A plane ride for a sunny dayPosted: August 17, 2010
“You want to go in the fast one,” they told me.
I’m often under the impression that other people know what’s best for me, so I agreed.
I climbed into the cockpit of the Van’s RV 6A kit plane, a shiny white plane made out of aluminum that looked like it might be a toy. As a kit plane, it hadn’t been built by a factory, but by an amateur. But he could have fooled me. It seemed perfectly assembled – or at least I hoped so.
My pilot, Norm, walked me around the aircraft, to show me how to properly get in. Step here, not here, grab hold here, but never here, and I was in, nestled in a glass box, my legs wrapped around a joystick and resting on two peddles used for steering.
Norm will be the Air Boss of the Camarillo Airshow this weekend, and is a member of the Experimental Aircraft Association at the airport. Word on the street is, he used to fly for the FBI.
He climbed in on the left side of the plane and showed me how to put on my headset.
Now I felt ready; lowering the microphone near my mouth and switching it on, I could pretend I knew what was going on. Ground control? Ground control? Static and low voices rattling off series of letters and numbers filled my ears.
Take off seemed much more natural than in any of the commercial planes I had been in. Though for once I could see the preparation going into it, and had to acknowledge that a fallible human was guiding me into the air instead of pretending the plane was some giant robot contraption that flew itself, it seemed like we were just accelerating, and then suddenly, pop! We were soaring through the air.
Orchards coiled around hills and lined the brown squares that of farmland. I could see the summer’s endless fog gathered along the coast, the traffic caught in a bottleneck like those diagrams of blood vessels moving through veins. I could see exactly where my house was.
I named places off silently: Somis, Saticoy, oh look, Spanish hills! But at a certain point, I stopped recognizing the place where I grew up. Which hill are we circling over? I wasn’t sure.
We radioed to our two fellow flyers, two World War II-era military trainer aircrafts, which we knew were nearby, but had disappeared. I finally understood how something as large and loud as a plane could be stealthy. Once reunited, we flew for a few minutes in formation. The Camarillo Airshow, said John Slice, president of the local chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association, has more formation flying than almost any other airshow.
But up-close and personal within the formation, I got a chance to see the planes in action: the J-3 Cub, a yellow trainer plane which is flown from the backseat, making it impossible to see what’s in front of you while you’re on the ground, and the Fairchild PT-19, an open cockpit trainer.
But the kit plane is a zippy little thing, with speeds up to 200 miles per hour. It was harder to fly at the slow speed required to stay in formation, so we broke off to see what it could really do.
Norm told me while we were still on the ground that his plane could turn practically on its wing, and he set out to prove it to me. The G-force meter climbed higher, and through the windows that were now almost underneath me, I could pick out people’s swimming pools and see isolated houses I have never known were there before.
Norm pointed to a vast array of white buildings. “That’s Amgen,” he told me. “And look over there, where the water is. That’s Westlake.” I had never seen Westlake Lake before. Honestly, I didn’t know it had one.
We circled around Thousand Oaks, waiting for other planes to land before we could get back. “Do you want to steer?” Norm asked me.
I took hold of the controls, the little joystick just like the one I used to use when I played my fighter pilot’s computer game as a kid. I have a sneaking suspicion Norm was firmly keeping me from rolling the plane as I jerked us into turns. Good for him. We did a few ‘S’ turns high above the Grade, to give the pilot ahead of us some more breathing room.
Yes, I felt like I might vomit. There are worse things to do in the name of journalism, I thought, but I sure didn’t want to reach for that paper bag.
Luckily, with air traffic dense, we couldn’t do the fancy, high speed landing Norm wanted, and we glided gently back onto the ground. Mission accomplished.
And hey, you can read the article I wrote about it here.