We're about to do some hangar flying under the guise of talking about some of the most trusting people I've ever met in my life. These are people who let me fly their airplane and, in so doing, gave me hangar tales I repeat as often as I can.
Early in my flying career, when I was just out of college, I met my first hard-core trusting soul. At the time, I had barely started in my first (and last) real job and was instructing aerobatics in Citabrias on the weekends. I was a newbie to life, newbie to aerobatics, newbie to magazines and just barely out of newbie status to aviation in general. Our first meeting went something like this:
I had driven onto the Homestead, Fla., airport in search of a T-6 I had seen advertised (I had delusions of warbird grandeur). I parked in front of a hangar marked "Fly For Fun…Aerobatics," and asked the first person I saw, "Do you know of a T-6 for sale on the field?"
His answer was, "No, but I have this Jungmeister for sale."
I had been eyeing the cute little biplane as I walked up and couldn't keep myself from asking, "This is great! Can I sit in it?"
"Sure," he said and introduced himself as Bill Thomas.
I let down the little side door and weeviled my way down into the made-just-for-me-sized cockpit. I sat there for several minutes, clearly drooling down my shirt, while we talked about the instructing I had been doing, when he said, "Wanna fly it?"
My brain heard the words but initially couldn't comprehend the meaning. Then it caught up. "Really? I can fly it?"
A few minutes later, I was weaving my way down the taxiway, absolutely freaking out that I was actually astride a Bucker Jungmiester. It was my very first single-place airplane, my first biplane, my first serious aerobatic airplane, my first…well, you get the picture. I look back at the ensuing flight as the moment where I not only discovered what a real aerobatic airplane was supposed to fly like, but found myself mesmerized by all of the differences in its personality I kept discovering, as compared to "regular" airplanes.
We lost Bill, one of aerobatics' greats, in 2009. He left his mark on a lot of pilots through his instruction and books. And he left his mark on me by placing an unbelievable amount of trust in an absolute stranger.
And then there's Byron Root of Sherpa Aircraft. He made one of the craziest leaps of fate that ever existed. I had gone up to shoot their amazing Sherpa STOL bird in action, and we were trundling across eastern Oregon in search of places to land where no airplanes of any kind could land. He spotted a tiny little butte, a square-top mushroom-shaped bit of land sticking up probably 200 feet. From the air, it looked to be maybe 600 feet across. Hard to tell. But it was clearly unlandable because of the heavy sagebrush and the ravine that cut squarely across the middle of it. Before I knew it, he had throttled back and cranked out those humongous flaps. He turned final to a slightly inclined flat spot in the rim that was half the size of a tennis court, where he intended to touch down before rolling into the sage-covered, and obviously wet, terrain past it. If he was even slightly low, we'd punch into the edge of the cliff. If even slightly long, we'd wind up in the ravine. I was thinking (sarcastically), "This ought to be fun!"
I didn't have to worry about being afraid, because from the backseat, I couldn't see a single bit of the butte, and could see nothing of the instrument panel or the windshield. Nothing! I had not the slightest idea what was happening. Suddenly, "splat/slide," we were down. And stopped. And still alive!
Then, just to prove it wasn't a fluke, he powered up, we made ridiculous hops and leaps as the 48-inch 4x4 tires galloped over the bushes, and we shot into the air and came back to repeat the landing performance. Absolutely amazing! But not as amazing as what he did, and said, next.
The engine was still running when he unstrapped and stood up, "Okay, it's your turn!"
A vaguely hysterical voice inside my head literally screamed, "You have got to be kidding!" Or something much less PC. He would be in back where he not only couldn't control the airplane but couldn't see enough to even offer advice. Holy…!
I was dumbfounded! Not only was this their company prototype, but the only Sherpa in existence: the airplane upon which the company's future depended. And he wanted me to take off and land on a piece of soggy real estate that wasn't even suitable for a decent crash, must less a landing. I argued. He argued. He won. I did it. We survived. I was thankful.
Making that one landing totally reset my view of what a STOL airplane should fly like. I've never done anything as seemingly risky, or as easy, as that one takeoff and landing.
Except that the airplane totally managed the risk by being so good at what it does. I'm smiling, as I type this, because it was so much fun and said so much about an airplane. But, of course, Byron knew that or he wouldn't have let me attempt it.
I remember so clearly sliding down into Lloyd "Jim" Butler's Midget Mustang. But this wasn't just a homebuilt Midget Mustang. It had been an Oshkosh grand champion homebuilt two years in a row. And it was the only retractable- gear Midget Mustang extant. And it wasn't an airplane: It gave the appearance of being a solid ingot of aluminum that had been carefully hewn into the shape of an airplane, and then polished to an eye-shocking, flawless luster. And I was wildly intimidated during the whole flight: What if I dinged it? How quickly would I be able to dig a hole afterward and climb into it? The horrible weight of the responsibility permeated the flight. But it couldn't kill the thrill or out-and-out fun of it.
So here's to the crazy airplane owners, over 300 of you, who let me fly their airplanes in search of new types. Thanks, guys, for creating so much of my life. Sorry if I worried you while I was aloft in your baby. If it makes you feel any better, I was worried, too.