My birthday is in June and Paul’s follows in July. I have known Paul since fifth grade, when we were in Mrs. Waterhouse’s class together. Fifth grade was a long time ago. Right after we got to know one another, someone shot and killed the President of the United States.
Paul quickly became my best friend, even though I was a good Southern boy and he and his brothers and parents were from New York. They were… well… Yankees. To this day, I still consider Paul and his brothers my best friends.
One thing I liked about Paul right away was that he was very knowledgeable about airplanes. He was the one who introduced me to Alberto Santos-Dumont’s Demoiselle. Santos-Dumont was an early aviation pioneer, a Brazilian aeronautical engineer and the Demoiselle was one of his early designs.
Had it not been for Paul, I may never have known about or fallen in love with the Demoiselle. Paul and I had big plans for building our own copy of the Demoiselle; the only things that stopped us were money, a place to build the craft, and a suitable engine.
Later, he introduced me to another great airplane and an aviator’s way of life. The airplane was the Waco UPF-7 and the lifestyle was that of the Barnstormers, the original gypsy pilots, some of whom were very fond of the UPF-7. It was a great airplane for getting into and out of small fields while hopping passengers – $3 the ride! Guaranteed to be the ride of a lifetime! By the way, pilots pronounce Waco as “wock-o,” not wack-o like someone acting foolishly, and not like “Way-co,” the town in Texas.
Now, in the summer of ’86, I have the chance to give us both a thrill. Aero Sport Inc., the FBO Jim Moser ran that was started by his father, Colonel Ernie Moser, actually had an open-cockpit biplane available for rent, even if it was expensive though, at $75 an hour.
I decide I will qualify in the airplane and have Paul come up to visit on his birthday. We will take the airplane out for an hour or so as a treat. As far as I know Paul has never had the chance to fly in an open-cockpit biplane.
His birthday comes and we head out to SGJ to go flying. Open cockpit flying is one of the greatest joys anyone, pilot or non-pilot can enjoy. Until you have experienced it yourself, you might not be able to truly comprehend what someone who has flown in an open-cockpit biplane is trying to tell you.
It is so wonderful to go up and breathe air no one else has breathed. There is no finer sound than the wind singing through the struts and flying wires and drag wires of the wings.
Feeling the press of a 4g pull to the vertical for the start of a hammerhead turn is especially delightful, topped only by the sensation of the airplane stopping in mid-flight, with her nose pointed straight up just before easing in rudder to start the turn to head earthward, straight down, as if to the center of the earth.
And as quickly as she lost airspeed going straight up, she now starts screaming on the way back down. With the nose pointed right at the earth, it is alarming how quickly the airspeed builds up causing the wires and struts to vibrate and thrum and howl against the engine noise.
After we finish playing, I turn over the controls to Paul. He is content with touring the beach in the last light of the sunset. I am, too.
After the flight, we both know it is one of those things we can check off our list. Years after this flight, another pilot who happens to be a movie actor would better put the concept into words. Morgan Freeman would star in the movie, The Bucket List, with Jack Nicholson.
As we move more into the Twenty-first Century, we few who have enjoyed the “peculiarly sensual delight,” as Ernest K. Gann has written of open-cockpit flight, are a dying number. If you have the chance to “join the club,” don’t let the chance slip away.
It is possible the chance to fly an open-cockpit biplane just might slip away forever.
© 2010 J. Clark