Red Star Over Jacksonville

Chinese aircraft are invading — sort of.

Russian made YAKS and the Chinese variant, the Nanchang CJ-6, are growing in popularity for U.S. pilots on a budget who want to own a former military aircraft, a “war bird”.

The CJ-6 was built in China as a piston aircraft trainer. It has a radial engine, which of course adds a shot of testosterone to any pilot flying it. Radial engines just sound so much better than modern aircraft engines. When those round engines start they belch smoke and fire like the growling of a dragon clearing its throat; which in this case of a Chinese airplane is an apt analogy.

When nicely restored, it is a thing of beauty.

I was recently privileged to fly the Chinese made aircraft registered as N82792, a 1976 CJ-6A with a 285 hp Huosai-6A HS6A 9 cylinder, air cooled, radial piston engine made in Russia. Its owner and pilot is Hank (Hoot) Gibson, a former Navy Aviator. Hank handled the takeoff and landing, and graciously let me fly all parts of the flight, except for the aerobatics. The CJ-6A is a nimble craft and a joy to fly.

The specifications of the CJ-6 are similar to the Cessna Centurion 210D; they are similar in size, maximum weight, and horse power. But having flown both, I can attest  that they are very different birds. The Centurion is a high speed cross country hauler, and the CJ-6 is a two seat, twisting, turning, go-to-guns combat aerobatics trainer for fighters.

The blades just behind the propeller that look like jet engine turbine blades are called gills, and open and close for temperature control of the engine during start-up, taxi and flight. The hotter the engine, the more open the gills. They are equivalent in function to cowl flaps in western aircraft.

Radial engines require a lot of care to move oil around the cylinders before start. Otherwise, oil settles in the lower cylinders leading to a hydraulic lock which bends engine parts when the engine tries to start.

The aircraft panel was confusing to me, a strange mixture of Chinese aircraft gauges placed in seemingly random pattern before the pilot. Among the instruments was the occasional English instrument, such as the airspeed indicator that read in knots instead of kilometers per hour. The artificial horizon, otherwise known as an attitude indicator was especially strange, with the normal western blue (for sky) and brown (for earth) being oriented upside down. Why it is completely the inverse of western indicators I don’t know.

Aerobatics are a lot of fun when you’re controlling the airplane. When you’re a passenger not in control, well speaking for myself, I’d say not so much.

On the first sequence of G-pulls, I became acutely aware that my stomach fat protruded a bit too far outward of my belt, and that that excess mass was trying to push itself down to my knees. Not a comfortable feeling.

I’ve pulled G’s before, but at a time when I was slimmer, and had my guts held in by a G-suit. Although I had primed myself with two Dramamine tablets, I could tell that after two sequences of various maneuvers; barrel rolls and such, that if we did anymore I’d be getting very uncomfortable indeed. I called off the aerobatics after that point, disappointing the pilot but at least sparing his aircraft.

Now, if I’d actually been performing the maneuvers myself, that would have been an entirely different matter. At least I like to think so.

Below is a video of the smoky start-up of that radial engine.

In the last video, our CJ-6 takes off. You can’t see much, but the point of the video is the sound a radial engine makes as it takes off at a relatively low RPM. Nothing else sounds like it.