It wasn't until we were rolling toward the runway that I realized there was virtually nothing in my little space of a cockpit for me to hold on to. I found one small bracket in front of me that I could awkwardly reach with my left hand. My right hand was in charge of the video camera.
We pulled on to the runway, swerving back and forth like the Indy cars do when they are warming up their tires. Mark said that's so he can see the other plane in front of him. If he didn't swerve, he wouldn't be able to see in front of the nose. Then, swerve away, I told him.
We lined up in formation with the two other AT-6 Texans of the Aeroshell team. Taking off and flying in formation was amazing. The takeoff was much smoother and less scary than in a passenger airplane.
Just the "normal" flying was beautiful. The sky was so blue. And the clear canopy over my head let me view everything around and above me. I could see Lake Michigan and the beach and all the patchwork pieces of land below us.
We were within 6 to 12 feet of the two other planes for the entire flight. I looked over and saw the passengers in the other planes and waved at them -- and they waved back! That's how close we were. It was kind of a Top Gun moment, only we weren't inverted and no one flipped the bird.
I also noticed that the pilot in the lead plane wasn't wearing a helmet. I said something to Mark into my microphone about that.
"He's not wearing helmet. His parents or his wife should give him heck for that!"
"Oh, he's not married," Mark replied. "And his parents don't like him much."
I laughed and then a few minutes later realized, "Wait a minute! I'm not wearing a helmet either!" That's when Mark said the helmets are more for communication than for safety. I guess if the plane were to go down, a helmet wouldn't help much anyway.
Just as I was really thinking I was glad I'd decided to do this and I couldn't believe how enjoyable it was, Mark said "Ok, here we go!"
I heard the engines of all three planes gunning and in an instant we went from a smooth forward motion to an incredibly fast, incredibly scary ascent straight up into the sky. I said "Oh sh*t!," followed by "Jesus, Mary, Joseph!" I grabbed my parachute with my left hand and held like mad onto the videocamera, which was still rolling, with my right hand.
Then we started to flip -- forwards or backwards I'm not sure because my eyes were closed. One of my Facebook friends said I should keep my eyes open so I didn't miss it, but I don't think that was even an option. The force of gravity pushing down against the plane climbing up was so strong. The video camera felt like it weighed 50 pounds.
Other than my first utterance as we were racing upwards, I didn't cuss. I didn't scream. Mostly because it's impossible to do either when you are not breathing.
The flip was over before I knew it. I was just getting air back into my lungs when Mark's voice came into my headphones and said, "And here we go with the roll..."
Again, my eyes closed and my breathing stopped. And again it was over so quickly. That's when I was sorry I'd missed it. I wished I'd kept my eyes open and thought about asking if we could do one more stunt. Then I decided maybe it was the lack of oxygen to my brain entertaining that idea and I should just keep quiet.
I looked out the window and saw circular smoke underneath us. I asked Mark if it was our trail, but he pointed out the 6 smaller, yellow Lima Lima precision planes flying below.
From there, we headed back to the Jet Center, me enjoying the beautiful, air around us. That is until without warning, we pealed up and off to the left. In hindsight, it wasn't really scary. Just startling in an "excuse me while I get my stomach out of my shoes" kind of way. We circled around and landed.
Mark swears the flight was about 15 minutes long. It seemed to start and finish in about 3 minutes to me. And it seemed like maybe it wasn't such a crazy thing to do after all. Maybe I will still dye my hair blue.
When we landed and Mark parked the plane back in its original location, Mike and the kids ran out to congratulate me. Annie and Charlie said I looked pale. Mike said he was jealous. Robbie said "let's get lunch."
We signed the Aeroshell log books and got an autographed picture from the team. Though I wasn't the least bit sick or queasy in the air, once I'd been on the ground for about 3 or 4 minutes, my legs started getting shaky and I felt the need to eat something -- fast. It was like the rapidly changing altitude and the battle with gravity caught up with me as the day went on.
I spent much of the ride home reclined and feeling a little woozy. Oh, and I think those g-forces must have had some kind of crazy intrauterine effect because my monthly visitor made an unexpected appearance later in the day as well (either that or I'm just a really bad calendar keeper).
I learned at least two things from this experience:
- I am braver than I think I am.
- I am a really terrible videographer.