The pilot

The parachute was heavy. I was surprised by the weight. It hung between my legs like an adult diaper, filled with silk and nylon that would hopefully save my life. Just in case. Unlike commercial jets, which make their money on providing smooth rides, real flying is full of sharp accelerations and gut wrenching G forces.

Flying is dangerous, exhilarating, a three dimensional dance in the sky, powered by a roaring motor. When the radial engine kicks over, starting, it belches fire and smoke, until it has achieved a sonorous thunder pitch. Smoke and Castor Oil smells permeate the air. Whirling propellers remind you that this is not a jet, not modern technology. The skin of the biplane is made of fabric stretched over wood, painted and buffed until it shines like a mirror, and wires hold it all together. I am sitting in the passenger's seat, ahead of the pilot, my friend Dave, in whom I placed all my trust.

That he looked like the Red Baron, moustache and all, did not increase my hope of returning alive from the flight. Only my past experience in other airplanes with him gave me the confidence to fly.

He has taken me up in the Texas Trainer, the AT-6 my mother and father flew in the war. He warned me that it was prone to ground looping, and then described in detail what that entailed. In the Florida sky, he threw the AT-6 into barrel rolls and loops to see how I would fare. I chickened out, pulling the control stick to inform him I was on the verge of losing my cookies.

Not discouraged by my weak stomach, I decided I loved flying. We even flew up to Tampa in the Waco RNF, one warm afternoon, touching down on the grass at the airport. It was slow and majestic, like a bicycle, and the open cockpit was wonderful. We flew at about 100 miles per hour.

The time we went up in the Stearman (N3N) was spectacular, as we chased some buzzards, who were climbing a thermal. The sun blazed on our golden wings as we wheeled around and around, in a dizzying spiral.

One of his friends wanted me to take up sky diving, I hesitated, and was about to say yes, when I saw him the next time. He was limping along on crutches, his chute had half opened he explained. I decided I had better things to do. Another one took me up in a single engined Cessna, and we buzzed cows and flew with the lights out at night. Awesome and crazy.

View from a glider

Sail planes are awesome. Like sailing. Twice I flew over the hills of Vermont, totally enraptured by the sound of the wind, no motor. The tow plane had let us go and we were free to fall or rise. Just the updrafts and the skill of the pilot to spiral upward. We skimmed along the tops of mountains, our shadow racing us. Gravity played with us, pulling us down reluctantly to land on our one wheel and wing skids.

Rhinbeck airport is the best. A shrine to early aviation, to the dreams of Leonardo Da Vinci, to all who want to fly; it is a living aviation museum. An hour North of New York City, in the Hudon River valley, hidden in the woods, it is the mecca for old airplane lovers. The landing field slants down, enclosed on all sides by thick woods. On summer weekends, reconstructed airplanes, flying on a wing and a prayer, take to the air. Mostly Biplanes, even the Red Barons Triplane flies in mock battles.

Air planes are in my blood. I grew up on Air Force bases, and the yearly open house with accompanying flight demonstration was part and parcel of my life. I knew pilots, they were my father's friends and buddies. When the Air Force Thunderbirds fly in to give a demonstration, I get to sit in a "hot" ejections seat. It is armed, ready to fly out of the plane. My family would fly standby on military transport planes. The deafening roar of the turbo props of a C-130 is a familiar song to my ears. We breathed flying, we saw flying, we lived flying. My mother was a pilot as well, so there was no escaping it.

My dad would bring his flight manual back, for each airplane he flew. He preferred the Gooney bird, the DC-3.

My first job was working at the Paris air show. Over the years I think I have taken girl friends and my wife and son to countless air shows. Ad nauseum. The sight of an airplane makes my knees weak. Pilots are a breed apart. Death is their constant companion. Yet they show no fear. They love flying even if it means dying.


©Stephen McDonnell 2001