As an AME (Aircraft Maintenance Engineer) I have been around and worked on North American Harvards for sometime now. I'm familiar with the aircraft and how it works. My job requires that I do engine run-ups on our Harvard, taxi our Harvard and on many occasions I have flown as a back-seater in the Harvard. My familiarity with the inner workings of this historic aircraft helped make flight training a lot easier – especially when it came to the walk around and system familiarization. However, as I strapped on the parachute and then the seat harness in preparation for my first solo flight, that familiarity with the cockpit from all those run ups and taxi runs began to fade away. I just sat there looking at an unfamiliar panel with a whole bunch of unrecognizable instruments, knobs and switches. So this is what the checklist is for! By utilizing the checklist, my familiarity with the cockpit returned.
During my very first run-up before the first training flight, we experienced an engine roughness and backfiring as the throttle was advanced. Taxiing back in, I thought to myself, “Maybe the old girl doesn't want to let me fly her, maybe she thinks I'm not worthy”. During the taxi back I went into troubleshooting mode. I knew that the aircraft has been sitting awhile and there were no reported snags from the last flight. The startup was good, with the usual amount of smoke... ah ha!… smoke… oil… oil in cylinder… must be a fouled plug! We tried leaning it out a bit to clear the plug, but had no success. I asked John Aitken, my instructor, to check the fancy electronic cylinder temp indicator (excuse the not-so-technical description, but you get the idea) that displays the individual cylinder temps, and #7 cylinder was low by about 150ºF compared to all the others. We shut down and I pulled the front and rear plugs on #7 and found the rear one shorted by a piece of carbon... it’s almost always the rear one since it’s the hardest to get to. I cleaned them both, reinstalled them and carried out another run-up and all checked out. So, off we went flying.
I started off in the back seat and John up front, but after a few circuits from the rear, some stalls and spins, he felt brave enough to let me try it from the front. My flying experience has been strictly with smaller and lighter general aviation aircraft such as my Decathlon, so moving up to the Harvard was a big step for me.
Sitting in the front cockpit of the Harvard surrounded by nothing but metal, my head encompassed by a metal and glass birdcage, looking out on either side and seeing huge yellow wings below, made me realize that this was a serious airplane - built for one thing and one thing only - to train pilots to fly fighter aircraft. There are no creature comforts such as leather seats, no thought of ergonomics – a real military aircraft of the Second World War. You sit on your parachute, strapped tightly to a bare metal seat surrounded by all the inner workings of the airplane, cables, pipes and levers. This makes you feel like you have become a part of the Harvard. You don't get into a Harvard, you get assimilated by it. At least that's what I felt. The older, more-experienced pilots may not feel this way anymore, but I hope I always will.
Flying the Harvard, well this was a wonderful surprise. After getting over my feeling of assimilation, I found that flying the Harvard was a joy. I do need a higher level of concentration to fly the aircraft and maintain awareness – more so than other airplanes I've flown and this is probably why it's more enjoyable. My analytical flying experience cannot compare to that of a test pilot, so I can't describe the technical portion of my flight in those terms. I'm more of "seat-of-the-pants" pilot, feeling the airplane and responding to what it’s doing or intuitively influencing what I want it to do. For me, this results in a positive flying experience.
At first I was cautious and delicate with the airplane. Perhaps my flying might have seemed to be tentative or dainty to John, but after some coaching from him I started to get the hang of it. I realized that the Harvard is not like the Decathlon - it needs to be handled in a confident and crisp military-like fashion (not aggressive but authoritative). That's what it is designed for. I find if you handle the aircraft in a delicate, lackadaisical manner, you really are not in full control of the aircraft. You will soon find yourself lagging behind it. This could be trouble waiting to happen, if the situation requires immediate action. I've heard of a lot of talk from different pilots about flying the Harvard - "The Harvard is a tricky airplane to fly", " It'll bite you!", It's got a violent stall that’ll flip you right over" or "The Harvard’s a ground loop waiting to happen". All that talk has some merit, but any airplane flown outside its envelope or in a way it’s not designed for will "bite you". Actually, I found the airplane to be quite easy and enjoyable to fly, even to its limits. It gives you warning if you are doing something stupid and I had to fly the aircraft way out of my normal flying comfort zone before it "bit me". For example, entering a slow high bank turn, I had to pull harder than I would comfortably want to so close to the ground in order to get the airplane to stall out.
The biggest difference between the Harvard and my Decathlon is the momentum the Harvard can build and the real need to manage the energy generated. I am used to loops within a few hundred feet AGL but with a Harvard I need to think a thousand plus. The airplane has a solid positive feel to it throughout all flying maneuvers, though I find the controls get heavy during some “aeros”. Possibly this is because I'm used to a dinky Decathlon. I really enjoyed the aerobatics in this airplane and hope to come up with a small routine that I can do.
I found that the takeoff in the Harvard is pretty typical of a tail dragger but with a little more horsepower – requiring smooth throttle (watch that manifold pressure!) and some extra footwork. Landings are the real challenge. I first needed to get used to a different approach picture. It requires a higher, tighter circuit and a glide slope that made me feel I was about to bury the nose into the button of the runway, especially with full flaps. However, once the picture is established, it's pretty straightforward on the approach (remember to check that the gear is down about – several times!!). The flare and touch down are trickier. This is where I noticed how high a Harvard pilot is from the ground compared to the other tail draggers that I've flown. Again, another mental sight picture to acquire and get used to. It’s quite revealing how little input is required to have an big change in the Harvard’s landing attitude. This is also where a little power makes a bad landing look good after you have applied a little too much input.
The ride is not over once you touch down, it’s really just begun. You do need to keep the nose straight and this is where the tap dancing lessons come in handy. It’s not that bad, but the roll out does require your full attention all the way until the airplane has come to a full stop. I find it that it’s more keeping the nose from veering off than with a smaller tail dragger. It must be all that weight behind me. (no not John, the airplane!).
All this also applied to my solo flight with one change - there is quite a difference in the handling of the Harvard with no one in the back. I think I'll have to keep weights in the rear seat full when I'm allowed to fly it alone.
I feel that the main factor in a relatively easy transition to the Harvard was the guy in the back. I am very privileged to be checked out by John Aitken, a pilot whose story is recorded in history books, because his experience and background are unparalleled. Some day, his pilot license or logbook may be on display in a museum and I can point to it and say “That’s the guy who taught me how to fly warbirds”.