Decathalon

My camera straps have wound around my mouthpiece pulling it down and away from my mouth. The camera lens pressed against my forehead and the camera case had just whizzed by my ear. I couldn’t be heard yelling “uncle” if I tried.

I am upside down, flying at 150 miles per hour. I remember Bill, my pilot, saying that the fuel tank has a vertical tube in it so when the plane is upside down it can continue to fly for about two minutes before we run out of gas.

Two minutes must be up, are we going to run out of gas before he rights the horizon?

I wanted to take a picture through the plexi-glass roof but, besides the location of my camera, my hands were wrapped tightly around wing struts, knuckles white. I could not take them away from my security blanket. On and on, upside down, come on Bill, I can now boast that I have flown upside down! Enough!

I met Bill in the Sunrise Aviation lobby. He grimaced when he ask if I was a pilot and I said ‘no, this stunt flying demonstration is a retirement gift.’ “Come on,” he said and I followed him through a warren of cubicles, ending up in a flight instruction room like on aircraft carriers in the movies. He held a model of the Decathlon and motioned it up and down and around and through, explaining each stunt. Loops and spirals and a Cuban left and a Cuban right, a barrel roll and, of course, upside down.

“You will pull 4 plus “G’s” on some of the stunts. Grunt when I tell you to grunt.” He demonstrated by tightening his stomach muscles and mimicking a grunt. “Otherwise your blood will go down into your lower body, less blood in your head and you will get woozy and faint. And keep your head straight ahead. Otherwise you may break your neck.” Needless to say, I took these words to heart.

He was testing my fortitude and doing a good job. We left the flight deck and he stopped in the hallway. “Here, take a parachute,” he said. “They require a parachute because we are doing aerobatics. Here is the ‘D’ ring, just pull when you get free of the plane. The drogue chute will spring open and then the main chute will open. Now just act like John Wayne!” I’ve seen the plane. He sits in front by the door. By the time it is my turn to unbuckle the shoulder and seat belts, climb into the front seat, reopen the door, jump out, right myself by arching backwards and pull the “D” ring, both the plane and I will have landed with a thump! From 5000 feet at 120 miles per hour we will only have about thirty seconds.

After I made a quick trip to the john, he warned me to hold onto my camera and we walked to the plane tie downs. The Decathlon is made for aerobatics. A “tube and fabric” two seated with wings on top and lots of Plexiglas to see the horizon upside down. I thought the model he had was cute but the real plane isn’t much bigger. He went thru the preflight inspection, testing the fuel, checking it with a wooden stick with notches. “You don’t trust fuel gauges,” he said. He pushed and pulled and rotated and looked. Then he strapped me into the parachute and into the seat. Lots of buckles to hold me in the seat when upside down.

He pushed the plane out of the tie down area, got in, strapped himself in and pulled back on the stick. Directly connected to a stick between my legs, and directly into my groin! I sat up straighter, as far back into my seat as possible for the remainder of the trip.

Starting the engine he taxied a few feet and then began the ominous task of “one niners” and “Echoes” and “Hotels” and “Whiskies” and other undecipherable jargon with the tower. John Wayne Airport is busy, numerous small craft and an occasional Alaska Airlines or American West coming and going. We waited on the apron for an interminable time, minutes flying by, reducing my flight time. Finely we were given clearance to take off on “one niner left” runway. Now there are only two runways so why the nineteen?

We are off! What am I in for? I’ve got butterflies while waiting for permission to take off. We were airborne in seconds. South over UC Irvine, past El Toro Airport (or is it a park), over One Eagle Point (we almost bought that house) and to our destination over rolling brown hills slashed with new home sites. Fun Time!

We were upside down only about a minute and Bill returned to the familiar horizon. Catalina in the haze to the west. We are in the wild blue yonder with a brown afternoon haze all around us. We did a quick left spiral. “Are you ok?” Bill piped over the intercom. “Great!” I replied. Before taking off Bill gestured to a “barf bag” that he had in the front seat and I am sure that he thought I was going to need it. I’ll show him!

During my preflight instruction he mentioned how each movement is in a kind of slow motion. No quick jerks like a roller coaster. True. Each stunt was a thrill but not scary. With confidence building (Bill checked with me after each stunt to be sure I was still conscious) we went through each stunt, each more exciting than the last. Bill explained the stunt before execution and told me to “grunt” at the appropriate time.

“That’s it, that’s all the stunts,” he finally said. “Time to return to the airport.” I guess I had enough and I pulled my hands from the struts, unwrapped my camera strap and enjoyed the view. The freeway was stop and go below, reminding me of my trip back home in the rush hour. Jargon from the tower and we were cleared to land. An Alaska Airlines plane had to stop on the apron as we passed directly in front of its nose.
Two bumps and we were down, slowed to taxi speed and turned onto “J” apron, waiting for American Airlines to pass.

Back at the tie down area, Bill shut her down, and got out to push the plane back to the parking spot. I unbuckled and hopped out at his instructions. Great flight, small talk, and I found myself bumper to bumper on the 405, stomach still upside down.

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