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A Lifetime of Flight

A Lifetime of Flight

The tight-knit homebuilding community recently mourned the passing of legendary pilot, Captain Graham Hewitt. MIKE HOUSE explains what made Hewitt such an extraordinary aviator.

There are few people that lay claim to a life-long passion – a passion that defines much of their existence, creating their income, their hobbies and introducing them to many people. When you find such a person, it is one of life’s great pleasures, for such a person has youthful energy and enthusiasm, coupled with timeless depth of wisdom and knowledge that only come from a lifetime in pursuit of one’s dreams. Captain Graham Hewitt was one such man.

It is said that it requires 10,000 hours to be considered an expert in a field. A master has many, many more. Captain Graham Hewitt was such a master. He had over 20,000 hours of flying to his name, in over 100 types, spanning almost the full history of powered flight. He had flown Tiger Moths as a young man, clipping the trees with the wing tips in the name of youthful “precision”. He had flown DC3 mail planes into the remote Western Australian Desert. And he had spent time pushing tin as an airline captain.

At his 80th Birthday he flew a low-level aerobatics routine in the RV6 he had built. The same aircraft that he had flown single handedly from Perth to New Zealand when he was well into his 70’s.

He held his low level aero endorsement a while longer. In his birthday speech, Graham claimed aerobatics were the reason for his long and healthy life. He said, “People have told me my body is made up of millions of cells. Subjecting those cells to 20 minutes of aerobatics at least once a week ensures the little bastards fly in formation”.

Around his 82nd birthday he launched and test flew a Pietenpol Aircamper, which he had built from scratch. It was one of the more regularly flown aircraft at Serpentine Airfield where Graham was a regular member and character.

His experience as a test pilot of homebuilt aircraft made him an invaluable resource to homebuilders. His steady hand and keen observations led to significant improvements in designs and saw the ironing out of issues that may have killed lesser pilots.

I spent many hours in his shed assisting with bringing the Pietenpol to life, and deciding if I wanted to move from dreaming about aircraft building, to actually doing it, he told many stories of his memorable flights. Each contained important lessons and observations about building and flying safely.

There was the time that a Jodel D18, fresh off the builders’ table showed no pre stall signs before it stalled and snap rolled to an inverted spin. No problem, Graham returned to straight and level and repeated the performance to see if he could work out what was going on. The end result was two short triangles of spruce added to the leading edge. The aircraft now has a positive buffet and benign nose drop at the point of stall. The leading edge addition is specified in the plans as of that time.

Another incident saw him in a vertical dive with the aircraft not responding to elevator inputs. Losing height fast, and rapidly nearing VNE, Graham tried every trick he could think of to pull the aircraft out of its earthward plunge. As he worked through the range of possibilities, he reversed his last action before the descent, which was to select full flap. As soon as the flaps were retracted the new plane returned to straight and level. A retest showed the flaps had been set up with too much angle. Fully deployed, they blanked the airflow over the tail surfaces, resulting in the alarming plummet.

He had some practical wisdom on C of G and loading issues as well. Once on a routine mail run in a DC3, he was called upon to deliver a 200 litre drum of oil. Graham was concerned that the bloody thing might dislodge and fly forward in turbulence or on landing and kill him in the cockpit. With some rope and a bit of ingenuity he spent a good bit of time roping the drum into place to ensure there was no way it could move forward. Trouble was, he had done nothing about it moving backwards.

As he rotated for takeoff the drum slid all the way to the back of the aircraft, resulting in a severely aft C of G. The aircraft pitched violently upward, threatening to stall on takeoff. With considerable effort, full forward stick and full power the aircraft resumed climbing. Eventually after many experiments with trim, power and control settings, he worked out he could get the aircraft to maintain a three-point attitude. He began to think a landing might be possible. The problem was a three-point attitude was accompanied by almost full throttle and close to cruise speed. After trying a few things at altitude he eventually wrestled it onto a strip at speed and managed to pull up before the trees – no damage to him, the plane, or the oil and some big lessons learnt.

Flying with him was always a pleasure. His enthusiasm for flight, for sharing his passion and his impeccable landings in all conditions were all lessons in airmanship and camaraderie. The day before his stroke he flew in full command of his Pietenpol. No doubt the landing was spot on. Unfortunately, he spent the last few months in full care in the aftermath of the stroke, no way for a bloke used to the freedom of the skies to live.

I visited him the week before he died. He didn’t talk much but smiled at the recollection of a few of the stories mentioned above. I showed him my phone with a photo of my own aircraft under construction. He took it from me and held it close to his face. I like to imagine he was breathing life into the project. The literal meaning of “inspire” is to breathe life into something, and there’s no doubt that Graham is the inspiration for many builders out there. When I left, his typically firm handshake was firmer and longer than usual. Maybe he knew we wouldn’t be talking again.

Graham often used to say, “Think hard about every takeoff, no one ever stayed up there!”

Chocks away old mate, maybe today those rules have changed for you – endless unlimited aerobatics, with no need for refuelling or landing. I’ll certainly miss you!

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