Flying My First Warbird

Flying My First Warbird

North American T-28A
A United States Air Force North American T-28 “Trojan.”

Like many of Plane & Pilot’s readers, I grew up in the shadow of World War II, a kid of an Air Force pilot who brought his love of airplanes home with him. My father being a WWII-era jock probably makes my choices of childhood airplane crushes obvious. They were, in order: P-51, P-38, P-47 and T-6. In hindsight, all of them were kind of odd, except the P-51, which is perhaps the perfectly dimensioned airplane. That whole golden-ratio concept for the perfect beautiful human face…there’s got to be an airplane version of it, and the Mustang would be high on the list. I sketched them all. Repeatedly. None of the doodles are in the Louvre, but they made an imprint on my heart.

As I grew up and started flying myself, I did the usual. Beat-up Cessna 172s that I loved beyond all reason. I would sometimes get that, “Is this guy a little nuts?” look when I would wax poetic about some old Skyhawk with its headliner coming down around us. I was smitten. And I wondered about how anyone in any way couldn’t be! Oh well.

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After I got my ticket, I started flying on my own, mostly rental planes, Warriors, Skyhawks, and even when I felt rich, an old 200 Arrow with a black-and-blue paint scheme that flew pretty darned straight and true, as it should be. And I built up a few hundred hours in the process. Funny thing, but my dad didn’t get rich flying fighters for Uncle Sam in the big war, and I was in no danger of showing up on “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous Pilots,” but whenever I could, I would go flying. I figured that the closest I would ever get to flying a warbird would be listening to Dad’s stories—he headed to Europe well after D-Day when the war on that continent ended, so he never saw battle. I figured that made me lucky enough. And it did.

It was totally out of the blue one day when I was hanging around the airport restaurant in Sebring, Florida, where I was visiting family, and a North American T-28 pulled up and out climbed an older guy with aviator glasses. He was a well-known race car driver, it turns out. Everyone at the café knew him, but all I ever got out of him was “Bob” as he sat down next to me at the lunch counter and ordered a burger that came out just a few minutes after mine did. We sat, chatted and hit it off. He wasn’t interested in talking about himself (though I was!). He wanted to hear about me. So I told him my aviation short story, my dad’s life being the highlight.

When lunch finished and Bob said to me, “Want to go flying?,” I was gobsmacked. It was like if Mickey Mantle had asked me to play catch or Ernest Hemingway wanted to grab a drink. Did I want to go flying? Hell, yes. I was born wanting to go flying.

If you’re an airplane nut, as I am, you probably know what the T-28 was and is. With a heritage that dates directly to lessons learned from World War II, the T-28 is a tricycle-gear, radial-engine, tandem-seater trainer aircraft built for the United States Air Force by North American Aviation, the same company that created the P-51 Mustang and T-6 Texan. Looking back at it now, I can see that the T-28, nicknamed the “Trojan,” perhaps prophetically or sardonically, was a dead-end airplane. By the time North American ramped up production of it, the time of the radial engine and the big, high-powered, mechanically complex trainers had just about passed. But the plane that resulted was much beloved, though ironically, not by Dad, who always thought it was a cheater’s plane, what with the tricycle gear and fancy radios. He was a Texan man through and through.

I parted ways from Dad on this one. To me, the T-28 was the perfect trainer. And Bob’s, well, it was a thing of beauty, an art piece on display by itself on the spacious Sebring ramp, all polished metal, chrome spinner, gleaming canopy, complete with authentic (to me at least) U.S. Air Force markings. This was long before the advent of cell phone cameras, or I would have been boring folks with my T-28 stories for a couple of decades by now.

Bob let me sit in the front seat. This guy, who had never seen me fly and had no idea if I even had a pilot’s license, was going to let me fly this beauty! He talked me through firing up the big radial engine and through the taxi instructions. We flew for maybe 20 minutes, chasing clouds and having fun. The plane flew like a dream, which my father had always said about it. That, in his book, was perhaps the worst part of it. “Cheaters!” I heard him say in my head as we flew. It made me smile all the more.

Now I’d be lying if I told you I remembered much about the flight. I didn’t remember the details five minutes after we got done flying. I was so wildly happy to be doing something I never thought I’d get the chance to do. A bucket list item that crossed itself off one sunny Florida day when all I had planned was a burger. Ain’t life grand? 

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