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June 20th, 2001 Ted Katauskas | Outdoors
 

TAMED BY THE WARBIRD

     
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Rattling down the runway at 80 mph, I'm wondering if maybe I should key my headset mic and mention that the second of two red "Low Fuel" lights has just begun to glow on the instrument panel above my right knee. But my host seems to have his hands full up there in the forward seat of the cockpit, so I keep my mouth shut and my eyes fixed on the sticker pasted on the back of his white crash helmet: "Badass Toys for Badass Boys."

The relevant badass toy is a North American Aviation T-6G Texan, a silver World War II-era combat plane once employed by the Navy and Army to train aviators in the fundamentals of avoiding and pursuing Zeroes and Messerschmitts. The badass boy is Eric Schmidt, a 47-year-old crop-duster-turned-barnstormer who flies from municipal airport to municipal airport, offering his services to people like me interested in finding out how much positive gravity they can endure before resorting to the barf bag folded in the map case near the instrument panel. Where that "Low Fuel" light is still, I can't help but notice, glowing red.

Not that we'll be pulling many Gs today. With a cold front boiling in off the ocean, the ceiling has dropped to a mere 1,500 feet, and Schmidt insists on having at least a mile of unobstructed Wild Blue Yonder beneath his wings before he'll attempt the most serious aerobatic maneuvers, like ballistic rolls (two Gs) and loops (four Gs).

Once Schmidt locks down the landing gear, the fuel light flickers, then darkens. Over the intercom he announces that we seem to be a bit light on gas, but not to worry because there's more than an hour's worth in reserve and we'll only be up for around 15 minutes anyway. Good to hear.

He climbs, making a tight U-turn above Scappoose Industrial Airpark Airport, until the glass canopy is almost scraping the clouds. Then he hands the controls over to me in the back seat, where I quickly discover that a real joystick is much, much more sensitive than your average Nintendo knockoff. Recovering from a nose dive, I respectfully surrender the warbird to Schmidt. He flips the plane onto its left wing tip, then back, causing me to grin like an idiot as, for an instant, half my weight in gravity presses me into my seat. A mere 1.5 Gs. Then, a reversal, an abrupt double turn from left to right that sends my insides sloshing in one direction while the plane zips away in another. My hands are sweating cold; my jaw tightens involuntarily.

For Schmidt, who earned his wings before he could legally drive a car, flight is all about freedom, moving through multiple dimensions simultaneously. Fingering the barf bag, I'd settle for just one dimension right now: down. And thankfully that's exactly where we go.


Think you can stomach 4 Gs? Schedule a flight with Eric Schmidt, who will be working out of Pierce County Airport in Puyallup, Wash., this weekend (June 22-25); after barnstorming several states, he'll be stationed in Newport from Aug. 10-20. Fifteen-minute scenic flights cost $150; half-hour aerobatic intensive, $315 (barf bag included). High Noon Warbirds, (509) 754-1899; www.hnwflight.com .
 
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