Monday, February 20, 2012

Lone Star Flight Museum gives would-be aviators an authentic WWII trip

A B-17 bomber, known as the "flying fortress," is among the immaculate World War II relics housed at the museum.
Photo: Pete Holley / SA

By Pete Holley
Updated 03:41 p.m., Monday, February 20, 2012

I've punched my ticket on a commercial airliner more times than I can count. But it wasn't until I was strapped inside the claustrophobic cockpit of a World War II-era T-6 Texan, its engine buzzing like a chain saw, the smell of grease filling my nose, that I realized I'd never really "flown" before.

That is to say, not in a way that made me truly appreciate the pilot's skill and the aircraft's design.

And I'd certainly never flown like the legendary Tuskegee Airmen, whose historic exploits in the George Lucas film Red Tails inspired me to claim a seat on a vintage aircraft at the Lone Star Flight Museum in Galveston.

Despite a $20 million fleet of immaculate relics from the mid-20th century - including an original B-17 Flying Fortress Bomber, a PT-17 Stearman biplane and a P-51 Mustang, like those flown by the Tuskegee Airmen - it's hard not to wonder if it's a good idea to stuff oneself inside a 70-year-old machine and head for the clouds. Larry Gregory, a pilot and the president of the flight museum, assured me I'd be fine.

"It's going to be a different type of flying," Gregory said beforehand, noting that the planes undergo the same rigorous inspections as their commercial counterparts. "But our goal is not to scare you, it's to let you experience a living, breathing piece of history."

Sitting on a commercial jet is a lot like sitting on your couch, assuming that couch is cramped, uncomfortable and smells like recycled air. Without a window seat, it's easy to miss the flying experience entirely. From a bright-yellow T-6, that experience unfolds all around you.

"It's a dream because these planes are known all over the world," said Aurore Zimmer, an Air France pilot I spoke to just a few minutes after she had flown in the T-6. "When I was a little girl, I had a model of this plane in my bedroom. Now, 20 years later, I'm flying in it!"

Zimmer was right; there is something magical about these vintage "warbirds." And it's the reason many World War II veterans visit the museum for the chance to fly again in the aircraft of their youth.

"Once you get (the veterans) in their air, you look back and they usually have a big smile on their faces," Gregory said. "They say, 'I never thought I'd get to smell that smell again.' "

Flight time

Awaiting take-off on a runway near the museum hangar, I didn't have a big smile on my face. It was more like a look of forced enthusiasm, the result of nervous energy lingering in my gut. My pilot, Carlos Ortiz, who volunteers at the museum when he's not working as an engineer at NASA, asked me over the radio if I was ready to go.

"Let's do it!" I said, attempting to mask my anxiety.

The T-6 was known as "the pilot maker" because the military used it as an advanced trainer, Gregory said. Pilots completed the last 75 hours of their flight training in the T-6 before moving up to a single-engine fighter such as the P-47 Thunderbolt or F6F Hellcat. The Flight Museum's T-6 is an SNJ-5, the Navy's version of the trainer.

Before I knew it, we were speeding down the runway as the RPM dial showed an upward climb, and the plane let out a piercing whine. By the time the noise became a purr, the ground had disappeared beneath us - along with any antsy feelings that remained.

Scene from the sky

After climbing to 1,500 feet and banking left, we headed northeast, following the muddy shoreline past refineries, factories and untouched grassland until we were swooping over downtown Galveston.

From such a height the island looks like a long finger, partially submerged on the west, almost tropical on the east, seemingly traversable with a single, bounding leap. The sun was just beginning to set, casting a golden haze over the island's southwestern tip as we descended a half-hour later and glided onto the runway.

"How you doing back there, Pete?" Carlos asked me over the radio.

"Can we do it again?" I replied.

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