Just dropping you guys a line to share my latest adventure with you all. I went up for an aerobatic flight in an real, honest to goodness biplane not long ago and here's mu account:
‘The Greatest Ride You’ll Ever Take’ A Testimonial
There aren’t many things in our modern world that put you in touch with who you really are as a living, breathing human animal. Much of our civilised construct detracts from our true nature, or is built around the idea of mitigating rather than celebrating it. Everything around us is made for the lowest common denominator. It’s safe, bland and part of a Quixotic mission to idiot proof the world and, in the process, we have unfortunately built a world for idiots. For some of us however, this mundane, predictable and prosaic existence will not suffice. The day I took the opportunity to wander on down to Adelaide Biplanes at Aldinga Airfield showed me what so many of our species spend their lives attempting to evade; the disconcerting fact that we are, when properly motivated, eminently capable of achieving things which are truly astounding.
So, for those of you who have the audacity to follow in my footsteps I am writing this.
I’d like to preempt this narrative by stating that this story is not about me, it is about you. It’s written for you. However, the things in it happened to me so I feel as thought it is requisite upon me to provide you with some minimal details of my background for your consideration and comparison. Primarily, I should state that I have always had an enduring and powerful fascination with aircraft and flying so far as I can recall. Secondly, despite my propensity to dwell on the potential outcomes of a situation, I have never been one to back down from a challenge that I feel is within (or bordering upon) the limits of my capacities as a man. I’ve flown a little (At the controls I mean, not just as self loading baggage) I and have a more than passing familiarity with the basic physical and technical concepts of flying. In fact, if we were speaking in terms of visiting a foreign country which the sky will be to many of you, I would compare my level of knowledge of flying to that of my understanding of the German language. I know enough to get by and yet also, with humility, enough to understand that the road ahead of me is far longer than that which lies behind me.
The story really begins at around about 1615 Hrs on the day before my flight, I was relaxing in a cabin that I had rented for the night and waiting for dinner time when I heard an aircraft engine outside. It was a cloudy day with scattered stratus at around 4,000ft and the sun hung low in the approaches to the west. This was where the sound was coming from and, with some effort, I was able to discern between my outstretched fingers which blocked out the sun, a black speck in the sky. From its’ motion and the rising and falling note of the engine, I knew instinctively that it was not engaged in “normal” flight. Its’ path through the air drew it nearer to me as I watched and, in time, I could pick out the details of the aircraft. It was a biplane and it was spending a hell of a lot of time upside down, vertical and doing things that that might ordinarily be considered cause for alarm. Watching as it cavorted in the afternoon sun was like looking into the future, disconcerting, exciting and a preliminary glimpse into an experience so rich and overwhelming that I might easily have “forgotten” about my booking for the next day, turned tail and headed for home, had I been less resolute. Watching those maneuvers was the opening bars of an epic piece of music that would, as strange as it is to say, change my life.
A good meal, some tall, cold beers and a restful night’s sleep later and I found myself evaluating my expectations in the morning sun with a cup of coffee in hand. The day was perfect, partly cloudy with a breeze of no more than 10Kts. A magpie landed and approached the doorway of my cabin to eye my with his appraising stare. I had the door open for the sunlight and to feel the breeze. He gamely approached the threshold and sang me a little song before flitting back to the sky where I would soon follow, as though encouraging or reassuring me. I took this as a good omen and set out upon my adventure.
I’ll never forget seeing the Great Lakes 2T1A pull onto the strip of apron in front of the ops room/cafe at Aldinga. VH-VIW is an immaculate aircraft, something that belongs to a time before idiots held the prevailing majority over our destiny. It is at once aggressive; with its’ red and black paint, forward sloped offset to the top and bottom wings and its’ spatted undercarriage, and yet it is also poised as though its’ very symmetry and graceful design could carry it aloft unmanned, only to alight safely back upon the ground when it was tired of flying. The essence of dynamic motion that lay contained within its’ lines was as that of a tiger to me. Preparing to launch itself after its’ daily meal and then return home to bask lazily in the sun. I couldn’t wait to see what it felt like to touch it, to smell the hot engine, to feel the canvas, metal and leather of its’ body, to walk out, climb inside and strap myself in to the midst of all of it and forget about idiots for a while.
This was all augmented by the friendliness of the staff who led me through the process of what lay ahead. I was well briefed on what to expect by Gaylene behind the cafe/ops counter with whom I passed the short time before my flight. Even through the hubbub of the very busy morning I was able to gain a lot of information on the operations here, some insights into the process of learning to fly and the background of Adelaide Biplanes as a company. All of this kept my mind in a positive state of anticipation. I took the opportunity to express my interest in learning to fly which also gave the experience a greater depth than it might have otherwise had since it put me within a different category of visitor to the airfield. Throughout all of this I felt like an orphan, peeking through the window of a happy family on Christmas eve and, in doing so, seeing them turn towards me and smile with warm welcome when they recognised me as a potential relative.
And let me tell you, when you’re about to go upside down in an aircraft for the first time, this is one heck of a fortifying sensation. I can’t communicate to you enough how welcoming and friendly the whole experience at Aldinga Biplanes is. You have to pluck up the courage to see it for yourself.
So the time finally arrived, my pilot walked in from the hanger to the ops/cafe area and we were introduced. His name was Martyn, and he looked every inch a pilot to me. Just his jacket alone could have settled any errant butterflies within the local postcode, it was clearly a pilot’s jacket and I sensed the confidence with which he wore it as a pilot from his easy smile, his enthusiasm and passion for flight. All of this communicated itself to me immediately upon meeting him. I felt from the onset that I was in good hands and, through all of the experiences that lay ahead of me, that feeling was only reinforced by his professionalism, sense of humour and innate ability to anticipate precisely what the situation required.
He took me out to VH-VIW with no unnecessary ado, telling me a little about its’ characteristics before giving me a briefing on how to transport myself from the lowly grass to the privileged ensconcement of the forward cockpit.
“Right hand on the side of the cockpit, right foot on the grip strip where the lower wing meets the fuselage. Left foot on the foot peg mounted on the side of the fuselage, right hand on the grip handle on the trailing edge of the center section, left hand outboard on a trailing edge strong point. Right foot over the rim of the cockpit and onto the seat, don’t sit on the windshield of the aft cockpit, both hands on the grip handle and left foot into the cockpit. Ease yourself down with one hand on either side of the cockpit.”
I hope I got most of that correct, it’s a dance that leaves anything else I’ve attempted in the dust. There’s nothing so exhilarating as dancing with a tiger. Hopefully, I thought with some vague anguish, I hadn’t left a bum-print on Martyn’s windshield during this transition and, having received no remonstrance during the process, I assumed that I had not. All such thoughts were dissipated as I nestled into the front cockpit and busied myself in following Martyn’s instructions as to how to fasten the various straps and buckled that would ensure that I stayed in the aircraft for the entire flight. Having completed this task and feeling firmly embedded I took the opportunity to glance around me at my confines. I noticed that there was nothing up front for me but an altimeter and airspeed indicator. Probably for the best, depression era USA wouldn’t have wanted to outlay too much on instruments, that would just mean carrying less moonshine!
Outboard the wings seemed surprisingly short and, due to the restrictions of the harness, I was unable to see directly behind me. (Too bad if Von Richthofen came diving down on our tails!). The helmet went on next, with it’s built in radio headset, the brown leather and soft lining which brought my childhood readings of W.E. Johns to mind. I was really in a biplane now and there was no getting out of it! And you couldn’t have offered me a million dollars to leave that cockpit with any hope of success!
What I’ve omitted to communicate so far is that all of this was that an easy stream of narrative from Martyn accompanied all of these proceedings. Instructions, commentary and good humoured chitchat flowed between us the entire time as though we were engaged in noting more daunting than a stroll to the local pub for lunch and a few ales. Without this I doubt I could have seen this flight through and for it I am eternally grateful. And so, immersed in all of this and snug and secure in the front cockpit, I waited for the Lycoming in front to roar into life.
The engine was hot so it took two tries, apparently fuel injected engines can be a handful when they are warm but, despite this, there was soon a very big, noisy fan spinning up front which is what piston engines pilots’ tend to find acceptable for flying. Before I knew it we were snaking along the taxiway towards the runway which we turned onto with a minimum of fuss and backtracked down to the threshold.
“Well. We’re out of excuses now so we’ll have to go up.” Martyn announced.
“We’d better go then!” I replied, or words to that effect.
Internally I laughed however since, at this point, I could have dreamed up a million excuses.
But they all belonged to the world of idiots.
Bugger them, I was going flying in a biplane and we were going to fly it upside down or whatever way we wanted. Bugger them all!
The take-off run was surprisingly short, dual wings providing us with more lift than I had ever felt before. The takeoff run seemed over faster than I had ever experienced, even in flying gliders. Following this rush of sensory bombardment, roaring engine and urgent steam of air, came the climb out toward the coast. This was the worst time for me, looking outboard and realising the weight of the commitment to what I had undertaken to do was crushing. Parts of me pled to squirm out from under it. However; realising the sheer audacity and marvelousness of what we were doing, looking outboard at the struts and wires and the vista of hills and ocean beyond them, helped to offset the low key terror of what we were about to do. It seemed inconceivable to me that I could have been so foolish on that climb towards the coast. Whatever had posessed me to get myself into this? We should just have a nice, scenic trip around Aldinga and then go home.
‘Why in the bloody hell did you sign up for this you fool?’
All of these thoughts raced through my mind as I struggled to listen to Martyn through the headset. The overwhelming sensation of engine noise, slipstream and pressure to listen condensed itself upon me until I had the presence of mind to realise that I could only solve one problem at a time. The first problem I solved was with my ears. I swallowed. This equalised the density of air inside my ears to that outside and from then on I could hear properly. I also managed to find a position for my arms and legs that would keep them clear for the controls and this kept my mind inside the cockpit and away from the gnawing fear in my guts that would not, despite my efforts to ignore it, let go.
I could have requested a nice scenic flight with no upside-downness at this point and been obliged. I’m sure of it but part of me said “Bugger it, you bought the ticket, take the ride.” and there was no way I could have lived with myself if I hadn’t.
And I’m so bloody glad I didn’t.
Martyn talked me through our first maneuver, a loop. He briefed me on our entry speed of 110 Kts before easing the nose of the Lakes down to reach it and, I’m here to tell you dear reader, he looped with such precision that all of the fear, tension and anxiety drained from my body as the G forces pressed me down in my seat, looking out first at the right wingtip and then above at our lift vector as the horizon made it’s way back to what most consider to be it’s normal position.
It was bloody marvelous.
From there we rolled, spun, snap rolled, cuban-eighted and hammerheaded with Martyn introducing each maneuver before he performed it, telling me where to look through each stunt and keeping a constant maintenance of my ability to endure such maneuvers without losing my breakfast. As we progressed he began to string these maneuvers together more seamlessly up to the point where, instinctively, he asked me if I would like to continue.
I probably could have sustained more but the sheer overwhelming bombardment of sensations even on the climb-out, let alone the aerobatics, was something that I just needed time to process. I could also feel a rising resistance in my stomach and though that it might be better to take a break before things in that region escalated to vomitous levels! At this point, after I’d requested that we take a break, Martyn graciously afforded me not only the respite of a break but the privilege of taking control of the aircraft.
I could have stayed up there for a lifetime like that and not noticed it passing. I’ve noticed this before in my flying experience that, so soon as those controls are ceded to my grasp, I inhabit a world where all of the sense of time, desire and idiocy of our existence is dissipated and everything makes sense. There is nothing remaining but my next few tasks and the gentle corrections that one must make as the air moves itself around one and one through it. Encouraged by Martyn I took the Lakes into a fairly steep turn and I could feel, through the controls, that I was in touch with an aircraft that was capable of far more than I was. It was a humbling experience. Feeling the heaviness on the stick lighten in this attitude. Knowing that I could take it into parameters where that heaviness became fingertip lightness with only a modicum of effort. I tell you what, dear reader, the bloody Red Baron would have made mince meat out of me but dammit I was having the time of my life!
Martyn let me fly the Lakes all the way back to the field and I wouldn’t trade anything in my life for a moment of that experience. We followed the coast, turned and sped along as though all the idiocy of life never existed. The Lakes was heavier on the controls than anything I’d ever flown and, initially, I was even able to turn it without the rudder (Despite the fact that I was treading heavily on the brakes, thinking that they were the rudder) which is a testament to the symmetry of its’ controls. After having realised my mistake I couldn’t believe how firm direct the aircraft was. It didn’t wobble or do anything worrisome. It just flew where you pointed it with a minimum of fuss.
So, what I want to tell you is that;
If you sign up for an aerobatic flight here you will be scared, but that’s normal. In fact, if you’re not scared, you’re probably a bloody fool.
You’ll be in good hands, these people exude professionalism and competence. Take it from me because I speak enough of their language to know it spoken eloquently. It’s a language of hands and feet, gyroscopic forces and gravity.
I couldn’t imagine a better place to jump into the deep end of aviation.