Todd Lemieux is a pilot with and a member of the Board of Directors of Vintage Wings of Canada. His boundless energy, infused with a refreshing Western can-do spirit and a heavy dose of Saskatchewan farm-boy, binder twine, common sense, has taken him to the top of the predatory food chain in Alberta's oil patch. Along the way, he has nurtured a love for history, aviation and adventure. Lemieux is one of those men who everyone instantly takes a shine to. He looks you in the eye when talking, understands that conversations are two sided, has an eye for a pretty girl, and carries a flight bag of great stories and insights with him where ever he lands. A life-long pilot, Lemieux takes the final step in his aviation journey... upgrading to a wallet-draining, brain-testing, history-laden warbird. Read as he takes us on his first adventure in Triple Eight–the flight to her new home. [ed]
By Todd Lemieux
About the same time that Brian May, of the rock band Queen, was penning Fat Bottomed Girls, the United States Navy was getting ready to say goodbye to their own Fat Lady, the North American T-28 Trojan. Entering US Navy service in the early 1950s, the airplane trained thousands of Naval aviators up until its final flight in 1984.
Although she looks big, fat and round she's a deceiving performer. Essentially designed by North American Aviation to utilize the surplus of B-17 Flying Fortress engines left over from the Second World War, one look at the airplane clearly shows that she is “all power plant”.
My introduction to this marvelous airplane came through my friend Bruce Evans at my local airport in Calgary, Alberta. Bruce had purchased a T-28B and was looking for someone with an aerobatic background to ride in the backseat as he participated in formation clinics and T-28 events across North America. It took me about two minutes to say yes. That was three years ago and since that time I've logged more than 100 hours on type and obtained by high performance endorsement on the airplane. I was slowing falling in love with this chubby little performer.
After much financial analysis (50 US Gals/hour of fuel consumption will make you think twice), I contact a broker and began my search for my own T-28. I considered all the options available for sale in the United States and Canada and after much deliberation I settled on a Trojan with registration N28FL, a Napa Valley, California-based bird. She was attractive because she had only 100 hours on her 1425 HP Wright Cyclone R-1820 and had been owned by a series of enthusiast owners who really cared for her.
My odyssey to bring her home began on February 16, 2011. With Bruce in tow as my safety pilot, we headed down to NWOC (National Warbird Owners Conference) in Chino, California to attend the conference and learn from our peer warbird pilots. Serendipity shone at NWOC and I was ecstatic to hear that none other than Mr. Bob Hoover would be the guest of honour. Anybody that has even remotely followed airshows or flight test knows of Bob Hoover’s stature in aviation. He is a true gentleman and wonderfully giving of his time.
Vintage Wings of Canada pilot Todd Lemieux shakes hands with the legendary Bob Hoover after absorbing some of Hoover's extensive knowledge of the T-28 Trojan. Photo Bruce Evans
A much younger Bob Hoover, North American Aviation test pilot on the T-28 program, poses with a Trojan in 1949.
During his tenure as a test pilot at North American Aviation, he was tasked with performing initial flight test on the T-28 Trojan. The day he was to speak at the conference, I happened to run into him in a hallway. We sat down and had a good ten minute chat about the T-28, his role in flight test and what he thought of the airplane. He related an amazing story of performing a demo flight to Pentagon officials with the T-28, at Downey, California. The West Coast that day was plagued with an 800 foot ceiling, preventing a proper demonstration of the aircraft’s capabilities. After four days of waiting, and with an entire aircraft order to the US military on the line, Bob approached Lee Atwood and Dutch Kindelberger with a plan. Bob proposed to taxi the airplane out, bring the power up, get airborne, climb, bring the gear up, do an aileron roll, drop the gear, and land again, all without hitting the ceiling and stopping before the end of the runway. He did just that, in front of a jaw-dropped crowd of dignitaries and the contracted was signed. Old school aircraft sales.
As I sat amazed, listening to Bob, he turned to me and said, “Enjoy that T-28, it's one of my favourite airplanes!!!” Wow.............
Planning and First Flight
In typical Lemieux fashion, I need LOTS of mental preparation to do pretty much anything, and that usually involves flight planning and chart study at either a library or a coffee shop. So, while the rest of the NWOC attendees went to the Chino Planes of Fame Air Museum, I sat down to plan out the flight and the next few days activity, transiting back to Calgary and all the implications revolving around US and Canadian Customs.
A route planning session took place each morning over coffee and breakfast, taking into consideration, terrain, altitudes and weather en route and at the destination. Photo: Bruce Evans
After consultation about the weather expected en route, and to stay out of the extreme cold (a definite consideration for restarting the big radial), we elected to fly up through California and the Pacific North West.
Bruce and I hopped on a flight from Ontario, California to San Francisco, rented a car and drove to Napa Valley wine country to pick up the “Doerbird”. My new Trojan is painted in the markings of the famous United States Navy VT-2 training squadron, known as the Doerbirds. The squadron mascot of VT-2 is the now famous Doerbird,a crow-like dude with red and white tail feathers and chest who displays a can-do attitude.
Lemieux's T-28 served with VT-2, the Doerbirds and sports a large painted nose art of the Doerbird on its engine cowl. Training Squadron TWO (VT-2), the Navy's oldest primary training squadron, was born from Basic Training Group TWO and commissioned on May 1, 1960, at NAS Whiting Field. VT-2's mission is to provide primary and intermediate stage flight training to selected student aviators of the United States Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and several allied nations.
Training Squadron TWO graduates approximately 210 students each year. Logging nearly 2,000 flight hours each month VT-2 has flown in excess of 1,800,000 flight hours and trained more than 19,000 students since its commissioning. Photo: Todd Lemieux
Upon arrival at the Napa Valley airport, the current owner, Tom McGee had the airplane, bridled, saddled, fed and watered and ready to roll. Tom was excellent to deal with on the purchase of the airplane and is a high acumen pilot himself. A retired United Airlines 737 Captain and former United States Marine Corps aviator with A-4 Skyhawk time, he had taken great care of the airplane. As Tom handed me the keys, I could see a tear in his eye. Letting the Doer Bird go wasn't something that he took lightly. I promised him that I'd take good care of her and commenced to strap in after a good walk around briefing with Tom and Bruce.
Todd takes ownership of his new T-28 Trojan from previous owner, Tim McGee, which Bruce Evans checks out his seat selection in the background.
Strapping into the T-28 is more like getting on top of a Clydesdale draught horse. It's an intimidating experience to be strapped into this 1425 HP monster, – tall enough to be at the same height as the flight crew in an MD-80 and "look em in the eye”. “Jesus”, I thought to myself, “Please don't &%#*# up”. After some initial finger trouble with the control shift mechanism and the starter I was able to start the beast and with a huge puff of smoke and a mighty bark the R-1820 roared to life. As I advanced the throttle to idle speed the nose oleo compressed and, in a characteristic unique to the Trojan, she did a little nose “bow”, as if to say good bye to Tom McGee.
I taxied her out to the run-up area and after a complete run through the checklist, we were ready to roll.
“Strap's good Bruce? Seat locked? Ready?” “Roger that” replied Bruce and I advanced the throttle to 30” of manifold pressure, brakes locked, “Jesus, this thing's gonna jump out of the brakes or shake itself to death” I thought and just then I released the brakes and continued throttle advance as the mighty Trojan smoothly accelerated to flying speed. A quick release of forward pressure on the stick and the thoroughbred jumped into the air, like she was born there. Things happened quickly then as she accelerated. I quickly checked for positive rate on the VSI and selected gear up before we zoom through gear speed of 140 Knots. “Note to self, start doing more push ups at the gym”, the gear handle has a huge moment arm and actually requires concerted effort to get the damn thing up.
As she continues the climb like a homesick angel, we switch from Napa Valley tower over to San Francisco Center and press North through California with our eyes on Oregon as our next fuel stop. En route we fly up the mid coastal mountains of California, right by Mount Shasta. She feels good to fly, runs smooth and is honest and true. I spend the next two hours trying not to touch things I shouldn't and generally getting a sense of the “cockpitology” with assistance from Bruce in the back.
We wheel into Oregon at a high rate of knots, with a quick fuel stop in Redmond and press for Pascoe-Tri Cities airport before dark and the deteriorating weather.
With each approach and landing, I'm getting more confident and I find that if I actually follow the recommended approach speeds and power settings in the NATOPS checklist, she is a dream to fly on approach and lands smoothly with no vices.
Tootling along in bright sunshine past Mount Shasta in Northern California, Todd enjoys the sight. Soon, however, his Good Weather Gauge would register empty as he moved north into Oregon. Photo: Bruce Evans
Star Trek Convention
We tie down at Pasco-Tri Cities airport and the staff at Bergstrom Aircraft, treat us like gold. It's the end of a long day that started in Southern California, so we head to the hotel to check in and crash.
Standing to check in at the hotel front desk in our flight suits, out of the corner of my eye I think I see a Star War's Storm Trooper... can't be... I must be tired. When I wake up the next morning, I head downstairs to grab a coffee and shake out the cob webs and I find myself in line with Darth Vader and a Storm Trooper. WTF? Where am I? They look at me in my flight suit and ask me if I'm with the Star Trek/Star War's convention and if I'm a character from “Stargate SG1”. “Ummmmm, no”, I reply politely. I feel like I've stepped into some alternative universe. We need to get into the airplane and get outta here. Only Evans and I could end up in the middle of a Star Trek convention, unannounced and have the patrons think we are part of the damn thing.
A Star Wars Storm Trooper (who appears to wearing white rubber boots and some components from his eavestrough) and a Darth Vader impersonator, confront Lemieux and Evans... “If you two are supposed to be X-plane fighter pilots, you got the costume all wrong”. One funny detail here is that the Storm Trooper is sporting his RadCon Convention ID tag on his cod-piece. RadCon is a not-for-profit organization that promotes education in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Every February during President's Day weekend, RadCon hosts a weekend long convention at the Red Lion Hotel in Pasco, Washington. Reports in the internet show that many of the attendees suffered from a virus similar to food poisoning... clearly the empire is striking back!
At Pasco Tri-Cities airport, just west of Walla Walla Washington, the adventurers ran into a Canadian Connection working at Bergstrom Aircraft - a former Canadian Forces Snowbirds tech by the name of Michel Pelletier.
Our next leg is northeast to Spokane, Washington to stop for fuel and confirm export of the aircraft with the US Customs agent there. We sneak into Spokane under deteriorating VFR conditions which quickly turn to snow. Looks like we'll be here awhile, so what the hell, why not grab a burger and beer and wait out the weather. Evans appears a bit bored at the tavern and decides the best thing to do will be to load up the “juke box” with as many Canadian tunes as possible in an effort to irritate the American patrons of the bar. It works. After one and a half hours straight of the Guess Who, BTO, Bryan Adams, April Wine, and the always obscure Terry Jacks, I say my goodbyes and head back to the hotel to crash.
At 3 am I wake up with the worst case of food poisoning I've ever had and NO IT WASN”T THE BEER... and YES I spend the next two days recovering in the hotel. By the end of it I’ve lost 4 pounds in body weight and haven’t had solid food in two days.
On the ramp in Spokane with typical West Coast in February weather overhead. Photo Todd Lemieux
Who's Running this Hotel? A Dog?
It is now day three of our journey north and the weather has cleared enough, and I'm sufficiently recovered, to try and make a straight shot home to Calgary out of Spokane. So, with optimism high and with as much weather reporting info as we can get on the mountain valleys, we begin to press North again thru Coeur d'Alene, Idaho and hopefully the Crows Nest Pass.
As we approach Bonners Ferry on the Kootenay River at the top of Idaho, the weather completely “shits the bed” and it's decision time. The mountain valleys to the north seem completely blocked and our closest alternate is Glacier Park International in Kalispell, Montana. Right turn to 110 degrees, 33 miles and we are on approach for Glacier Park. We get the airplane parked and towed into the hangar just as the temperature and dew point merge and the snow starts and the visibility goes down. Looks like we are spending the night in Montana.
The FBO guy drives us to the hotel, and the smartest dog I've ever met literally checks us into the hotel. Hey at least it's not a Storm Trooper. I crash still feeling the after effects of the food poisoning, the fatigue of making weather decisions and and the strain of flying the Trojan.
Map reading his way through Montana. Photo Todd Lemieux
“Welcome to Kalispell, Montana gentlemen, please try some of our complimentary kibble over there. Are you checking in any balls, frisbees, bones or squirrels?” You meet all types when on a flying adventure through the wilds of America's West. But a dog, behind the front desk of the hotel? Perhaps Lemieux and Evans had flown too long that day. Photo: Todd Lemieux
Lemiuex and Evans were not going any farther on this day. As ground crew push the T-28 into a hangar for the night, the snow and sleet begins. Photo: Todd Lemieux
Blue Skies on the East side of the Range
We awake on day four with on/off VFR weather in Kalispell, but excellent weather on the eastern side of the Rockies. We brief, agonize over the charts and select a valley route that will allow us to emerge into the Great Plains then turn to 340 degrees and press north to Calgary.
We strap in, get the horse started and get her airborne. She's running like a Swiss watch and I'm really starting to enjoy flying her. This time the weather is as briefed and we emerge on the eastern side of the Rockies into CAVOK weather. Turn left to 340 degrees and head north. Fifty minutes and we are on the ground in Calgary. We pay the GST on the airplane and then it's a quick hop over to her new home at Bruce's hangar in Springbank. She'll be stable mates with Bruce's 1955 T-28 and I'm sure there are many more adventures to come.
Taxiing his new T-28 at his home airport, Springbank, Alberta, Lemieux exhibits the hallmarks of swagger in a confident warbird pilot – hand on canopy rail, Nomex gauntlets, cool-ass Pepe le Pew graphic on his Gentex, cuffs rolled back... stylin' all the way. Photo Bruce Evans
After the long journey, Lemieux's T-28 Trojan, now nicknamed Just Doer, sits happily and safely in Bruce Evans' hangar at the Springbank Airport, just outside of Calgary. Photo: Todd Lemieux
I'm still trying to figure out how Darth Vader drank that coffee thru his mask.....or how a dog checked me into a hotel.
Todd Lemieux, Vintage Wings of Canada
This summer, Lemieux will fly both his T-28 and the Vintage Wings Stearman at events across Canada's West.