I've always been a lover of WW II airplanes. I used to be able to rattle off all kinds of engine, airspeed and range figures for just about everything that flew in every theatre. I know the difference between a FW 190 and an AM 6 and that Rolls Royce quietly altered the course of history by building the V-12 Merlin's that transformed Hurricane's, Spitfire's and P-51s (one of the biggest pieces of eye candy ever created) from so-so's to fire breathing civilization savers.
I know what a total bad boy the too late Bearcat was and how out-gunned the Warhawk was. I am a certified geek for the birds WWII but in the struggle for legal tender, I got old and forgot.
On the morning of my fiftieth birthday I stared at the ceiling. I figured that this is when a guy begins to run out of gas. If you can reasonably assume that you'll live to be ninety, fifty means you're either 56% dead or 44% alive. No glass is half full in them numbers. Either scenario sounds pretty danged scary.
In this mental mode I twitched and turned last Saturday morning. I didn't want to be fifty. I didn't want any kind of big deal marking the day either. I wanted to crawl into a hole. My girl of twenty two years knew this, and she hid a slick one up her sleeve.
We live in New Salem, Ga., and I was instructed to get in the car and drive on Highway 136 to Resaca for a quiet celebration. Once there I was told to go south on I-75, and ,y then it was clear that my "surprise" didn't involve a quiet brunch at a restaurant. After another forty five minutes or so, Highway 20 to Canton and then Highway 575, I was instructed to get off at the next exit which was Airport Road.
Hmmmm. George Bush, Sr. just went skydiving from a little airport to mark his gazillionth birthday. I body sphinctered. For something like that I require a little bit of a buffer period to get used to the idea. To psyche up if you will. You don't just go hippity hopping off a bridge with a dinky bungy tied to your foot or do Free Fall at Six Flags without at least preparing (um, relieving) your internal organs. Even if there was a terlit nearby, I wasn't prepared to jump out of an airplane.
But whilst cruising Airport Road and quietly suppressing large dysentery and loud diarrhea at the idea of sky diving (didn't want to disappoint my bride), I saw a sign on a hanger that said something in reference to vintage aircraft. When I got closer I saw it.
Parked in front of the hanger was a perfect bright and shiny yellow 1941 model Stearman.
I parked the car and pretty much abandoned my wife to respectfully approach what any reasonable person would know as a priceless work of art. All of what I had stored in some cerebral warehouse about the era of this beautiful old girl sitting before me came flooding back.
My stupor was interrupted by a slim and trim guy with a buzz haircut. "Are you Mr. Glascock?" he asked. I said something like "Yeah…you…we gonna…I mean…uh…am I gonna ride in that?" He smiled and said "No sir. You're gonna fly it!"
Any and all intestinal issues completely evaporated. Because my wife had not forgotten one of my passions, on June 13, 2009 I would scud run in a perfect version of what my dad spent hundreds of hours in toward his eventual pilotage of B-17's. I was blown away.
Scud running is an old time pilot phrase meaning to float effortlessly in, out, around, over and under lazy white clouds on a gorgeous day. My dad did it a lot on the government dime in Stearman's during the war and Piper Cub's after it, and it sounded dreamy. I have some hours in a Cessna which goes from point A to point B with maybe a minor squiggle in between. Because my mind was hammered by instructors to stay away from clouds, I always viewed from a good distance any one of them that was bigger than a swimming pool.
Little did I know that today I would cavort with floating lakes in an open cockpit behind a radial engine that is worthy of Michelangelo's signature.
My new friend, Cullen, described this particular Stearman as originally a primary trainer for Army Air Corps cadets. Following that life it became a crop duster, and in that mode, its last owner got too aggressive in a maneuver and it wound up on its back in a field. That is where it stayed until Cullen and company arrived on the scene.
You know how a certain type of personality can walk into a room and the chemistry changes, and everybody looks at the guy? What Cullen and pals did was to take a broken machine and painstakingly shine replace, rebuild and love it to a degree that it takes all the mighty thunder from the likes of twenty brand new Gulfstreams. "Five mil for that G-IV? Oh. But did you get to see that Stearman?" I am no professional but the care that went into this rebuild has that kind of impact. With its brilliant yellow poly-fabric and gorgeous engine you could eat eggs off of; the entire airport stops when it does its business.
I did have an encounter with a parachute, though. Cullen said you have to do that if you want to ride upside down. Where do I sign? After wiggling into the front cockpit, I was amazed at how rudimentary everything is. Tube aluminum, cables, hinges, brackets, wires and two pine boards for your feet is the factory upholstery package. You sit on the parachute. The only creature comfort I could see was a shirtless bobble-body hula girl that was glued to the airframe up by my feet. Don't worry, she had a ukulele to cover her ample thoracic attributes.
Cullen cycled the prop two or three times to get the seven gallons of oil out of the bottom cylinders, and it was time to fire the old sweetheart up. It's really difficult to convey the feeling of being in the prop wash of a radial engine. It would feel the same as with any normal engine, but you wouldn't see the intricate little cooling fins on the V shaped heads or the cool circuitousness of the engine itself. The sight and sound of these motors attached to a bright yellow two place butterfly is to me what LSD people are looking for.
After a lengthy warm up it was time to go. Cullen looked both ways and we motored out onto the runway. Then he gunned it and the motor made a smooth as silk rrrrrrrrAAAAAAAA sound and in short order the earth let go of us. I was screaming.
Now I want to make this clear; I like Cullen but I don't, you know, love him. But as we gained altitude and crossed the ridge where Big Canoe is, I could see clearly how Meryl Streep fell for Robert Redford with his yellow bi-plane in Out of Africa. There are things you can see and feel in an open cockpit that are lost in every other form of motored transportation. If it has windows and you look through glass, it ain't no good. Motorcycle? Stuck to earth. It's magical and I doubt seriously if there are many atheists who've been in a Stearman.
I was looking at the puff ball clouds and Cullen said "Look down to the left. It's Nockalula Falls. We'll circle a couple of times." I think what he was actually saying is "Hey loco fat guy. I'm gonna bank this baby hard and see how you react" because the "bank" meant wings vertical. As in nothing between my gorgeousness and Nockalula Falls but a seat belt. We went around several times, and I thought about the unbelievable scenery and Dad and all the other vets and this fabulous airplane I was riding in and my wife who thought of this and God and everything else that made this 18,250th day in my lif possible and I started crying. I couldn't help it.
Then Cullen said "I'm gonna show you what it's like to hit a cloud in an open cockpit!" and we went slow-mo over to a group of cotton balls. When we got there I realized that, yes, we were actually going about eighty and hitting the side of that cloud was really cool. We poked through the other side and Cullen banked hard, and we zipped and zinged around for nothing more than the fun of it. Then we headed for another group of clouds and he said "Okay, you've got it!" and he let go of the stick.
And there I was. I took the stick and put my feet on the rudders and kept my eye on the altimeter as best as I could. I made some anemic Cessna moves and then got a little more confident. After a while I was floating around and around and banking as well as a complete novice would, and I fell in even deeper love with this Stearman.
With the stubby wings and all of the cables and struts, you'd think it was a flimsy thing but, let me tell you, a well kept Stearman is as hard as a rock and can do wild things.
After about thirty minutes that felt like three, Cullen took back the stick and said it was time for some fun. As if!
He would first do an aileron roll which, obviously, means we will spin on our axis, you know? A roll. To do that you have to have decent airspeed to carry the machine through the maneuver and to get quick airspeed you lower the nose. Piece of cake. To lower the nose in a Cessna, you push the yoke forward an inch or so and wait. We were in a Stearman and Cullen rammed the stick forward, and we went down in a ridiculously vertical way. You'd be utterly amazed at how clearly you can see oak trees and other hard things from 4000 feet if you are rocketing right at them. He then pulled level and simultaneously rolled us left, and I then knew about centrifugal force as my guts were trying to leave me by way of my fanny.
Then we did a loop which began the same way as the roll, but he picked up a lot more speed and we shot straight up into the sky. We, Cullen and me and this lovely beastess who was carrying us, got to the top of the loop and the motor was barely audible. We stood there for a second and then we fell backward, upside down and totally confident, and zipped back downhill.
Exhilarating? More like life altering.
When my hour was up I was sad for I could most definitely get used to this pretty yellow girl. I'd give her a name and tuck her in every night. When I finally climbed out of her I gave the real woman in this whole deal the most earnest and sincere hug I possibly could. On a depressing day that I wanted to forget, she'd given me so much more than an airplane ride. It was the best birthday surprise of my entire life. Period.
It's great to be fifty.
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I thoroughly enjoyed the article about flying in a vintage aircraft and turning 50 that was written by my Notre Dame classmate, Savage Glascock. I feel like I took the trip myself. Please encourage him to write some more adventures to share with us.
Carol G. Hixson
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Oh boy, what a memory you brought back 40 something years ago. I was on assignment at IBM in Poughkeepsie, New York during my aerospace career working next to a resident engineer and he mentioned and up coming air show at the Montgomery, New York airport next weekend and asked if I would like to fly with him in a red Steerman biplane and share the cost with would cost me only $20.
I believe he did mention he was a certified aerobatic pilot which I never gave a second thought.
When we arrived, there sat that beautiful red Steerman and I felt almost excited as Mr. Glascock did at first sight. The airport was surrounded by thousands for this annual event and Steve handed me a leather helmet, goggles, white scarf and helped buckle a parachute on my back and I begin to think twice about my decision (real seriously when he said "in case we have to jump, be sure you clear the struts and guide wires, wait a second then pull this cord. We will be talking thru this rubber tube attached to your helmet and I will tell you before we execute each maneuver").
Maneuver? I thought. O God, what have I got myself into. Next, I was sitting in the front open seat with a wide leather seat belt across my lap and were on the runway and waving to the crowds and this daredevil spirit took over. I never felt so brave (if the crowd only knew).
Now here's the reason I wouldn't do it again.
After we gained sufficient attitude I heard Steve's voice in my ear say, "I gonna turn her over and we will fly upside down. We don't have inverted carburation so the engine will restart by windmilling." Windmilling I said to myself? "Ready," said Steve. Ready, I replied.
Soon as the plane flipped over, my butt left the seat and I thought I was falling out of the plane. I immediately made the largest "X" I could make with my arms and legs and swayed in the belt as I looked straight down at the ground. My stomach went into a knot and a wave of nausea overtook my senses as I prayed the belt wouldn't break. Steve heard my feet as they made a loud bang when I almost kicked a hole in each side of the fuselage and asked if I was okay. I replied a very weak okay. After that I barely remember the barrel roll, downward spin and other funny named maneuvers. It's all I could do from vomiting and I swore if I did I would swallow every bit. I remained in that figure "X" position until he said we were landing.
On the ground I explained my falling feeling and he said he should have made sure my seat belt was tight as possible against the seat and the falling sensation wouldn't happen. (now he tells me).
That's not all. The next passenger and another pilot went up and the passenger (in front seat) did vomit while up and the pilot told Steve he was ducking behind the small windshield as the vomit was flying past him. No one wanted to clean up the mess and the plane sat there the remainder of the show.
I didn't admit to Steve that if we had been up there only two more minutes I would have let it go. I was also nauseated and dizzy all that night. Now I just look at the pretty airplane pictures and read the stories in my copy of Air & Space magazine.