Episode 7 - Craig 'Wilco' Wilcockson: Jet Air Racer & Warbird Pilot

Welcome to Episode 7 of Up and Away, the Australian Aviation Podcast!

Wilco and the Aero L-39 Albatross at Reno.

This week we are having a chat to jet air racer and warbird pilot Craig 'Wilco' Wilcockson. Wilco has flown and has become familiar with a long list of historic warbird and jet aircraft. We talk about what it's like to fly these planes, how you can get into flying them yourself, and his day job as an avionics technician with the RAAF. We also talk about his recent experience competing in the jet class of the Reno Air Race, were he was flying as low as 50 feet and at over 500 miles per hour! Crazy!

As we talk about quite a few different aircraft, some of which you may or may not know already, I thought it would be a good idea to show you some of these here on this blog post. It will hopefully give you a bit of insight and background to the episode and you can have a look at them and reference them as you go.

You can also check out the Reno Air Race website via this link here to get a bit of an idea of what Reno is like as a competition!


Unfortunately this year is had to be called off due to COVID-19, however they have plans to go full speed ahead next September, if you're thinking of going!

Now, let's check out some of these planes!

The Warbirds

For those of you who may not know, a warbird is essentially any vintage military aircraft that is now in the hands of civilians and operated as a civilian aircraft. Usually when one thinks of a warbird, you usually imagine World War II piston aircraft, but you can also consider vintage and historical jet-powered aircraft amongst the warbirds, however they seen much less often. The terms can also often extend to historically accurate reproduction aircraft too.

Here's a list of some of the warbirds we talk about in the episode, including the aircraft Wilco has flown, and would love to fly!

Nanchang CJ-6

The first plane we have here is the Nanchang CJ-6. The CJ-6 is a basic trainer aircraft designed and built by the Nanchang Aircraft Company for the Chinese Air Force, and was first introduced in 1960. Over 2,000 were made, and now many of them are operated by civilians around the world as a great entry point into warbird ownership due to them being relatively inexpensive and robust. They feature a 286hp radial engine, and have a maximum speed of 160 knots (or 190 mph).

Yakovlev YAK-52

A Yakovlev YAK-52 with it's tricycle landing gear.

Looking absolutely nothing like a yak, the Yakovlev YAK-52 is a Soviet built primary trainer aircraft first introduced in 1976. Just like the Nanchang, it is also a really rugged aircraft that was built so it would require minimal maintenance in comparison to other training aircraft. It has a 9 cylinder 360hp radial engine and a maximum speed of 154 knots (or 177 mph).

North American T-6 Texan

Designed by North American Aviation and first introduced in 1935. The role of the T-6 Texan was to be an advanced training aircraft for the United States Army Airforce, United States Navy, Royal Airforce, Royal Canadian Airforce and many others at the time. Outside of the US it was known as the Harvard. They are still heavily used today by civilians for airshow demonstrations, static displays, and aerobatics. There is also a super cool skywriting group called the Geico Skytypers that use this aircraft. Instead of traditional skywriting, they fly in formation and a computer synchronises the release of the smoke from all the aircraft at the appropriate time to recreate 'typed' font in the sky. It's very interesting to watch and you should search them on YouTube, but I digress...

The six T-6 Texans of the Geico Skytypers.

North American T-28 Trojan

Despite being designed as a trainer, the T-28 was used in various combat scenarios as well.

Yet another training aircraft designed and built by North American Aviation for use by the United States Airforce and United States Navy, it was introduced in 1949 to replace the T-6 Texan. Almost 2,000 of these stumpy little things were produced between 1950 and 1957. The 1,425 hp radial engine in this a lot more powerful than the previous aircraft we have discussed so far, which enables the Trojan to have a maximum speed of 298 knots (or 343 mph)! It even has a service ceiling of just over 35,000 feet. So it may look stumpy, but it certainly packs a punch! Despite being designed as a trainer, the T-28 also found use in various combat scenarios as well.

Vought F4U Corsair

One of my personal favourites, the Vought F4U Corsair is an American fighter aircraft first introduced in 1942 and saw combat in both World War II and the Korean War. It was designed as a carrier-based fighter, so one of the unique design characteristics is it's inverted gull-wings that fold upwards so the aircraft can be stored closer together and take up less room.

A couple of Corsairs with their wings folded up for parking.

Due to the hinge on the wing, the landing gear needed to fold backwards, and to minimise the length of the landing gear legs whilst still allowing clearance for the prop, the wings bend downwards near the fuselage creating the Corsair's iconic inverted gull-wing shape. The Corsair also features a whopping 2,000 hp, 18 cylinder Pratt & Whitney radial engine that turns a three-blade propeller that is over 13 feet in diameter. Due this powerful engine, the Corsair had a maximum speed of 388 knots (or 446 mph). What a beast! Unlike many of the tandem cockpits of trainer aircraft we have already discussed, like most fighters the Corsair only had room for single pilot.

Now that we have had our warbird fix, let's have a look at some of the jets Wilco flies and we talk about in the episode.

The Jets

All the aircraft we have talked about until now have been piston-engined aircraft. As you might already know, that means they feature conventional engines with pistons that push a crankshaft that is attached to a propeller, kind of like the engine in your car. Well, jets are a bit of a different thing! As piston-driven propeller aircraft push a large volume of air at low velocity, jet aircraft push a small volume or air at a high velocity. This video by Pratt & Whitney sums up how a jet engine works, and much more eloquently than I ever could by using diagrams and animations, so check it out.

Anyway, here's a list of some of the jets!

SIAI-Marchetti S-211

The S-211 that Wilco has flown here in Australia.

This was a plane I wasn't really familiar with myself until chatting to Wilco on this episode. The S-211 is a single-engine jet training and light attack aircraft made by Italian aircraft company SIAI-Marchetti between 1981 and 1984. The airframe is composed of quite a few different composite materials such as carbon fibre and kevlar. The single turbofan jet engine of the S-211 enables the aircraft to reach a maximum speed of mach 0.8.

Aero L-29 Delfin

Wilco racing the L-29 Delfin at Reno Air Race.

Designed and manufactured as a jet trainer and light attack aircraft by Czechoslovakian aviation manufacturer Aero Vodochody, the L-29 features a single turbojet engine. Its first flight was in 1959, and over 3,500 L-29s were produced between 1963-1974 for use in the Soviet Airforce, as well as the local Czechoslovakian Air Force, Bulgarian Air Force, and the Egyptian Air Force. A unique characteristic of the L-29's design is it's T-tail, unswept wings, and the elevated position of the rear crew member (usually the instructor) so they can oversee trainee pilots better. This particular aircraft is what Wilco raced at Reno!

Aero L-39 Albatross

The L-39 Albatross at Reno.

Another super cool jet trainer and light attack aircraft designed and manufactured by Aero

Vodochody. The L-29 Albatross had its first flight in 1968 and was manufactured from 1971 until 1996; during this time 2,900 of them were built.

It features a single turbofan engine, and like the L-29 wings that are straight and not swept back like many modern fighter aircraft. It also features a similar tandem seating arrangement to the L-29 so it can be used effectively as a training aircraft, or in Wilco's case, he takes people on joy rides! I don't know about you, but I'm personally very keen to give that a go! As you can see in the photos, the L-39 also has wing-tip fuel tanks, which kind of look like weapons... useful to scare your air race opponents at Reno.

Hopefully you get a bit of an idea of these aircraft, and you can use this as a companion article to episode 7. I had quite a bit of fun writing and researching this, and I could have waffled on for longer. So I'm keen to do some companion blog posts to more episodes in the future where we can go into a bit more detail and background to the episodes, and aircraft featured in them.

Thanks for reading, and enjoy episode 7 of Up and Away with Wilco!

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