For someone who had boyhood daydreams of chasing down MiGs over the Yalu River, the very thought of taking flight in a Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star seems like sheer fantasy.
I mean, who even has one of these Korean War–era fighter jets anymore? And—more importantly—who’d be willing to take an enthusiastic aviation buff for a ride?
As it turns out, there’s one in the area this weekend for the Abbotsford International Airshow (August 10 to 12). What’s more, it seems a press card and some polite but insistent requests can still work wonders: before I know it, a media flight is arranged on a two-seat T-33 trainer variant, nicknamed the Ace Maker II.
When I pull into the grounds of Abbotsford International Airport, the airshow is getting ready for its big weekend, and the place is a hive of activity. Planes are arriving, tents and concession stands are being set up, and there’s a lot of general hustle and bustle. The flight line is already crowded with the Blue Angels’ seven F/A-18 Hornets, along with two A-10 Warthogs. And there, gleaming in the midday sun, is the Ace Maker, the airplane I’m going to hitch a ride on. With mid-century retro-futuristic design and looking like it’s doing Mach 2 sitting still, it’s a humbling sight to see in person.
The Ace Maker’s pilot, Rob “Scratch” Mitchell, strolls over and introduces himself. He has the friendly bearing of a real fighter jock and membership in one of the world’s most exclusive fraternities. With chapters in places like Cold Lake, Pensacola, Virginia Beach, and the high desert of Edwards Air Force base—not to mention heaving and rolling carrier flight decks all over the world—fighter pilots are most certainly a breed apart, masters of working in the extremes of speed, altitude, and performance.
“I went into the air force with two goals,” Scratch explains. “I wanted to be a fighter pilot, and I wanted to be a Snowbird pilot, and I was very lucky that I was able to do both.”
A retired RCAF lieutenant-colonel, the Vancouver-based Scratch is a third-generation pilot (his grandfather was a Spitfire pilot during World War II) and has logged over 6,500 hours of flight time. He has flown everything from a CF-18 Hornet to a Boeing 737, and has served as the team lead pilot for the Snowbirds precision aerobatic team.
He’s also an actor and filmmaker, producing and directing such shows as Airshow and Highway Thru Hell, and serves as a technical aviation advisor for a number of TV shows and movies. Currently, he’s working a new series, Scratch Mitchell’s Jet Fuel, which chronicles his life as an aviator, a filmmaker, and a wilderness aircraft-wreck hunter.
When asked how this abrupt change in professions came about, he chuckles.
“I had a number of F-18 buddies ask, ‘What the heck do you know about film and television?’ And I replied that, as the Snowbird commander, I really already was a producer. I had resources, people, and a creative twist— the skills transfer directly. I think there’s something about the brain being able to grab the abstract of three dimensions as a fighter pilot that’s very creative. It’s a left-brain, right-brain balance.”
A real piece of aviation history, the Shooting Star has a storied past. The first operational jet fighter in the U.S. air force, it was designed and built during an incredible 143-day turnaround in 1943, part of a crash effort to catch up with Nazi jet technology. It saw very limited service in the waning months of World War II, but its real glory days came during the early part of the Korean War, when it took part in the first jet-versus-jet dogfight in history, besting a MiG-15 in November, 1950.
It was a different era of aerial combat, the last time pilots would actually face each other down in visual range, and dogfight with guns and cannons. Before long, the Shooting Star would be overtaken by an all-new generation of supersonic fighters, equipped with radar intercepts and air-to-air missiles. Aerial combat would henceforth take place with opposing combatants miles apart, sight unseen.
As far as Shooting Stars go, the Ace Maker has a surprisingly Canadian pedigree. Assembled in Montreal in 1954, this model was one of 656 T-33s built under licence by Canadair. And, as Scratch reveals, this particular airplane was the very last flying T-33 to be retired by the RCAF, back in 2002.
But enough history—as Scratch says, channeling Elvis, “A little less conversation, a little more action,” and it’s time to take to the air.
First, however, I have to get into the T-33. There’s really no graceful way to do it, I have to awkwardly hoist myself up and over the wing, and then shoehorn my middle-aged and well-fed frame into the very snug cockpit. After I’m fastened into the five-way harness on the ejector seat, on goes the helmet, facemask, and oxygen and radio connectors. When I’m finally settled in, I can’t help but think of John Glenn’s old chestnut about the cramped Mercury spacecraft—that you don’t get in it so much as put it on.
At this point, Scratch gives instruction on what to do should we need to eject (keep shoulders, arms, and legs away from the cockpit frame), and notes that the T-33 can be a remarkably good glider should we suffer engine failure. This is actually very reassuring, as I had just been wondering what would happen if there’s a flame-out in the aircraft’s single engine.
Next, Scratch lights up the Ace Maker’s Rolls-Royce power plant, and begins his go/no-go check of the aircraft’s systems. There’s no mistaking that the engine’s 5,100 pounds of thrust mean serious business—it’s like a throaty growl combined with a high-pitch whine, which Scratch compares to Godzilla’s roar.
When everything checks out, we taxi over to the runway. As soon as we’re given the all-clear by the tower, Scratch throttles up the engine and the entire airframe strains against the brakes. At full power, he releases the brakes and we’re off like shot, wheels-up and into the sky in what seems like no time.
Flight in a jet fighter is an amazing feeling, completely different than flight in a commercial airliner or any other small plane. For one, there’s this sense of power—you never forget that your body is essentially straddling one giant engine—but there’s also a definite sense of exactitude in the aerodynamics. There are no big, lazy turns; manoeuvres are tight and precise, and everything in the airplane is completely performance-oriented.
Perhaps sensing a twinge of apprehension on my part, Scratch at first keeps his aerobatics simple, with some gentle wingovers and banks. We head east out of Abbotsford and there are truly incredible views of the Fraser Valley and the Cascade foothills, and before long, Mount Baker seems close enough to touch. As a passenger, the speed—at this point about 250 mph—at which the jet covers ground seems incredible.
But this isn’t just a sightseeing trip, and now it’s time for Scratch to give me an idea of what the jet can do. He puts the Ace Maker into a victory roll, and as the bottom drops out of my stomach I simultaneously feel a sense of complete exhilaration. This is flying; this is what being a pilot is all about.
Even though I can’t really see Scratch in the seat ahead of me—the back of his ejector seat obscures most of my forward interior view—I can feel his joy in flying too. It’s in his voice over the radio, and it positively radiates throughout the cockpit. It’s clear this isn’t just Scratch’s job, but his passion, and his life.
Scratch puts the Ace Maker into a hard bank, and we pull five Gs. (To give you an idea how strong a force this is, space shuttle astronauts experience about three Gs at launch.) My body is pinned to the seat, the bottom of my stomach drops out again, and it’s near-impossible to lift my hands off my knees. It’s the strangest feeling, but yes, it’s once again amazingly exhilarating.
Once we level out, Scratch asks if I’d like to take the stick and try flying the Ace Maker myself.
Yes, it turns I did hear that right. And since the T-33 is a two-seat trainer, there’s a stick in front of me, and I tentatively take it, nudging it ever so slightly to the left. The airplane responds immediately, with a smooth, slight bank.
“The T-33’s all direct pushrods and cables,” Scratch says, “not fly-by-wire, computer-controlled like the F-18. There’s a purely direct interface with the flight controls, you have to do it all yourself. This is classic stick-and-rudder flying!”
A former flight instructor, Scratch encourages me to experiment a bit. I bank to the right, then back to the left. Cautiously, I push the stick forward slightly and we nose down, I ease back and we pull up. I try some combinations—left and forward, then right and back, and the Ace Maker responds in kind. Talk about an amazing feeling—I’m actually flying! And for one brief, shining moment I am a fighter pilot, never mind that I have no idea how to take off, land, or do any one of a thousand other things necessary to successfully operate an airplane.
Sadly, it’s then time to return the airport. Scratch retakes the stick and we loop around back west, and begin our descent. The flight has been so exciting and wondrous that it seems like we were in the air for maybe five minutes, but Scratch reveals that we’d been up for almost 25 minutes. Time really does fly when you’re having fun.
When we’re finally back on terra firma and relaxing as the Ace Maker cools down, Scratch congratulates me and gives me one of his personal challenge coins. It’s a warm gesture, and deeply appreciated. From now on, that coin will always serve as a reminder of an incredible flight, and the glorious day I briefly took the controls of a fighter jet.
The Abbotsford Air Show runs through Sunday (August 10 to 12), with the T-33 Shooting Star performing tonight, Saturday, and Sunday. For more information, please see www.abbotsfordairshow.com/.