In December 2006, I had a very enjoyable aerobatic/sightseeing flight out of Gawler Airfield, South Australia in Kevin Lewis' beautifully restored Nanchang CJ-6. In June 2007, I was lucky enough to fly Kevin's CJ-6 a second time in Australia.
In the fall of 2015, I learned that a fellow member of our Cascade Warbirds group, Justin, had taken a flying job in Kodiak, Alaska, leaving his well-maintained Nanchang CJ-6A orphaned at Paine Field in nearby Everett, WA. Justin had enlisted some help from our Warbirds Commander, Ron, a former Nanchang owner, to help keep the Nanchang exercised once in awhile, but Ron had just transitioned to a 737 Captain's slot and was quite busy. Knowing that the best way to keep a radial engine in good shape is to fly it, I volunteered to help keep Justin's CJ-6 from becoming a hangar queen. I was able to get a backseat flight with Justin during his short Seattle area visit on a perfect flying day in August, which only strengthened my desire to complete a front seat checkout and 'Keep Her Flying'!
The Nanchang CJ-6 is not a copy of a Yak design, as sometimes referenced, but China's first indigenously designed and produced aircraft, with obvious design influences from the earlier Yak series that were built in China. Justin's CJ-6 flew in China (as opposed to those given to Chinese allies) and completed her military career in the care of a Chinese Air Force general. The Communist regime would sometimes provide a retiring general with a 'yard ornament' of a static display airplane. N280NC was imported via an Arizona import outfit, and flew with Ed Lovejoy in Pennsylvania for about 10 years, in a bare-aluminum paint scheme after removal of the original dark green Chinese paint.
I was finally able to arrange for a common time in Ron's and my schedule, and met at Paine Field on another gorgeous day in late October for a front seat orientation flight. With Justin's help from the previous flight and research, I had built a personal Nanchang checklist to ensure I didn't damage Justin's baby during my time as her pilot-in-command. With Ron's help, we conducted a thorough pre-flight and a normal start, and that's where the fun (and humility training) started. While I'd enjoyed three previous Nanchang flights, all my time was in the air or landing, and I actually had never taxied the CJ-6 before. I was warned that the castering nosewheel and pneumatic brakes took a little time getting used to, and found out quickly that was an understatement! Ron was patient as I jerked my way in the narrow space between the two adjacent Paine Field hangars, and I breathed a sigh of relief as I entered a long taxiway and settled down with minor corrections instead of the bang-bang excursions earlier in the taxi. After finally making it to the runway and completing our before takeoff checks, my first front seat takeoff was very mild-mannered, and I instinctively applied the correct rudder (left) for the counter-clockwise propeller rotation once I felt the slight yaw increase. I quickly entered the more familiar in-flight Nanchang environment, and re-acquainted myself the crisp handling and nice feel of the Chang.
My focus on my first front seat flight, besides ground handling, was proper throttle/prop/mixture settings, and pattern and landing techniques. Although Ron and I planned to fly as many overhead patterns as the airfield could stand in an hour, Paine Tower had other ideas, forcing us to fly 'bomber' patterns behind landing Cessnas, 737s and 777s. After dragging in a few approaches, my last approach and landing was decent, even though I did test the power of the trailing link gear of the Nanchang to mask fair landings by not bouncing! Taxi off the runway and back to the hangar was much easier, as the learning curve steepened.
Ron and I planned a second flight for a full checkout, and schedules and weather finally aligned for an early April front seat checkout. The 70º April Seattle weather and mild winds provided a perfect background for some real, tight overhead patterns, where old fighter pilot skills started to crack through the rust. Ron and I flew a few 'unusual attitudes' over the nearby Cultus and Useless Bays, reveling in the easy handling of the Nanchang. After the final closed pattern and full stop landing, I taxied Ron back to his hangar, where we debriefed and I circled a few times getting the hang of tight turns in the Nanchang taxiing back.
Thanks for the checkout, Ron, and thanks for the opportunity to get some flight time in your well-maintained warbird, Justin. I'm now ready for some formation flying in the Nanchang to polish some other long-lost skills!