The Wild Blue Yonder
Flying a Warbird
Copyright 2002 by Richard Harris
"It's your airplane..."
With those words, two and a half tons of World War II fighter-trainer airplane were turned over to me, a half mile above the patchwork of green Kansas fields.
The instructor in the back must have had a death wish.
He has just talked me through the most stunning experience of my short flying career: watching the green fields twist away from under my wing, and climb up over my head. It is the most startling sensation I've had in 20 years.
This time, the calm, crisp voice from behind me tells me what to do, but insanely lets me do the actual maneuver, hands on a pilot's joystick, as I pull back, pull back, pullllll... as the nose of the plane lurches up into the searing blue, sun glaring off the shiny blue engine cowling in front of me. The plane seems to tremble as it rises up in front of me. On command, I let off the back pressure, and swing the stick all the way to the left.
The carefully-balanced G-forces make the plane seem suspended, as the universe whirls dramatically around me. As it rolls over the top of my thundering beast, I look up... at the earth. It continues to roll over my head, and as it slides beneath my right wingtip, I see the comfortably familiar horizon twisting back into place ahead. As it levels out, I instinctively pull the stick upright and I realize I've just rolled a warbird.
The 5,000-pound, single-engine T-6/SNJ "Texan" is the trainer that prepared America's World War II pilots to fly bombers and fighters. The Texan is so much like a fighter plane, with surprisingly light, responsive controls, and incredible ruggedness and maneuverability, that pilots routinely climbed from these 600-horsepower beasts straight into America's single-seat Mustang and Hellcat fighters, and roared off to victory. In the Korean war, these behemoths would even lead the fighters and bombers to their targets, occasionally even attacking with 1,000-pound bombs.
But the glory days of leather helmets and wind-blown faces are not just for the generation past. North American Top Gun, a traveling "warbird-training" team, is giving instructional flights (they don't call 'em "rides" for a reason) in these thundering beasts. Virtually anyone -- yeah, ANYONE -- is welcome to go aloft with them and experience some hands-on in a piece of history.
As a former flyer, I couldn't resist adding a bit of warbird time to my dusty logbook. But even grannies and kids are welcome. As an instructor, myself, I was amazed at the smooth-talking Pawel Wolski, as he crisply directed me through the most amazing flying of my life. It's easy to imagine anyone being comfortable with his calm, measured voice gently guiding them through the most daring act of their lives.
And this truly feels like daring stuff. You're strapped into a parachute, and 4-strap seat harness, as the instructor soberly explains the bailout procedure, on the remote chance you'll break the plane while cavorting in the wild blue yonder. Senior instructor John Becker (4,600 hours in the air) assures me that North American Top Gun (the first "air combat school" approved by the FAA, but no relation to the Navy fighter school) hasn't had a single accident in its ten years, flying over 20,000 people. "Not even an open parachute," assures company spokeswoman Wendy Relph.
But it's a wonder. They routinely fly these 55-year-old muscle machines through the most stunning maneuvers. As a precaution, you're shown where the "airsick bag" is, in easy reach -- and during the flight the instructor regularly inquires about your condition, adjusting the flying accordingly. Each flight is tailored to the comfort-level of the customer. If you need a little fresh air, no problem: pull back the canopy and breathe the cool wind at three-thousand feet.
Want a taste of this thrill? It ain't cheap, with rides from $190 (15 minutes, with a $30 option for a little hands-on time), to $290 (the half-hour thrill ride I took, front-seat, hands-on and aerobatics included), to a $580 full hour of rockin' and rollin'. In what has to be the bargain video of the century, for an extra $40 bucks, they'll have three video cameras (including one in the cockpit) record your flight, and hand you the tape on landing, and its free with the half-hour or longer flights.
If you're lucky, there may even be some formation flying -- and for the stout-hearted (and thick-walleted) there is a even an air-to-air combat course, with practice "sorties."
They're working out at the Augusta airport, halfway between Augusta and Wichita on the south side of Highway 54, this weekend only (Friday the 7th through Sunday the 9th), with a possible "rain day" Monday. They can be reached at 800-257-1636 for reservations (website at www.natg.com).
All in all, a much better way to spend the rent money -- or a first-class, once-in-a-lifetime Father's Day gift. This is something that I can brag to my grandchildren about (come on kids, gimme grandkids!).
As I finished my work aloft, Pawel treated me to a full loop: diving to pick up speed, he hauled back on the stick as we neared 200 miles per hour, and three times the force of gravity thrust me deep into the parachute seat-pack as we soared up into the blazing sun. Over we went into the most amazing view I've ever seen of my home planet. Oh BABY. This is LIVING!!!
15-minute "Discovery" flight
30-minute "Super Ace" flight
60-minute "Warbird Dream" flight
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