It started with a twenty-minute ride in the back seat 23 years ago. And it ended, after 21 years of ownership, 1900 hours in type, several hundred airshows and more fun than most people can dream of, with a final takeoff from KFCI this past January
Gordon Bowers’ T-28, a 1955 Navy trainer with a growling radial engine, high stance and military livery, is now history at Chesterfield County. But it’s a history he delights in telling.
“Insanity is the basic concept,” he laughed, seated in the office-workshop he’s built in his hangar, amid the parts for his next project. “Dave Hudson, my AME and a friend, called me up and said, ‘Would you like to go for a ride in a T-28?’ I said, ‘What’s a T-28?’”
At that point Bowers had been flying for 20 years and had logged 1,400 to 1,500 hours. A Maryland native educated as a mechanical engineer, he’d moved here to escape the Washington traffic and launched a financial planning practice. Prior to the T-28, he recalled, “I’d never flown anything with a canopy, or a control stick, or more than 300 horsepower, or a supercharger. It was culture shock.” But after that one twenty-minute ride, he was hooked. He spent the next year and a half finding the one he would buy.
“The T-28,” he explained, “is arguably the most complex piston-powered single-engine airplane ever made. It has … four separate DC buses plus an AC bus, with automatic load shedding, on-board oxygen, an extensive hydraulic system, even plumbing for anti-G suits – all 1950’s technology. The engine, a Wright R-1820, has a two-speed supercharger and … it’ll take you to 37,000 feet.
“To fly it is indescribable. It’s an absolute delight. It’s like a great big Cherokee, stable and forgiving. It’s designed to be a trainer, not to kill the students. The complex part is to maintain control of all the systems and to manage the powerplant. It’s reliable, but it’s not tolerant of abuse … and it’s easy to abuse.
“If you get 1,000 hours from the engine in the real world, you’re doing well – but you should get 2,000. The problem is that these planes change hands and there’s always somebody on the wrong side of the learning curve.”
For three decades, the T-28 was the primary trainer for the Navy and Marines. “Every naval aviator from the mid ‘50’s to the mid ‘80’s did his carrier qualifications in the T-28,” Bowers said. It saw combat in Southeast Asia “before we admitted we were there.” Almost 2,000 were built, of which perhaps 200 – “nobody knows for sure” – are still flying.
“It’s an overpowered airplane,” Bowers explained. The A model had an 800-hp engine. “But the Navy wanted to deck launch without a catapult, so they upped it to 1,425 hp in the B model, [which Bowers flew]. The C model added a tailhook. It would out-climb the jets of its day and it will out-climb and out-turn a P-51 Mustang.”
Maintenance was what you’d expect for such a complex airplane. Bowers recalls five hours in the hangar for every hour flying. “But the basic stuff is off the shelf. I have all the manuals, and they take you step by step through everything that needs to be done. I did the simple stuff myself, and we’d go to Punta Gorda, Florida, for the heavy maintenance. There’s a shop there that does nothing but T-28’s and they have the largest inventory of spares on the planet.”
For the last 13 years, Becky Luther, formerly head of Dominion Aviation’s flight school, has done much of the T-28 flying. Now she’s joining Bowers in his next aviation adventure.
From the complex and powerful T-28, the pair are transitioning to Ercoupes – two of which they’re refitting and dressing up for their return to the airshow circuit. One will be painted like Bowers’ T-28 and the other like a current Air Force trainer. Instead of aerobatics, “we’ll have static displays and tell people about the planes.”
Why the Ercoupe? “It started as a backup to potentially losing my medical,” Bowers explained. “We all lose it eventually. I wanted a vintage airplane that could qualify as a Light Sport, and I didn’t want a taildragger.”
The Ercoupe is a unique airplane. Designed in the 1930’s, it has no rudder pedals, it can’t spin and the stall is “a non-event,” Bowers explained. “The systems are stone simple.
“I’m 71 and I have other things I want to do besides live at the hangar. The Ercoupe will help me do that. You can go fly, push it into the hangar and go home.
“The two Ercoupes, running at full cruise power, will burn three-quarters the fuel that the T-28 burned idling on the ground. In total displacement, the Ercoupe’s whole engine is smaller than one cylinder on the T-28 and produces two-thirds the horsepower. Each Ercoupe when fully restored – including entirely new instrument panels – will have cost about what it costs just to overhaul the engine on the T-28.”
And both will fit into the hangar that until recently was home to the T-28.
Though it’s finished now, Bowers clearly treasures his T-28 adventure. “It was an intense activity,” he recalled, “but it was also a privilege. We were flying a piece of history.”