Long write up, but detailed (not me)
FLYING THE WULFSo how do you prepare to fly a 1900 HP single-seat fighter for the first time? One of the rarest aircraft in the world, that has an infamous reputation for landing accidents? The answer is to find the best people and ask lots of questions! To this end I relied heavily on the advice and guidance of Klaus Plasa and Stephen Death…oh and a little bit of YouTube. Klaus Plasa is a retired German Airforce pilot who had gone through test pilot school, he’s also one of the most experienced warbird pilots in the world. Klaus was also involved with the initial test flight program for the Flug Werk FW190, and completed all the testing on my aircraft – he is the most experienced FW190 pilot alive. Whilst there was nothing stopping me from hopping in the aeroplane and going, I was never going to fly it without Klaus’s approval.
Early in 2015, Klaus and I did about 10 hours of flying in a Harvard in Louisiana, so he could assess my abilities. During this time, we focused heavily on emergency procedures including accelerated stalls, fully developed spins and engine flameouts in various configurations and positions carried through to touchdown. Needless to say, Klaus is a consummate professional. It really was an absolute honour to fly with such an experienced aviator and I’ll always be thankful for the lessons I learned.
With my first flight in the Fw190 approaching, I also wanted Stephen Death, or as I call him “Aussie Klaus”, to assess my flying abilities. Stephen is an accomplished aviator and one of the most experienced warbird pilots in Australia. I have huge respect for his opinion and whilst I didn’t need his approval, I wouldn’t have flown without it. Thankfully, after a couple of intense hours flying the Harvard together, Stephen was also confident that I could manage the Focke-Wulf.
Now I wish I could say being checked out by a couple of the world’s most experienced warbird pilots was all there was to it and I just hopped in the aeroplane and went - however the Harvard training was only part of the process. I would sit in the Wulf and learn where all the switches and controls were with my eyes closed in preparation for a smoke-filled cockpit. I would suit up and put my helmet and parachute on and practice the bailout procedure repeatedly, so the actions became automatic. There were memory items and emergency procedures to learn as with any advanced aircraft and finally and probably most beneficially there were countless hours of “chair flying”. I had drawn “mud maps” of the various normal and emergency procedures and profiles that I could expect and then, when I could, I would sit in the aeroplane and run through the exact sequence moving all the controls, looking at the correct locations and making the correct calls. When I couldn’t do it in the aeroplane, I would do it in my room. Whilst nobody could be in the aeroplane with me for my first ever flight, I’d already flown the sequence and emergency procedures hundreds of times in my mind.
Armed with the knowledge that the small 190 fleet had experienced at least four major landing accidents with very experienced pilots - it was time for my first flight. Donning a parachute and strapping a 1900HP warbird to your backside for the first time is a humbling experience. After all the preparation, I felt ready - with just a tiny flutter of nerves. I was very aware that I was living out one of the greatest moments in my life, and the realisation of a childhood dream.
Klaus tightened my harness straps and wished me luck. The time had come. The 41.2L (2,515 cubic inch) Ash 82T fired into life in a cloud of oil smoke and instantly I could feel the deep bass vibrations permeate my body. The engine is painfully loud and sounds like something out of Star Wars - unlike any aeroplane I’ve heard before. I popped my moulded communications earplugs in and donned my helmet. With 14 exhaust pipes just in front of me the cockpit is quick to fill with Carbon Monoxide so I clipped on my oxygen mask.
Ready to go, I began to taxi and noted that taxiing the 190 is no different than taxiing the Harvard, albeit with less visibility. Pushing the stick full forward unlocks the castoring tailwheel allowing me to make “S” turns to see past the big nose. Differential braking is required to steer the aircraft, however I use this sparingly to avoid overheating them. The Wulf sits so high, and its nose is so big that a small aeroplane would easily disappear from view if I got too close.
Pre-flight checks are similar to other aircraft. The big radial takes quite a while to warm up the 70 litters of oil and I waited 15 to 20 minutes before the oil and cylinder head temperatures were appropriate for a run-up, all the while chewing through 100 litres of Avgas an hour - yep, that’s the idle fuel burn. I ensured the area was clear behind the aircraft before increasing power as even at idle the 330cm three blade prop produces so much thrust it’s almost impossible to stand behind.
With the run-up completed, I mentally ran through my engine failure after take-off procedure one last time, and then reported “ready”. I backtracked to the full length of runway 07 at Albury and let the aeroplane roll forward about 20 meters on the centreline to ensure the aircraft was tracking straight and the tailwheel was locked. I ducked my head and pulled my shoulders in to get the canopy closed just prior to rolling. One last scan of all the temperatures, pressures and quantities and it was time to go.
Naturally my first takeoff was very conservative. I released the brakes and eeeeeaaaaaasassed the throttle up to 30” of MP, remembering that with every 1cm of throttle movement I was adding 100HP. I immediately noticed that the throttle friction was temperamental, making it difficult to apply power smoothly. The aircraft swiftly accelerates allowing only enough time for one last quick scan of the instruments to ensure everything is in the green and the airspeed is alive. Keeping the tailwheel locked is critical as that tiny rudder has no hope of compensating for the 1900HP out front until I’m nearly ready to lift off. Early in the takeoff roll, whilst holding full right rudder to keep the aeroplane straight, I gently eased the stick forward to slightly aft of neutral - trying to “pick the tail” up in this aeroplane is a guaranteed way to end up in the weeds. Once the tail had enough airspeed to fly off the ground, the rudder became effective and it was possible to maintain directional control while feeding in some more ponies – gradually. For this, my first ever take off, I was happy to settle for takeoff power of 40”(the climb power setting) rather than the full 50”. Unstick occurred around 95 knots and suddenly, at this critical point, I found myself struggling to breath! I fall back to my default position whenever something unusual is happening – “fly the aeroplane”. Despite all of my preparation suffocation is not something I’d planned for, or ever expected, however at this point there was nothing I could do about it.
Before long the aeroplane was airborne, and I quickly retracted the gear and flap before reaching the limit speed of 135kts for both. By now I realised that my oxygen mask was being over-pressurised from the ram air supply, and rather than dump the excess pressure, it was pumping it into my lungs at 135+ kts. Rather than suffocating, I realised my difficulty was exhaling! I managed to tug on the mask enough to break the seal around my face and allow some air to escape.
Climbing out at 150kts, I reached 500’ above field elevation in a matter of seconds - at which point I brought the RPM back from 2600 to 2400. Immediately the aeroplane went out of balance. For a moment I thought that I may have a flight control issue or that one of the gear legs may have dropped (as happened during a test flight). I quickly “stood on the ball” and confirmed the flaps and gear were fully retracted. I had just been given my first Wulf lesson - everything makes this plane yaw. A change in RPM, manifold pressure, angle of attack, G loading, if you blink your left eye - everything. I was surprised at first, however quickly adapted to it for the remainder of the flight.
Somewhere in the short time between getting the aircraft setup in the climb, and arriving at 8000 ft in the training area, I looked out across the Balkenkreuz atop the camouflaged wing and shed a tear. If I could take my hands off the controls long enough, I would pinch myself. Here I was flying a Focke-Wulf 190. This very moment was the realisation of a childhood dream and the culmination of a lot of hard work.
In a matter of moments, the aircraft was at 8000’, and I pulled the power back to a cruise setting of 28.8” and 2040 RPM yielding a cruise TAS of around 230 kts for 280 liters an hour. With a starting fuel of 508L, a takeoff fuel flow of 1000L/h and 720 L/h in the climb there’s not a lot left to play with. One way or another I was going to be back on the ground in around an hour.
It was time to check out the handling with a couple of 30-degree angle of bank turns to the left, then right, followed by some 60-degree angle of bank turns left and right. Next, I did a clean stall, another with takeoff flap and finally a stall with gear down and landing flap to establish a Vref speed for approach. Suffice to say the clean stall has some bite to it but the landing configuration stall is reasonable and predictable with a short period of airframe buffet leading up to it.
Once I’d demonstrated this a couple of times, I decided to practice a landing with a simulated hard deck of 2000 feet above Lake Hume. The high wing loading contributes to an impressive rate of sink when fully configured at approach speed. I posit that the aircraft’s glide characteristics are somewhat worse than the ACME anvil from Road Runner.
Back in the pattern for my first landing, and I decelerated and configured early to ensure a nice stable approach. I selected takeoff flap at mid downwind and opened the canopy to help with egress in case of a rollover on landing. There are no cockpit indicators for flap position, however cut-outs in the trailing edge upper wing skin allow the pilot to see the flap position. I also deployed the electrically actuated landing gear and knew that it would take an agonising 18 seconds to fully extend. For my first few landings, Klaus instructed that I should land with “take off” flap as it would be easier to get the aircraft in the correct attitude for the flare. I flew a tight curving approach, due to the limited forward visibility with the touchdown accomplished in a 3-point fashion. The aim of the game was to land with the least energy, and get the tailwheel down and locked as soon as possible, to avoid joining the “those who have” category.
My first ever touchdown was “firm” …. much like every touchdown since. I thought those long legs would have plenty of give, however sadly it isn’t the case. Nor is it the case that the wide track undercarriage helps with tracking. The main wheels have a lot of toe out and I believe this contributes greatly to the wild ride during the landing roll. I’m sure my tap-dancing skills have improved immensely since flying the Wulf! Subsequently I have noticed that every landing is a little bit different despite being on profile, on speed and nailing all the "gates". I attribute this to the varying Centre of Gravity that results from having any combination of fuel in the forward and aft fuel tanks.
Taxiing back to the parking position from my first flight on the 22nd of February 2016, it felt like I had just flown solo again for the very first time. I now have around 70 hours on the aircraft and about as many landings. With this experience in mind, I have nothing but the highest level of respect for those young pilots from either side of the war that managed to fly and fight in aircraft like this. When I first flew the Fw190 the conditions were perfect, and I already had many thousands of hours and years of experience to rely upon, whereas the wartime pilot did it with hardly any, and in much more trying conditions. The Wulf will take a lifetime to master, however I aim to improve incrementally with every flight.
Someone who has flown a Wulf and many other types described the aircraft as a 1900HP aerobatics plane compared to its adversaries. Experienced warbird pilots have told me that the Wulf out-climbs and out-rolls most WWII fighters however it is a much more “hands on” aeroplane. Personally, I think the aircraft has excellent control harmony and is surprisingly agile. It feels as though the flight controls are directly linked to the pilots’ nervous system - think left and it flies left, think right and it flies right, don’t think or take your hands off any of the controls and you’re asking for trouble. At 185cm plus parachute and helmet, the cockpit is a snug fit for me – it’s small but ergonomic with all the controls easily within reach and falling naturally to hand. The seating position is more supine than other fighters, and when you’re strapped in you feel like you’re wearing the aeroplane. It’s not the nicest or most comfortable aeroplane that I’ve ever flown but it’s certainly been the most challenging and rewarding. Flying the Wulf is a visceral experience – it’s loud, it smells, it shakes, and it demands all of your attention – and that’s why I love it
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