Stunt plane’s passenger tells her story |

Stunt plane’s passenger tells her story

Kathryn Reed, Tahoe Daily Tribune

Even upside down, Lake Tahoe is the the most majestic lake in the world.

I didn’t bother trying to read the instrument panel. I was leaving the flying to Tim Weber. If I didn’t trust him now, it was too late.

He and Rob Harrison will be dazzling spectators at Saturday’s Tahoe Air Fest. Harrison zips through the thin air of Tahoe in a lemon yellow one-seater built in the Czech Republic. Weber is in a two-seater SANMINA-SCI Extra 300 made in Germany.

Both were taking test flights at Lake Tahoe Airport on Thursday afternoon. This is something they do before any show to get a feel for the air. And Lake Tahoe is a whole different animal.

“My plane is easily 40 percent better at a lower altitude. I could tell because of the way it didn’t climb, ” said Weber, 43, after finishing his practice run.

Earlier the 61-year-old Harrison had said Tahoe is an extremely difficult air show. He could only shake his head when he stepped out of his aircraft. He kept wanting to do a particular maneuver, but the air prevented it from happening.

Such is the way things are in the world of professional stunt pilots. They go up with a plan of maneuvers printed on a card, but as soon as they know they can’t complete it they improvise. Crowds would never know the difference, but the pilots do.

In a 12-14 minute period a pilot can perform 27 tricks, hitting speeds of 200 mph.

Not only did I get to see the fly boys do point turns, go inverted, do a hammerhead and other death-defying thrills, I got to feel what it is like. I was more nervous when the canopy closed than when Weber took the plane end-over-end.

At first I kept glancing at the large white bag I was handed as I climbed into the front seat. I think I was more impressed with myself for not getting sick than I was with surviving 5.5 Gs, and 2.5 negative Gs.

Closing my eyes and a death grip on the red handles helped me come out of it with a smile on my face and telling Weber I was ready for more.

Waves rippled across the lake as we flew inverted. Sailboats and motorboats seemed oblivious to the spectacle overhead. Once we were right side up, I took the controls and positioned us toward Emerald Bay. When the mountains seemed to be inches from the nose I knew it was time for Weber to take over.

Then it was back over the main body of the lake and into a steep climb where I felt like I could reach out and touch the sky. For several seconds it felt like we just hung there, as though someone had a hold of the propeller and was dangling us over the lake. Just before it seemed that we were about to fall from the sky, Weber pulled us to the left and into a level flying position.

Both pilots make it seem so easy. Having been in the air and only responsible for keeping my lunch down I still have no idea how they keep the land, the mountains, the lake, the sky all in perspective while at the same time tumbling through space in what looks like poetry in motion.

It’s not a painless profession, in fact it is barely a profession. There are only a handful of pilots who make a living showing off their trade at air shows. Weber is one of them. Harrison is in a group of about two dozen who do it part time. If the throttle is not in his hand, he is working as an attorney or an engineer.

Both are based out of Phoenix. Weber says about 15 shows a year is what he likes to average. In his spare time he is a musician. He even uses a CD that he cut as the music during the show.

Harrison has his wife, Kathleen, do the announcing for him when he is up in the air.

To keep things fresh they are always challenging themselves to do something more, one more barrel role or skimming the runway with inches to spare while they zoom past fans at 200 mph.

This is not an activity for the average person. Physically it is extremely demading. They can easily hit 10 Gs. Weber explained how fighter pilots hit 9.1 Gs and are wearing a special suit that holds everything together while he and his comrades are in flimsy getups.

Shoulder injuries are normal from being banged around. Bruises are common from the extensive restraints being whacked against their midsections.

Even with all the danger, these gentlemen cannot imagine doing anything different. My brief ride gave me a good understanding why.

It’s all about pushing the limit and living to tell about it.

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