Quote of the Moment

"Beep Industries currently has no openings. This is a good thing. Any number of career paths are better than game development. Lots of jobs are more lucrative and far less work. We hear marketing and animal husbandry are filled with potential."

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Five Airplanes

Ahab tagged me for a list of my five favorite airplanes, and aside from a lot of difficulty in picking only five, I'll give it my best shot, but I still had to include one honorable mention, making it a list of six.

Honorable Mention -- ViperJet

A high-school fantasy come to life, the ViperJet has the kind of profile I used to doodle in my school notebooks. Pay no attention to the fact that once you get an engine and avionics, this will still cost more than a million dollars, the fact remains that it is (at least in theory) a kit aircraft that can be purchased and built in your garage. As such, it's like a fantasy that's almost attainable: not the movie star you'll never meet in a million years, but the girl down the street with whom you might just have a shot if you could only make the football team.

#5 -- Piper Cherokee 140

It's not particularly pretty, and it's not particularly fast, but the old PA28 Cherokee 140 is on the list for one simple reason: it's the airplane that taught me to love flying. Back in my early teen years, my dad knew an airline pilot who owned one of these, and for two successive birthdays I went flying. After the second year, overflying the Southern California Poppy Reserve and seeing the most amazing carpet of orange, yellow, and purple rolling under my feet, then looking ahead and seeing the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevadas, I knew I would be a pilot someday.

#4 -- Corvair F-106 Delta Dart

It's really difficult for me to pick a favorite from the Cold War era jets. There's so many that I find fascinating, like the F-104, F-89, and the F-8 Crusader. But of them all, the Dart has to top the list. There's just something about that tailless delta shape. To see one of these in person is to imagine scenes of aircraft sitting on alert through cold, dark midwestern winters, their pilots shivering in the alert hut while drinking endless cups of coffee, waiting for an alert siren that could come at any time, sending them scrambling to their jets to ward off a massive wave of attacking Soviet bombers.

#3 -- Consolidated B-24

The forgotten bomber of World War 2, you really have to see one to really experience its power. The B-24 flew faster and dropped more bombs than her prettier sister the B-17, but where the B-17 is curved and delicate, the B-24 is all business. She's a big, slab sided box with wings, four huge round engines, and a massive tail. In flight, she makes a sound that has to be experienced to be understood.

On my nineteenth birthday, the one pictured above (the only flyable model still in existence) was at the local airport. My birthday treat to myself was to go visit. I tread carefully around a few gray-haired gentlemen, most there with their children, grandchildren, or even great-grandchildren, for whom this aircraft brought back memories of a time long ago, when they were little older than I was at the time. I peered at history standing before me, and imagined what it must have been like when aircraft like this formed a swarm a hundred strong or more.

#2 -- North American XB-70 Valkyrie

The supersonic bomber that never was. A contemporary of the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the XB-70 was meant to be a bomber capable of Mach 3 high-altitude attacks into communist Russia. Canceled due to budget cuts and lack of suitability for the low-level flight, only two were ever built. Still, it's fascinating to look at this aircraft and wonder what might have been if she'd been built in numbers. Plus, just look at those lines. More even than the Blackbird, this is an airplane built for speed, but that looks pretty in the process.

#1 -- Northrop P-61 Black Widow

Ask most aviation buffs what their favorite WW2 warbird is, and they'll probably say the P-51. Some may throw in the P-38, or the P-47, maybe you'll even get a Zero, BF-109 or FW-190 thrown into the mix. I'd probably be the only one to mention the P-61. The Black Widow was a night fighter, and as sizes go, she was the biggest fighter the USA had during the war, almost the same size as the B-25 medium bomber. She carried a crew of two or three (pilot, navigator/radar operator, and rear gunner depending on model), had her own radar in that massive, bulbous nose, and was armed with four 20mm cannons in the belly, and in the A and C models, four .50 caliber machine guns in a dorsal turret.

They operated almost exclusively at night, hunting other night fighters and bombers in a time before GPS, when most navigation was still done with stopwatch, compass, and map. The C models also participated in ground attack raids, dropping bombs and strafing targets, for which their massive firepower was well suited.

In my early teens (funny how so many life-effecting experiences happened here) I was introduced to a gentleman who along with his wife, lived in the retirement community where my grandfather preached. He had been a P-61 pilot during WW2, and I was in awe of this quiet, older man who had once flown these big birds in combat. One of my most prized possessions is a lithograph he gave me called Symphony in Black and painted by Dan Kelly. Mr. Stewart was one of the five pilots who had signed the copy I have. That piece hung in my bedroom at home for years, and when I grew up, got married and got a job, it moved with me, to our first apartment. Now it hangs in my kids' room, and someday, I'll explain to them what it is, who signed it, and why it means so much.