Taken for a Loop
Inside a stirring stunt-plane ride with Monterey Bay Aviation.
Thursday, June 28, 2007
The world has never looked like this. It rushes up toward me, spinning like a spectacularly green-and-blue record. Meanwhile, the needle in front of me spins around the altimeter— three thousand feet, two thousand. The accelerometer to its left tells me the G-force sucking me into my seat is pulling four times as hard as gravity. Through the windshield above the gauges, the top of Point Sur Lighthouse whirls ever closer.
At about 1,800 feet, Monterey Bay Aviation’s Erik Fleming peels the shiny blue Citabria out of the spin from the seat behind me. The control stick between my feet, married to the one between Fleming’s, leans left and then back. Our spinning dive through the sky, like the demanding maneuvers before it— a “snap roll,” “hammerhead” and “Cuban 8” among them— meets a smooth, curving conclusion in the rarefied air above a sun-soaked Big Sur.
Fleming has been looking at the world in this exhilarating way for a while. The former Marine sniper first caught the aerobatic itch at a flight school outside Houston about 10 years ago, when former national champion stunt pilot Debby Rhin-Harvey took him for a ridealong. Now, when he isn’t manning the air traffic control tower at Monterey Airport— or teaching students to do it themselves— the Pacific Grove resident is up in the air, using physics, wind and wings to play puppeteer with small planes. Teaching Monterey Bay Aviation’s recently hatched emergency maneuver and aerobatics classes allows him more flight time, and the satisfaction of watching students become more complete pilots.
“The most rewarding part is seeing students grasp a concept and learn to become safer pilots,” the Tennessee native says, “It teaches each aviator to be calm. It teaches safe and smooth recovery from unusual flight attitudes and energy management.
“It’s also the ultimate teacher for stick-and-rudder finesse. And, best of all, it is fun.”
Fleming has a commercial license to fly. He’s instrument-rated, and has both single-engine and multi-engine land and sea ratings, which is rare; he is also a certified flight instructor and control tower operator. He has also served as a test subject for NASA, trying out the flight suits and the limits of his body at crazy Gs and altitudes. He also recently scuba-dived with white sharks off the Farrallones.
I assumed these flying chops and daredevil credibility would provide more comfort as Fleming takes me through a daunting sequence of flight instructions.
~ • ~
“A bail out’s not gonna happen, but if it does, pull this.”
Fleming is holding my parachute and pointing to the handle that would deploy it. This is just the first of a fleet of such stirring directives.
Soon he will tell me, “Keep your feet off the rudder pedals in front of you, because if you hit them… ” Fleming makes a “wuu, wuu” noise, tipping his hand back and forth with a foreboding twitch and letting the thought tumble through the air between us like a disabled airplane.
Then he’s into a demonstration of the maneuvers we will complete with an improvised model plane on a stick. His movements look like those of a crazed conductor as he twirls and flips his wand. When he demonstrates the “shark tooth,” a stunt that takes the plane almost straight up, then screaming almost straight down— carving out the shape for which it is named— my eyebrows crawl halfway up my forehead.
Before we lift off, he shares an anecdote about a student who he had to physically subdue in the cockpit because he panicked during a stunt and wouldn’t relinquish the stick.
Later, as we’re climbing to 5,000 feet above Big Sur, I hear this through my headset: “We’re moving over these fields in case something happens, so we won’t land in the water. But nothing will happen.”
Then this: “Don’t worry if the engine stalls on some of these maneuvers— that’s normal.”
~ • ~
When the Los Padres mountains along the coast lunge into view from above— at the top of a big soaring loop de loop— I fall in love with our little stunt plane, and this new world view, for the umpteenth time in the last half an hour. No distracting beep informs us of a stall.
If heaven has a rollercoaster, this would be it. There are all of the swooping turns, gut gymnastics and wild spirals of Great America’s best rides but none of the rattling and jostling of the rails. Fleming had wasted no time getting to the excitement, starting the flight with a leaping “military takeoff” that sent us shooting straight up over North Monterey. Not even a suggestion of a cloud dared intercede on the following journey south, during which the views of the coast’s sublime marine terraces and battered shores made blinking feel foolish. On any other day, this leg would’ve marked the highlight of the afternoon, but Fleming hadn’t yet begun.
A dream sequence of bold aerobatics arrives post-loop-de-loop: We flip fluidly through a barrel roll, swing through a half-dozen exotic moves— like the Cuban 8, which is actually two loops with two twists sewn into it— then Fleming stalls the plane high above the lighthouse before beginning our spin towards the earth. He briefly flies us upside down past Point Sur.
The plane is made for these moves, with buttressed wings, bigger ailerons (the moveable section of the wing), aileron spades and a reinforced tail area.
Fleming, of course, is built for this too. He has somehow brokered a deal with the sky gods whereby he and his plane enjoy a break from the repressive rules of reality, dancing above and beyond such boring constraints as gravity and believability.
He clearly loves the deal, and wants to share it with his students, squeezing out every juicy drop of adrenaline along the way. Fleming does just that on this trip, with a climactic conclusion befitting the afternoon’s adventure, one he has planned at the behest of his colleagues in the air traffic control tower.
As we glide back into Monterey Airport, Fleming guides us down toward the runway, but rather than landing, he steers us along at a height an amateur eye estimates at about nine feet off the tarmac, though we’re likely higher. As we near the stretch of the runway next to the terminal, he suddenly yanks us through a sweeping turn, banking left just short of the tower.
We wheel around and touch down, disembark and shed our parachutes. My feet tell me we are earthbound again; my head, however, begs to differ.
MONTEREY BAY AVIATION OFFERS TWO TYPES OF INTRODUCTORY AEROBATIC RIDES ($175) AND TWO COURSES IN AEROBATICS (AN INTRODUCTION TO SPINS, $575, AND UNUSUAL ATTITUDES AND EMERGENCY MANEUVERS, $1,425). FOR MORE INFORMATION, CALL 375-2359 OR VISIT MONTEREYBAYAVIATION.COM.