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Duel in the Sky : 'It Felt Like a Dog-and-Cat Fight in a Cartoon: Lots of Streaking, Incoherent Motion in All Directions at Once.'

May 10, 1987|TIM CAHILL

RON ASHCRAFT WAS IN serious trouble. Hartley Folstad had turned faster and sharper, and now his plane was coming up from behind and closing. Ashcraft still had altitude and speed on Folstad, so he took his plane up, going for vertical distance. But there was Folstad coming in hard in his old Stearman. Ashcraft, in a second Stearman, shot straight for the stratosphere, then fell off to the left. And Folstad was there, not quite behind, not quite in a position to blast Ashcraft and his Stearman out of the sky.

The lead plane dove, picked up speed, banked sharply, and Folstad's Stearman mirrored the turn. Ashcraft shifted, tried a bank to the other side. And Folstad was there. Ashcraft hadn't been in a dogfight for almost 20 years, not since his days as a Navy pilot. He was used to jets, not these single-prop, cigar-shaped biplanes that had been used as trainers in World War II.

In an age of Top Guns and Iron Eagles, Stearmans look a little like bumblebees: fierce, slow-moving little guys that science suggests shouldn't be able to fly at all. The engines driving the props were half again the size of something you might find in a 1972 Cadillac, a 680-cubic-inch block with the pistons arranged radially: a power plant designed to take enormous stress.

And while Ashcraft had military experience, he'd never flown a Stearman. Folstad, on the other hand, knew his plane intimately. The first Stearman he bought was a bucket of bolts. Literally. It had come to him from Greece, where four trainers left over from the war years had been found under some trees. There was a fuselage and a large barrel containing all the mechanical parts. Folstad and his daughter, Mona, now 21, put the thing together and built a pair of wings for it.

And then, in an attempt to pay for their hobby, they opened the Stearman Flight Center at Chino Airport. The hobby became a thriving business. Aircraft buffs began to seek them out: Dozens of Southern California pilots were fascinated with the idea of aerial combat as sport.

BECAUSE HARTLEY FOLSTAD knew precisely what his craft could do, he had the edge on Ashcraft. It had started formally, like a duel, with the combatants flying away from each other to take up their positions. I was along for the ride, sitting in the open cockpit behind Folstad. We were strapped into the seats with six-point military harnesses--the planes would fly upside-down if strategy dictated--and we wore parachutes that doubled as seat cushions. We had leveled off 4,000 feet above Lake Mathews, about 15 minutes from the airport. The land that fell away below was the color of honey; the sky was a cobalt blue punctuated by a few puffy white clouds. The two grand old planes turned to face each other. We were about a mile apart.

And then the duel turned into a joust. The Stearmans closed on each other, each doing 60 knots. The rules were simple: wings held level and no one turns until the tail of the other plane passes his cockpit. The object of a dogfight is simply to get directly behind the other plane. In a combat situation, the lead plane is then blasted out of the sky. In sport flying combat, called tail chasing, getting position is analogous to a pin in wrestling.

The planes seemed to be moving quite slowly until we passed and the turns began. Then it felt like a dog-and-cat fight in a cartoon: lots of streaking, incoherent motion in all directions at once. The mountain called Saddleback did a 360 in the distance. I'd lost track of the earth--an unsettling sensation--and felt that if I bailed out, I might float away into space, lost forever.

The battle was all a matter of turns, feints. We had begun to "scissor," the planes carving a series of interlocking sine curves. We were pulling serious Gs, and I could feel the skin stretched tight against the bones of my face.

The faster a plane flies, the more tightly it can turn, but a sharp turn costs a plane a lot of speed. Dogfights tend to degenerate into near-stalls, and now Folstad's Stearman began that unnerving buffeting that indicates the beginning of a stall.

Ahead of us and a bit to the right, Ashcraft was trying a new tack. He dove, losing 1,000 feet and picking up speed. Folstad followed, and the dive saved us from the stall.

Both Folstad and Ashcraft pilot 727s for a living, but flying those planes is a matter of instrumentation and safety-first caution. This was pure exhilaration. To Ashcraft, the Stearman was like a Model T Ford--a sturdy plane stripped to its basics.

Ashcraft felt it coming back to him, those combat maneuvers he'd learned over the Mediterranean 20 years ago. The Stearmans might be slow, but the skills were the same.

Folstad was closing in from behind and above. He didn't know why Ashcraft had gone into the dive--it was as if the guy had given up--but he understood that Ashcraft was up to something. And that was true: Ashcraft was going to attempt a maneuver that American pilots had used to deadly advantage in the Korean War.

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