Thrills are hard to stomach
I’m standing in a small bathroom at the Lake Tahoe Airport.
I don’t feel well and look even worse, with tangled hair and clammy skin. The toilet urges me to spill my guts. My guts thank the toilet for its concern.
People pay good money to feel like this. They strap on parachutes, climb into a teensy stunt plane and defy gravity.
Gravity wins, but not without a fight.
Fighter Combat International sent one of its aerobatic planes to town last week, a media stop before Saturday’s Air Fest 2001. Two planes will be on hand Friday through Sunday, offering everything from “thrill rides” to mock dogfights.
In market-speak, I took the “Flight of Your Life.” A better name might be “Flight of the Living Dead.”
One clue is the barf bag in the cockpit, politely called a “boarding pass.” One out of eight passengers fills it up with very personal belongings.
I’m surprised the company keeps such statistics, much less admits it. But, hey, they’re professionals.
Chief pilot Karl Schlimm spent a dozen years in the U.S. Air Force, eight of them flying the F-16. For the record, that’s a big, honking jet.
In contrast, the German-built Extra 300L has a single prop and a wingspan of just 26 feet. It looks like it’s powered by little German hamsters.
But, no, there’s a 300 hp engine under the hood, capable of speeds up to 250 mph. The Extra is also extra maneuverable, with moves the big boys can’t touch.
It costs a few Franklins to take a spin, and for a premium passengers can take the controls for much of the flight. This doesn’t seem wise in a $300,000 aircraft but I’m not paying the bills.
“There’s nothing you can get me into that I can’t get out of,” says Schlimm. He’s a big guy with an easy smile that instills confidence, at least until I strap on the parachute.
“Schlimmer” plants me in the front seat. The takeoff is smooth enough, until we jerk upward in a steep climb. We skirt Luther Pass and scan the Carson Valley for wide, open spaces – the kind where you can safely crash and burn.
South of Gardnerville, we start a series of loops, rolls and spins invented by the makers of Dramamine.
In the knife-edge spin-up, the plane tilts sideways and spins on its left wing as it continues climbing. We flip at the apex and roll down.
Schlimm’s voice crackles in the headset: “Oh, that was fun.” Oh, yeah.
I take the controls – is that even legal? – and do a halting aileron roll, where the plane’s wings twirl about its axis.
I do better on the loop, pulling back on the stick until the earth disappears from view.
Of course, the earth is only hiding. Suddenly, it’s rushing up at us at 180 mph. Easy on the stick, keep the wings level – hey, I’m flying.
And feeling sick.
“Still feeling OK?” the Schlimmer asks, over and over and over again. It’s a fair question, considering who cleans up the cockpit.
I lie through my clenched teeth. I’m dizzy, disoriented and begging for more.
Schlimm flops the plane about wildly, laughing his fool head off in the back seat. Scenes from “Top Gun” flash by … didn’t Tom Cruise’s character have issues?
The “centrifuge” spins us nine times in 10 seconds, seven to the right and two to the left. It’s a coup de gross, a vertigo cocktail.
“I wouldn’t blame you if you used the boarding pass on that one,” says the disembodied voice of Schlimmer, the Schlim-man, Schlimma-dinga-ding-dong. Don’t tempt me, man, I’ve got issues of my own – like trying to figure out which way is up.
Swimmerman does an “avalanche,” a loop with a snap roll thrown in for good measure. Four g’s of centrifugal force stretch my face like a blob of pasty dough in a bread maker. We plummet to the ground, hit a cow and explode.
“You doing all right?” the Shwimmster asks.
Oops. My bad. We are not dead.
Macho dissolves into sweat and adrenaline. I’m sooooo ready to hurl.
“I’m done,” I say.
Ten long minutes later, we’re on the ground. Glimmer says I did schwood. Yeah, right.
I fight the urge to kiss the ground as I stumble from the cockpit. I take a drink and miss my mouth, pouring water down my shirt. Somehow, this amuses my colleagues.
I feel sick driving home. I feel sick walking the dog. A week later, I feel sick recalling the “loncevak,” where the plane literally somersaults through the air.
Schwinn says it’s his favorite maneuver. Of course.
“To make an airplane tumble end over end is just bizarre, but we do it because we can,” Simm schlays.
To schedule a flight Aug. 24-26 at the Lake Tahoe Airport, call 1-866-359-4273. Go to http://www.fightercombat.com for details.
Editor’s note: The author climbed into a stunt plane of his own free will, we swear. Do not drink cheap casino beer the night before your flight. Objects such as mountains and cows may not be closer than they appear.
See related story: A fun time, plane and simple
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