of the lingering side effects resulting from having built your own airplane – you tend to notice things like a large area containing nothing but a lot of closely spaced rivets. Those areas typically indicate a prior or existing engineering requirement to support heavy loads, either as weight or aerodynamic stresses.

I asked the young man that would be flying us up into the mountains how something as light and relatively slow as a glider, even an aerobatic one, could possibly need such a robust structure.

Schweizer
A warbird? Really?

He informed me that this particular airplane had flown in Vietnam.

“Recently?” I asked, finding it hard to believe that he was using verbal shorthand to describe our war there.

“No, during the war.”

I still found that hard to believe, but looking into the cockpit I could see what very much looked like a military oxygen regulator. So… maybe.

He went on to say that they had managed to strap a pylon and an engine on the spine of the plane, to which a long shaft was attached to carry torque out to a large propeller at the front of the plane, thus creating a nearly silent way to make reconnaissance runs over the Ho Chi Minh trail at night.

Still a bit incredulous, I looked over the rest of the airplane. Firmly attached to the vertical stabilizer, I found a set of decals that said “Lockheed” and “QT-2PC.” I filed that away for later research.

The flight was, as you can imagine, a tantalizing combination of absolutely gorgeous scenery, challenging flying (I flew behind the tow plane for a good 15 minutes), and personal satisfaction, the latter being the result of the CFI’s “you’re doing an awesome job!” comment regarding my tow plane following.

Van’s RV formation flying was my secret ingredient. It really felt quite natural to be that close to another airplane, and to correct that position with small yet quick control stick inputs.

QT-2PC logo
More clues…

After the flight was all said and done and I was able to bum a ride back to my hotel, I was able to get access to the internet again. I immediately started looking into the history of this airplane.

As it turns out, the primary need for this stealthy night prowler wasn’t to reconnoiter the Ho Chi Minh trail – that job was being performed by the Air Force with their own Pave Eagle night reconnaissance plane – but to patrol over small outposts that were suffering nightly incursions by the Viet Cong. As such, the Air Force declined the request for assistance from DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, when they came asking for help in developing an aerial solution for the need to reconnoiter the areas in need of help.

The Army and Navy, however, were very interested.

The Navy had ordered a pair of Schweizer 2-32 gliders for use in test pilot training and agreed to loan the pair of them to DARPA to support the program. DARPA turned to Lockheed to do the design and conversion work. They added a support pylon, located directly on the glider’s center of gravity, to hold a Continental O-200 engine.

This explains the area of closely-spaced rivets that had piqued my initial curiosity.

QT-PC2 glider
Not your everyday glider, the QT-PC2 had an engine and propeller attached for night missions in Vietnam.

The engine and pylon were wrapped in aerodynamic fairings, the propeller shaft was driven through a V-belt RPM reduction system, and the propeller itself was wooden, four-bladed, and fixed-pitch. This allowed sufficient thrust and very low noise by allowing the engine and propeller, both typically noisy, to turn at a low enough RPM to render the aircraft nearly silent.

There were two of these variants built and, not surprisingly, they were referred to as #1 and #2. They were flown for a couple of years before being replaced by newer airplanes, at which point they were returned to the navy.

The ultimate fate of #1 is reportedly unknown, but the whereabouts of #2 are not in question: I had flown in it.

I wouldn’t trade having flown in that “rotten old bucket” for a ride in one of those sleek, modern birds for anything. After all, I can now honestly say that I’ve flown a warbird!

6 Comments

  • I remember seeing these fly at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland, where the Navy and Marine Corps trained their test pilots and where a lot of aircraft testing was done. I started skydiving there in 1969 and at our DZ on the base we would often see these powered gliders taking off and landing, and yes they were extremely quiet. I imagine they were very well suited for their mission.

  • Aviation history is chock full of backwaters and oddities that keep my interest alive in reading it. Thanks for bringing up this fascinating official kluge job!

  • I believe that serial #1 is at the Hiller Aviation museum in San Carlos, CA (www.hiller.org)
    San Carlos lies about midway between San Francisco and San Jose.
    BTW, the formerly private museum in San Martin closed and most artifacts were relocated to a public museum at San Martin airport (E16)

  • Intriguing story! The Museum of Flight at Boeing Field (Tukwila, WA) has a YO-3A, which was another two-place prop-driven airplane designed to quietly overfly areas of SVN. Flight Journal had recently published an article about that airplane’s development, which began in SoCal and moved to Nevada, a quieter locale. Seems that a couple of engineers decided that rather than driving back to town (Carson City?) for the night, they’d stay on site in the field office trailer. Big mistake! Ever hear of Mustang Ranch? It’s gone, but memorialized on the charts with the Mustang VOR. If there are lights on in a place well off the highway and away from town, late at night, it might be a brothel…

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