The Nangchang CJ6A as we get ready to leave Victoria Regional after our VFR cross country from Houston Gulf.

-- Introducing the CJ6A --

    The Nangchang CJ6A is still a little unusual in the West. This is because it is the Chinese Air Force's primary instrument trainer. It still carries out this role with the Chinese Air Force, and they are still produced today. However, the Chinese periodically sell them off, and they typically end up in the United States when this happens. (Typically in countries like England, Russian aircraft are bought by private buyers rather than Chinese). The CJ6A is the Chinese version of the Russian Yak-18. It is quite similar looking to the Yak 52 (see my Flying in England pages for pictures of a Yak 52), however, there are many differences (different wing, different landing gear, different tail - and these are the things you can see). Things that may strike you as unusual are all the systems are pneumatic (gear and flaps) and the gyros are a little bit different. The DG in a Western aircraft has a card that rotates with heading. However, the DG in the CJ6 has a pointer that moves, and a card that can be rotated with a knob. Also the attitude indicator (artificial horizon) appears to be 'upside down' with the brown on the top, and the blue underneath. This is because it's the simplest way to make an AI that can remain accurate in all attitudes (think of the way the physical gyro tilts as you pitch - in a normal AI you have to have some sort of gearing to have the blue part on the top).

    The CJ6 in question is owned by a friend and fellow member of the BAAC, John Sollinger. He frequently takes friends flying in it - I think in the three or four months he has had it, he's put around 100 hours on it! I happened to bump into him on a nice, sunny winter morning, and we had the great idea of running down to Victoria to visit Leo's Food Lot where most excellent burgers are served. I took the back seat (where incidentally, the instruments are all metric - the front seat instruments all used to be too, but some have been replaced) and I was to be the navigator for the trip. This aircraft has no NAV instruments (aside from the DG) so it was navigation by pure pilotage and dead reckoning. We'd swap roles halfway through the flight too, and I'd get to fly from the back seat. We'd also do some upside down flying too!

-- In Flight --

This is me doing the gruntwork. With a radial engine, it's necessary to pull the prop through by hand to get the oil out of the bottom cylinder.
    John preflighted the plane, and I performed a ritual that many radial engine pilots will be familiar with. You need to pull the prop through by hand. With the CJ, you need to pull it through nine blades first, then prime the engine, then pull the prop through a further six blades. It's a reasonable workout! Notice in the picture the pitch of the blades, and think which way the prop will rotate with the engine running. It runs the opposite way to the usual Lycoming/Continental engines. This means you need left rudder on takeoff. The engine is 285 hp, attached to a constant speed prop, so a reasonable amount of left rudder is required. Also notice the gill shutters which are used for the same purpose as cowl flaps - to modify the airflow through the engine so the right amount of cooling is performed.

    Once we were ready to start, I got my parachute on and got myself strapped into the back seat. The back seat is the instructor pilot's position, so I had control of the magnetos and gyros. On John's request, I switched on the mags, and when we had the engines running, the gyros. There is nothing that beats the sound of a radial engine rumbling along!

Front panel Back panel

The front and rear panels.

    Looking at the back panel, it's mostly original. The picture is of the primary instruments. All of them are in metric, so I had to do a bit of mental arithmetic on the parts I flew to ensure I was at a valid VFR altitude (I'd just confirm with John to be sure). Notice the big white line running up the center of the panel. The Chinese students were taught unusual attitude recovery by first lining up the control stick with this line then to figure out what to do next.

    I was the navigator until we were clear of the Houston Class B airspace. Then the fun began - we did some aerobatics! John demonstrated how to do a simple aileron roll, then let me do a couple of my own. It's a lot of fun, especially since the visibility through the canopy is so good. I then took the stick the rest of the way to Victoria. We just stuck on the heading we were on since it had worked out pretty well so far, and soon enough Highway 59 and Lake Texana came into view. Hwy 59 leads directly to Victoria so it wasn't hard from then on.
Flying an aileron roll on the way to Victoria Regional.

Victoria Regional
Victoria Regional hoves into view. Like many large GA airfields in Texas, it's an old WWII bomber base.

    Unfortunately we found that we had got to Victoria too late for Leo's, so we decided to search for food at Brazoria County, which is sort of in the right direction for home. Frustratingly, their restaurant was closed too! So we decided to do some more aerobatics and head for home. I got to fly a bit more on this leg, and I found the CJ very pleasant to fly. The control forces aren't too stiff, and there's no need to be ham-fisted with the stick. Gentle pressures will manoever the aircraft just fine. We also did some loops, spins and rolls. This is of course the most fun. The spin was quite interesting. The CJ has no stall horn, however, it has very adequate stall warning - the back canopy starts to rattle and shake! It spins very well, the whole airframe rattling and shuddering as the turbulent airflow from the stalled wings flows over the aircraft...

Spin Loop

A spin and a loop. Notice that things are choppy in a spin - there's a little bit of camera shake.

    The trip was a great deal of fun, and an excellent introduction to the CJ6A. If you can get a chance to fly one - it's definitely worth your time. The fun factor is very high!

Front view of the CJ. The plane in the background is a King Air. I think we had much more fun than the King Air pilots!

-- From the Front Seat --

  During May and July of 1999, John let me fly the CJ a bit more comprehensively than on our Victoria trip. He'd learned to fly it from the back seat, and was now letting pilot friends fly from the front. In the process I got to do some touch and goes down at Galveston, as well as learn how to start it.

  Starting is quite a bit different from starting your average Cessna or Piper. After the obligitory 9 hand-swings of the prop to get the oil out of the bottom cylinders of the engine, you then have to prime it. First, fuel must be pumped up from the tanks. To the right is a handle for the wobble pump. You pump this a few strokes, watching for an indication of fuel pressure on the fuel pressure gauge. Priming then starts by unlocking the primer, which is to your right side, and pumping it once for each blade that the prop is pulled - this must be done six times. I pumped and John pulled the prop through. Once this stage was complete, you can start the engine. The airplane must be configured right - main air valve open (for the pneumatics), gill shutters open, and the oil cooler 3/4 of the way open. The mixture is set full rich and the prop full forward, and the throttle is opened a little. Then comes the time where you need three hands. You press the start button with your left hand. This activates the pneumatic starter. As the prop blade passes through vertical, you pump the primer with your right hand. This is done until the engine fires (which is normally after two blades). You then have to quickly grab the stick with your right hand to hold the brakes - the wheel brakes are activated by a lever on the stick. At the same time, you set the throttle so it idles correctly, then lock the primer. Then the mixture needs to be leaned a touch. All this happens within a couple of seconds!

  Taxiing is quite interesting. Like a Grumman, the nosewheel freely casters. This means that you have to positively stop all turns. There are no toe-brakes either. To get differential braking, you squeeze the brake lever full in whilst fully pressing the rudder pedal in the direction you want to turn. It takes a little getting used to! The rudder is actually quite effective, so at a moderate taxi speed you can actually steer a little without braking. After this, the run-up is pretty normal - the prop is cycled, the mags are checked, and the temperatures/pressures are checked. Once on the runway, you have to remember to use LEFT rudder since the prop turns the opposite direction to the typical flat-fours and sixes in most piston singles. However, this isn't really difficult to remember - I found I just applied whatever rudder was needed to keep it straight.

Front panel - in flight
The front panel, taken whilst in-flight. Note the attitude indicator. We are not inverted - the AI is 'reverse sense' in pitch.

  Visibility-wise, I found the front of the CJ to be slightly better than a Piper Arrow - the forward visibility is about the same but the side visibility is better because it's a tandem-seat rather than side by side layout. Of course, in a turn, having a clear canopy is very nice as there's nothing blocking your view. You can also fly with the canopy open, which is very nice in the humid July air in Houston! If I owned one of these airplanes, I would install a thick seat cushion to give me better over-the-nose visibility. Landing is an interesting experience. Downwind is flown a little under 200 kph (so you can drop the gear). As you slow to 170 or below, the flaps can be deployed - the flaps are either up or down, there's no inbetween setting. Also the flaps are split flaps, so don't do much in the way of lift - they are really there to give some drag for a steeper glidepath. Moving the gear and flaps is accompanied by much hissing as the pneumatic system does its work. Additionally, the gear and flap switches have three positions: Up, Down and Neutral. The handles are best placed in Neutral when the other cockpit is in use (John did some touch-and-goes from the back seat during our sessions). You must remember to put them back in the "Up" positions before down if they are in neutral, otherwise the gear extends with a loud thunk which doesn't sound good!

  Once the gear and flaps are down, the airplane has the descent profile that resembles a tossed brick, so the pattern is flown fairly tight and with a little power on base and final to keep the sink rate in check. Final is flown at 150 kph (81 knots). If the gear lights on the panel fail, there is a backup - three small rods extend from the wings and cowling when the gear is down. The flaps have a similar indicator on the wings.

Rounding out at Galveston
Rounding out before touchdown at Galveston. Note the small red rod with the yellow tip on the cowling - this confirms the nosewheel is down.

  Flaring holds no surprises. The controls are beautifully harmonized on the CJ, and it's probably a little easier to land than a Piper Cherokee. However, you must remember to flare a little bit higher! Your head level is around ten feet above the ground when you're on the ground. To flare, you just keep coming back on the stick, holding it off, until you can't hold off any more. By this time, the CJ's big conk should obscure everything in front of you. However, since side visibility is good, the runway edges make a good guide for keeping level. If you can see forward when the wheels touch, you landed far too flat! From the back seat, John assures me that you cannot see ANYTHING - the view is Pitts-like. When John was landing from the back seat, he would slip to see the runway. The other thing that I needed to get used to was that my right hand was doing the flying, and my left hand was doing the throttle. Normally, it's the other way around. However, I didn't really notice the difference. I found the stick a little easier to use in the mild crosswind that we had than a yoke.

Final approach for Houston Gulf
Turning final for Houston Gulf.

  Having flown the CJ a couple of times from the front seat, and doing some landings, I feel confident that I've got the basics. If I were going to solo this airplane, I would like a little more dual since there's quite a lot to manage (not only do you have gear, flaps the prop, you also need to carefully watch the CHT's and adjust the gill shutters, and also watch the oil temperature and adjust the oil cooler door). You also need to be aware of the way the pneumatic system works too. Of course, I'd have to learn how to do the aerobatic manoevers the airplane is capable of!

Also see John Sollinger's home page for more information about the CJ6A, and see my photo gallery for some in-flight pictures of the CJ.

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