Sunday, July 6, 2003

Upside down in antique war bird, doing 185 mph



Peter Bronson

When pilot Gina Moore goes into a steep dive, she makes a sound like a kid playing race car: "Whaaaaaaaa."

Or maybe that was me.

I used to make that sound when I was 8 years old, pretending to fly my model of an AT-6 Texan.

Some kids play with toy ponies, cars or dinosaurs. I was nuts about World War II airplanes: the F4-U Corsair, the P-51 Mustang, the P-47 Thunderbolt, the British Spitfire and that AT-6 Pexan with the beautiful lines.

There is something about the grace and power of the World War II war birds that makes modern jets look about as thrilling as a kitchen appliance. The old airplanes look and sound the way an airplane is supposed to look and sound.

"Like a herd of Harleys," was the way the ground-crew guy described it as he showed me how to strap on "the parachute you won't need."

Perfect description. When the huge engine on the AT-6 started, it coughed like an old man getting out of bed and exhaled puffy white clouds it had eaten the day before. They had that intoxicating aroma of reckless horsepower.

It was much bigger than my model and much bigger than airplanes look in the movies. When I drove up to the Wright Brothers Airport in Dayton, it had a black tarp over the canopy that made it look like a hooded bird of prey, hungry to spread its wings and soar.

As we took off, I tried to find the oil temperature gauge among more than 80 switches, buttons, dials and levers, and Gina described the plane from the backseat. It was built in 1953 and was painted with the markings of the Normandy invasion: black and white stripes over silver, with cowl, wingtips and tail dipped in blood red.

At 50 mph the tail lifted, and at 80 we were leaving Earth in the dust. At about 2,500 feet, Gina showed me a barrel roll and then said something I never expected: "Would you like to try it?"

I wish I could say my reply was something cool and piloty, like "Roger that." It wasn't. It was more like, "Oh, yeahhhh!"

I pushed the stick to the left as I stepped on the left rudder pedal, and the big old bird gently rolled over and the ground flashed by like a movie played sideways. I watched the wingtip wave at northern Warren County, then wave at the sun, and then we were level again, and I was flying about a thousand feet above the plane.

Gina showed me how to dip the nose to gain speed to 185 mph and then yank back the stick, and we did a complete loop, making the sun slide off the sky like a fried egg on a slippery blue plate.

Then Gina did cloverleafs with both of us going "Whaaaaaaa" until we finally landed as soft as a dandelion seed on a still pond.

Gina and her AT-6 will be back in Cincinnati at the end of July. Reservations are available at www.warbirdskyventures.com.

I've seen ads for this kind of thing in magazines. And I always thought, "Gee, that would be fun."

I had no idea.

It's like driving a fire-breathing dragster on a roller coaster.

It's like being half a mile from the ground in a vehicle that was built 50 years ago - upside down at twice the speed of a police chase.

It's like. . . Whaaaaaaaa.

E-mail pbronson@enquirer.com or call 768-8301.




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