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Vintage plane to fly as celestial platform

Jan 1, 2003

A commercial airline pilot with a passion for celestial navigation has bought and restored a vintage military training craft, which he will soon use as a platform for lessons in celestial navigation for aviators and enthusiasts. Despite the fact that a navigator's position has not been used by most airlines in more than 25 years, Douglas Brutlag, an active 767 pilot for American Airlines, has a passion that he hopes will infect the public and other aviators. He will soon begin training flights, teaching a basic celestial theory and practical class, aboard his SMB airplane, which was built on a Beach 18 airframe for the Army in 1944. The senior pilot said his interest in celestial began with a simple star chart more than 20 years ago.

"The eastbound legs across the Atlantic were often done at night, and it could get really boring, so I used to bring along a star chart." Brutlag said recently while on a layover between his New York and Paris run. "I taught myself celestial navigation after being inspired by an old pilot who I was flying with at the time. I read everything I could find, bought a sextant, and he eventually showed me how to use it. I would even bring the sextant aboard on the jet to get the hang of it." He said that he was able to get fixes within 10 miles of his known position, a standard he feels is about as good as a fast airplane can get with manual instruments.

The Flight Navigator license is still presented by the FAA to anyone who completes the rigorous training, which includes 100 hours of training as a designated navigator. While this position no longer officially existsexcept aboard aircraft of the Russian airlines AeroflotBrutlag is determined to log enough time in his own airplane and then train others to do the same, if they are interested. He will also run introductory, three-hour courses in flight training. "It will be a great way for people to fly in an old warbird and experience what it was like to navigate one of these machines," he said.

The aircraft, a hybrid mix of both SMB 2- and SMB 5-type aircraft, has been retrofitted with a navigator's work station and an Astral Dome, so navigators can use a bubble sextant while in flight. The plane flew in February for the first time in 30 years, according to Brutlag. It had been decommissioned as a military training machine and VIP transport plane in 1965 and was used as an on-the-ground model for a flight mechanic school until 1995. Brutlag bought the plane in 1997 from a dealer in Atlanta. He will operate his programs near his home in Urbana, Ill., at the Octave Chanute Aerospace Museum in Rantoul, Ill.shout.net.


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