I was chatting with EAA founder Paul Poberezny last week. What an amazing guy. Through a very unusual set of circumstances during his military career during World War II and then as an officer in the Wisconsin National Guard he was able to fly an enormous variety of airplanes.
Most military pilots stay with fighters, or bombers or transports, and fly only a relatively few types in their category. But Paul flew everything from trainers to transports to fighters to tankers. He was showing me his military logbooks that often had him flying a single seat fighter and a large transport in the same day.
Paul’s career spanned the transition from pistons to jets and he regularly flew both at the same time after a pair of jet engines was added to the KC-97 tanker to give its four radial piston engines a boost. “Four churning and two burning is what we used to say about that one,” Paul said.
I planned to fly back home from Oshkosh to the Muskegon airport in Michigan on the other side the lake that afternoon. Paul asked me “do you just keep climbing until you get to 10,000 feet or higher so that you can make it across the lake?”
With two engines on my Baron I really don’t think much about engine failure over the water. The odds of losing both engines on one flight—if you have fuel onboard—is very remote. And holding altitude isn’t much of a question because over the water 100 feet will do it. The only obstacle is the big sand dune that hugs the eastern shore of Lake Michigan and is about 200 feet high near the Muskegon airport.
Paul was unimpressed by my logic. “What about an airframe failure?” he asked. “What if a propeller blade breaks off, or some system fails and you want to get on the ground right away?”
I had not really considered that possibility. I guess it’s the luxury of having been a pilot for only 40 years or so compared to Paul’s 75 years of experience. I haven’t flown through the really hairy days of aviation as he did.
It’s easy from the distance of years to glamorize the “golden age” of piston engine flying in large and powerful airplanes. Those piston engines pumping out thousands of horsepower were stressed to the limits—and maybe beyond the limits we would accept today. It’s hard to imagine the stress on a propeller being pounded by the pulse of 28 or more piston strokes generating 2,000, 3,000, or even a little more horsepower. Major failures had to be expected, and they did occur.
Lake Michigan itself also looms large for pilots in the middle of the country because unlike the four other Great Lakes, it must be considered on many trips. It’s pretty easy to skirt the southern shore of the other Great Lakes, but Lake Michigan is a 330 mile long north-to-south water hazard waiting to drown any pilot unlucky enough to end up splashing into its icy water. Paul grew up and learned to fly in Milwaukee, and spent most of his military career flying out of Wisconsin, so the big lake was always a consideration for him. I grew up and learned to fly on the south shore of Lake Erie which is much smaller, and unless you want to be in Canada, is not much of a factor on most flights.
I thought about Paul and his generation as I sat over Lake Michigan later that day. I had two and a half hours of fuel onboard for the 37 minute flight. My Continentals can only make 300 hp at sea level so the stress on the props, engine mounts and so on was coming from maybe 230 hp at cruise flight. And I was 1,000 pounds below maximum takeoff weight. Life for my airplane was easy. But Paul and his generation of aviators are reminders that flying wasn’t always so.
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