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A celebration of the bizarre, live from Los Angeles.

Mom, this is for you. :-)

Saturday, as research for the boss's movie, I got to go for a "hop" in a Stearman biplane, a cute little aerobatics craft with an open-air cockpit, fixed landing gear, dragging tail, and one giant propeller in the front. The Steerman was the primary training plane for WWII aviators.

In preparation, I had donned a scarf, so that when they put the leather cap with the radio on my head, I would be like Snoopy, WWII flying ace! But alas, when Margi, wing walker and co-owner of the biplane, strapped me in, she said it could choke me and made me take it off. Poop.

Notice how I casually threw in that Margi walks wings. You may have thought I was embellishing. I am not. Margi straps herself to the wing and does trapeze artistry and ballet style moves--while the aircraft is in the sky. She demonstrated for me on the ground, wearing grey, calf-high cowboy boots and a red striped sweatshirt. She's got a much more glam getup for her actual performances. She says the act of wing walking is pure living; everything else is just going through the motions. Needless to say, most of us enjoy the motions enough to keep our seatbelts on.

So yes, here I was, seatbelted securely into this aerobatics biplane, a cool wind on my face on a sunny day in Camarillo. But did I really want to be so attached? I looked to my left and my right. Duct tape was wrapped around the crosshatches connecting the upper and lower wings. Its purpose was unclear, but it was nevertheless far from reassuring to this Flying Ace. Fortunately, I had a parachute strapped to my rear end, and had been shown the triangular pull tab for deployment. Less fortunately, I realized as we sputtered down the runway, I had not been shown how to unbuckle myself from the seatbelt.

Ah well. No matter. Hartley, my pilot, had assured me that in 50 years of flights he had never bailed. Anyway, Hartley had a rip in his brown leather flight jacket where the left arm connected to the bodice that I found reassuring. He was no fly-by pretty boy, not in the least. He had hundreds of thousands of miles under his belt and a wife who walked on wings. Good enough for me.

After what seemed a very short zip down the runway, we were off. I almost wish I could tell you that it was such high-speed terror that my heart stopped beating and vomit, formerly a turkey sandwich on wheat, trickled down the shiny red side of the plane. But no. As we left the ground, my fear evaporated. Flying in one of these things is a graceful crawl through the air. The landscape rolls by underneath, and the ground doesn't seem so, so far. The horizon is all askew, this way and then that, but it's just the way things are.

And what beautiful landscape. The sky was a stand-up November blue, the clearest it ever gets since it had rained the night before. Puffy white clouds a la the Simpsons butted up against snow-capped blue-brown mountains to the North. Beneath us were the strawberry fields of Camarillo and a few lazy lines of winding traffic. To the west, the ocean was a deep Pacific blue. Normally, when I fly to the coast in a 747 and look down at the water, the phrase "a watery grave" resonates in my noggin. Today I instead saw a marvelous home for whales and other happy marine life of the sort one sees drawn in crayon in coloring books.

As testimony to the beauty of it all, I didn't even feel the least bit of vulgar consumerist stirrings when I noticed the outlet mall I had driven by on the way to the airstrip. No, not even a flutter.

My nostrils were cold, my cheeks were ruddy, and I'm pretty sure I had gotten more than my standard dose of oxygen when Hartley's voice came through the mike:

"OK, your turn to fly."

I froze. Here, now, was the terror.

"Push left on the joystick and at the same time slight left on the rudder peddle. Only, watch your toes, because at the top of the peddle are the brakes and you DON'T want to brake because this is a very bottom-heavy aircraft."

My fear, rather than paralyzing me like it does in nightmares, turned me into an automaton. I followed orders. I banked right, pushing ever so slightly on the rudder. I banked left. The plane actually seemed to obey me. This was even more petrifying. Was that acid after all I now tasted in my throat?

I took my right hand off the joystick to flick the switch to tell Hartley calmly to resume the controls, please. It might have come out, Please, God, take back the controls, now, fucking now, now, now!! However, I'll never know, because when I flicked the switch, all I heard was dead air.

The radio was out!

After a long moment there was a crackle and then came Hartley's voice. A relief--or did I detect a rigid note of fear?

"I have to take back the controls, now."

That was followed by a loud shriek on the radio and some more dead air. Suddenly the noise from the engine (or was it the propellers?) grew louder. Was this normal? Hartley? Hartley?! I peered at him in the round mirror above and to the left of my head, but I couldn't read him. He looked concerned, I'll say, but the sun was in his eyes and his face was permanently craggy with worry.

Since I'm writing this dispatch you have probably surmised that we did not die, burrowed into the wet agricultural earth or in a fireball on the tarmac beside the Commemorative Airforce Hanger. In fact, I didn't even have to deploy my parachute. We had merely lost radio contact with the tower, so Hartley brought us in. However, upon landing we found out that the starter, which gets the propeller going, had gotten stuck in place and burned itself out. As Hartley said, "Your maiden voyage and you broke the plane!" Good-natured Margi assured me he was joking. Still, I felt bad. My initial anxiety had no doubt caused the short. Electronics, the world's only legitimate empaths, sense these things.

Electrical short aside, what an awesome experience. Thanks to Hartley, Margi, Mike, and the boss for getting me up there.

posted by Sara 12:31:00 AM
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