Stearman Seven Four One Bravo Juliet

My wife is really cool—have I ever mentioned that?

For Valentine’s Day last year, she got me a gift certificate. Not an ordinary gift certificate, mind you, but a certificate for a ride in an open-air biplane, courtesy of the Cavanaugh Flight Museum in Addison.

Today was the day for my ride. A first (and completely logical) thought would be “Riding in an open-air plane in mid-December? Are you freakin’ nuts?” And I’d be hard pressed to argue with you, except that I’d procrastinated for months to schedule my flight (gee, go figure) and this may be one of the few free weekends that the both of us would have between now and Valentine’s Day 2003 (when the gift certy would expire). But the flying gods took pity on me—this afternoon found us in 67 (!) degree weather with bright, sunny skies.

So at a little past 1:00 this afternoon, I went out to meet the pilot, Kevin. His flight assistant, Mike, strapped the parachute on me, gave me a quick set of instructions on how to abandon the plane if called upon to do so (yikes), and helped me into the front seat of my ride—a two-seater Boeing Aviation Stearman (call letters N741BJ), a biplane used by the Navy as a trainer during WW II. At the end of the preflight, Mike asked if I got airsick, to which I responded no… but he handed me a plastic airsick bag anyway. “Just in case”, he said. A quick overview of the takeoff procedures by Kevin later, we were on our way to the runway. (As we taxied out to the runway, he was steering the plane in a series of S-curves. He said that this was necessary because since the biplane’s nose was so high, this was the only way he could see forward, weaving back and forth to see what was in front of him.)

The first thing that was kinda weird/cool was the takeoff. Now I’ve flown a hundred times but almost always in a big, lumbering jet that needs a couple thousand feet of concrete to get airborne. Not the Stearman—we were cleared for takeoff, the engine was revved up, and not more than a hundred feet down the runway later, we were off the ground. It’s hard to describe the feeling at takeoff—you’re going so slowly (again, compared to a passenger jet liner) that you almost feel less like you’re taking off than just floating into the air. Kevin climbed up to our cruising altitude (around 2500 feet), and we headed north towards Lake Lewisville.

Flying is cool—I love it to death. Flying at 2500 feet in an open-air plane is so far beyond cool, it’s ridiculous. As we flying along at maybe 100 mph, Kevin’s pointing out things about the plane and on the ground to me, all the while with me going “This is so cool.”. Once we reached the north end of the lake, he asked if I wanted him to perform a couple of simple aerial manouvers, to which I responded “HELL YES!” (well, actually, I think it was more like “Absolutely!”, but the first one’s more accurate…) My favorite one was what he called a “lazy eight”: First you dive for a bit to pick up some speed. You then turn the nose up and climb, and just as you reach the peak of your climb, you nose the plane over to the left. (Because you’re moving so slowly, it feels like you’ve come to a dead stop and are just pivoting sideways around the left wing. Very cool.) You then dive for a bit, pull up again, then nose over to the right at the peak, thus completing the figure eight. (And no, I did not get airsick.) He did one other thing that was pretty neat: He pointed the plane into the headwind, then cut back on the throttle until the air speed indicator showed we were moving at less than 55 mph. It felt like (and looked like) we had stopped in mid-air and were just floating 2000 feet or so above Highway 380. Again, very cool.

About 20 minutes or so into the flight, however, he had to utter the words “I hate to tell you this, but it’s about time for us to head back in…” And about ten minutes later, we touched down at Addison Airport. (The landing itself was neat: Again because of the plane’s high nose, he basically landed the plane at an angle—that is, the nose of the plane was kinda cocked off to one side, though the plane itself was moving straight ahead.) A few minutes after that, I was unstrapped from my seat and climbed out the plane, back to terra firma.

I’m not sure if I’ve used the word “cool” enough, so I’ll close with this: My wife is really cool—or have I already mentioned that?

(I have some pictures from the flight; I’ll post them as soon as I get them developed.)