Of Biplanes and Buckets and Lists
October 3, 2016 § Leave a comment
I don’t have much of a bucket list. Things I once wanted to do before I die—skydive, fly a hang glider, see Machu Picchu, etc.—have fallen away due to age or geopolitics or a plain fading of interest in them.
But one thing stuck. Ever since reading Richard Bach’s novel, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, I’ve wanted to fly in a biplane.
Seeing a biplane flying overhead always makes me stop and watch until it’s out of sight, a dumb grin on my face the entire time. At airshows, biplanes always draw me over to stare and smile and wish I could go up in one.
This weekend, I finally took that flight.
I’ve mentioned before that I have awesome friends. Two of the very best are my friends Aaron and Anneliese—and I’m not just saying that because they’re the ones who arranged for this flight to happen. They’re wonderful people, and you can ask anyone about that.
A few months ago, Anneliese had arranged to take a glider flight at the Red Stewart Airfield in Wilmington. Weather postponed it to September 10th, then postponed it again to October 1.
As we were talking about it, she mentioned that her stepfather had gotten to take a flight in a biplane, and I’d oohed and mentioned it being on my bucket list. We talked about my taking a flight the same day as her glider flight, but when I called the airfield, they only had an 11:00 AM slot available, and her flight was at 3:00. The four of us had already made plans to watch Anneliese glide, and I didn’t want to make the drive to Wilmington twice in a day (it’s not a quick trip), so I said I’d just watch this time around and take a flight on another day.
The next time the four of us got together, however, Anneliese announced that they’d come up with a plan for October 1st, and already made some arrangements. The plan was for me to fly at 11:00, then we’d all go to Yellow Springs for lunch, then back to the airfield at 3:00 for Anneliese’s flight.
Which is what we did.
We met at the airfield on Saturday morning, after a week of fretting about the forecast and the chance of rain canceling the flight yet again for Anneliese. The sky was dark in the distance, but the clouds above us were white, with large patches of blue sky. We waited while they prepped the plane.
They call Red Stewart an airfield and not an airport for a reason; the runway is all grass. It’s cut shorter than the field around it, and marked off by trios of faded yellow cones every 100 feet or so. In the hanger, I noted two large bins filled with kerosene lanterns; I imagine they’re used as runway lights when needed.
I think my voice went up a few octaves when I first saw the blue and yellow Stearman PT17 bumping across the grass. I may have even jumped up and down a bit. For a moment, 15-year-old me and 49-year old me hugged and clapped each other on the back. This was actually going to happen.
I couldn’t stop grinning.
The biplane took off, flew a quick test flight, then landed and came to a stop not far from where we all stood. I hugged Tracy and Aaron and Anneliese, then walked out to the plane with the pilot, Mike. As he prepped the plane and gave me a quick rundown of some safety tips, Tracy snapped some photos, including the one below. Note the aviator’s cap. I felt like a true barnstormer!
Mike called out to clear the prop, and hit start. The propellor spun, the engine coughed—and didn’t catch. He primed it and tried again. Same result. Once more, and this time it caught and roared. Then we were taxiing and the engine roared louder and I was pressed back into my seat as the ground dropped away and we were flying.
The flight itself was a thrill from beginning to end. I chatted with Mike a bit at first, and learned a little history of the plane. It was built in 1942 as an Army trainer, then was sold after the war and used as a cropduster. After that, it ended up at Wright-Patterson AFB for a time, as the base commander’s “perk.” Then cutbacks eliminated the perks, and it was offered to the Wright-Patterson museum.
The museum already had a PT17, but what they didn’t have was a restored Piper Cub trainer. Red Stewart did, so a trade was made, and the blue and yellow biplane, number 531, found its new home.
After that, I tried to make small talk. I asked Mike how long he’d been flying and told him about my brother Rich, who had also been a pilot. Turned out, Mike had worked for Comair around the same time as Rich, but he didn’t recognize the name.
Soon, though, I stopped chatting and just absorbed the experience. Houses looked smaller than my thumbnail; cars were grains of rice. It seemed like I-71 Morrow bridge could fit in the palm of my hand, like a model from a HO-scale train set.
Over Caesar’s Creek lake, we cut a few tight turns above the fishing boats. My stomach lurched a bit, but it settled as soon as we were flying steady again. Mike asked if I wanted to fly for a bit, and turned over the stick after giving me a quick primer. It was literally a stick, by the way; about three feet long, slightly thicker than a broomstick, solid wood. It and two metal pedals on the floor were all you needed to fly.
The only other plane I’d flown was a Cessna, when I was around 12 years old. Rich was the pilot, and we were flying to Fort Wayne from Cincinnati. He let me take over, and I remember the yolk (a Y-shaped steering wheel, not a stick) moved easily, and the plane responded quickly.
I tried flying the biplane the same way; small, gentle movements. The stick didn’t want to budge. Mike told me to push the stick left and press on the left pedal at the same time, kind of the way a parent encourages a slow child. Clearly, I wasn’t getting it. After a few embarrassed seconds, I told him I’d leave the flying to him and just enjoy the ride. The last thing I wanted to do was crash that beautiful plane.
We flew on. I had no idea if we were flying back to the airfield or further out. I meant to ask Mike how he could find the field again, because it all looked the same to me. But then Mike said, “Wanna cut some lazy eights?”
And I learned there is nothing lazy about a lazy eight.
Seen from the ground, a lazy eight is the biplane making a figure eight in the sky. From my perspective, however, the plane snapped into a tight turn…and then snapped into a tight turn in the opposite direction. My stomach lurched again, and my head started to spin. Mike did a few more lazy eights, and I found some bars to hang onto and did. Jaw clenched. Forcing myself to breath.
There was a small mirror—like a round, sideview mirror on a car—mounted to the upper wing and angled toward the plane. I noticed it before takeoff and briefly wondered what it was for. I could sort of see Mike in it behind me, but not really well. Now, I think it was so Mike could see me, because after the lazy eights, he didn’t mention doing any more acrobatics. I would find out later that Anneliese’s stepfather got treated to a corkscrew spiral and a hammerhead, and I am incredibly grateful Mike didn’t pull any of those with me. He probably noticed in the mirror that I wasn’t handling the lazy eights well.
(And it just occurred to me that it probably has something to do with the lingering sinus infection that’s been plaguing me for a few weeks.)
We buzzed the field, the acceleration pressing me back into the seat as we climbed into the sky again. I love that feeling. Then Mike circled around and landed, setting that antique taildragger down like a feather. He taxied to a spot among the other planes, shut down the engine, and the ride was over.
But what a ride.
I thought about many things in my half-hour in the sky, but what I kept coming back to was one question: Why didn’t I do this sooner?
And what I realized is this: bucket lists are stupid. Don’t save up a list of experiences to do “some day.” Buckets lay everywhere; you could kick one at any time, and then your bucket list will be just a list of regrets.
Take the flight you’ve always wanted to take. Jump out of a plane. See the Venice, or Paris, or Vienna. Write a novel, or learn to play the piano.
Do it now. You may not get the chance on down the road.
If I haven’t said it enough, THANK YOU, Aaron and Anneliese, for setting this up. And thank you, Tracy, for being there and taking all the photos! I can’t wait to see the rest (hint, hint).