“What is it?” Her question didn’t sound as if she was asking what TYPE of
airplane it was. She was asking what that… that thing… standing on the
grass like a giant aluminum praying mantis was. If I’d told her it was the
aeroclub’s motorized lawnmower, she would have believed me. And if not for those magazine and internet articles, I would’ve believed me too.
I’ve been keeping this Polished 😀 jewel as a secret weapon. One of the BEST aviation tales I’ve ever read.
Kevin e-mailed me this letter in November, 2003. Nearly five years ago. I have his permission to post it here, as I am certain it will be gut-wrenchingly hilarious for all of you , too!
Kevin is a fellow pilot and Cessna owner, one of the best writers and story-tellers I know. I first met him in 2000 in the PFSG Forum. The next time we met he let me fly his airplane (3 years before I got my PPL; he let Carlo fly his airplane on their FIRST meeting.) I count him as one of my fast friends, and his website is linked in our Special Friends section, above. Kevs is destined for bigger things in his aviation career.
Please welcome Kevin to Flying in Crosswinds, and enjoy his GREAT story about flying!
MY POLISH DATE
Enclosing pictures of my Polish date. Her name is Wilga (Pronounced Vihl-gah). Really ugly but very sweet. And I am totally in love.
We were passing through the town of Nowy Targ on the way to Zakopane when I saw a plane crossing over the highway, apparently on final to a nearby field. We pulled over and asked a local, who told us there was a glider club in town. Hmmm… . it wasn’t 2 PM yet and we were only 22 kms short of Zakopane. The hotel wasn’t expecting us until 4 PM. The sun was still high over the horizon and it was a beautiful day.
I made a quick U-turn and like a bloodhound locked onto a scent, headed in the direction of the airfield. We soon found ourselves driving up to a vast meadow with a line of pine trees at its margins. On the southern edge stood a hangar marked “AEROKLUB NOWY TARG”. Beside it stood the clubhouse, topped with a mini-tower cab.
Outside the hangar, laid down on the grass like model aircraft, sat three ivory-white sailplanes, tipped over on their sleek, long wings. Their streamlined shapes and glass-smooth composite finish gave the impression they were hardly capable of disturbing a molecule of air in flight.
But my eyes quickly passed those over for what sat beyond. Parked only a few meters away was the ugliest contraption to ever take to the skies (next only to the Airbus A340). After years of seeing it only in pictures on magazine articles, I was finally face-to-spinner with a real live PZL-104 Wilga!
“Quick,” I told Joy as I moved towards the Wilga, “take my picture!”
“What is it?” Her question didn’t sound as if she was asking what TYPE of airplane it was. She was asking what that… that thing… standing on the grass like a giant aluminum praying mantis was. If I’d told her it was the aeroclub’s motorized lawnmower, she would have believed me. And if not for
those magazine and internet articles, I would’ve believed me too.
Much has been said and written about how ugly the Wilga is. And now standing in front of one I couldn’t help but shake my head at just how so true it all was. The corrugated fuselage looked like it was made out of Oscar The Grouch’s garbage can–that the right-hand passenger step looked like a trash bin cover only reinforced the notion. The expansive windshield stood almost straight up, just like a tricycle sidecar’s windshield. The wing, with its fixed slats, strakes, corrugation, flap hinges and external mass balances, looked as aerodynamic as a drawbridge.
I noticed the leading edge was coated with the splattered remains of thousands of insects. They probably thought the Wilga was one of their own and didn’t get out of the way until too late.
The bent-knee trailing-link landing gear conspires with the rest of the airframe to encourage the praying mantis image. They look massive enough to support an Airbus, and do much for the plane’s ability to operate from unimproved fields. It is said you can drive the Wilga up and over a sidewalk
This particular Wilga, SP-EAB, was a model 35. That is, it had the original Ivchenko 260-HP radial, not the wimpy flat-six Lycomings and Continentals the manufacturer later hung in front to attract Western sales. As with Russian radials, it had iris-like cooling shutters that could be closed all the way to guard against freezing temperatures. And no self-respecting radial wouldn’t be without oil leaking all over the belly. The large paddle-type prop blades looked wide enough to row the Titanic across the Atlantic.
I was convinced there are three reasons for the Wilga’s STOL performance: First, it has a powerful 260-HP engine; second, it has fixed leading-edge slats, slotted flaps and drooping ailerons; third, it is so ugly the earth repels it.
The Wilga served as the aeroclub’s glider tug, a role for which it is supremely suited given its powerful engine, STOL performance and slow-flight prowess. In its other guises, the plane has been used for border patrol, crop spraying and even clandestine flights to insert spies–as the CIA did in Poland and East Germany.
You might think of the Wilga as a Helio Courier in caricature. Or a Tonka Fiesler Storch. Or a Flying Polish Joke.
Call it what you may, but for all its undisputed ugliness, I couldn’t help but feel drawn to the plane much in the same way one is drawn to a pug–it is so ugly it’s actually lovable.
We were hustled into the office of the club manager. With Uncle Steve translating, I was told I could go up right away. HOT DOG!!! The price seemed reasonable enough, so a deal was struck. I met up with the instructor, a pleasant fellow who introduced himself as Krzysztof–“Christopher” he quickly added, in case I couldn’t pronounce his Polish name.
We walked out to the plane and clambered up–and I do mean UP–into the cavernous cabin. Uncle Steve also decided to come along and climbed into the cabin with the agility of a man much younger than his 70 years. Somewhat winded at the effort, I found myself seated in the right front seat. I’d just belted myself in when Chris cranked up the engine. With a hiss and a wheeze (pneumatic starter) and finally a bang, the radial burst into life and settled into a deep-throated rumble. The smell of exhaust and burnt oil wafted into the cabin, mixing with the faint smell of sweat, tired fabric and other trappings of a working plane. As we sat there waiting for the engine to warm up (minimum 100* C, Chris explained), I took in the instrument panel. The gauges looked familiar, but only that. The altimeter was in meters, the VSI in meters/second and airspeed in Km/H. Everything was in Polish. The only English words were on a plate on the left hand panel that said, “MADE IN POLAND”. The instruments were scattered about the panel in no logical sequence I could discern. I could just imagine the scene at the assembly line: one worker throws all the instruments into the cabin and a second one bolts them in where they fall. I couldn’t spend too much time trying to translate the gauges–the vibration had reduced the entire panel to a dizzy blur.
With a burst of engine power, we taxied out. We were in a large meadow and I couldn’t see any runway marked out. Chris simply moved us out a short distance from the ramp and faced the wind. A few hundred meters in front of us sat a grassy knoll and a stand of pine trees. We were going to take off
from here? Yes we were! After a short run-up, Chris reached up and clicked in 21 degrees on the flap lever (mounted at the left hand wing root, right around where the soda-can air vent on the 152 is). I took note of the drooped ailerons.
Then he turned to me and asked, “Would you like to do the takeoff?”
Gulp. I hadn’t logged time in a taildragger since 1997. “Uh, I think you should follow me on the controls to be safe.”
“Tak. Dobsze.” Yes. No problem.
So I leaned waaay forward to get to the throttle. Poles must have really long arms for though I had the seat adjusted to where my legs could operate the rudder pedals, I could barely reach the throttle.
I sucked the joystick back into my gut–yes, a joystick, for the Wilga is a REAL PLANE flown by REAL MEN–and gingerly added power, at the same time adding a touch of right pedal in anticipation of torque.
Just as Eastern-bloc planes are different in the way their instruments read, they are also different in the way their engines turn. Russian-built radials (or at least the Ivchenko) turn in the opposite direction. Therefore, torque and p-factor are all the “wrong way”. I was somewhat surprised when the plane swung strongly to the right. I countered with left rudder and the Wilga swung back onto the proper heading. By this time I had the throttle all the way forward and the plane was charging down the meadow, straight at the grassy knoll–and the tall pine trees that were only growing taller by the second.
I kept the Wilga in a three-point attitude and before I could settle down after the wrong-foot routine, the plane levitated into the air. Levitated is the correct word. It didn’t claw its way up into the sky on engine power. It certainly had the oomph to do it, but the rather unaerodynamic-looking wing
produced a surprising amount of lift. The fixed slats, slotted flaps and drooping ailerons really worked. We seemed to float off the ground after a ground run of not more than 300 feet, and I wasn’t even trying.
As we vaulted over the trees with plenty of room to spare, Chris ratcheted the flaps up, throttled back slightly and sat back with his arms folded, feet on a sill just below his seat, knees drawn up almost to his stomach. With a recommendation that I climb at 100 to 120 kph, he left me to my own devices.
I departed the pattern and steered us south. Joy and Uncle Steve had their heads on a swivel, marveling at the verdant, snow-patched landscape. Only 10 miles away, the snow-capped Tatra Mountains thrust majestically into the horizon, their faces glistening golden-white in the afternoon sun. The generously-proportioned windows, which looked like they were taken out of a tour bus, made the plane a perfect sightseeing vehicle.
And I was delighting in flying the Wilga.
The radial rumbled along almost effortlessly as we climbed at a strong 3 to 4 meters per second. I tried out the controls and found the plane to be light in pitch and heavy in roll. Heavy, but not sloppy.
Chris told me to level off at 1,000 meters (the altimeter was set at QFE). I eased the stick forward, lowered the nose and reached for the trim wheel. Er… where was the trim wheel? Chris leaned back to show me where it was– all the way on the left sidewall. He took the controls, trimmed the plane and
handed it back to me.
Once trimmed the plane was rock-steady. I looked at the airspeed indicator and it wasn’t a hair above 140 kph. A Cessna 152 could walk away from us. The drive to the field was faster–the BMW had easily topped 170 kph on the highway. But hey, I wasn’t in a hurry to get anywhere!
Even so, I bumped the throttle up to see what would happen. The engine grew louder, the vibrations increased, but the ASI needle hardly budged. I read somewhere about top speed being 195 kph, but they probably got this figure with the plane pointed straight down. And the engine at full power. The
official PZL website doesn’t quote a top speed at all.
I don’t remember what the engine RPM was. As a matter of fact, I wasn’t really sure where the tach was. I was flying the thing by feel, and the Wilga gives the pilot a lot of feedback.
“If you give me a moment, I will show you a nice castle.” I gave the controls back to Chris. He suddenly trimmed the nose down and dove the Wilga towards a lake. Oh yes, there was a castle all right, growing larger and larger on our windscreen. I took note of the airspeed. It hadn’t gone much past 160 kph. He took us down to about 100 meters (I had started to think metric) and then pivoted the plane on its wingtip. Joy was making faces in the back, signaling me to stop throwing the plane around. But Chris was showing off what the Wilga could do and I was enjoying the ride. We buzzed the lake at only 30 meters or so, passed by the ruins of another 14th century castle on the opposite bank, stood on a wingtip and came back around. He handed the controls back to me and I stayed at the same height, skipping above the treetops and small villages along the way. It’s always great to do a buzz job on someone else’s license.
We turned back to the field and climbed to 200 meters. Minutes later, Nowy Targ hove into view. We were perfectly positioned to enter a right downwind for Runway 09, Chris said. They actually had runway headings here?
“100 to 120 on downwind is okay,” said Chris.
I pinched the throttle back–if I actually moved it back any appreciable amount we’d fall out of the sky. I maintained 120 as we turned base over the highway. Just over an hour earlier I’d seen this same plane in this same piece of sky, and now here I was.
Chris put in half flaps. I countered with forward stick and then released pressure as the plane slowed to 100 kph. The plane nudged into a gentle descent. We turned finals.
“Where’s the runway?” All I could see was a large, open field ahead of me.
“Oh, you can land anywhere you want.”
“You’re sure you’re letting me land?” It’s always better to screw up on someone else’s license.
I turned the Wilga parallel to the flight line. Pine trees guarded the threshold, and that same grassy knoll stood at the far end. I could’ve moved a bit farther out where there was a long, unobstructed strip of grass, but I was by now feeling confident enough with the plane to land close to the “ramp”.
Full flaps, one final check of the ASI: 90 kph. You’d be antsy flying a 152 at that speed, but the Wilga was rock-solid. Stall speed is 62 kph, or around 35 kts. I had plenty of margin.
Throttle squeezed back a little more as we crossed over the pine trees. When it seemed we were at about the right height, I eased the stick back and slowly brought the power back. With a faint rumble the Wilga settled gently onto the grass in a perfect three-pointer. Chris nodded his approval. A few gentle taps on the rudder pedal to keep us straight, and I had to add power to get to the hangar. We could’ve gotten down and stopped in a ridiculously short distance if we had even half-tried. It was almost like landing a chopper.
Once again in front of the hangar, Chris pulled the mixture back and the engine clattered to a stop. Sigh. It was over too soon. I couldn’t wipe that S.E.G. off my face.
“You fly the Wilga very well,” said Chris. The S.E.G. grew even wider.
“This is so much fun it should be outlawed!”
We piled out of the plane and posed for a few more pictures. I particularly like the one with the Wilga in the foreground and the Tatras in the distance.
Walking back to the clubhouse, I spied a beautiful blue Antonov An-2 tucked away in one corner of the hangar.
I think my next date will be Russian.
Posted from Bangkok, Thailand, April 17, 2008