I love to fly. It doesn’t matter if I’m piloting, co-piloting, riding in coach, relaxing in business class… whatever. I love to fly.
Like so many other people here in the Fayette/Coweta area, I had a pilot’s license at one time. Okay, full disclosure: It was a student license. I never earned the full pilot’s license, but I sure had fun poking holes in the sky as a student pilot. Those were exciting times.
Perhaps even more exhilarating were the opportunities I had back in 1999 and 2000 as the Wings over Dixie Airshow & Festival (now The Great Georgia Air Show) marketing guy to ride along with some pretty great aerobatic pilots. I’ve flown with several, including Dan McClung in his Red Eagle, Elgin Wells in his Citabria, and with the late Chris Smisson in both his Russian Technoavia SP-95 and his Czechoslovakian Zlin.
My most memorable aerobatic adventure was in Smisson’s Zlin. As with all of the aerobatic ride-alongs, I would ask the pilots to do their normal routine with me in the plane. I wanted all the snap rolls, hammerheads and resulting positive and negative Gs they could throw at me. Smisson was keen to accommodate.
Smisson was particularly brutal on his hammerhead routine, when we would fly straight and level at a high altitude then tip the nose forward into a dive toward Earth. Gradually, he pulled back on the stick, and we were pulling some major Gs as the Zlin’s attitude felt as if it must have been nearly vertical. And that’s when he would put that beautiful, red-white-and-blue aircraft into a hammerhead spin, and we would feel completely weightles until he pulled us out of that spin, generating more positive Gs.
The first time I rode with Smisson, he kept asking if I was sure I wanted to continue with the full aerobatic routine. One trick after another, I shouted back through the headset: “Yes!” By the end of the practice performance, Smisson said he was surprised I hadn’t gotten sick. He said it was unusual for a passenger to actually enjoy going through all of those moves.
What I never told Smisson was that about ten minutes after walking away from his plane that first time, I thought I was going to throw up all over the Peachtree City Falcon Field terminal building. I felt the most painful nausea I had experienced in a long time. Later, I learned that it was literally caused by my internal organs repositioning themselves and settling back into their original places. Kind of made sense after all of that whirling and twirling through the air.
I miss Smisson. The last time I saw him was in 2001. I moved to England in the summer of 2002, and Smisson died performing an airshow routine at Tyndale Air Force Base in 2003. He is the most enthusiastic aviator I’ve ever met. Period.
But there is perhaps one pilot, whose name I may never know, who takes a close second place.
This second-most gung-ho pilot flew me and a group of high school teachers from Dobbins Air Force Base in Marietta to Marine Corp Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina for a four-day tour of nearby Parris Island. All of us passengers were either civilians or Marines, and all of the C-90 (DC-9) flight crew were Army airmen. There were words spoken in jest at the front of the plane between the friendly rivals, and then we all took our places. Words can’t do justice to what happened next.
The C-90 rolled away from the hangar and onto the runway. We stopped at the numbers, and one of the Marine recruiters was still standing in the aisle giving us a welcome speech. The nearly empty jet stood perfectly still, but the engines were whining louder and louder. I had been on passenger jets before, so I didn’t understand why we weren’t already rolling forward on takeoff.
Just about the time the engines were at their peak, I realized the pilot must have been standing on the brakes, and then we all knew when he lifted his foot. The C-90 rocketed forward, the Marine recruiter fell down the aisle and we all rotated (lifted off) well before normal along the runway.
The pilot began his introductions on the PA while we were still in our first few seconds of the very steep climb, and he actually laughed as he took us through a right-side wing-over. I suppose that was him having the last word.
Harrison is a freelance journalist, former foreign missionary and founder of Law to Grace Ministries. He is a part-time writer for this newspaper.