This Side Up

Taking it all in stride in the sky over Newport

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I’d done as I was told.

“Watch the video and try to get here before 9.”

Now that I was in a trailer on the flight line at Quonset Point, I wasn’t prepared for what was to come next. I expected some red tape, a lecture and a no-nonsense group of pilots who weren’t looking forward to dealing with a crusty bunch of reporters who if they weren’t asking trivial questions would be quivering at the prospect of climbing into a 77-year-old airplane – the SNJ-2 for those who know airplanes.

We’d been warned. Much of the video concentrated on what we should do if the pilot seated in front of us were to issue the command “bail out, bail out, bail out.” We were to pull the plugs to the headsets in our helmets, release the straps that came from between our legs and over our shoulders from a single lever in our lap and climb on our seats. Next came the dive from the cockpit – aim for the wing head down – followed by deployment of the chute.

The red tape took all of 30 seconds of signing and initializing forms, which I didn’t bother to read but assumed would give away all rights I might have of suing anybody responsible for taking me up in the air. I dutifully handed over the paperwork.

“How about coffee…a soda?” I was asked. That wasn’t on the script. Brenda Little, who handles media relations for the Geico Skytypers, pointed to a stainless steel counter with a coffeemaker. Outside there was a giant cooler filled with ice, soda and bottled water. She handed me a media card and an air show program book. I declined the coffee. That seemed like a safe course of action.

The door to the trailer slid open, a guy in a flight suit entered, followed by another reporter. Four of us would be going up, each in a separate plane. I waited, figuring when there was a plan I’d be told what to do.

“You look to be a 41 or 44,” Brenda said, opening a closet and pulling out a blue jumpsuit. I pulled it on, a perfect fit.

I leaned against the counter and talked with Tom Daly, one of the pilots, but not one who would be flying Friday morning. I started off with questions about the years he’s been flying and his work schedule. Daly worked for the Nassau County Police air rescue and was in the air over New York City soon after the second tower came down on 9/11. He showed me photographs on his cell phone. At the time there were reports of another possible attack and Daly and his crew were on the lookout. They were involved in the rescue efforts at the site of the World Trade Center.

“You lived on the hope they would move a wall and 200 [people] would come out.” Of course that didn’t happen. As terrible as 9/11 was, Daly found the experience incredibly encouraging.

“Everybody wanted to help,” he said. He felt proud to be American, “people came together.”

What about now, can we come together?

Daly believes that would happen again in a crisis. I hadn’t expected to be talking about the mood of the country while waiting to take of in an airplane built in 1940 to train pilots how to take off and land on an aircraft carrier.

There were more surprises.

I was under the impression the Skytypers spent most of their time on the air show circuit. As Daly put it, “these are work planes.” As the name says they do sky typing that requires the synchronized release of smoke generated when oil is introduced into the engine exhaust to create letters in the sky. There have been some unusual requests such as the man who was going through a divorce and paid the Skytypers to write “She got it all” over the courthouse. On another assignment, evidently a convention of thinkers, the team wrote “Pie in the sky” in the form of a figure 8, the symbol of infinity over and over. He showed me a picture taken from Central Park in New York.

We didn’t type anything over Quonset although we released smoke and dipped and climbed over Narragansett Bay and Newport. In preparation to the 20-minute flight, the points of the video were emphasized with particular attention to bailing out should there be an emergency. Whether over the water or not, we were instructed to inflate our life vests, how to deploy the chute pulling the D-ring away from your chest and then down and what to do when you land.

Daly helped me into the cockpit of Skytyper #4. I pulled belts from the seat. He leaned into the straps, tightening them to the point where I felt one with the seat. The crackle of the radio filled my helmet and I heard the voice of pilot Chris Orr, who would be flying me.

“We’re waiting for the engine to warm up…it will be a few minutes.”

Even on the ground the plane vibrated and the wash of the prop carried across the canopy. The three planes ahead of us pulled ahead. Then it was our turn. Chris gave the engine throttle. I looked to our left. We were parallel with another Skytyper and it seemed we lifted off the runway in unison. I could have closed the canopy, but didn’t for the sake of getting photos and the full effect of the flight.

Chris had asked prior to takeoff whether I would prefer the ride of a commercial airliner or something like an air show. I picked the air show. He smiled.

We flew wing-to-wing within feet of one another. We traded slots in the formation. We dipped down over the Naval War College and then followed the Newport Bridge. I snapped photos. The wind tugged at my camera, the strap snapping in my face.

I shifted in my seat, surprised that I was suddenly able to move. The belts had become unbuckled. I was bouncing in my seat. I grabbed at a section of tubing that was part of the airframe. No way did I want to bail out before the command. Chris would land and wonder where I’d gone.

Of course, that didn’t happen, but the very thought had me tighten my grip. We flew in formation down the runway, banked out over the bay, releasing a stream of smoke and returned to land.

“Awesome,” I said to Chris and then thought I should mention that the belts had come undone. Maybe the next ride along would appreciate that.

He didn’t look surprised. After all, I had stayed in the plane. It wasn’t a big deal.

I guess when something is 77 years old, things happen. At nearly the age of the SNJ-2 I’m learning to accept that.

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