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  Flight in North American T-6G Texan G-DDMV - Rochester Airfield, Kent, 25th April 2009


Meeting the 'Pilot Maker.'

The company is called Warbird Experiences and boy, what an experience it is!

Having spent most of my youth reading about the exploits of daring Second World War fighter pilots and their aircraft, and then a great part of my adult life photographing and writing about them, this was the first time I had entered their realm proper and I found it an addictive essence.

In the United Kingdom you cannot pay to fly in a warbird such as a Spitfire, Hurricane or Mustang, as this is not allowed under Civil Aviation Authority rules. However, you can buy a flight in an American designed North American T-6 Texan, known as the Harvard to the British, and also nicknamed the 'pilot maker', which, at 600hp and 2.5 tons in weight, is the next best thing. You are also following in the footsteps of fighter pilots before you who would have transitioned from Tiger Moths, or other 'stick and rudder' biplanes, to the complex and powerful Harvard, before then moving onto Spitfires, Hurricanes and other front line high performance operational fighter aircraft.

The Harvard was a real leap in technology, workload, power and sheer size compared to the smaller, fixed undercarriage open cockpit biplanes on which students would have gained their wings. Now it was enclosed cockpits, retracting undercarriage, variable pitched propellers, more power and torque and definitely more attitude. The Harvard also had its vices, particularly during take off and landing, and could bite any hand that lost concentration, even for a moment.

Warbird Experiences own and operate T-6G Texan G-DDMV. It is most likely that the aircraft was built in 1943 and trained hundreds of pilots to fly in World War Two. The aircraft was converted to 'G' status in 1949, which is where the link with its prior history was severed. After conversion the machine flew with various training units in the USA before being sold to the Haitian Air Force in 1954, seeing action in an abortive coup in the late fifties armed with wing mounted bombs and machine guns. Returning to the USA in 1960 the aircraft had several private owners before being imported into the UK in 1990 by the late Paul Morgan and acquired in pristine condition by Warbird Experiences in 2005.

I arrived at Rochester airport admittedly with some nerves as to how I would feel during the flight but any worries were quickly assuaged by the team at Warbirds who make you feel extremely welcome and a part of the flight, not just another 'bod' to push through a conveyor belt. The experience begins with a briefing, which includes a tongue in cheek 100 hours of flight training in 15 minutes, and mainly serves to reassure prospective flyers and their attendant family and friends of what to expect in the flight. It was then time to get suited up Tom Cruise style (well, I thought so anyway) in a stylish green flying overall before making our way out to the aircraft where I met my pilot for the flight, Tony Richards, before being strapped securely in the back seat and taking in what would be my immediate surroundings for the next twenty, hopefully not too nerve wracking minutes.

Tony was great, his voice reassuring over the headset talking me through everything that he was doing, and he managed to twist round to check I was ok visually, albeit at the time asking if I was up for some aerobatics during the flight. I'm not sure my slightly croaky 'yes' reply was entirely convincing!
With straps secure and canopy closed in position it was time to start the engine which quickly burst into life, turning the squat, lifeless assemblage of aluminium into a rumbling, breathing, trembling living thing.

With a blip of power we moved forward and I could immediately feel the effect of Tony's control inputs and the responsiveness of the machine as we turned and taxied along the grass to the end of runway 020. We held just short of the runway and ran the engine up to full power and then back to idle to check all was functioning normally, which it was. We then lined up on the runway, opened the throttle and were off, the machine bumping down the grass as the air got under its wings and in no time at all we were airborne and climbing at 100mph. I was airborne in a Harvard, a childhood dream, a piece of history. This was real!

The ground fell away quickly and, as we cleared the ridge of land upon which Rochester airfield sits on, things quickly smoothed out and I looked along those sturdy yellow wings to see the whole of Kent stretching from horizon to horizon around us. Tony then went through holding the wings level, and raising and lowering the nose while I followed his movements on the control column. He then uttered those immortal words ‘You have control” and I responded with “I have control.” I could not believe it was me saying it!

I flew on, wings not wobbling too badly and the nose lowering and raising as intended, my amateur movements on the control stick probably too hesitant. Tony then took control again to go through a turn and after he did a right turn it was my turn to go left. I moved the stick over and the aircraft banked a little. I moved it some more and the bank suddenly steepened and we were turning! The machine felt strange to my touch but to feel and see the effect was pretty exciting and I was hooked. Then Tony took control again and turned to me to ask if I was ready for some aerobatics. How could I refuse.

We made a steep turn over Leeds Castle and then positioned for a loop, diving first to gain speed and then pulling back into the vertical by which time I had managed to come to terms with the effect of the 'g', i.e. the increase in the effect of gravity caused by the manoeuvring, which was trying pushing my head, arms and body out of the bottom of the aircraft (well, that’s what it felt like for a first timer!) and actually managed to look up and watch the horizon appear in the sky behind me as we went over the top and the ground moved above me and I realised I was whooping in exhilaration over the intercom.

With the loop completed and my nerves and insides still intact it was time for a victory role in true fighter pilot style and we went into a left wingover, diving to build up speed before pulling up into a beautifully smooth roll to the right, the green and blue circling lazily around us from normal to opposite to normal again. What freedom, what joy, yet many learned in these machines to fly and fight for their country and many paid the ultimate price.

All too soon we were heading back to the airfield, undercarriage and flaps coming down and a sweeping curved approach culminating in a smooth three point touchdown. We rumbled back to the dispersal area and Tony shut down the engine. All was suddenly quiet and peaceful, the machine no longer alive, no longer airborne amongst the clouds. I climbed out, the grin not leaving my face for several hours afterwards and as I looked back at the machine, sitting quietly on its own I felt a bond and, for the first time understood, if only a little, the realm of the fighter pilot.

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