While working on the site activation for the F-22 Raptor at Elmendorf AFB, just outside of Anchorage, Alaska, I began discussing flying with L/C Robert “Cricket” Renner, who was leading the F-22 transition office at Elmendorf. Besides flying F-15s at Elmendorf, Cricket discussed his involvement with the Commemorative Air Force Wing in Anchorage. The Anchorage Wing had recently acquired a beautiful Harvard, nicknamed 'Old Yaller' for its vibrant yellow paint scheme. Old Yaller had been flown up from Washington state on 2 August 2007.
The Harvard is a variant of the venerable T-6 Texan, or SNJ in its Navy version. The Canadian Car and Foundry Company developed the Harvard Mk IV trainer to the specifications of the T-6G, and the Harvard Mk IV saw major improvements in increased fuel capacity, an improved cockpit layout, as well as a steerable tailwheel. Old Yaller had flown most of its career with the Canadian Air Force, and passed through a number of civilian owners. The most recent owner was Mike Hunt, who flew Old Yaller in northern California. Now in his 80s, Mike decided to donate his beautiful Harvard to the Commemorative Air Force Wing in Alaska.
While in Alaska in December 2007, I was able to crawl around Old Yaller with Cricket, while it was being prepared for a long annual inspection. Over the winter, the Commemorative Air Force Wing conducted an exhaustive annual, taking care of a number of items while getting Old Yaller ready for spring flying. Cricket invited me to check on Old Yaller’s status the next time I returned to Alaska for a possible flight.
In April 2008, I was again in Alaska, and Cricket invited me for a chance to enjoy a flight in the Harvard, after he completed a required maintenance check flight. I drove to the Lake Hood airport complex, located adjacent to Anchorage International airport, and helped Cliff Belleau, Old Yaller’s chief maintainer, with some minor strut and tire servicing as Cricket conducted a thorough pre-flight after the long winter layoff. We lucked out with a gorgeous Alaska April afternoon, mostly sunny in the mid-40s. Since it was the first maintenance flight after the long layoff, and we had some steady winds out of the southeast, Cricket planned on flying off of Anchorage International’s long runway 14, instead of the smaller Lake Hood runway.
With the pre-flight complete, Cliff towed the Harvard onto the ramp, and after a few cranks, Cricket fired up the beautiful-sounding Pratt and Whitney single row R-1340 radial engine of Old Yaller and taxied to runway 14 at Anchorage. It was great to hear and see the Harvard climbing out, as Cricket made a climbing turn north for his checkout flight.
After nearly an hour, Cricket returned to our taxiway staging point, where he shut down and I jumped in for my opportunity to try out Old Yaller. We had two short attempts to taxi, but couldn’t get the tailwheel to caster freely to allow a needed turn. Cliff came to the rescue with an iron bar to rotate the tailwheel, and we were on our way. Although it was after 7:00 PM, our northern location gave us the benefit of an 8:50 PM sunset time, allowing for sufficient day VFR flight time. The backseat visibility is great to the side, down and aft, but very poor to the front, so I appreciated Cricket’s S-turns as we made sure the taxiway ahead was clear. Anchorage flight activity was relatively quiet, and we were cleared for takeoff on runway 14 as soon as we completed our run-up checks.
Although I wanted as much stick time as possible, my taildragger time is very limited, so Cricket planned to fly the takeoff and landings, while I flew the rest of the flight. We powered up and started the takeoff roll, and quickly raised the tailwheel with the strong headwind, then smoothly lifted off with minimal back stick input and sucked up the gear. After some recent flying in a radial engine Nanchang CJ-6, I was expecting more vibration from the Harvard, and was pleased with how smooth Old Yaller’s radial engine performed. We turned north and exited the Anchorage area, cruising and climbing over Cook Inlet to the north of Point Macenzie for some advanced handling.
I was pleasantly surprised with the light stick forces, especially the 'two finger' aileron forces and relatively quick roll response. I also expected to have a requirement for more rudder inputs, but light rudder pressure was all that was needed to center the ball while maneuvering. I tried a few stalls to get a feel for the low speed handling, and the Harvard gave good indications of the impending stall, through light buffet and a mushy stick feel, and recovery from the stall was immediate after relaxing the back stick pressure. Cricket noted that he’d usually seen the right wing roll-off on straight ahead stalls, but both my attempts rolled off to the left, still with easy recovery using top rudder and relaxed stick inputs. I flew a number of steep turns and lazy eights, again with easy coordination with minimal rudder use.
As I noted earlier, the visibility to the side, aft and down is excellent, and forward vis was now acceptable with our cruising flight attitude. The views of the mountains to the east of Anchorage were stunning, along with the ice still remaining below us in the water of Cook Inlet.
Cricket had pre-coordinated approval with the Elmendorf AFB tower to allow us to fly approaches, traffic permitting, to the airfield. After our advanced handling, we were cleared by Elmendorf tower to enter initial for runway 06. I turned initial, and again was reminded of the limited forward visibility as I tried to maintain a true track down initial. We pitched out to the left, and flew an overhead pattern, with Cricket greasing Old Yaller down just after the approach end barrier for a beautiful touch and go. It was fun in the turn out of traffic to overfly the F-22s parked on the Elmendorf ramp.
I now followed vectors from Anchorage Approach back over Cook Inlet and to the north of the International Airport, where we sequenced in for a straight-in behind a 737 and a Beech 1900 for landing on runway 14. Using the Harvard's original heading indicator kept me busy, since it is backwards from all my previous systems, showing increased heading to the left, instead of to the right. It definitely reinforced the fact that basic techniques are the ones you remember, and human factors designs that are '180 degrees out' are tough to master. I kept our speed up until short final, where Cricket took over for another smooth landing.
Thanks for the great opportunity to get some stick time in Old Yaller, Cricket! She's a great bird! And now you've convinced me, it's time to get that tailwheel endorsement!