Flying the “Spirit of Tuskegee” Part III

Posted on Wed, October 5, 2011
  • by: Dik Daso

This piece is a follow up to the posts below, in which I describe my experience flying a PT-13 Stearman that was used to train Tuskegee Airmen during WWII, from Moton Field, Alabama to Andrews AFB. This aircraft has been accessioned into the collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Please see: 

Tuskegee Bird Flies North 

Spirit of Tuskegee Arrives at Andrews AFB

"Spirit of Tuskegee" arrives at the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar – Part II (27546)"


Capt. Matt Quy instructs modern military curator Dik Daso in the proper use of safety belts in the cockpit.

“Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away…” I was a USAF pilot. But I had not flown an aircraft since I retired in 2001. I was both excited and a bit nervous as Matt provided my orientation to the Stearman front cockpit. It is a simple plane and the front seat offers tremendous vistas, very few cockpit instruments to check, a basic throttle and mixture control on the left side and a control stick that when seated is centered between the knees.

Sitting in the sun at Moton Field was HOT. I mean totally-sweaty-in-five-minutes hot. After I was safely strapped into the seat, Matt hopped into the rear cockpit, fastened his safety belt and shouted the traditional engine start warning, “Clear Prop!” He had pulled the propeller through the arc about six times before we got in and the engine putted and popped to life. The propwash immediately lowered the temperature 20 degrees and things became very comfortable.

After a quick wave to the ground staff, Matt taxied the Stearman to the active runway. Since his forward vision is limited, he steered from left to right making a continuous “S” pattern to maintain a partial view of the way ahead. As we approached the hammerhead (the end of the taxiway where engine run-up’s are done prior to takeoff) Matt transmitted out departure direction over the radio so that any aircraft nearby would be alerted to our initial route of flight. After holding the brakes and running the 300 horse power Lycoming engine to full while checking the engine instruments, Matt taxied onto the active runway, gradually pushed up the throttle and we began the takeoff roll. We were airborne in about 121 meters (400 feet).

On the departure leg at Moton Field, Matt asked me if I was ready to fly the aircraft. It took me a moment to stow my iPad as I was attempting to send a “tweet” from the air (It didn’t work). I had to tuck it under my leg because there was no map storage case in the front cockpit.  That task accomplished, I reported that I was ready and he passed me control in the way that all Air Force pilots do—“OK, You have the aircraft,” to which I replied, “I have the aircraft!” including a little shake of the control stick that signaled a definite transfer of aircraft control.

I was flying a Stearman that had been flown by Tuskegee Airmen during WW II…to myself I thought, “Are you KIDDING…this isn’t really happening.” But it was.

During the first leg of the journey, I worked on polishing my rusty pilot skills so that Matt wouldn’t need to worry much while I was at the controls. He gave me a few pointers on maintaining speed and altitude, adjusted the power for efficiency, and navigated via land features and towns. We swapped control a few times during the hop, and we both enjoyed the scenery and the camaraderie that Air Force pilots seem to always generate. By the end of the near two-hour flight I had narrowed my margins from plus or minus 91 meters (300 feet) in altitude to plus or minus 15 meters (50 feet) and my course control had improved as well. Matt joked with me about being a “mostly-jet” pilot as I hadn’t touched the rudder once during the flight. For a propeller-driven airplane, yaw is created by the rotation of the prop, and for a real “stick and rudder man,” being just a little off coordinated flight is easy to pick up. Next leg, I started touching a little right rudder to coax the Stearman into flying a perfectly straight path through the sky. I think I had figured it out by the last day. Only Matt can confirm that fact.

In my last blog entry I recounted our flight over Appomattox Courthouse (“Spirit of Tuskegee” arrives at the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar – Part II). As far as linking history to the plane, that was by far the most amazing moment. But there were other significant and extremely fun times during our 11 hours in the air. Here are a few of those.  

On the way to Toccoa, Georgia, Tina had asked Matt to fly past Currahee Mountain. The rough translation from the native language is, “stands alone.” Appropriate as the 242 meter (800 foot) mountain can be seen from many miles away when the air is crisp and clear. During WW II, several paratrooper units trained for combat at the foot of Currahee.

When we landed at Toccoa, the weather looked a bit threatening. As Matt pulled up the fuel pump (that’s right, you just taxi right up to the pump like you do in your car), a young man who worked at the airfield approached Matt and offered to shelter the Stearman in a nearby maintenance hangar to protect it from looming thunderstorms. So Matt graciously accepted and we all breathed just a bit easier knowing that the aircraft was safe and sound. And while it did not rain or thunder while we were at Toccoa, the generosity and thoughtfulness demonstrated by this young fellow was just wonderful.

The PT-13D in the MX hangar at Toccoa

On the next leg to Shelby, NC, Matt and I enjoyed some spectacular cloud formations and wonderful, very spiritual images of the sun piercing through them—breathtaking and humbling.

Currahee Mountain, Georgia, through the Stearman wing

Looking back, much of the flight was stunning and spiritual. Perhaps the most fun we had on the trip was at Orange, VA, where we quite accidentally met up with a great friend and fellow pilot, Matt Jolley. Jolley keeps his L-2 at Orange and happened to be there to move his plane around and secure another family member’s flyable Chipmunk before the arrival of a sizeable storm. But instead, in another simple act of kindness, Jolley gave Quy the keys to his hangar so that we could get the Stearman under cover, and, as it turned out, it was a very good thing. Although Matt and I had planned to make an additional hop that afternoon, the weather turned out to be too extensive so Matt decided to stay put in Orange. We all helped moving and tying down the three vintage planes and finished securing them just before a gulley-washer of a rain storm struck the field. The storm provided another tremendous image to add to the trip log.

Man, did it ever rain. Even though Matt Jolley gave up his hangar for the Stearman, he was rewarded with this remarkable shot of his L-2 surrounded by a colorful rainbow.

Matt Jolley happens also to be the host of the only 24/7 radio program devoted entirely to warbirds—  So to pass some time while waiting for the storm to pass, Jolley interviewed Quy for the radio program.

Jolley interviewed Matt Quy for the radio program

The following day, the three of us had a rare opportunity to do a little bit of formation flying—us in the Stearman and Jolley in the Chipmunk. We took off just after dawn and the rising sun was simply unearthly. Jolley returned to the field and landed while Matt demonstrated some simply acrobatic maneuvers for me in the Stearman. In reality, this is a very maneuverable warbird and can turn on a dime. We returned to Orange for some fuel, said our “thank yous” and farewells to Matt Jolley and the airfield staff, and took to the skies for the trip to Manassas, VA. We had an appointment with inspectors from the TSA and we didn’t want to be late. I took a short video at Manassas of what the landing looks like from the front cockpit. Matt is actually much smoother on landing than the clip shows as I “fumbled the football at touchdown” for just a second.

When a civil airplane is going to land inside the controlled airspace that surrounds the greater Washington DC area, the pilot, plane, and passengers must meet with inspectors from the TSA prior to entering the controlled area. While Matt is an active duty USAF officer, the plane is technically a civilian. We were to meet the team at Manassas for clearance before the short hop to Andrews AFB that afternoon. We arrived at the terminal building and waiting for us there was TSA—not one or two, but four TSA inspectors! After a search and baggage inspection, the TSA folks examined the Stearman inside and out and were finally satisfied that Matt, me, and the Stearman were cleared to proceed to Andrews AFB. They had a sense of humor after all was done and even posed with our luggage at the plane. They were all great young Americans.

The TSA team with Matt at Manassas

Then it was time to fly over to Andrews AFB, my last leg in the PT-13D. The flight went by far too quickly as both Matt and I were busy map reading to remain outside of the controlled airspace until it became necessary to enter for the approach to the airfield.

After another perfect landing, Matt taxied the Stearman to Hangar #3 where it would remain until Friday—the day of its final flight to the Hazy Center. After engine shutdown, Matt graciously fielded interview question and posed for pictures. He is a tremendous ambassador for the Tuskegee Airmen and the Air Force.

Capt. Quy fields a few questions upon arrival at Andrews AFB

In the final installment of this series I will fill you in on the interim plans for the PT-13D at the Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles International Airport and also how the cooperative spirit at the Smithsonian helped to bring the Spirit of Tuskegee to Washington.

If you check our flight itinerary below, you will see some pretty rural locations. When flying under see and avoid rules in visual flight rules weather it is best to keep well away from large towns—and airports. At each stop the people we met were absolutely fabulous. They shared protective hangar space, helped to refuel the aircraft, lent us a car, drove us to a hotel, picked us up from a hotel, admired Matt’s plane, and took photographs. What great Americans—kind, thoughtful, interested, and aviation fanatics.

Flight Log:

Sunday, 31 July
Moton Field to Covington Muni, GA 1:47
Covington, GA to Toccoa, GA Via Currahee Mountain 1:00
Toccoa, GA to Shelby, NC 1:45
Monday, 1 August
Shelby, NC to Blue Ridge Airport, Martinsville, VA 1:43
Martinsville, VA to Orange, VA Via Appomattox Courthouse 2:00
Tuesday, 2 August
Orange, VA (Local Hop) :55
Orange, VA to Manassas, VA 1:00
Manassas, VA to Andrews AFB, MD :50