A Boy in a Hurricane - Fulfilling a Dream

Beckham Title

I remember as a boy watching Ba Ba Black Sheep on television riffling through my father's Warbird magazines and going to Oshkosh, walking in the warbird section, marvelling over the magnificent aircraft of the past.  My older brother’s favourite was the Corsair (Pappy Boyington's influence I think).  My aerobatic team partners on the Canadian Harvard Aerobatic Team both had an affection, as do most, for the Spitfire.  I, for some reason, was drawn to the Hawker products of the pre- and post- Second World War eras.

The Hawker Sea Fury with its rare five-bladed prop and that unusual sleeve-valve engine, sleek aerodynamic lines and huge prop spinner that blended right into the cowling.  The other Hawker that stood out to me was the Hurricane.

All the aircraft of this era are complex works of engineering and aerodynamics.  The Hurricane stands proud on its wide landing gear as if presenting to its enemy its readiness to engage.  Its lines and curves give it that famous stance.  The Hurricane’s reputation for being strong and able to take a world of hurt and still bring the pilot home is personified in its beefy centre fuselage and massive wing root cord.  As I stand and study the aircraft beside the sleek Spitfire or Mustang, I can only compare the resemblance of the Hurricane to a flying tree trunk.  But history has proven that it flies like a true fighter  - and does it well!

Being offered the opportunity by the Vintage Wings of Canada team to get checked out on the Hurricane was a great honour and the thrill of a lifetime for me.

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Dave Hewitt, as a member of the Canadian Harvard Aerobatic Team is one of the most experienced of current Harvard pilots. Photo J.P. Bonin

Flying the Hurricane

Friday morning, September 19, 2008 my good friend Pete Spence and I board a WestJet 737, bright and early on our way to the Vintage Wings hangar in Gatineau.  Pete will do his proficiency in the Spitfire XVI and I will do my initial training on the Hawker Hurricane IV.  As we arrive at Vintage Wings, the day’s schedule is set, the parameters are discussed and limiting factors such as time, runway conditions (under construction for resurfacing) and wind are considered and limits set.  We shall fly before 5:30 p.m., with crosswinds less than 5 knots and full runway availability or today’s flight will be a “no go”.

After a couple of months going over, memorizing, creating mnemonic acronyms, studying the Hurricane manual operating specifications, limitations and systems I sat down, this day, in front of Rob Erdos to see if I “had it” or not.  After a couple of hours of review, I am given the go ahead.  

A good walk around the airplane studying everything I had read and learned from Rob soon brings an inner calm within the outside shell of anxiety and excitement - I am ready!  As the day transpired it became more evident that the conditions at Gatineau were not going to allow the flight to happen. It was concluded we would get back at it bright and early the next day, beat the daytime winds and hopefully the runway would fully open as planned.

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Dave Hewitt and the Hurricane IV just before his first flight. The wide stance and hefty wing form of the Hawker's centre section are evident. Photo: Via Dave Hewitt

Saturday morning arrives and we are at the VWC by 7:00 a.m. to try and beat the winds and expected heavy arrival traffic for the last Vintage Wings Open House of 2008.  As we walk outside in our flight suits to size up the situation, we find that Paul Tremblay and the maintenance crew have already been diligently at it and there on the ramp, gleaming in the morning sun are the Spitfire and the Hurricane ready to go!  As Pete and I confirm that conditions are within our limits, the excitement returns and we begin to prepare our machines for their flying missions.  As I complete my walk around, I see my partner is already mounting his plane ready to start.  I have to focus on the task at hand as any start and taxi of any one of these planes is a sight to see and the distraction is hard to ignore.

I proceed to mount my own. Slipping into the Hurricane for a 6’ 1” man is doable with little room to spare, but as I wiggle and adjust, it all ends up fitting like a glove.  I check all systems and check again, review checklists, pre-start, start, run-up, pre take-off, emergency procedures etc. and I am now ready to go. I begin the start sequence. Managing the British cockpit, as expected, is a challenge, but I get my arms overlapped, my hand twisted and buttons get pushed and the V-I2 Merlin comes to life.  I taxi to the ramp, run up and pre-take-off checks are done.  I finally become cognitive of my outside surroundings again, as my friend lifts off in the Spitfire to play in his own dimension. A radio call to Gatineau to announce my intentions reveals no call back.  It is quickly determined and rectified, Com 1 transmit is not working and Com 2 is the radio for the flight.  I make my way to the button of 09 and line up on the centerline with the nose slightly right. Take-off, post take-off, emergency procedures are reviewed once more and radio call to take-off roll is acknowledged. I take note of the visual reference for later in the flight.  Then I advance the power slowly and await for that yaw tendency that does not seem to arrive. As I advance through 2 lbs. of  boost, the plane roars and tracks perfectly straight down the runway. Now through 4 lbs. of boost, targetting 7, she lifts gracefully into the air and I see the earth fall away from me. Take-off power has been reviewed as 7 inches so I proceed to advance as I climb out.  Now at 7 inches and watching for 104 knots maximum, I execute the memorized and recited procedure, and tap the brakes, set the throttle lock (again), switch hands, throw the H gate (like shifting my old Honda Prelude into first gear) and the gear starts to retract. Two red lights and the rest of the pre-take off checks are completed as we climb at 135 knots for 4,000 feet to the north.  A powerful emotion rushes over me as I realize I am really doing it. I am flying my dream. Gatineau tower clears me to Ottawa Terminal who gives me 3,000 to 4,000 ASL 5 miles northwest of Gatineau to play.

Upper air work, steep turns, stalls, slow flight climbs, descents - they all reveal the typical responses of a medium control pressure aircraft that I’m used to. However, as I execute the next step of my choreographed flight, I am going to get very surprised. I had been warned of the aerodynamic coupling of the tail surfaces and some system quirks of this magnificent aircraft and now I’m going to see it for myself. OK, as I step on left rudder the nose dives 5-10 degrees and a negative G is experienced, right rudder and the nose raises the same and sinks me into the seat. This is one characteristic that I am going to have to get used to. I decide to fly some straight and level cruise and study the cockpit and prepare for the simulated landing practise I intend to do next. 

Flying straight and level turns out to be more work than I expected since keeping that ball on centre is essential to keep the plane not only on heading but because of the dynamic coupling, also on pitch. I quickly deduce that steep turns and simulated landings should be less work, so I proceed on. I set up at 4,000 ASL and a 270º heading simulating a downwind on 09. Again, regurgitating the checklists and procedures, I set up in downwind, get two gear in the green and flaps at full!  Base leg looks good, altitude reducing to plan. My final approach is achieved at speed and the overshoot procedure begins.  Power up, air speed to 104 knots, switch hands and get that gear up. Two greens and then select flaps (again feeling like I’m reaching for the third gear of my old Honda).  I experience my first glitch.  The infamous H gate is jamming. 

With the selection in neutral, nothing will persuade the lever to go to flaps up. As I fight with the lever I have to remind myself 104 knots, altitude not under 3,000 ASL or Ottawa Centre will get upset with me. To the deep depths of my memory we go again to the manual… ”the H gate may tend to jam”. The precautionary procedure is to “neutralize and reselect”, and I do with no luck. I try again. Eventually, after what seems an eternity, the selection decides to cooperate and I finally select flaps up. Just as I correct and get the plane back in a climb, I discover that I have no red gear lights. A quick glance to the gear windows, I see daylight in both windows. The gear has become unlatched! Immediately, airspeed to 104 knots, tap into those memory banks again and get this situation rectified. First, recycle gear… one red. Second try to recycle again… one red. Second procedure is to hydraulic hand pump to assist gear pump and after 10-12 pumps… 2 reds. Being a little agitated by these events I decide to repeat landing simulations until I get the bugs all out. Three to four practises go smoothly and I look at my watch and decide to return to Gatineau to practise the real thing leaving some aeros and other upper air work for another flight. 

Manipulating the Hurricane around to an extended downwind, I pick my sequence amongst the many, mostly French speaking, itinerant aircraft already filling the skies to attend the Open House. I pick a good-sized window between a small high-wing ultra-light and a vintage Stinson. The circuit goes well. Gear, 2 in the green, flaps at full, speeds, altitude and approach going well. As I size up the final approach, I am starting to close up the gap on the ultra-light rolling out on the runway ahead.  Again, I dig into the memory banks and review the baulked approach procedure just in case. The ultra-light expediently clears and I zone back into the task at hand and commit to the landing. Crossing the numbers I start the flare and set the image in the windscreen that I memorized on the take off roll (an excellent trick taught to me by Rob Erdos to be used when flying many different aircraft). The descent stops, I hesitate a second and then decide to apply some pressure to the rudder pedals to see where we are and wait for the squawk, squawk, squawk of the tires touching down. To my surprise, I am already down.

The Hurricane tracks gracefully and effortlessly straight down the runway.  Use of the hand air brakes at speed was something I did not look forward to as my experience had all been hydraulic brakes. This also went uneventfully and I slowed to a crawl abeam the taxi way. Intending to clear and return back for a couple more circuits, I quickly deduced that the time, traffic congestion and the fact that the Stinson that landed right behind me, blew a main tire and was now off the side of the runway, would force me to leave that for another day.

My first flight was very exciting to say the least and a great experience. I can’t wait to get another chance to master the quirks of the Hurricane again.

I never would have expected to ever describe an airplane as a beautiful machine to take off and land but a handful in the air, but this was my experience with the Hawker Hurricane.  

Till next time, I remain humbly a Harvard jock aspiring to become a good fighter pilot.

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Dave Hewitt in his Vintage Wings of Canada uniform proudly and joyfully poses with the Hurricane IV after his first flight. Photo: Peter Handley

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Vintage Wings of Canada's founder Mike Potter pretends to congratulate Dave Hewitt, while Dave Hewitt pretends not to know that he is about to get nailed in the great tradition of first flights - the dousing. Perhaps the clue was a line of so-called friends with buckets, and the fact that everyone else is backing out of the immediate area. Photo: Peter Handley


The dousing. While fellow Hurricane pilot Rob Erdos restrains Hewitt, Tim Leslie slowly and deliberately pours a bucket of icy water over his head. Dave, as any pilot who has just flown a type for the first time or last time, will tell you; this is a joyful if unpleasant experience. Photo: Peter Handley


Of course, the most joy goes to the ones heaving the water. Team member N. Kent Beckham seems to be enjoying this a bit too much. Photo: Peter Handley

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