Reprinted from my blog in www.fiftyisthenewfifty.com
Into the Wild Blue Yonder
September 13, 2011
BY STEVE WINSTON
I love flying old fighter planes from World War II. When I squeeze into the cockpit, with a wooden instrument panel that looks like an antique toy, I’m transported back to those days when these planes helped free the world, and “The American Century” was in full flower. I nearly got to fly my dream plane – a P-51 Mustang, the most beloved fighter in history – a few months ago. But one of the sponsors who had helped restore the plane wanted to fly it … and that froze me out. But I stood and gazed at the ground until he took off.
My plane of choice is usually an AT-6, nicknamed “The Texan,” because it was built in Fort Worth during the War. This old warhorse helped train tens of thousands of airmen, and was also used in combat. I’ve learned to ignore all the pre-flight instructions given me as I strap my self into the cockpit, especially those about bailing out in the event something goes wrong. I figure that if I have to bail out, I’m dead, anyway. And by now, I know where the ripcord is on my parachute. When you ignite the engine on these yellow or blue or green babies, 600 horses – less than some cars today – cough somewhat hesitantly to life. The wind from the propeller blows into your face. You take off by “touch,” since the noses of these old planes point up so high that you can’t really see the runway. In a moment the ground is falling away, and the whirling propeller up front is pushing up into a sea of blue. And when you pull up the landing gear on these planes, you really do pull the landing gear; no computers here.
The skies around me are generally clear. But not to me. I see a dozen German Messerschmitts or Japanese Zeros all around me. And I love to do “combat” maneuvers to shoot them down. One of the first things I generally do is to turn the craft sideways – 180 degrees. When I look to my left, all I see is the ground. And when I look to my right, all I see is sky. As your stomach struggles to keep pace with you, that’s a move that really gets your blood (as well as your heart-rate) going. Your headphones cackle with communications from all sorts of aircraft in the surrounding skies.
One of my favorite maneuvers is the roll … a sort of sideways somersault. When you go into it, your world turns around – every which way around. First, you have to dive, to gather some speed. And that’s an experience in itself. The ground swarms up toward you frighteningly fast. Then you point the nose up and bring her into a climb. You pull the creaky (and balky!) old stick to the right. Your head is suddenly under the rest of your body … with clouds racing by below you as if they’re on fast-forward. Sky becomes land and land becomes sky. Your head is below your body, and you’re holding on to the canopy … from below it. You’re completely upside-down. And the same thing happens when you roll over to right yourself.
But the true highlight of any flight, in my opinion, is the loop … a backward somersault. You’ll turn the nose down to pick up some speed, and then force her into a sudden climb. A steep climb is murder on the body – and the mind. Normally, in an airplane, you have fixed points … the land below you and the sky around you. But when you’re in a steep climb, you’re totally disoriented. You’re heading straight up into a blue vacuum, with no horizon, no beginning, and no end. As you pull the AT-6’s stick toward you, all hell breaks loose. You begin to flip over backwards, and your body is pinned back against your seat. It’s impossible to hold your head up, because you’re experiencing pressure of three “G’s. You’re totally disoriented; there’s no “compass point” in the sky or the land. You have to fight to keep your eyes open because of the pressure. Upside-down images of blue and green and flash past you. Finally, just as you think you’re going to lose your breakfast – and your composure – you see the ground as you begin to level off.
Occasionally, on the way back down, I pass a rainbow. And the sight seems poetic somehow. Whenever I land, I always think of the young pilot who once sat in the seat where I’m sitting now … except that he saw real Messerschmitts or Zeros (coming at him with their machine guns and rockets spitting out instant death). And, sitting in this sacred seat, I almost feel as if I don’t belong there.
But, perhaps, that pilot would be relieved to know that people can now fly his old plane just for fun! If you’re looking for a pure adrenaline rush, you can’t do better.
RESOURCE: There are a number of flight museums offering rides in vintage aircraft. In addition, there are still a few small groups that barnstorm around the country, taking their planes to you. Perhaps the best-known is the Collings Foundation, which offers flights in restored WWII bombers and trainers; www.collingsfoundation.org.
Steve Winston (www.stevewinston.com) has written/contributed to 17 books, and his articles have appeared in major media all over the world. In pursuit of “The Story,” he’s been shot at in Northern Ireland, been a cowboy in Arizona, jumped into an alligator pit in the Everglades, trained with a rebel militia in the jungle, flown World War II fighter planes, climbed 15,000-foot mountains, explored ice caves at 11,000 feet in the Swiss Alps, and trekked glaciers in Alaska.