Learning To Fly

Learning To Fly

If you want to turn a P-51 Mustang around quickly, push the control stick to one side to make the plane roll in that direction, then pull back on the yoke, forcing the World War II aircraft to bank sharply. It’s the same procedure with an F-14 Tomcat, except everything happens a lot faster.

That was probably the most exciting discovery on our visit to the PAX River Naval Air Museum this week. And it was only possible because the museum has a couple of flight simulators in the back building that are available to visitors.

On the weekend, for $10, you take your pick of planes — P-41 Mustang, F-14 Tomcat, F-18 Hornet, or A-10 Warthog — and head out on a 30-minute sortie. You take off from the deck of an aircraft carrier, then fly out over what turns out to be California coastline, shooting down “hostile” aircraft and blowing up things on the ground.

Virtually, of course.

Best of all, the whole time you’re up there, a calm, knowledgeable instructor is
standing on the steps just outside the cockpit. While you peer through the cockpit canopy and watch the world whooshing by on a big computer screen, he gives gentle instructions and sometimes reaches in to lend a hand.

Those instructors, like most of the people working at the museum, are volunteers, many of them Navy retirees formerly stationed at Patuxent Naval Air Station. In our case, we were fortunate enough to get Pierre Thuot, a former instructor at the base’s famous test pilot school. But he’s perhaps better known as an astronaut who once held the record for most time in space (about 650 hours) and most time on space walks (about 15.)

He’s also a great teacher for novices like us.

Dawn had been talking about trying out the simulator long before we got to PAX, so she climbed in the cockpit first. Using a long pointer, Thuot identified the main instruments and controls for her.

“This is what we call the ‘control stick,’” Thuot said, pointing to the yoke between her knees. Dawn wrapped her right hand tightly around its complicated grip.

“There’s a trigger under your index finger,” Thuot explained. “There’s also a button under your pinky. When you fly the Hornet, that’ll be how you get a radar lock. The rocker switch under your thumb is how you change weapons systems. When you press the button to the right of that, you can fire missiles, rockets or bombs. You pull the trigger to use your guns. You have unlimited bullets. And we can reload the bombs while you’re flying.”

It was clear, this was going to be exciting — and maybe a bit nerve-wracking.

Thuot had Dawn lower her flaps, open the throttle, and release the breaks. Moments
later, he fired the ship’s catapult, and the Mustang was flung abruptly into the air. Dawn pulled back gently on the yoke, and was startled to find she was flying. The giddiness was almost instantaneous.

As Dawn worked the stick, trying to keep the wings level, Thuot explained how to do
an aileron roll. Following his instructions, she pushed the yoke to the left and the plane promptly spun 360 decrees on its longitudinal axis.

Dawn, now holding the stick with both hands, started to laugh.

She tried the maneuver again, this time holding the stick to the right a bit too long. Suddenly, the plane was flying upside down. Pulling back abruptly on the stick, she was surprised to find herself right-side-up again and headed the other direction.

“Oh my god,” she cried.

“That’s okay,” Thuot told her. “You just did a Split-S roll; that’s the fastest way to turn a plane around!”

Then the fun really started.

“You want to fire some rockets?” Thuot asked. It was a rhetorical question.

Dawn spent the rest of her flight either firing missiles into factories on the ground or trying to shoot down bogeys with her cannon. Then, she closed out her simulator session with a picture-perfect runway landing. (The carrier landing will have to be for another day.)

Since there was still some time left, I climbed into the cockpit. Instead of the Mustang, though, I chose the Tomcat, which was appropriate since the simulator uses an actual F-14 cockpit.

It turns out Dawn was a better fighter pilot than I was, though. I probably kept the
plane a little steadier (though I, too, did an accidental Split-S turn,) but I was a terrible marksman. I missed every bogey, and wasn’t able to blow up anything on the ground either. And when our 30 minute session expired, Thuot threw a switch, and I was summarily ejected from the cockpit.

Again, figuratively, of course.

But the simulator is far from the only reason to go to the museum. First, PAX is just the right size: large enough to have an interesting and meaningful collection, but small enough to be intimate and accessible. And for us, it didn’t hurt that we had a great guide.

Just by chance, we took our tour with John Bone, the head of docents for the museum. Bone is a retired Navy aviator.

He told us sheepishly, “I was a navigator/bomber on A-6 Intruders in the Vietnam War. I dropped a lot of bombs.”

But he also knows a lot about the Navy, PAX Naval Air Station, and aviation generally. Plus, he’s been with the museum since before 2013, when it moved off-base to its current location just outside the gates. That was during the era of sequestered budgets, so the museum lost its Navy funding and became a nonprofit organization. Many of the museum’s programs and exhibits are now organized by a highly active cadre of volunteers. Most of them aviators themselves.

Bone chatted amiably about all this as we strolled through the museum.

Not surprisingly, he’s an enthusiastic supporter of PAX, and was quick to point out the museum’s superiority to the famous Smithsonian Air & Space Museum a little over an hour away. For example, in the back corner of the main building, you can find a Lockheed Martin X-35C, the test version of what became the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

The “C” means it’s the Navy version, suitable for carrier work.

You won’t find one of those at the Air & Space Museum (although there’s a “B” version at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center out near Dulles Airport.)

PAX also has a prototype of the X-32, the JST competitor from Boeing.

Another novelty at PAX is the F/A-18 Hornet just outside the back doors of the main building. A new acquisition for the museum, this one came courtesy of the Blue Angels and is in pristine shape, including the signature blue and yellow paint job. That’s because this plane had been freshly painted when the Blue Angels receive their new F/A-18 Super Hornets, making this one disposable.

They donated it to the museum.

But Bone pointed out that most of the aircraft at PAX are there because they have a history at the base. Many, for example, are prototypes. Others were there for use by test pilots.

As Bone noted, test pilots don’t just fly experimental aircraft. Whenever any new system is added to a plane — electronics, avionics, engines, controls etc. — test pilots check to see how that system affects the operation of the other systems on the plane. Consequently, PAX has been home to almost every kind of plane the Navy has ever flown. That’s been a real advantage for museum acquisitions.

It’s also a bonus for aviation aficianados who visit PAX. But the bigger point is that you don’t have to be a aviation nerd to appreciate the museum. As we walked around, Bone took time to point out the historical or engineering marvels around us.

For example, suspended near the entrance is a replica of a Curtiss A-1 Triad, the Navy’s first aircraft. Curtiss demonstration pilot Eugene Ely took off from deck of the USS Burmingham on one of these in 1910.

This particular bi-plane straddles a single wooden pontoon and has floats under the lower wingtips so it can land on water. In the air, it was controlled by a network of wires connected at one end to the ailerons and at the other to a pair of struts on either side of the pilot. In order to turn, the pilot shifted his body to the left or right, activating the ailerons.

Another fascinating exhibit (even for someone who doesn’t know anything about airplanes) is out on the flight line, the outdoor part of the museum. The museum cleverly put a CH-46 Sea Kight helicopter right beside the V-22 Osprey, the vertical take-off and landing airplane intended to replace it. This juxtaposition allows you to see just how big of an engineering problem it was for the Navy to fit either of these beasts on an aircraft carrier.

For the Sea Knight, it was a matter of folding the blades of the rotors so they lay along the length of the helicopter. The Osprey presented different problems. With those big, pivoting engines at the wingtips, the wings couldn’t be folded like those on other Navy aircraft. But you could never get the V-22 down on the hangar deck of an aircraft carrier with the wings fully extended.

The solution was to put a hub at the center of one long wing and allow it to pivot so that the engine at one wingtip is in front of the plane and the other is at the rear. Stowed this way, the C-46 and the V-22 have just about the same footprint.

Out on the flight line, Bone also showed us an old A-6 Intruder. Because the Navy keeps scrupulous records of every plane’s activities and the performance of its crew, Bone could tell from the tail number that he had flown this exact plane on at least 35 missions.

Like most aviators, he’s a little sentimental about his old plane. He pointed out that fighter planes, like the F-14, are designed for air-to-air combat; surveillance planes gather information; and transport planes carry troops and equipment. But the “A” in A-6 stands for “attack,” and that’s what the Intruder was made to do.

“All those other planes are just for support,” he said with a grin.

Dennis Hollier

Dennis Hollier

Dennis is a travel, science, and business writer who has traveled all his life. The son of an Air Force pilot, he was born in England and lived in ten states growing up. Much of his youth was spent in Hawaii and Southeast Asia, where he traveled widely, including extended visits to New Delhi, Singapore, Hong Kong, Vientiane, and old Rangoon.

Our Reviews

Upcoming Events