You Bought a WHAT?

by Pierre Wildman

This article appeared in the March 2001 issue of the Falco Builders Letter.

Pierre Wildman not building his Falco, but if you're going to sin...

"You bought a WHAT?"

"A de Havilland Vampire. An ex-Swiss Air Force two-seater."


"Um, because I couldn't afford a Mosquito?"

The Mosquito is the WWII British fighter bomber that defied all conventional wisdom and soldiered on through the war serving in bomber, reconnaissance, night fighter, and a host of other roles. Of particular interest to Falco builders, it's an all-wood two-seater that is a blast to fly, and a real beauty to look at.

Crazy as it sounds, the Mosquito got me interested in the Falco. You see, I always wanted a Mosquito, and I long ago figured out the only way I'll ever have one is to build one. So I needed some experience with wood, and I'd need something to fly while I was at it, so I figured I'd build a Falco real quick and get on to the Mosquito project.

If you need an excuse for not finishing your Falco, this is as good as any.

Ahem. Reality check. Ten years later I'm still at the 10% finished stage on the Falco, and the Mosquito is never going to happen. In spite of that, I've been very lucky with my flying. My regular ride is a Cessna 421 that some West Coast Falco Fly-In folks have seen.

One day another 421-owner friend of mine called me. He said "the 421 is a great limo, but we need something FUN." It turns out he was thinking of a Christen Eagle, or Extra 300 or something. In an effort to defuse this fantasy, I offered my opinion. "Nah, forget those things. For that kind of money you want to get a jet fighter." Mark was not a warbird guy, but his "wow meter" was pegged. "Yeah, you want an ex-Swiss Airforce two-seat de Havilland Vampire." And I sent him on his way. I thought he'd superficially look into it and turn his interests elsewhere.

Swiss Air Force Vampire.

Three months later Mark called me again.

"I found it."

"You found what?"

"The Vampire you told me to find."

The situation had gotten serious. I had enough airplanes to look after, and didn't need another one. I didn't need another distraction from building my Falco. But Mark persisted, and soon we were on an airliner half way across the country to check it out. Once we were in the hangar, crawling all over it and talking to the owner, Mark said what I feared he'd say, "Buddy, we NEED this airplane!" I tried to inject reason, but to no avail. We each took a demo/training flight, and of course we were hooked. We bought it. That's when I called home with the news.

How does one get licensed to fly such an airplane? In the US, pilots must have a type rating to fly a jet. But the Vampire, a British military airplane, was never certified in the US (just like most of the other warbirds). So the FAA invented the "Letter of Authorization" (LOA) process. A pilot gets the necessary training from an authorized instructor, and the instructor recommends the FAA issue you an LOA. As you might imagine, there aren't many instructors qualified in '40's vintage jet fighters. As luck would have it, the seller was just such a person. We did a very thorough checkout and got our paperwork. Then we were able to solo the airplane. We flew it around locally for a day, and then ferried it back home to California.

I must say I have no military experience, and no prior warbird experience. I learned fast. Flying around in blue jeans is not the answer. Strapped into a parachute with stuff in your pockets gets uncomfortable real fast. There's no place to put anything. OK, get a flight suit. Pockets in all the right places, and none in the wrong places. Headsets don't work well because they fall off your head when you pull G's. Get a helmet. G-suits are pretty nice, as my un-athletic 40-something body gets worn out quickly pulling 4 to 6 G's repeatedly. So all of a sudden I ended up with all this gear.

Robin was feeling rather excluded from all this activity. What to do? Get her all the same gear so we can fly together. Ladies, you will be surprised how good you look in a flight suit. Go on and get one to wear at air shows. You won' regret it!

Flying the airplane is VERY cool. Just starting it is fun. The Vampire has a tendency to shoot flame out the jet pipe on start-up, which those outside the cockpit find entrancing. At idle it is very loud outside, but not so much inside. The nosewheel is a castering unit, and steering is done with differential braking. It's hard to make it look smooth.

By the time you're ready for takeoff, you've burned 30 gallons of Jet-A. Oh well. Push the throttle forward for takeoff and look for 10,250 RPM on the tach. It accelerates slowly at first, but then picks up as you go through 100 knots. It lifts off very smoothly, and your goal is to accelerate to 250 knots for the initial climb. Hot days make this a dicey affair on anything less than a 5000 foot runway. Once you have some speed up, it gets really fun. The controls are well harmonized, but heavier than you'd expect. Aerobatics are quite easy, but you need a lot of speed and altitude, especially for vertical maneuvers. The entry speed for a loop is 370 KIAS.

We generally do aerobatics between 10,000 and 18,000 feet. The pressurized cockpit allows you to do this without the need for oxygen, and makes it a little easier on your ears.

It also means you can go faster than 250 KIAS. Fuel burn is about 250 GPH when we're doing this. (You have to remember that this airplane was designed in 1943, and was one of the very first jets. The engines were hugely inefficient.) After an hour, we're ready to go home as we like to land with 100 gallons on board, and we've usually been pulling some G's.

Approaching the airport requires a little attention. One must heed the 250 KIAS limit below 10,000, and the 200 KIAS limit in class D airspace. Getting slowed down can be a little challenging, but speed brakes help some. Gear and flaps at 175 KIAS. No turns below 140 KIAS (stalling at low altitude is a BAD thing), and final at 125 KIAS. Touchdown at about 95 KIAS with 80 degrees of flaps. Oh, but you're not done yet, as the pneumatic brakes and castering nosewheel make the roll-out as much work as anything else.

John Harns puts on his g-suit.

I called John Harns and asked him "How long has it been since you've flown a jet fighter?".

"Hmmm, about 30 years. Why do you ask?"

When I explained that I'd like to fly with someone who flew this sort of airplane before (John had flown straight wing jet fighters for the Navy), he was all ears. He flew down a few weeks later, and we went flying. What a pleasure! John was in the groove almost immediately. He showed me a few things, and I found him to be every bit as smooth as he is in his Falco. We flew down to Hollister to meet up with Larry Black and Dan Dorr and have some lunch. We took the long way home and ended up doing barrel rolls over Yosemite National Park. Half Dome looks quite nice inverted! A week later, his wife Pat sent me a thank-you note. Reading between the lines, I'm guessing that rocking and rolling in a jet for a day is a good alternative to Viagra! (Just teasing, John.)

The Vampire is no Falco, but it's great fun anyway. I guess if I'm not finishing my Sequoia Slingshot fast enough I had better have a good reason. I'll leave it to my Falco peers to judge if this is an acceptable one. In the meantime, I think I'll head out to the garage and make some sawdust.