Flights of Fancy

Aircraft I will never get to fly

April 1, 2005

Aviation has never been an industry to stand still. For years, new designs, ideas, and innovations were tested, scrapped, modified, or put into use, all in the interest of enhancing the general safety record of airplanes. As accident records improved, other considerations came to the fore, such as going fast, flying passengers in large numbers over great distances, gaining range, and improving endurance with retractable landing gear and constant-speed propellers. Nowhere is the evolution of aerial machinery more evident than in the years that encompassed World War II, when fabric-covered biplanes gave way to great machines such as the Boeing B-17 and B-29, the North American P-51, the Douglas DC-3, and, toward the end of the war, the first jet-powered machines. In 1947, Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier. Remarkable, and hard to fathom for most people.

Arguably, a similarly impressive evolution in technology took place in the 1960s and 1970s as the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in a race to be the first to the moon. When Alan Shepard flew the first American manned mission to space, it was a suborbital lob, a 15-minute flight without even so much as a window. By 1970, Shepard was not just looking out of a window, but also he was walking — and playing golf — on the surface of the moon. Back on Earth, we were just a few years from watching passengers fly from New York to London at two times the speed of sound on the Concorde.

Looking back, some fantastic aircraft and spacecraft have been built, some better than others. Unfortunately, short-term human nature being what it is, we tend to throw away that which we don't see an immediate need for. After the second World War, the government sold thousands of surplus airplanes it no longer needed. Little thought was given to the historical value or to the need to use those airplanes to teach future generations about the war. They were, simply, tools that were no longer needed from a war no longer being fought. So many were needlessly destroyed, and now we have a shameful shortage to use for teaching our history.

In the latter half of the century, a sense of importance prevailed, and more aircraft are properly displayed, stored, or, rarely, flown. Unfortunately, there have been a number of aircraft and spacecraft built that pilots will not have the opportunity to fly. Some are one of a kind, some are obsolete. This is my personal list.


I used to see the SST in New York when passing through John F. Kennedy International Airport. Once in a while, as a child growing up outside of Annapolis, Maryland, I would see the Concorde forced to divert from Washington-Dulles International Airport for weather and land in Baltimore. It was always a local headline-news type of event. The British and the French were always proud of the bird, and rightfully so. It never made money, but it was a success of sorts, for lasting as long as it did. The British would refer to it almost reverentially, referring to it as just Concorde, not as The Concorde, like a stately person. Just looking at the Concorde on the ramp, it looked to me like it was out of place, ready to jump up and go flying. Watching it land, especially from the front, reminded me of an eagle coming in to land.

I recently got to see those famous delta wings from above. Landing in Seattle, we flew over one of the ships that had been donated to the Seattle's Museum of Flight, and its majesty was even more prominent because of the large white area of the wings that was so bright and visible.

Who wouldn't want to travel at Mach 2.0? That is two times the speed of sound. London to New York in three hours. Almost there before you leave. A nose section that moves up and down. Or, I should say, it did all of these. It is now retired, but at least the fleet has been properly set in place for future generations to see it.

Space shuttle

Growing up, I always wanted to be an astronaut, and I was a voracious reader about anything that had to do with the space program. I still am. The space shuttle to me was just one of the coolest machines ever produced. For astronauts, it provides room to move around and work, play, and exercise. Far more so than any previous American spaceship except for Skylab. Plus, the space shuttle requires the ability to be a quick responder during launch, a gentle touch in the vicinity of satellites and the space station, and it's a one-shot deal on the return to landing, requiring a dead-stick landing with no go-arounds. But, alas, NASA has no interest in pilots like me who wear hearing aids or have had the remotest medical history. It also looks like the shuttle is close to the end of its useful life.

The lunar landers

I don't think anything quite captures my imagination like being able to fly the lunar landers during the Apollo era. Like the shuttle, the landers were designed to give the crew just one try to nail the landing. However, the landing was done with some control over the final location, as the crew could bypass a site if they didn't like what they saw. But there were no concerns with crosswinds or rain, no other traffic in the pattern, the weather was always good VFR, and during the initial portion of the descent, the crew could fly in all three axes of flight. Plus, because the engine was shut down a few feet from the surface to allow the ship to free-fall the last several feet, nobody could judge the landings for smoothness.

Landing on the moon provided other challenges as well: experiencing one-sixth the gravity of Earth; getting a good view of the landing area through a small window; and reconciling the 3-D view out the window with the two-dimensional photographs you studied at home.

Aircraft carriers

I know some pilots say that landing on an aircraft carrier is one of the hardest things to do, but I can't think of a more thrilling adventure than to land the lunar module on the surface of the moon. Unlike an aborted carrier landing that might allow another attempt, an abort near the surface of the moon meant that the mission was effectively over, and you had lost a once-in-a-lifetime chance. Only six men have had the opportunity to do it, and it may never happen again. Even worse, I don't think the simulators are even around anymore to allow pilots to do a virtual landing (if it is, somebody call me).

Carrier landings

I've talked to a number of military pilots who have done their share of carrier operations, and they all try to downplay how much they enjoyed doing carrier landings. The more they tried, the more obvious it was how much they enjoyed it, except for night ops and bad weather. There is just something about the opportunity to try to land an airplane on a moving runway on an ocean that just gets my heart racing. Maybe I should run for president....

The warbirds

This is a lump-sum category for me. It includes aircraft that are flying, but in limited numbers. They are aircraft that any pilot, given the opportunity, should never turn down because that opportunity may never come again. For me, the great airplanes of the past that I'd like to fly are the B-17, B-25, and B-29, the Grumman Goose, and the DC-3. Of the modern fleet of military might, sign me up for the Lockheed F-117, the Northrop Grumman B-2, and the McDonnell Douglas F-18.

The airliners

Barring any unseen changes in my career, I don't foresee moving on to another airline. The traditional progression is to start in the smallest aircraft in the fleet and work up to the largest as seniority is gained. But not every airline flies the dream equipment of every pilot, and not every pilot will have the opportunity to fly the flagship before turning 60 years old. I've had the privilege to sit in the cockpit jump seat of several modern jets, and I'd love to fly them: the newer Boeing 737s, the 757/767, the 747, and the 777.

So, there you have it. Most I will never get to try, and a few can only be flown by spending a lot of money. But the point simply is that we all have airplanes we want to fly, places we'd like
to try to go, be it the moon or the checkerboard approach into the old Hong Kong airport in a 747. It's the dreaming that keeps us going, pushes us to fly what we can when we can. For those that we can't fly, we can study them, their importance in history, visit them in a museum or at a fly-in, maybe even sit in the cockpit and take a picture as we make airplane noises. We won't be able to imagine the horrible fear that the Normandy pilots felt, or the sense of relief that Alan Shepard felt when NASA worked around a last-minute computer glitch that almost prevented his final descent to the moon, but we can still dream, and where appropriate, we can offer our silent thanks to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

Chip Wright of Hebron, Kentucky, is a Canadair Regional Jet captain for Comair.

Flights of Fancy From the AOPA Pilot Staff

Rockwell B-1 Bomber

Supersonic at treetop level in a big swept-wing bomber. How cool is that? Conceived, tested, and canceled in the 1970s, and finally built and deployed in the mid 1980s, the Rockwell B-1 Lancer is one of the sexiest big airplanes in the U.S. arsenal. Whether you're jamming a 2,000-lb JDAM down a bunker hole in Talibanville or you need 48,000 pounds of bombs scattered about in Mr. Hussein's backyard, the Lancer will get the job done in style — and quickly with four engines each sporting afterburners.

I have distinct memories as a 12-year-old sitting at the kitchen table with toothpicks and a bottle of Testor's glue attempting to put together the only airplane model I ever built: The B-1 bomber. The picture on the box was beautiful. Mine, well, not so much — but, hey, the wings moved!

It was probably thoughts of that airplane that caused me after college to take the test for Air Force Officers' Training School. I already had my private pilot certificate, which I was sure was going to get me into B-1 school. With a new journalism degree, I had terrific literary scores. What, you need math skills? So much for flying the B-1 for me, but I can still dream. — Thomas B. Haines, Editor in Chief

P-47 Thunderbolt

I'll never fly a P-47 Thunderbolt. But I'd like to because to me this horse of an airplane represents the zenith of U.S. propeller-airplane development. I dream of flying this airplane — a Jug — because it looks like it's one tough SOB. It'll climb at more than 3,000 feet per minute. Need more power? Turn on the water injection. And feel that kick. I love radial engines and the Jug is powered by one of the best radials ever built — a Pratt & Whitney R2800.

This monster engine used to crank out 52 inches of manifold pressure and 2,000 horsepower for takeoff. Can't do that anymore because there's no more high-octane fuel. But there's still 47 inches available with 100-octane avgas — just the thought of finally having enough power and of hearing the sweet noise of that 28-cylinder Pratt & Whitney — that's dreamsville for this boy. — Steven W. Ells, Associate Editor


I know I'll never fly a Grumman F-14 because, umm, I crashed one. Several times. Sure, they happened in a simulator, but I'm sure the Navy knows about these embarrassing mishaps/disasters somehow. The trouble started when I got into an air-combat simulator at the Oceana Naval Air Station, in Virginia Beach, Virginia, as part of the research I was doing for an article about flying off an aircraft carrier. Fresh from a viewing of the movie Top Gun, I strapped into the simulator and launched into the wild blue, stalking my prey — a Navy pilot who was an air-combat instructor. Bad move. I saw him briefly, then he turned like mad, as did I, hoping for a shot up his tailpipe. "Keep your airspeed above 320 knots — that's a good speed for dog-fighting," the instructor told me before the session began.

Well, somehow he got on my tail before I knew what happened, so I started banking like mad, at angles of 90 degrees. Or more.

Then the whole outside visual display went red. "What happened?" I asked.

"You stalled. And died," came the answer. I'd let my airspeed get too low, and I and my Tomcat simply fell out of the sky. On the way down, the instructor sent a rocket up my tailpipe, just to finish the job.

Having distinguished myself in combat, it was time for me to try another F-14 simulator. One that lets you fly a CLS (carrier landing system) approach to a carrier deck. No problem, I thought. Just like an ILS. Tracking the needles went fine. But there was big, big trouble when I broke out of the overcast and got ready to plant my Cat on the deck.

It looked real good to me. Airspeed (130 knots, if I recall correctly) right on. Gear, flaps, and tailhook out. Good lineup with the centerline. Good....

This time the screen went white.

"What happened?"

"You died." Seems the proper sight picture for a Tomcat on final for a carrier deck causes a problem for those accustomed to landing on terrestrial runways. On short final, it should look like you're about to go right off the end of the deck. This crash happened because I hit what's called the "round-down" in Navy jargon. I call it the back end of the ship.

It's hard to overcome that impression of going off the end. I tried two more times to land on that deck, and two more times I speared the round-down with my poor Cat. On the fourth try I got it right. So ever since that day I've always wanted another shot at flying the F-14. I just know I'd do better this time. — Thomas A. Horne, Editor at Large


I've seen inside the lunar lander, handled the controls of an Apollo space capsule (until I went out of control and the Singer folks pulled the plug), and been inside a hangar-queen space shuttle used to test modifications. I've actually landed a North American B-25 bomber, which needs to be flared for landing the way a rider rears a horse.

I may never get as close to SpaceShipOne, but I feel I have flown it vicariously through Mike Melvill's eyes as he described his flight at AOPA Expo 2004. At ignition — and thanks, Mike, for showing us exactly where those switches are — the rocket slams the pilot in the back with 3.5 Gs, but the pull-up to vertical shoves the pilot down in the seat with 4 Gs. I've experienced up to 6 Gs doing aerobatics, so I can relate: 3.5 is close to that needed for a loop. The controls aren't all that much different from what we know in general aviation. Melvill also talked about tossing those M&M's and not telling the bosses beforehand because they would have said no. In his video, I could hear the hurricane roar of air outside the craft during re-entry, and saw his "flight control check," actually an intentional victory roll, as the craft returned to Earth. In particular, his comment that he could see no part of the runway while landing caught my attention. Just in case the opportunity arises, I have gone over igniting the rocket in my mind, reminding myself to do it quickly after being dropped by the White Knight aircraft, if ground controllers approve. I know the light signals that indicate the moment of drop. I'm ready, Burt. — Alton K. Marsh, Senior Editor

Hughes H-1 Racer

I had reported on the construction and record-setting flights of Jim Wright's Hughes H-1 Racer, and Wright had invited me to stop by his hangar at what is now Jim Wright Field. His team was repairing the main gear damaged on a previous landing in preparation for another speed attempt. The Racer dominated the hangar, its polished lines shining under the fluorescent lights.

From a distance, the Racer looked of a piece. Up close, that perception held, as each joint melted into the skin, making a single surface. The cowl shrouding the monstrous radial seemed impossibly smooth — and Wright noted that it was a master's finest work, not his own. He offered me the pilot's seat, and I in disbelief climbed inside. From that seat, the enormity of Wright's task — and that of Howard Hughes before him — made me silent. The panel, and then the strikingly long nose of the airplane, rose before me. The cockpit sat behind the wings; it hit me that I could only hang on tight once the throttle went forward.

Raw speed rarely appeals to me, and although the Racer was the fastest airplane of its kind, that alone didn't make this airplane what it was. And it goes nowhere in describing what was lost when Wright went down in it coming home from EAA AirVenture 2003. I took an entire roll of slides while in Wright's hangar that day. When I developed them, I found every one blurred, the focus broken on the camera. I guess it's impossible to hold such beauty in your hand for more than a moment. — Julie K. Boatman, Technical Editor