50 years later: Online ad leads Bill Cox to again experience the thrill of piloting a Lockheed T-33 jet

By BILL COX,

The bright morning sun is hot through the canopy of the jet on the Santa Fe ramp. I am strapping into a Lockheed T-33 jet. My instructor, Larry, is strapped in and is signaling the starter cart man to rev up the cart parked behind our right wing. It has been 50 years since I last strapped into this T-33 jet to instruct Air Force student pilots. My students had about 300 flying hours in prop planes when they came to my base in Texas. I taught them turbojet engine operation, formation flight, instrument flight, navigation in bad weather, night flying and acrobatics - essentially all they needed to earn their silver Air Force wings as pilots. Then, they went on to fly jets in combat in Vietnam and the Mideast combat zones.

Katherine, our son John and I were here on this cool sunny morning because of an online ad offering instructional flights in the T-33. Who could say “no” to that. John flew a separate flight and was highly praised for his flying ability, Larry declaring him to be “a really smooth jet pilot.”

Larry twirls two fingers in the air and with a gentle whoosh and slight vibration, our Rolls Royce turbojet engine begins to spin. There is a soft vibration as the turbine goes through resonance RPM, slowly gaining speed. I feel a slight tremble in the plane, followed by a faint whistling of intake air, then a soft rumble in my seat as Larry flicks our starter switch to “start” and the Rolls Royce turbine begins to come alive. The soft rumble now grows and increases as she spools up. The start is streamlined smooth, a marvelous mix of sounds, smells and the feeling in your chest of a deep rumble as the nine burner cans now ignite with serious blue fire and spin the turbine buckets.

Larry brings the throttle into “idle,” spraying more fuel to the hungry burners, producing a deep resonating “whoomp” sound, and our turbine now spools up even faster, the shrieking engine air intakes begin to make some folks on the ramp hold their ears against the shrill noise.

We loaded only 60 gallons in each tip tank, giving us only enough tip tank fuel for startup, taxi, takeoff and climb to about 12,000 feet. Did I mention she gets about one mile per gallon fuel economy? The T-33 cannot be flown in acrobatic flight until the tip tanks are empty, (too much weight at the ends of the wings with centrifugal force from acrobatic flight can ruin your morning.)

Our max airspeed this morning should be around 0.7 Mach (around 460 knots or 529 mph) within our assigned altitude box with the floor at 12,500’ and a 18,500’ ceiling. This safely insulates us from airliners. We must stay within that box. Several times this morning I will get close to the edge and, Larry will gently warn, I will have to really honk back on the stick and pile on the Gs to stay legal inside our box.

The clear bubble canopy, about 10 feet in length, raised above us at about a 45 degree angle, will give excellent visibility when down and locked. What a day for a high speed acrobatic T-33 jet flight.

My musings are cut off by a metallic voice in the earphones, “How do you read me, Bill?” To which I respond “loud and clear.” Larry then says, “Let’s go.” My gentle nudge forward on the throttle brings the engine up to 60% power, 100% is 10,700 rpm. Cleared onto runway 20, I release brakes and as we gain speed, my toes dancing on the rudder pedals to hold the white centerline, I sense the old feeling of speed transmitted to my right hand, through the stick grip as controls on the wing and tail begin to come alive with the airflow. Airspeed needle now approaching 90 knots,

I feel the wind over the wings through the black checkered joystick grip in my right hand, I ease a bit of back pressure on the stick, the nose wheel lifts off, we continue to accelerate rolling now just on the two main gear. Strange how familiar and normal this all seems (what is that about never forgetting how to ride a bike?). I feel the wings begin to take the load off the mains, feel the plane begin to fly. With my right thumb on the “hat” atop the control stick, I flick in three to four clicks of forward trim and she continues to accelerate.

We are airborne, I can feel it; the old feeling is still there.

I note our shadow racing along with us is now dropping away and growing smaller on the tan desert sand below, down a gully, up a hill, over a ranch house, over a grove of small trees proving we are airborne, reach with my left hand down beside my seat to retract the landing gear. The plane trembles slightly as closed and streamline aluminum gear doors are now hydraulically pressed out against the smooth 200 mph slipstream, then with a rumble the three gear retract, thump, thump......and thump. All three up and locked, now we are “clean.” and she accelerates even faster.

As we climb, passing 10,500 feet, all below us is tan desert sand, dotted with round dollops of green trees and vegetation. Scattered about down there, I see ranch houses, black roads, some white dry lakes, a dry stream or river bed, blue-gray mountains topped with white clouds off on the horizon as we fly southwest away from Santa Fe to the assigned acrobatic flight area. I am making 45 degree banked turns to see around us and keep us clear of other planes, plus experiencing the delight of the “high” of piloting a jet. The sky is clear blue and empty of other aircraft. The sound is a soft rumble of engine with a sharp tearing sound as we blast through the air, ripping apart a T-33 shaped hole and spewing burnt Jet-A out the hot black tailpipe.

The red “empty” light begins to flicker on the “Tiptank Fuel” light, so Larry tells me to just do whatever I wish, and have fun. I perform a couple of lazy eights, a series of steep climbing turns, diving off at the end like a carnival ride. This plane is fast and sensitive, I had almost forgotten, and I am a bit “behind the aircraft,” as things are happening rapidly.

I try a few aileron rolls which are just absolutely delightful; with fingertips of my right hand, I can make planet Earth wheel and spin around. However, I feel nothing more than if sitting in a Lazy Boy chair in front of the TV. I then roll off into some Cuban eights, partial loops with dizzying rolls, going vertically up then down, then rolling. What a hoot, and it is coming back now after 50 years.

The pressure of Gs I pull makes me know it has indeed been a few years since I pulled serious G forces. We move so fast, I start to go below my “floor” altitude so I have to pull back harder on the stick to try not to go too far below, but the Gs pulled make me slump in my seat, my hands and arms and legs pull me down I begin to gray out (my vision is reduced to a small circle, a tunnel with sides of dark gray) as I pull even more G to get back up into our box of altitude. Pulling hard Gs draws blood from your eyes and brain toward your feet, producing “blackout,” or an ever decreasing circle of vision, (think “tunnel vision” like driving a car over I-55’sWaterworks Curve at 5 p.m. on a Friday afternoon just looking through the cardboard spool which holds a roll of kitchen paper towels.) To combat this blackout, the pilot then must tighten stomach and leg muscles to hold the blood up in his head and eyes in order to see. Vision is lost when the blood pools in the legs and feet, pulled by centrifugal force away from the head to the feet. This is enough G pulling for me this morning.

I tell Larry I am ready to shoot some landing approaches and low go-arounds. We receive tower clearance, and I roll us over like the old WWII Douglas Dauntless dive bombers peeling off to bomb the enemy ships, and we dive straight for the desert floor, easing power back to 65%, rolling and turning just enjoying the freedom this delightfully powerful machine gives me. At Disney World this would be a nine coupon ride. With finger tips I can make New Mexico spin this way then that. What a feeling, what power, what a hoot. Larry quietly reminds me of our speed, which is getting embarrassingly high (I am having way too much fun,) so I deploy our speed brakes which “dirty up” our sleek jet, causing rumbling, bucking and vibrating as the smooth airflow is disrupted, slowing us quickly.

We are cleared by the tower for a 360 degree overhead pitchout approach, still the official Air Force landing approach. I roll into a left 80 degree bank, wings almost vertical to the ground, pull G until I just begin to grey out, power back to 65%, speed brakes, turning 180 degree for our “downwind leg.” This all happens rapidly indeed, and I am still playing “catch-up ball” back here.

How quick this jet is today, and how slow I am. But bit by bit I begin to catch up, things begin to ‘slow down’ for me, and we are lined up on final to the black runway with the white painted “20,” 2,000 feet below. I tell Larry I am “on the go,” he clears it with the tower, I honk in 100% power, the engine howls, I fly it on down toward the ground, a few flicks of trim to hold the nose steady, gear up, flaps up, and we thunder over the runway just above the ground, spewing 700 degree exhaust gas and grey smoke behind us. Man alive, how this thing moves over the ground. Quickly we reach the required 240 knots speed and I call for another, tower clears us.

Back on the stick now, I pull into a sizzling, rolling, climbing left turn up onto the downwind leg. Now it is beginning to come back quicker, I am “catching up” with this machine, feeling more at ease and like old times. I throttle back to 65% power, speed brakes rumbling, the gear is down. Nice job, good time to quit. “You land it, Larry,” I announce, which is “Rogered.”

I had planned on taking some photos, was much too busy flying, and settle to just photograph Larry’s landing...which was perfect; a squeaker. We taxi back and park, Larry goes through the engine shutdown procedure, and as the turbine spins down I just sit here still for a minute... savoring what magic I had just experienced. It was 1957 all over again, and this was one sweet old flying machine.

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