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Fly-By-Wire, Old Style

by Lt.Col. Ted Fite, USAF (Ret.), Daedalian Life Member #4069

Some of my young friends who are F-16 jocks have been bragging about their state-of-the-art fly-by-wire side-stick controls, as if they’d invented a new way of flying. That’s like thinking they invented sex. T’aint so! Like sex, we just didn’t make so much noise about it in public. Take a look at the picture. Look vaguely familiar? It is just what it looks like – a fly-by-wire side-stick control. But we had two of them, one on each side of the cockpit! (The Airbus and YC-17 are just catching up).

Actually, the picture is from AAF Manual 50-13, “Pilot Training for the Flying Fortress,” revised 1 May 1945! It shows a formation stick, which was in the B-16G, (the Fortress with a chin turret, for you late-night TV buffs). My 1945 Class I-2-D met up with this gadget in the school at Hendricks Army Airfield, which later became Sebring Racetrack.

We’d gone up to Lockbourne AAF, Ohio in August after B-25 transition, and the war had folded up enroute. We had some war-weary airplanes, and I had an instructor who had also flown a combat tour in Mustangs. He claimed that if you could make a 30-second overhead in a P=-51, you should be able to make a 60-second pattern in a B-17. If! We never did, but it did amaze me how fast that big bird could be muscled around. I remember thinking “We’re going to cartwheel this bastard through the fence, and the C.O. will cream us.” Never a thought about merely getting killed.

I had all of five hours in the bird when we were all shipped down to Sebring to finish training. Before driving down with a friend, I flew down in one of the older airplanes as co-pilot with my instructor. That was quite a change from the vast experience required to even get close to the first models. (And the very first one crashed in 1935 with the elevator controls locked).

At Hendricks, we got some brand-new G’s and that C.O. let it be known that he’d hang us if we dinged one of his new beauties. The plane was lovely to look at, and lovely to fly. Today’s pilots would think they were in a wrestling match since we no boost except in auto pilot. Nevertheless, the B-17 was steady as a rock, one fine formation and instrument aircraft. We flew formation with ½ wingspan clearance. That leads to our first experiences with the formation stick.

We were just starting to feel like pros in formation when we were introduced to his new gizmo. It hooked up electrically with the C-1 auto pilot and from there to the auto pilot servos which connected to the control cables. The C-1 had both sensitivity and rate adjustments and allowed the bombardier to fly his run with the Norden bomb sight. We tried the formation stick out in a three-plane vee, which was a minor tactical error. I was in the left seat and had the auto pilot set up on fairly high control rate.  On the instructor’s word, I switched the stick control to Servo Boost, and mashed the transfer button. Hoo, boy! Sort of like going from an old Goony Bird to a T-38. There was no feel. We were left wing, and I was very happy that my first jink was to the left and up. When I got sight of the other two birds again, they’d spread out from “half wing” to “same way, same day,” and it looked like we were practicing flak evasion instead of formation. It took another hour to get some confidence with the stick. Back on the ground, the students agreed that we really could do without this state-of-the-art. Surprisingly, a couple of the instructors concurred, at least so long as they still had to ride with us. (Actually, the stick also had another purpose. It allegedly could get a Fort home with the rudder cables shot away and an engine out, but a stick approach was pretty hairy).

I graduated as first pilot in December 1945, with the grand total of 115 hours in the B-17, hundreds of hours less than the early Fortress pilots needed to get near the bird. Then off to Occupation Germany in March. Lo and behold, no more B-17s. We were blowing them up by the hundreds and giving them to the bewildered Germans for pots and pans. Me? My orders sent me to Furth-Nuremberg, assigned the 10th Recce Group, a classified photo outfit, (low level predecessor to the U-2), equipped with – Mustangs! (Marv Zipp, of Stinson’s Flight, was the C.O.)

But that’s another terrifying tale!

The author:
Red Ted Fite was a Former Flight 30 Flight Captain. He graduated with his pilot’s wings, with the 3-year West Point Class of 1945. His last flying assignment was with the 3rd Bomb Wing (Tactical), in the Far East, flying B-57s. He was one of our most colorful and dedicated members throughout his life, writing dozens of letters into HQ with advice, information and support on our work through the years, in addition to several articles for publication until his death in 2019. He truly lived up the tenets of the Daedalians and is deeply missed.