Saturday, January 8, 2022

Astride the Thunderbolt: A Flight To the NEAM

Attaboy


"Cherokee Four Eight One, if you can keep it in tight, you're cleared to land runway 33."

I was on a close right downwind for runway 33 at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, CT, considered the second largest commercial airport in New England after Boston Logan. (Disclaimer: data not independently verified.) A regional jet and a Southwest 737 were lined up for the same runway and Bradley Tower was attempting to slip me in ahead of them.

I slowly pulled the throttle back to idle and dropped full flaps once airspeed allowed, then twisted the airplane into a slipping, arcing right bank in the descent. The wheels kissed the pavement as gently as a ski plane settling into newly fallen snow.

"Cherokee Four Eight One! Nicely done! Left on Papa, stay with me. Where are you parking?"

Those airliners must not have been as close as I thought. I could have easily made the first taxiway instead of rolling all the way to Papa.

Escape


Massive high pressure systems in January are like pilot manna gifted by whatever fickle deities manipulate the weather. They make it possible to confidently escape the Finger Lakes region in winter. I spent much of the evening prior contemplating where I wanted to go before deciding on the New England Air Museum at Bradley International in Connecticut. 

It would be my first visit  in eleven years to a museum that is arguably among the best in the northeast. On my last visit, I got off on the wrong foot with Bradley Approach. Not because I did anything wrong, but because Bradley's ATIS (automatic terminal information service, for the uninitiated) was either glitchy or living in a time warp. Rather than realizing that the problem was on his end, the approach controller concluded that I was an idiot. (Rules to live by: just because you're confused does not mean that the other person is incompetent.) 

I hoped for a better experience this time.


A stable airmass kept the clouds at bay and suppressed the winds, both on the surface and aloft. But it was cold, about 20°F. I was grateful for the southern exposure of my hangar that resulted in relatively clear pavement. The crunchy coating on the north-facing apron was quite a bit more treacherous.
 
Beautiful Austerity
 
Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
08 Jan 2022 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - BDL (Windsor Locks, CT) - RME (Rome, NY) - SDC 4.6 2402.2

I always love the dramatic change of the landscape following the first significant snowfall and the stark black and white austerity that it brings. After that initial transformation, winter tends to wear out its welcome rather quickly for me. Still, at 20°F, Warrior 481 was a rocket ship on take-off.

The Williamson Sodus Airport almost blends in to the snowy landscape.

Lake Ontario shore seen on departure from Sodus.

Sodus Bay.

South of Syracuse with a frozen Oneida Lake in the background.


I appreciated how low clouds formed smudgy little shadows on the frozen lake, as though a titan had gone to work on the surface with a whopping chunk of charcoal.


The pressure was indeed high and the altimeter setting in eastern New York was 30.64 inHg.


From over the Hudson River, I could see sunlight reflecting from Long Island Sound. Shortly after crossing the river, I overflew Columbia County Airport where I had my carburetor fire in 2012 followed by a highly disillusioning maintenance experience. I have not been back since.

FBO Bargain Hunting

Thanks to an accommodating tower controller at Bradley, I made an expedited landing ahead of a pair of airliners. While I was still rolling out from the landing, Tower called the second of the pair, a Southwest 737. "You have a thirty knot overtake on the regional jet ahead of you."

"Oh, well, I should probably slow down then," responded the Southwest pilot jovially to an answering chuckle from the controller. Clearly, the vibe at Bradley that morning was a bit less uptight than on my previous visit.

There are two FBOs at Bradley, Signature and TAC Air. Both FBOs offer a courtesy shuttle to the museum, but I chose Signature because the New England Air Museum was walkable from there. I called for information about fees that morning. Michael explained that my airplane would elicit a $5 landing fee, a $39.00 handling fee, and a $25 parking fee if I exceeded two hours on the ramp. If I purchased at least 10 gallons of fuel (at $7.45/gal, a penny more than TAC Air), the handling fee would be waived. This would mean that my parking fees would actually be less than what I paid in 2010. Not cheap, but not terrible, either.


Three line crew braved the frigid winter air to direct me to parking and chock Warrior 481. No wonder the fees are so high if they have to pay three guys to park a Warrior. I  shrugged my coat on as I climbed down from the wing and told the nearest lineman that I would be ready with a fuel order momentarily. At $7.45/gal, I was not going to take on any more fuel than necessary and I wanted to measure the exact quantity in the tank.

"We're out of gas," he responded. Between the muffling of his mask and the turbine whine of the large jet parked nearby, I was not sure that I heard him correctly. When he repeated himself, I studied his eyes looking for a hint of a smile. Was he joking with me? As it turns out, he was not. Confused, I explained that I had just talked with them two hours earlier.

Signature had been unable to start their avgas fuel truck for over a week, so the fuel outage was not a new development since I launched from Sodus that morning. Inside the FBO, Michael apologized for the oversight and waived all fees. It cost me nothing to land at Bradley and park there for three hours. And I got a free ride to the museum from Signature to boot. I could not have planned that if I tried. 

Whirly Bird Wonderland


As the home of Sikorsky (Stratford, CT) and Kaman Aircraft (Bloomfield, CT), Connecticut was an early hotbed of rotary wing aircraft development. Given its location, it is not surprising that the NEAM has a substantial number of helicopters in its collection.



Upon entering the museum, visitors are immediately greeted by a 1969 Sikorsky CH-54B Tarhe, a military version of the S-64 Skycrane and direct forerunner to the modern Erickson Aircrane. The Tarhe was capable of lifting 25,000 pounds (or the equivalent of 10.75 Warrior 481s fully loaded at maximum gross weight).




Though Bell is not a local company, two of its most famous military helicopters are on display. One is a 1971 AH-1S TOWCOBRA, a Cobra gunship equipped with TOW (tube-launched, optically-tracked, wire-guided) anti-tank missile launchers.



Also on display is the venerable 1962 Bell UH-1B Iroquois, perhaps better known as the Huey, the iconic military helicopter of the Vietnam era.




Several helicopters built by Kaman Aircraft are on display, starting with the Kaman K-225, a 1949 prototype that featured twin, intermeshed, counter-rotating main rotors that eliminated the need for an anti-torque rotor. It is the oldest Kaman helicopter still in existence. The prototype is little more than a wheeled slab of plywood carrying an instrument panel, a pilot seat, and a six cylinder Lycoming piston engine connected to the twin rotors.


The K-225 was a direct predecessor to the better-known HH-43F Huskie, a helicopter intended to rescue crashed pilots and combat brutal fires resulting from aircraft accidents. Though turbine powered, the rotor configuration of the 1960 Huskie is identical to that used by the 1949 K-225.


Per the NEAM, "Equipped with a fire suppression kit, Huskies on rescue alert could be airborne in about a minute and could reach crash sites before ground vehicles arrived. By spreading foam and by using its powerful downdraft it could open a path for rescuers to reach crash victims." 


The landing gear "skis" were not intended for snow, but to manage landing on asphalt softened by fire.



The Kaman SH-2F Seasprite on display was built in 1985 as a ship-based anti-submarine and SAR (search an rescue) helicopter.

Long Island Air Power

A highlight of my visit was getting to sit in this 1945 Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. These beefy fighters -- the heaviest single engine fighters produced in World War II -- were originally assigned to bomber escort duty in the European theater, but truly excelled at ground attack. They were built by Republic on Long Island, just across the Sound from Connecticut.


Squadron markings on this P-47 were based on those worn by a Bradley-based field unit that fought in Europe.



During my years at the Air Zoo, I was able to sample many cockpits from the Corsair to the Tomcat, but I never had a chance at the P-47. I was happy to finally gain the privilege.





I would have never cut it as a P-47 pilot in WWII, however. I am too tall to fit in the cockpit with the canopy closed! Thanks to NEAM docent Kevin for the photo!

Supersonic

I also had an opportunity to sit in this 1953 North American F-100A Super Sabre. As the first of the so-called Century Series fighters, the "Hun" (short for hundred) was the first USAF fighter capable of exceeding Mach 1 in level flight.


With its distinctive elliptical intake and lance-like pitot mast, I always thought the F-100 was the most beautifully badass looking fighter of its day.


NEAM's Super Sabre was flown by the Connecticut Air National Guard and the cockpit was clearly well-used. Unlike the P-47, I actually fit in this airplane.




Military Hangar Wrap-Up



The museum has a beautiful 1944 Douglas A-26C Invader, which I always thought was one of the most elegant-looking medium bombers of WWII (as compared to the B-25 Mitchell and the B-26 Marauder). The museum took ownership of the aircraft after the previous owner abandoned it at the Sikorsky Memorial Airport in Stratford, CT in the late 1960s. Right place. Right time.


As implied by its Warthog nickname, the Fairchild Republic A-10A Thunderbolt II will not win any beauty contests. But much like the original P-47 Thunderbolt, it could take a lot of punishment. With 1200 pounds of armor around the cockpit and flight controls, Warthogs almost always brought their pilots home.


It could also mete out a lot of punishment owing to that massive Gatling gun in its nose.

The A-10's Gatling gun shown here removed from its airplane wrapper.

Sole Survivor


The mighty Sikorsky VS-44A Excambian is the sole surviving American-built, commercial, trans-oceanic, four-engine flying boat. Built in 1942, it was one of only three VS-44As ever constructed by Sikorsky. It simply dwarfs everything else in NEAM's civilian aviation hangar.


Last flown in 1969, the Excambian's restoration was supported by Sikorsky and took place at the Sikorsky Memorial Airport near where it was originally built. Expert restoration assistance was provided by retired Sikorsky volunteers who had originally built the aircraft fifty years prior. 


There is something romantically glamorous about the massive flying boat, a call-back to a bygone era in American history.


On the other end of the size spectrum was Sikorsky's single engine 1930 S-39 flying boat. Of the 21 originally built, only three exist today. This particular aircraft was used by the Civil Air Patrol for sea rescue during the WWII era.


I was particularly amused by this graphic painted on the S-39's nose, from the absurd pseudo-German ("Comes it der blue hen") to the "ouch" painted aft of the bird's posterior. And where exactly are those bombs falling from? “Ouch” indeed!

Classics



The DC-3 is always a class-act, one of the most successful aircraft designs of the twentieth century that has distinguished itself in both civilian and military aviation. This beautiful 1942 DC-3 is painted in Eastern Airlines livery ("The Great Silver Fleet") and pays tribute to the first commercial flight to land at Bradley International Airport in 1947.


Another iconic aircraft on display is a 1936 Lockheed 10-A Electra. Serial numbered 1052, it is a sister ship to the Electra flown by Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan (serial number 1055) that vanished over the Pacific during their 1937 attempted flight around the world. Northwest Airlines was the first carrier to put the Electra into service for commercial transport.



Wayback Machine



Looking utterly out of place between the massive Excambian and the DC-3 is this pioneer era 1911 Bleriot XI, built by Ernest Hall of Cleveland, OH The engine is a rare two cylinder Detroit Aero Engine that would have developed 25 - 30 horsepower. Needless to say, its cruise speed was somewhere below where Warrior 481 would fall out of the air.

Gondola Rides Beyond the Canals of Venice

One of the most unusual artifacts at NEAM is this restored 1942 Goodyear ZNPK-28 Blimp Control Car. These blimps were put into service along US coastlines during WWII for aerial photography, SAR, anti-submarine patrol, and mine sweeping. It is the only control car of its kind still in existence.




Armament consisted of a single machine gun (blimps were not much for dogfighting) and depth charges.






Propulsion was provided by two Pratt & Whitney R-1340-AN2 550 horsepower radial Wasp engines mounted in pods on either side of the gondola.


My favorite detail was the exhaust for the P&W radials, making the engine pods resemble Art Deco rocket ships.

Lifting Body Rarity

Another rare ship is this one of a kind 1944 Burnelli CBY-3 Loadmaster lifting body cargo airplane currently undergoing restoration (with a left wing yet to be attached).


The aircraft retired from active flying in 1964 and came to NEAM the same year. After years of sitting outside, an eight-year restoration is nearly complete.


Peering in from the side demonstrates how truly wide this aircraft actually is. I will be interested to see it fully reassembled someday.

Suit Up!

Much like ogres, space suits have layers.

The Portable Life Support System (PLSS, left) and the Liquid Cooling Garment (LCG, right) with biobelt attachment

Center: Torso-limb Suit Assembly (TLSA)

Apollo A7L Pressure Suit Assembly

Wookie Not Included


A crown jewel of NEAM's collection is this beautifully restored 1945 Boeing B-29A Superfortress. Of the nearly 4,000 of these monstrous bombers produced, only about 22 still exist today.




The most famous B-29 is the Enola Gay, flown by Colonel Paul Tibbetts and responsible for dropping the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan. While the ethics of that decision can be debated, it is hard not to viscerally feel the impact that this aircraft had on world history.


The B-29 was the direct object of my fascination with aircraft as a child, mostly for a very circular reason. I was intrigued by the look of the B-29 because I was reminded of the Millennium Falcon, which was itself inspired by the B-29.



A Long Way from Tuskegee



Every WWII aviation museum worth its salt has a Stearman biplane trainer. This one was restored with the markings of a primary trainer for the Tuskegee Airmen. Windsor Locks, Connecticut is a long way from Tuskegee, Alabama!

Rogue's Gallery

I had to wonder at the decision making that led to some of the most consequential aircraft of WWII being stuffed into obscure corners behind the B-29. Specifically, the Grumman Hellcat, the Grumman Wildcat, and the Vought Corsair.


The displayed Corsair was a 1944 XF4U-F prototype model produced by Vought Aircraft just down the road in East Hartford, Connecticut. It never saw combat, but was used for armament tests before the F4U-4 model went into full production. The -4 variants can be easily recognized by the additional intake scoop located at the bottom of the cowling.


Believe it or not, an adult human being is supposed to fit inside this gun turret from a Grumman Avenger. And I thought that the P-47 was a little snug!

Great Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing

The museum also featured a number of early aircraft engine designs whose manufacturers never quite became big names in the industry.



The 1910 Hall-Scott A-2 Aircraft Engine is possibly the best-known. The Hall-Scott Motor Car Company built aircraft engines through WWI that were generally considered reliable. This eight cylinder liquid cooled engine delivered a whopping 60 horsepower.


The 30 horsepower Detroit Aero Engine was designed and built by Fred Weinburg of Detroit, MI. It was meant to provide inexpensive power to light aircraft. Though some sources boast of over 1,000 engines sold, it is believed that far fewer were actually hung on airplanes.


This 1910, 18 horsepower Smith Aircraft Engine is believed to be the oldest Connecticut-built aircraft engine in existence. The engine was installed on a monoplane designed and built by George Smith that utterly failed to fly.


Produced by the Elbridge Engine Company of Rochester, NY, these 60 horsepower "featherweight" 1910 designs were popular with pioneer aircraft builders of the era. They were adapted from Elbridge's existing line of successful marine engines. Obviously, the fact that it was built by a Rochester company caught my eye. What further caught my eye is that it was on loan from Detroit's Henry Ford Museum.

Well, Just Look at Those Teeth

Wrapping up my tour of the museum after three hours, I chose to walk back to Signature. As I neared the FBO, I recognized Michael driving a passing car and realized that his shift must have ended. I wondered if his promise to waive all fees would extend to the next person on duty. I looked that gift horse squarely in the mouth by specifically asking the new person at the counter about what I owed. "Not a thing," she responded with what was probably a smile, but the mask made it impossible know for sure. 

"Great! Thanks," I said, giving her a mask-obscured smile in return. I have been trying to emote more powerfully with my eyes while masked, but success is fleeting.

I spent a few minutes on pre-flight planning, finding the afternoon weather to be as pristine as the morning's. I considered visiting a new-to-me airport for fuel, but the best deal along the route was $4.28/gallon at Griffiss in Rome, NY (KRME).



A C-130 taxiing back to the Air National Guard ramp at the west end of the airport.

When in Rome...


Outbound from Bradley, I flew past Westfield-Barnes (KBAF), home to the best sushi I ever had. At this point, I realized that it was 2:30 in the afternoon and I had not eaten an actual meal since breakfast. I wondered if Tobiko Sushi did take-out, but instead activated HAL and delved into the trail mix I packed that morning.

Crossing the Hudson River south of Albany, NY.

Albany, NY.

Wing view with the Catskill Mountains disappearing into the distant horizon.


I liked the lengthening tree shadows cast on the field.

Final approach, runway 33, Griffiss International Airport (KRME). Still the biggest runway I have ever used.

The fuel stop at Griffiss was perfunctory except that the fuel hose rewind motor was inoperable and the mechanism needed to be hand-cranked to retract the hose. It was a good way to while away the time waiting for the newly-pumped fuel to settle in the Warrior's tanks before sumping.

Holding short of 15-33 on taxiway Delta for departure from Griffiss.

Warrior 481 waiting to be pushed back into the hangar.

After a very full day, I landed at Sodus right at sunset.

Twilight over the Williamson Sodus Airport.

And in Summary...

It was a beautiful day to fly and a much needed excuse to leave the local area. As home to Kaman, Pratt & Whitney, Sikorsky, and Vought, it should come as little surprise that Connecticut's New England Air Museum boasts an impressive collection of aircraft with many possessing local relevance. The NEAM is truly a first-class aviation museum and well worth the visit.