Spinning With The ‘Gooney Bird’

C-47/DC-3 Douglas Aircraft | Photo from Jerry Coffee

C-47/DC-3 Douglas Aircraft | Photo from Jerry Coffee

In 1964, I was one of the “Red Hot” young instructor pilots at the Vigilante training squadron in Central Florida. The “Vigi” was being integrated into the Heavy Attack Wing there, an aviation community of older, more staid, more conservative pilots, some of whom were even crusty remnants of the Korean War. They tolerated us wet-nosed youngsters like a patient old Lab tolerates exuberant puppies.

Most of these senior and mid-grade pilots were checked out in the training wing’s old vintage C-47, a twin-engine propeller airplane that had been around since introduced by Douglas aircraft as the “DC-3” in 1935. Officially known as the “Dakota” but affectionately known as the “Gooney Bird,” it was busy almost every weekend, flown by the older pilots delivering replacement parts and tires to stranded Vigi pilots on cross-country training flights at far-flung military air fields across the country. Fed up with being away from their families on the weekends, they launched an informal training syllabus to get the younger jet pilots qualified in the lumbering old Gooney. So, we “younger jet pilots” launched the informal “Lieutenants Protective Society.”

The Gooney Bird was so old it had conventional landing gear with a tail wheel. Just taxiing the beast to the runway was a challenge, because the nose sat so high you could-n’t see forward around it, so you had to taxi back and forth in an “S” pattern to see what was ahead. Having never taxied an airplane with a tail wheel, the first young candidate, in the first few minutes of his first lesson, crunched a wing tip on the corner of a hangar, so he was off the hook.

The second lieutenant trainee, like most younger pilots, hadn’t flown a propeller-driven airplane since years before in the training command. Starting a conventional reciprocating engine is hardly rocket science, but more complicated than a simple jet engine. There are three levers controlling each engine, the throttle, the propeller pitch and the fuel/air mixture. Well, in the process of his first startup, he got confused and backfired the starboard engine so violently he blew a cylinder completely off the engine. He was off the hook.

Then came my turn. I managed the taxi and take-off uneventfully, but every flying training syllabus includes “approaches to stalls,” whereby the power is reduced and as the airplane slows, you keep raising the nose higher and higher until the airflow across the wings fails to produce sufficient “lift” to keep the plane flying. You induce an aerodynamic stall. The plane bucks and shudders until you push the nose down and add power to regain flying speed, but if you wait too long, the plane drops into a spin. I waited too long!

Chief Petty Officer Bernini was the wizened old plane captain (responsible for the plane’s preparation and readiness). He had thousands of hours logged in C-47s. While airborne, he habitually stood behind the space between the pilot and co-pilot while drinking his coffee. Although I immediately initiated spin recovery with the controls, we still made about three complete rotations from 4,000 feet down to 2,000 feet, where we recovered. But needless to say, there were some very “white knuckle” seconds of chaos there in the cockpit. But since the Gooney Bird “never spins,” we immediately had to return to base and inspect the plane for structural damage.

On the return, I noticed Bernini was sweating profusely through his coffee-stained shirt. We no sooner shut down the engines when he made a beeline to the commanding officer’s office. As related by the C.O. himself, Bernini tossed his wings onto the desk as he managed to sputter out, “Skipper, if you keep trying to check out these crazy lieutenants, I’m turnin’ in my wings.”

All the lieutenants were off the hook.

The C-47 has a storied operational past, from pre-World War II to Molokai Air.

Fortunately, we soon will have one on display at the Pacific Aviation Museum on Ford Island on Oahu. I’m proud to have a (very) few Gooney Bird hours in my own log book.