There's an ebullient AirCal pilot named Mike Blackstone who moonlights at John Wayne Airport with a creation called Fantasy Aviation. The name is appropriate. One of the more pervasive male fantasies is wringing out an airplane with goggles firmly in place and wind whistling past the open cockpit riffling a white scarf casually knotted at the throat. Snoopy stuff.
With old military pilots, the fantasy varies slightly. Those of us who piloted planes in World War II and have regressed to more sedentary activities sniff this fantasy on certain types of days. The wind must be blowing just enough to feel it in your nostrils. The day must be clear, but not too clear; a few cumulus clouds should be scudding about the sky. And the burden of not-very-exciting work must weigh heavily enough that thought wanders. The distant drone of an aircraft engine helps, too.
In such a state, the freedom of flight, the feeling of being disconnected that comes only from piloting a small plane responsive to your touch, comes back in a great wave of nostalgia--even to those of us who haven't experienced it in a very long time. And behind that feeling comes a persistent, nagging question: Could I do it again? Would it all come back to me if I had the chance to take the controls of an aircraft?
There's a variation of that theme, too, that surfaces when old military pilots are dozing and drifting in an airliner. The voice of a stewardess, urgent and frightened, comes over the loudspeaker: "If there are any pilots on board, would you please come forward immediately. "
You snap to attention, and when your eyes meet the stewardess, she knows. Silently she takes you to the cockpit where the pilots have suffered simultaneous heart attacks and a frightened flight engineer is trying to fly the plane. You prod him gently into the co-pilot's seat and take over. A few minutes later, you bring the plane down at the nearest airport, making a perfect carrier landing while the grateful passengers applaud.
That's a reasonably safe fantasy because it will almost certainly never happen. But at Fantasy Aviation, you run the risk of testing your fantasy--and, maybe, of blowing it.
A friend gave me the promise of a ride with Mike Blackstone as a gift last Christmas. It made me uneasy enough that I managed to put off collecting on it for five months. What if stunting--which I used to do routinely in a Stearman 40 years ago--made me sick? What if I had forgotten everything I ever knew and made a complete botch of trying to fly? What if I fell out of the plane?
I finally confronted those questions a few weeks ago in Mike Blackstone's open-cockpit Pitts Special biplane. I was startled to note that it has a wingspread comparable to a modest sea gull and looks rather like something you might sail from the upper deck at Anaheim Stadium. That's not particularly comforting to someone who last piloted a Douglas dive bomber.
Could Barely Zip Up Jacket
Although it was a warm day, I wore my old leather Navy flight jacket that has been hanging in my garage for many years. The stitched-on wings were dim and weathered, and I could barely zip the jacket around my belly, but what the hell. If I was going down, I was going to do it in style. If Mike thought my costume was funny, it didn't show. He was respectful and asked a lot of questions about the planes I used to fly. He even asked my advice about a photo gun he had mounted on the cowling so he could dogfight with a pilot in a companion plane.
I buckled into the parachute, just like the good old days. The chute was my seat, and I was reassured to note that the shoulder harness was supplemented by a second seat belt--"just in case," the attendant who buckled me in told me diffidently. We taxied out and took off almost instantly into a brisk wind. Then, 1,000 feet in the air and headed out over the Pacific, Mike wiggled the stick and said those magical words, "You've got it."
I handled the Pitts gingerly at first, standing it on one wing, then the other, trying to maintain my air speed and hold the ball in the center of the gyroscope as I climbed. At 3,000 feet and a few miles out to sea, Mike asked me what I wanted to do. I said I'd like to start with a loop, then go on from there. He offered to let me do it, and I said I wanted to follow him through.
The first loop was exhilarating. Then he gave the controls back to me. Nose down to an air speed of 160. Pull the nose up steadily, working the stick back toward your lap. The horizon appears, and the stick comes full back. Then the horizon appears again, upside down. Ease the stick forward, now, into a dive, then back smoothly until you have normal flight. I remembered, by God, I remembered.
Slow Rolls and Hammerheads