High in the sky
September 25, 2013
A childhood dream came true for me last week at the Vail Valley Jet Center – I got to ride in a modified Stearman biplane piloted by former fighter jet instructor Gary Rower.
"I'll take you for a loop and a barrel roll if you're up for it," Rower said.
"Yes!" I said.
"OK, first I need you to put this parachute on – have you ever worn a parachute before?"
My heart skipped. Things just got real. I was about to go upside down in an open cockpit and there is always a chance things won't go as planned.
"If we need to get out of the plane right away, I'll say, 'Bailout! Bailout! Bailout!'" Rower said. "If you're still in the plane after the third 'Bailout' the plane is yours because I'm already gone."
Just those words got my blood pumping.
"Now, to get out, you'll have to undo the seat belt, climb onto the wing and dive between the wing and the tail," Rower continued. "Be sure to count to 'three potato' before you pull the D-ring, which they call the 'rip cord' in the movies. It's really important not to pull the D-ring too soon or the parachute might get caught up in the tail."
As much as it spiked my adrenaline, I was still game. They don't call it a "ride" for nothing. I reasoned I was in steady hands.
Rower was awarded Top Gun as an F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot for the U.S. Air Force. The odds of him losing control on a simple loop and barrel roll were practically nil.
Besides, I'd just watched him rehearse much scarier aerobatics with his partner, Buck Roetman, who flies a Pitts Special, which is a smaller biplane. The rehearsal was for Saturday's airshow at the Wheels and Wings event.
During rehearsal, Rower and Roetman looped, rolled and stalled, pulling maneuvers with names like "hammerhead" and "Cuban eight."
At one point, Roetman flew under a ribbon that was held across the runway 20 feet off the ground. Then he looped around, rolled upside down and cut the ribbon with the tail of his plane.
"It was perfect conditions – no wind," Rower said.
At last it was my turn to sample the air. Rower put me in a parachute and strapped me into the front seat.
"Prop clear?" he asked the ground crew.
The 450-horse power engine roared to life. My hair blew back and the cockpit rumbled as the 9-foot propeller got up to speed.
"One cylinder on that engine is basically equivalent to the power of a small car," a member of the ground support crew told me earlier.
The same crew member, Bob Evans, also told me that Roetman's Pitts biplane probably weighs about as much as the Stearman's engine alone.
"Here we go!" Rower cracked over my headset radio.
I watched the needle on the speedometer as we went down the runway: 80 … 90 … 100 mph. The tail lifted off the ground, leveling the plane out, allowing us to see straight ahead, and then we were free.
I imagined the sensation a thousand times but that didn't prepare me for the flood of emotion as I watched the ground recede, the wind licking my face. I held on tightly to the camera and tried snapping pictures from the confined cockpit.
We flew north over the Eagle River and Interstate 70, gaining altitude.
"Ready?" Rower asked when got over a remote valley by the Colorado River.
I could barely hear him on the headset but I caught the gist. I gave him a thumbs up.
The nose of the plane rose and then went into a dive, gaining speed for the loop.
For a second I was weightless. I've had the feeling on roller coasters but this was scarier – there was no track in front of me. In the plane it was just air, air and more air all around and mountains below.
Through the windshield the ground evaporated and we shot into empty blue sky.
Now instead of weightlessness, the g-forces pressed me into the seat. The sun came into view and fell away as we went upside down. I gripped the camera tighter. The plane hit 165 mph when we came out of the loop.
Then Rower ruddered left and went into a barrel roll. I tried to keep my hands and feet out of the way of the control stick and rudder pedals as they moved around in front of me.
In the barrel roll I finally felt comfortable enough to tilt my head back and look at the ground as the plane pitched around.
That's the only way to write it. It's the only word that comes close to catching the sensation.
Rower told me later that we hit 4-g's during the loop.
"You just experienced four times the force of gravity," he said. "If you're 150 pounds, you were 600 pounds during the loop."
That was why I felt glued into my seat.
"Most roller coasters don't exceed 3-g's," Rower added.
"Your body is affected by the g-forces, so don't go hike any 14,000-foot peaks today," he half joked.
Don't worry. I'm not sure anything will take me higher than that ride for a long time.
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