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Every pilot has a favorite airplane, just as people have a favorite car.

I have owned a couple of airplanes, and have flown many more.  Each aircraft has a distinct personality. Also, every airplane has its strong and weak points. The differences are in the design, manufacturer and purpose for the design. Here are a few thoughts about those differences, but I really want to talk about my favorite.  

I learned to fly in a Cessna after having gotten started in a Piper J-3 Cub, which was brand new at the time. That dates me, I suppose.  My very first flight instructor was a former WW-II fighter pilot. He only had one leg. He lost his leg when his P-51 Mustang was shot down over the Alps.  When I knew him, he was still a young man.

One thing about Cessna airplanes. No matter whether you fly a tiny C-150 trainer or a Cessna corporate twin, when you sit down in the left seat, everything looks the same.  The bigger airplane has more levers and switches, but if you blindfold a Cessna pilot, he or she can find the important stuff in any Cessna aircraft. The flight controls, landing gear lever and flap control are in the same place and work the same way. That is design genius.

The first airplane I bought was a Cessna 177B Cardinal.  The joke about the Cardinal was that all the 177A models no longer existed because they had all crashed and killed their owners.  When the Cardinal came out in 1968, it had two major design flaws.  It was underpowered, with a 150 horsepower engine. The horizontal tail was not in two parts with a stabilizer and elevators (hinged parts that make the plane go up and down) but had a "stabilator."  The whole horizontal tail structure moved, similar to that seen on modern fighter planes.  And the stabiltor is BIG.  Any flying control with that much surface area has a lot of control authority. One thing, however, it had a small slot on the leading edge which is supposed to keep the air flowing over it smoothly. When air becomes disturbed due to a too-high angle of attack, the thing stalls. The wing on the 177A was innovative but unforgiving at slow speeds. It has the same laminar flow airfoil as the Lear Jet.

Here is a photo of my old Cardinal. It was down for an engine overhaul at the time this picture was taken, which is why the engine is missing. The jackstand under the tail is to keep if from sinking to the ground without the engine weight in front.  

Between the early model Cardinals being underpowered and with a tail that stalled before the wing, it was a difficult airplane to fly and land safely.  Cessna solved the problem by making the leading edge slot on the stabilator much bigger, eliminating the tail stall problem. Then they changed the engine to the wonderful 180 horsepower Lycoming, arguably one of the best piston engine designs to be found in general aviation.  That upgrade was called the 177B.

But I learned something in that Cardinal.  When flying at night over the swamps of Mississippi and Louisiana, in instrument conditions, I heard noises I never seemed to hear in good weather. I got to thinking about having to make a forced landing in one of those alligator-infested swamps if the engine quit.  A friend of mine observed that when he was over the swamps at night, his engine went to "automatic rough."

So, I reluctantly decided to sell the Cardinal and get a twin engine airplane for the safety factor.  I was advised by my 'helpful' friends that all the extra engine would guarantee is that I would get to the crash site under power.

After looking around for a while, I finally settled on an airplane I had fallen in love with since the first time I saw one right after they came out.  The Cessna 337 Super Skymaster!  The airplane was one of the most unique designs ever made by a general aviation manufacturer.  It is a twin, but one engine is in the front, just like the single engine I was used to. The second engine is in the rear, in a 'pusher' configuration.  This is called a tractor-pusher design.   To get around the problem of having a large propeller in the back, the rear fuselage is twin booms, similar to the famous P-38 fighter of WW-II fame. The booms are extended back from the wings, supporting the horizontal tail between them.  It is a very strong and sturdy design. One additional advantage of the tractor-pusher design is there is no V-MC problem.  V-MC means speed (velocity-minimum control) at which the airplane is no longer controllable. When the engines are hung on the wing, if one quits and the other is operating at high power, the airplane can do nasty things like flip inverted and go into an inverted spin.  In a Skymaster, all thrust is centerline.  If an engine quits, you can shut it down and continue on your way.

When Cessna started selling Skymasters, the Air Force had been having trouble with losing FAC pilots and planes in Vietnam. They had the O-1 Birddog, which is a single engine airplane. Forward air controllers needed something that would get them home if they lost an engine.  I once talked to the Colonel who was the main procurement guy at the Pentagon at the time.  He told me the Skymaster was exactly what they were looking for as an interim aircraft until the OV-10 Bronco would become available as an observation plane.  The Colonel contracted with Cessna to buy the Skymaster virtually 'off the shelf."  They did have Cessna install extra windows for observation and hard points on the wings for rocket rails or bomb hooks.  The back seat came out to accommodate an array of radios. That extra engine got quite a few FAC pilots back to base when one engine was shot out by ground fire.

An O-2 was prominent in the movie, Bat 21, starring Gene Hackman and Danny Glover, who played the role of a FAC pilot in Vietnam.

The Air Force designated the O-2 the 'Duck.'  I have a "Duck Driver" patch on my flight jacket. Pilots usually referred to it as "Oscar Deuce." Here is one making a low pass for the crowd at an air show.

I found the Skymaster in the Mississippi delta country, owned by a cropduster who had been using it to haul his family on outings and trips.  I test flew it and went straight to the bank as soon as we landed.  It was MINE!  Well, mine and the bank's.

Although I already had a multi-engine rating, the insurance company required that I get 13 hours of dual instruction in my new Skymaster. Funny, because I had more time in it than the flight instructor.  

I flew that Skymaster all over, and we loved it. It had plenty of power, was fast and felt much safer than in the Cardinal.  In the O-2 military configuration with the big mass of radios in the back and rockets on the wings, the airplane was not as nimble as it should have been.  Without the radios, the airplane is quick, responsive and truly easy to fly for any Cessna trained pilot.

Two fun facts about the Skymaster.  It does not sound like any other airplane. With the rear engine and contra-rotating propeller chopping up the propwash from the front engine, it has a snarl that sounds something like a cross between a chain saw and the big Merliin engine in a P-51.  And when you taxi up to the ramp, people seem to come out of the woodwork to look at the plane.  It is unique and not a lot of them were built, so they generate interest.

That Skymaster's extra engine did salvage the situation once.  I had just taken off, when the right seat passenger, also a pilot, reached up and tapped the oil pressure gauge for the rear engine. It was sitting on zero!  He commented that since all the other gauges looked good, it was probably a failure of the gauge.  We watched it, and a few seconds later the cylinder head temperature of the rear engine headed rapidly for the red line.  It was an, "Uh-Oh," moment.  I shut down the rear engine and feathered the propeller.  Then I called the tower, asking the controller to put the binoculars on me to see if I was on fire or trailing smoke.  I told him we had just shut down an engine and wanted to land immediately.  

The tension in his voice came over the radio, "This is practice, isn't it."  

"Negative, this not practice. I want clearance to land now." I had no idea why the engine had failed, but wanted to get on the ground as quickly as possible.  

He came back very quickly, "Do you want to declare an emergency?"

No, I do not want to declare an emergency, but I do want to land immediately."

Controller: "Do you want equipment?"  He meant did I want the fire truck to meet me when I landed.  

"I don't think I need equipment if you are not seeing smoke or fire. Just keep an eye on us with the binoculars and let me know if you see smoke."

The tower gave me a blanket clearance: "You are cleared to land any runway."

We landed semi-uneventfully on the front engine alone and taxied up to the ramp. When I got out, the entire rear half of the airplane was coated with a thick film of oil.  My mechanic strolled around it, rubbed his chin and drawled, "I don't think I will ever have to grease anything on this airplane ever again."  

The next day I learned the vacuum pump had broken off and fallen down into the bottom of the cowling, leaving a two inch hole in the crankcase.

Finally, both engines were at TBO (time between overhaul) and had to be pulled off the airplane and rebuilt.  Rebuilding that particular engine runs about $15,000 apiece. Not only that, but both propellers also needed an overhaul and new blades.  Those run about $7,500 each. Add in the need for new brakes, plus a few other things, we were up to more than $50,000 for an annual inspection.  That was more than my wallet could take, so I sold it to the guy who managed the airport.  Since he had a shop and was certified, he could do the work himself a lot cheaper.

Two months later, I was at home when the phone rang. It was my former mechanic.  He sounded very sad.  He said, "I called to tell you 87 Mike is no more."  

I went numb. I asked, "How many killed/"

He replied, "None. You can't kill a drunk."  It seems the son of the airport operator went out to shoot landings in the wee hours of the morning, after Bubba's Place had closed for the night. He ended up taking it through a grove of pine trees off the end of the runway.  Pine trees and airplanes mix about as well as beer and airplanes.  

And that Cessna 337 Super Skymaster was my favorite airplane. My daughter has not forgiven me for, "...selling it to that drunk that crashed it."

Here is a video a group of Skymaster enthusiasts in Michigan put together. These guys have way too much fun.

Originally posted to Otteray Scribe on Sun Jun 12, 2011 at 04:33 PM PDT.

Also republished by J Town, Kossack Air Force, Aviation & Pilots, Community Spotlight, and Three Star Kossacks.

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