Sunday, August 10, 2008

I Took An Open Cockpit Bi-Plane Ride Today

Today, as a belated father's day gift I got to take a half hour ride in an open cockpit bi-plane. Wow doesn't even begin to describe it.

The trip was taken from the Harford County Maryland Airport in Churchville, about 10 minutes from Cal Ripken Stadium just outside of Aberdeen, MD.

My wife, my two children and their spouses, as well as my grandsons all showed up for the event. We were all there early and got to look at the bright yellow 1942 Stearman Navy Trainer that's been restored to mint condition and is owned by Mike Jerrod of Barnstormer Aero in Belair, MD.

Mike didn't show up until about 11:15 for an 11;30 flight and when I first saw him, I thought, "Here's a husky guy about 50 years old who I'm going to let drag me through the sunlit Maryland skies for half an hour. I hope he knows what he's doing."

Then Mike took his sunglasses off and I saw the confidence and competence in his ice blue eyes. Here was a guy who, when he talked to you, looked you right in the eye and made you feel totally confident that things were going to be lots of fun once we climbed aboard his aircraft and entered sacred airspace, i.e anywhere 2000 or more feet above the ground.

I first become enchanted with bi-planes when I saw the movie "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines". Then I read Richard Bach's and Rinker Buck's wonderful books about flying bi-planes and I, from that moment on, wanted a bi-plane ride even more than a ride in an F-16. (I've been fortunate enough to have ridden AWACS aircraft in France and in England. But after an open cockpit bi-plane ride I have to say Pfffffufff to an AWACS aircraft ride.)

Today was the day and I have to admit I had been a little nervous all week thinking about what could go wrong. That was until I met Mike Jerrod. The guy radiated confidence that was incredibly contagious and I was ready to get on with the flight. Mike asked me where I wanted to fly to and the place I suggested was too far away. He suggested that we fly out over the Susqehanna River at Havre de Grace, MD where the big river empties into the Chesapeake Bay. I said, "That sounds good to me."

With that agreed upon, Mike's assistant, a young WVU student on summer break filled me in on all the passenger rules that pertained and helped me into the front seat of the big yellow Stearman and affixed the harness that held me snugly in the front open cockpit. Mike then climbed in and we were off, rolling across the grassy runway that is used by some of the planes at the airport, especially Mike's bi-plane. We taxied down to the takeoff roll initiation point, turned and headed into the wind and with a roar the 200 horsepower eight cylinder radial engine and big wooden propeller sent us down the long grass runway and, I swear to all that's holy, it seemed like it only took us 100 feet of runway to get airborne. It took, in retrospect, probably 300 or 400 hundred feet but still an amazing experience.

Once airborne, it felt like there was no way this double winged monster could let us down, short of complete engine failure and as we climbed to what seemed like an altitude of 2000 feet and sailed above a lush green countryside I knew that, for me, this was the ultimate way to travel from one place to another. I now knew what it was like for Richard Bach and the Amis in the Lafayette Escadrille of WWI to push through the skies in a wonderful open cockpit bi-plane with the wind whipping past their ears and the feeling that if you had a big enough gas tank, you'd never come down from the skies except to eat and a very few other things.

The big yellow Stearman that Mike Jerrod was flying, as he sat about eight feet behind me felt so solid that I never felt any yaw sensation through out the entire flight. At one point, Mike jiggled the stick to ask if I wanted to fly the bright yellow bird and I took control of her for about 5 minutes as while we were over the Susquehanna River. Wow; here I was at the stick of an Open Cockpit Bi-Plane! I felt like a kid at Christmas.

All too soon Mike took the controls back from me and we headed home.

During the 30 minute ride, Mike made sure that he did plenty of steep bank maneauvers along with some roller coaster pitch up and pitch down maneauvers. I could have spent all day up in that big yellow Stearman just gambolling about the sun drenched sky. I had, before I met Mike in person asked him over the phone if he could do some barrel rolls and maybe a vertical loop during our flight. Sadly he had to tell me that aerobatic maneauvers such as I was describing required that I have a parachute during the ride as well as parachute training. Still the 30 minute ride in the big Stearman was a dream come true. It beat the heck out of riding on the back of Dick Stover's Triumph motorcycle back in 1958 and it beat the hack out of riding in a speedboat at 40 mph off Conneaut, Ohio in 1955, both terrific experiences, but not open cockpit bi-plane rides.

While Mike and his assistant were doing preflight I walked by a pilot who had just flown his single engine Cessna in from Delaware about 30 minutes earlier and he smiled at me and said, " I really envy you going up in that bi-plane with Mike." His implication was real clear and my bi-plane ride today fulfilled all it's promise and then some.

Still, though, another fellow at the airport told me that a guy who had ridden with Mike just a week or two ago had also recently ridden a bi-plane somewhere in Virginia where the pilot had taken him up for a ride and did barrel rolls, some vertical loops and a hammerhead stall and had done it wthout his passenger having a parachute. This I'll have to check out.

Take care. :-)

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