I’ll never forget the feeling sitting at the end of the runway, right hand wrapped around two throttles, looking out at 3,600 horses in two big radial engines. The 22,000 pounds of airplane around me agitated gently but noisily in their wake. Now I know how George Plimpton felt facing Green Bay, but at least he could lie down and play dead-I wouldn’t be playing. I was about to fly the big, beautiful B-25 bomber!
At that moment I just wasn’t geared toward bombers. Fighters, maybe, or aerobatics, or homebuilts. But big, hulking, roaring bombers-definitely not. Prepared or not, I suddenly found myself in the left seat of N543VT, a North American B-25N, Mitchell.
Junior Burchinal, proprietor of Flying Tigers Air Museum, was in the right seat, shouting at me to do this and that. Yes, I’m multi-engine rated, but most of my limited experience has been in a couple of moth-eaten Apaches, and the B-25 bears as much resemblance to an Apache as I do to Raquel Welch. Ninety percent of my flying is done with only stick, throttle, and rudders to worry about-no boost pumps, feathering systems, emergency gear extension, bleed hole icing, Vmc, constant-speed props. Now I had to think about shimmy dampers, exhaust stacks, oil coolers, hydraulic accumulators, and brake pressures.
In 1971 Burchinal’s B-25, as seen above, was viewed as a really tired looking old airplane because it had never been restored, There were dozens of them around in “still flying but roachy” condition and no one wanted them.
Editor’s Note: Thankfully the B-25 that Budd Davisson flew and writes about here, Now Sunday Punch tail number N325N, was restored by Aero Trader, Chino CA, in 2012-2013.
Flying a 10-ton aluminum ingot isn’t something you just wander out to your local FBO and do. In any case, I was going through the World War II flight course at the Flying Tiger Air Museum in Paris, Texas. My original intent was to fly the fighters, but the B-25 is also part of the program, intended to broaden your education—and it does, in spades! Heavy in this case means about 17,000 pounds empty, with an allowable emergency overload of nearly 45,000 pounds. That’s more than my hometown weighs!
This particular Mitchell probably would be more correctly termed a VB-25N, since it originally was an executive transport for the RCAF. Most B-25s don’t have dual controls, but this one, along with many of the TB-25s still flying, is completely set up for two pilots, as a training ship.
Originally, I was to go up with junior and drive the 25 around for an hour or so, just to see how it felt. I began to like the idea of flying the big moose, however, and I soon heard myself saying things about “more time” and the words “type rating” kept popping up. Type rating! That’s the special license it takes to carry passengers in airplanes that weigh more than 12,500 pounds, and the B-25 weighs that much with one wing and both engines removed. It takes a different type rating for each type of airplane. The change in program meant I would have to learn the airplane inside and out, and that’s a lot of territory. Burchinal is a FAA-designated examiner for the B-25, and I knew he would be tough.
My first “introductory” flight made me feel like crawling into the bomb bay and going for a walk outside. I thought the Mustang was a departure from the Citabria; the B-25 is in another world entirely.
When we got up into the air and over the practice area, Junior signaled for me to take it. I took the wheel, and a slight out-of-trim condition caused the nose to drop. I automatically pulled the nose up—or at least I tried. I was flying with my left hand, my right resting lightly on the throttles. I could hardly pull the wheel back with one hand! I released the throttles and brought the other hand over to help, barely getting the nose up level. I finally had enough sense to wheel in some up trim. The controls couldn’t be that heavy! I made a turn to the left, or at least my hand did, but the control wheel resisted my attempts to move it.
Grasping it firmly, determined to do it with one hand, I forced one end down, and the wings responded smartly enough by rolling obediently into a left bank-then the nose started to fall. With the 30-degree bank I was holding, I had to force the wheel to the rear to keep the nose from falling. It had started losing altitude the second I started to roll. I wasn’t prepared for the heavy control pressures.
Just to prove to me that the airplane would fly, junior reached up and punched a red button on the console between us that started moving levers. As I was watching him, I saw the right propeller come to a stop, its blades edged into the wind. He diddled with some trim wheels and sat there, hands off, boring along with only one engine going. Satisfied that I had been suitably impressed, he fired up the other engine and headed back to his field.
I expected a long approach, nose high, with lots of power, dragging it in over the wires and stomping on the brakes to get stopped. He aimed the nose at the runway and I figured we were going to make a high speed pass. When we were over the middle of the runway at about 200 knots indicated, he pulled up hard to the left in a tight chandelle. While he was doing this, he started scurrying around the cockpit, throwing this and yanking that. Suddenly, I realized he was doing a 360-degree overhead approach, fighter style, right off the deck in a B-25. At the top of the chandelle, we were downwind opposite the end of the runway. He brought the throttles back, turned into the field and beautifully completed the 360-degree turn as he plunked us down on the runway. The man certainly knows his airplane.
I knew I had my work cut out for me, so I started memorizing systems and going through the preflight checklists. When all the gizmos and gadgets are explained, you find there aren’t that many things that are drastically different from what you’re used to. It’s still an airplane, and you must check the oil and gas, the struts and tires, the controls and so forth.
The B-25 does have several particulars that we little-airplane drivers don’t see often and that must be checked. For one, the shimmy damper has a little nubbin, a small rod for all practical purposes, that sticks out of the top. If it doesn’t stick out at least three-eighths of an inch, you don’t fly. On airplanes as big as the 25, if the shimmy damper fails, it can destroy the airplane. Junior told me about a Mitchell he saw that lost the damper on landing roll-out: it sheared rivets and buckled sheets back into the wings, completely wrecking it. He lost one on the B-26 while taxiing into a parking place, and in the time it took to roll 10 feet all the Plexiglas was shaken out of the nose.
Just below the shimmy damper is a knurled cap screwed on to a bolt-like affair that goes through the strut. Under the cap is a pin that can be pulled out, allowing the nose strut to turn freely for towing. The cap has to be finger tight. You really have to depend on the half-inch-thick book that makes up the preflight checklist.
The view from just behind the top turret position ahead of the bomb bay bulkhead. At the bottom, under the curved frame, is a short ladder that goes to the hatch on the bottom of the airplane. You enter the flight deck through a hinged hatch that contains a ladder, located in the belly of the airplane, about in line with the propellers. When you climb up, you find yourself standing in a small room, about six feet square, going from the top to the bottom of the fuselage. It has a couple of jump seats and a Plexiglas bubble in the top for navigation work. The forward side of this area is only about three feet high, opening into the back of the cockpit.
Getting up into the pilot’s seat is a major operation. The cabin roof is fairly low and the seats are close together, which means you have to walk on the row of knobs and levers that cover the space on the floor between the seats.
The instrument panel isn’t nearly as complex as would be expected. It’s actually simpler than in many light twins. Some of the instrument placement is rather odd, and every available inch of side panel is covered with emergency system controls.
The throttles, props, and mixtures are where you’d expect them to be, and most of the rest of the switches for starting, fuel management, and feathering are on the trapezoidal-shaped panel just in front of the throttles. The props are feathered by depressing the appropriate large red button on this panel. The Ham-Standards feather in less than 10 seconds and unfeather in about twice that time. Since feathering is by electrically driven pumps, it’s a good idea to check the generator panel on the right side of the cockpit to make sure both generators are working, or if one is out, that you don’t feather the engine with the good generator.
I must have spent at least eight hours sitting in the airplane running through emergency procedures and making imaginary touch and goes. Since I’m not used to handling any kind of procedure at all, it took some effort even to remember to bring the gear up, or push the props up on final. I spent so much time in there and would get myself so wound up psychologically flying patterns in my mind, that I’d get the adrenaline pumping and one leg would be twitching uncontrollably. Yeah, I was just a little hyped!
On my second hop we did stalls and all the other exercises that go into learning an airplane’s bad habits. Satisfied that we had enough altitude and there was no traffic around, I started reducing power and bringing the nose up, feeling for the stall. I thought an airplane this big would flop on the ground, tail first, when you stalled it nose high, but I was pleasantly surprised. We were light, so the stall didn’t show up until we were way down around 70 knots. When it broke, there was no mistaking it, but it wasn’t as violent as in many modern twins. It jumped once, dropping the nose through the horizon, and rolled left slightly. Keeping the nose down and adding power, we had flying speed in less than a thousand feet, losing no more than 1,200 feet, and I had been slow adding power. The only hard part was the physical exertion involved. As the airplane slowed down and the sink rate went past the peg, the controls lost some of their effectiveness, calling for bigger control deflections, which meant more arm muscle.
The panel itself is pretty straight forward but the console has a herd of levers, switches and buttons that have to be deciphered. The big control yoke is right against your chest during flair and the runway disappears behind the nose.
Single-engine drills in the B-25 are really fun (spoken sarcastically). One thing is certain: when an engine shuts down, there is no doubt which is the “idle foot.” My good foot was working so hard that after each hop it took several hours for my knees to stop shaking. During my multi-engine training, I remember seeing an engine feathered just once; that’s all the FAA requires. Burchinal feathered one everywhere except at the gas pump. There are only two things to remember when feathering a B-25; remember what the Vmc is for your weight, and move your fanny forward in the seat because you have to be seven feet tall for your legs to push the rudder all the way down. I found myself wedging my shoulder against the seat and practically standing on the rudder, lying sideways in the seat, right hand frantically cranking in rudder trim located at the base of the control console. Once the trim is in, the airplane is a pussycat, but if you don’t start cranking trim right off the bat, the pussycat will eat one leg, and maybe your entire lunch.
The handbook says the minimum single-engine control speed at 27,000 pounds is an incredible 126 knots (145 mph). We investigated Vmc and found that at our reduced weight of around 22,000 pounds we could fly it right down to 80 knots indicated and still hold the nose straight. Doing single-engine stalls, I got very good at leaping on that power and bringing it back quickly. You forget to reduce power only once in a power-on, stalled, engine-out situation, then the B-25 does all the talking and you do the listening.
For my first landing, we flew a wide downwind at 120 knots and I ran through the landing check as fast as I could because the airport was disappearing rapidly. Burchinal played co-pilot. I called for the gear and at the same time pushed the props up to 2200 rpm, where they would stay until we were on the ground. Mixture went to auto-rich and boost pumps went first to low, then high. By this time I was way past the airport, so I brought the power back a little and started a turn on to base. The second I started the turn, I knew what junior had been talking about when he mentioned heavy aircraft and the way they need power and don’t need steep banks. When the wing went down, the airplane started sinking immediately and I had to advance power to catch it. Not even in the Mustang did I have this feeling of being behind the airplane, of being rushed.
On base, I found myself using a lot of power just to maintain status quo, cranking in trim every few seconds. I stuck up two fingers, indicating to Burchinal I wanted half flaps, adding more power and trim. As I turned final, I stuck up four fingers for full flaps and started gently reducing power and struggling with the nose to get 110 over the fence. Then I had 110 knots and Burchinal was yelling to bring the B-25 power back. I thought he was crazy, that we’d never make the runway, but I killed the power anyway, keeping my nose pointed at the numbers, 110 knots on the gauge.
The flat top of the console has all the engine control stuff on it including the fuel boost and starter switches. The big knobs on the two forward corners are the red “feather” buttons for the props. At the bottom of the console on the floor is the landing gear lever.
I started bringing the nose up and Burchinal started yelling “Pull, pull!” He grabbed the wheel and helped me. It turned out I was flaring in the right place, but I would have touched down on all three, or just a little nose high, but I would have been too hot. Burchinal kept me pulling and we touched down with the nose in an impossibly steep nose-high attitude, completely hiding the runway.
Roll-out was arrow straight and Junior cautioned me to be very, very gentle on the brakes, because they are sensitive. My toes crept up on the top of the rudder pedals and pushed as gently as they could. Jerk! And the nose strut compressed as I nearly locked the brakes. They have double discs and just need a whisper of pressure to stop the wheel. Trying to taxi smoothly was a near impossibility.
Once we were on the taxiway, junior started telling me to call for what I wanted, meaning flaps up, cowl flaps open, and boost pumps off. I proved once and for all how calm and cool I was: In my gruffest, most professional voice, I called out, “Gear up!” It just wasn’t my day.
Takeoffs are really, really exciting-possibly even more so than in the Mustang, because you know the tricycle gear will take care of the takeoff roll and you have more time to bask in the glory of flying a bomber. In the Mustang, I was always a little too busy for sight-seeing. After making sure that everything on the quadrant was full forward and the boost pumps were on, I’d call for one-quarter flaps and start the throttles forward. As soon as the airplane is moving, the rudders are effective and you only have to touch the brakes just once before the rudders come in. The power must come up slowly to keep the prop governors from surging and you have to monitor manifold pressure to keep it under 44 inches.
Considering the amount of airplane around you, the acceleration is fantastic and the noise is even more so. There are different kinds of noise. In the Mustang, it was almost unbearable. In the B-25, it was just as loud, but it didn’t seem to bother me. It was like the difference between a rifle and a shotgun. The Merlin in the Mustang cracked and barked, but the R-2600s in the Mitchell roared like a tired lion, and had a softer, less harsh noise.
Since I knew Vmc was 80 knots, I picked the nose up at 80 knots and let the airplane run on the mains until it indicated 100 knots, lifting it off and calling for, or grabbing, the gear as soon as possible. On my second takeoff, as soon as we broke ground and I had yanked the gear up, Junior nonchalantly caged the right engine. Aside from a few frantic moments and a foot that was turning purple, the B-25 climbed out as if it didn’t even know half its engines were out.
On the type-rating check ride, Junior tossed a single-engine landing and a single-engine go-round into the same hour. Junior has a knack of working you right up to the edge of your talent, forcing you to learn as you go.
The single-engine landing was really interesting because we were five miles from the field when he punched it out. This meant I was going to have to drive it in, play with all those levers, fight the airplane, and land it as well. At first, I tried to figure out how much power it was going to take to keep us up with the gear down and half flaps, and then I remembered that I didn’t dare put the gear down until I had the runway made. The airplane won’t fly with only one engine and the gear hanging out.
Finally, I was on final, keeping it high just in case, waiting until the last second to drop the gear, remembering it would take longer to extend with just one hydraulic pump working. As soon as the gear started out and I reduced power to let the airplane down, it became just another of those pull, pull, pull kind of landings. It took nearly four hours in the B-25 before I got used to pulling so hard and getting the nose so high.
B-25s and “Catch 22”
When they made the movie of Joseph Heller’s slightly off-center anti-war movie, they unwittingly saved the lives of the majority of B-25’s still flying today.
Frank Tallman and company was task with coming up with something like 25 flying B-25’s and, in so doing, resurrected a bunch of derelicts that had only a few years left before becoming beer cans. The movie is worth seeing if nothing else to watch mass takeoffs of Mitchells from the dusty strip they hacked out of the Mexican desert.
by Budd Davisson