Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Making like Snoopy in a biplane of my own

Wandering around on Facebook the other day, I noticed one of my friends posted something about the Abbotsford (B.C.) air show, which takes place every August. For some reason, it piqued my memory about the time I made like Snoopy, the World War I flying ace. (No, not the video game - the "REAL" WWI flying ace, as read in Peanuts comics or seen on "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" animated Halloween special.)

Really. I lived my "Snoopy" fantasy not in a video game, but in real life.

Well, sort of ...

I was on a group tour of the Valiant Air Command Warbird Air Museum, (which, by the way, is hosting its own 2012 airshow, starting March 9), located near Titusville, Florida. We'd spent the previous day on the water, paddling down the Econ River. This day, we were focused on the air. While waiting for the tour to begin, I noticed an open cockpit biplane sitting on the tarmac outside the museum. Then I noticed a sign offering rides in the plane. 

Stearman biplane - my transport for the day.
While not exactly a WWI plane - it was a 1930's Stearman biplane, used to train American combat pilots between the two world wars - it was close enough for me.

The flights are not included as part of the museum tour; it is run by Warbird Flights and it is booked separately. And in this instance, it was not part of our scheduled tour. But I quickly convinced our tour leader to let me "play hooky" and trade some ground time for some time in the air.

I quickly made my arrangements, then began my wait. And wait...and wait...I thought, "I'll never get out of Casablanca..." Oops! Sorry! There's another one of those "Casablanca flashes" I get from time to time (well, it is the 70th anniversary, after all...)

Eventually, the wait ended. As we rose up into the air off the tarmac, I finally caught my breath – we were airborne! Now I could actually relax and enjoy the experience of the wind rushing past me in the open cockpit of the Stearman.

Exhilaration quickly replaced my nervousness about taking my first flight in a open cockpit airplane. While the worst part of the trip was waiting around the hangar to go up, the actual flying itself was much too invigorating to waste any time worrying – even when the pilot asked me if I wanted to take over and "drive" for a while.

If you're in the Titusville, Florida area March 9-12, 2012,
you might want to check out the air show.

I tentatively took the control stick and followed his instructions to keep the top of the fuselage level with the horizon. I was only "driving" for a few minutes, but during that few minutes, I gained a very healthy respect for "fly boys" who piloted these kinds of planes. It took incredible concentration on my part just to keep the plane level. And I didn't have to worry about fuel, air speed, communicating with air traffic control towers or any of the other myriad thoughts that occupy pilots in the air.

During the 20-minute flight, we did not spy any red Fokker triplanes; however, the thrill of playing "Snoopy, the World War I Flying Ace" in search of his nemesis, the Red Baron, was too much. When we found a boat on the river far below that wanted to play "tag" with us as we banked back and forth above it, I couldn’t resist parroting Snoopy, by shouting, "Curse you, Red Baron!" just once.
View from the cockpit.

The museum itself occupies 10 acres of property at the Space Center Executive Airport in Titusville. It displays, maintains and restores all types of aircraft that were indigenous to the world's military air forces going all the way back to WWI and covering present-day aircraft.

The main display area is approximately 30,000 square feet in size and is wide and high enough to accommodate the wingspan and tail assembly of all but the largest bombers.

In addition to the main hangar bay, an area of 15,000 square feet is dedicated to the display of memorabilia associated with the "Valiant" individuals who flew and maintained these aircraft.

If you really want to experience living flying, though, combining the tour with a flight makes for a much better experience than just a tour alone...

Even if you don't spot the Red Baron...