Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Mach 2 pilot's slow-flight dream

Commentary by Pat Murphy


Pat Murphy

Fearless X-plane test pilot Scott Crossfield defied flying's oldest safety maxim -- "There are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots"—until last week: At 84, he was killed when his single-engine Cessna 210 was done in by fierce weather in Georgia.

Grand personal memories come to life about working with the laconic Crossfield in Florida in the early 1970s on a little-known Crossfield dream -- STOL flight.

Some years after his celebrated 1953 flight in the Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket at 1,320 miles per hour, Crossfield joined Miami-based Eastern Airlines as an executive, whereupon he volunteered for the Greater Miami Chamber Aviation Action Committee, of which I was chair, to add his expertise.

We wrote a zoning ordinance to protect airports against building encroachment (that won an award from the Air Line Pilots Association) and promoted a regional jetport in the Everglades (President Nixon vetoed the project after a single runway was built).

But Crossfield's pet was a proposed system of urban shortfield/takeoff and landing (STOL) airstrips for a new generation of quiet passenger planes with unique flight characteristics.

Crossfield envisioned a DC-9 jet modified with special high-lift wing flaps, stripped-down interior and special engines for steep landing approaches and quiet, high-angle takeoffs within a few thousand feet on simple strips near downtowns of large cities.

With an eye for drama, Crossfield borrowed a high-wing, 18-passenger DeHavilland DHC-6 twin-engine turboprop Otter, a STOL aircraft popularized by bush pilots, for demonstrations that seemed like stunts, but were to prove Crossfield's point.

While Crossfield on the ground answered bug-eyed onlookers' questions, I sat in the cockpit jump seat between pilots and narrated landings and takeoffs to a ground p.a. system linked to a Unicom radio frequency in the cockpit.

First, we used an ordinary wide street in a North Miami neighborhood for landings and takeoffs. Then we flew out of a grassy area at downtown Miami's Dodge Island seaport, radioing the landing air speed, altitude and angle for guests on the ground to show how Otter-type aircraft might operate initially from downtown air strips.

Otter's slow, steep landing approach with double-slatted flaps, jackrabbit takeoff climb and reversible propellers allowed operating in less than 1,500 feet and landing at under 100 miles power hour.

Alas, airline interest in STOL faded. Widebody jets became the fad.

But what a personal treat to briefly fly in and out of urban open spaces to show STOL flight's urban possibilities and the slow-flight dream of a Mach 2 pilot.

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