May 24, 2012
Metropolitan State University of Denver
Assistant professor takes to the skies in a made-in-China plane
|Tanya Gatlin prepares to leave a Houston airport in the Chinese-built CJ6.|
Tanya Gatlin (’96) has been flying for 22 years, earning a pilot’s license before she could legally drive. So delivering a plane from Houston to Pontiac, Mich., would be no big deal.
Except this was no ordinary plane and, as it turned out, no routine flight.
The plane she would fly is a 41-year-old CJ6, the Chinese version of a post- World War II military trainer used by the Soviet Air Forces. Gatlin, an assistant professor in the Department of Aviation and Aerospace Science, head coach of the Precision Flight Team, and former NASA communications specialist who helped train space shuttle crews, was asked by a close friend who owns an airplane maintenance shop to deliver the plane to its owner in Pontiac.
“I said, ‘Sure, no problem.’ ”
The fixes had been made, the plane was airworthy but the CJ6 had sat on the ground for 15 months. Gatlin had never flown a plane like this but could only squeeze in about 20 minutes of training in a similar aircraft because of insurance red tape. She took off and landed with, well, flying colors.
Then it was wheels up and 1,100 or so miles to go.
To prepare for takeoff, Gatlin had to turn the propeller 10 revolutions to drain residual oil from the engine in order to prevent damage to a piston or a rod. The cramped cockpit is shielded by a glass canopy that isn’t entirely windproof. The instruments are metric—and labeled in Chinese.
“I felt confident. I knew I’d be Ok, but did I feel comfortable? No.”
|Gatlin had to turn the propeller 10 revolutions to drain residual oil and prevent damage to the engine.|
She left Houston on May 9 headed first to Memphis for a fill-up, then to Indianapolis and on to Pontiac. It was an uneventful flight if you don’t count a mysterious engine noise, a pair of unplanned landings and a run-in with lousy weather.
The plane holds 64 gallons of fuel and the aircraft documents indicate it burns about 15 gallons an hour. But about 34 miles from her destination on the first leg, the engine started sputtering, possibly signally that the plane was low on fuel or some other issue. She hit the “nearest” button on her GPS and found an airport two miles off the left wing. Unplanned landing No. 1.
Gatlin fueled the plane, added a couple of quarts of oil and took off. Soon, the oil pressure gauge showed the level was “below where it should be but it wasn’t continuing to drop.” She decided to push on, keeping her eyes glued on the oil gauge.
“Two and a half hours is a long time when you’re staring at needles and staring at instruments and praying and hoping they don’t go any lower. It’s an emotional wear on you. It is so exhausting.”
About 40 miles from Indianapolis, she encountered thunderstorms. Enough. She made unplanned landing No. 2 in Bloomington, Ind., where she checked into a hotel for the night and completed her journey—without incident—the next day.
So, why did she take on what she now calls “an adventure?”
“If I didn’t think I could do it, I never would have gotten in there,’’ she says of the plane. “I knew it was going to stress me and I knew it was going to push my boundaries but I still wanted to do it because that’s what makes you a better pilot.”
It’s an experience she’s sure to share with her students.