Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Trusting Souls

The heaviest load in aviation is flying someone else’s airplane

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!"


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