Into the Wild Blue Yonder

AT-6 “Texan” from World War II
Getting ready to knock some “bogies” out of the sky, in an AT-6 “Texan” from World War II.

I get settled in the cockpit and fire up the engine, all 600 horses raring to go. The wind from the propeller blows into my face.

The more-experienced pilot in the back, Dennis, goes through the pre-flight cockpit check with me. They hook me up to four or five heavy harnesses, and show me where the ripcord is on my parachute.

I’m sitting in a seventy-year-old fighter plane from World War II, with cockpit instruments that look like they’re out of a Humphrey Bogart movie. And I’m going to fly her.

The aircraft is a fighter plane called the AT-6, nicknamed “The Texan,” for the Fort Worth plant that produced thousands of planes for the war effort. This one rolled off the assembly line in January, 1945, and was mostly used for training new pilots.

Thousands of pilots trained in the AT-6 before they were shipped overseas. But it also saw combat in Europe and the Pacific. A few years later they were called into duty again, and flew more than 40,000 missions in the Korean War.

These days, the plane takes would-be “aces” like me into a wild-blue-yonder time machine, complete with aerobatics and combat maneuvers.

“The Texan departing on 8 right,” I hear on my radio as I “give it the gun.” In a moment the ground is falling away, and the big yellow nose with the whirling propeller is pushing up into a sea of blue.

I pull the landing gear back and to the outside. As we begin dipping and sliding toward the right and then the left, the view becomes incredible.

We head up toward puffy white clouds, and the ride turns bumpy.

“Now I’m going to show you a few basic combat maneuvers,” Dennis says. With that he goes into a steep climb, and then a dive, and I begin to feel my stomach struggling to keep pace with the rest of me.

Then he turns the craft sideways – 180 degrees – and I’m suddenly in a very weird world. When I look to my left, all I see is the ground. And when I look to my right, all I see is sky. It’s hard to imagine how pilots did that in combat, with people shooting at them.

We push the plane up steeply to get above the rough air. Then we’re above the clouds, and suddenly it’s smooth.

“Now we’re ready,” Dennis says. “Let’s do a roll.”

Suddenly the world goes wacky. Sky becomes land and land becomes sky, and clouds flash by as if on rollerblades. My head is below my body, and my hands are holding onto the canopy…from below it. We’re completely upside-down. Then everything goes crazy again, as we roll over to right ourselves.

Dennis gives me a minute to catch my breath.

Then I hit the right pedal on the floor, forcing the nose down to gather up more speed. The ground swarms up toward me. Then I bring her into a sharp climb. I grab the stick and pull it towards the right. And there we go…hurtling over at nearly two hundred miles an hour. Again my head is suddenly under the rest of my body, with clouds flying by both above and below me.

“Hold her steady,” he says over the headphones, as I struggle a bit to keep both my equilibrium and my breakfast. Suddenly we’re rightside-up again. I let go of the stick.

When Dennis asks how I’m feeling. I reply that I’m actually feeling fantastic…but my stomach is about a thousand yards behind us.

Then I perform a loop – a backward somersault.

I turn the nose down to pick up speed. Then I turn it back up and climb straight up. This, by far, is the most thrilling moment of the entire flight. A steep climb is murder on the body, and even more murderous on your mind. Normally, in an airplane, your fixed points are the land below you and the sky above and around you. Even though you’re up in the air, there’s a natural order of things, some physiological steering points. But when you’re in a steep climb, suddenly the land is gone, and you’re totally disoriented. You’re heading straight up into a blue vacuum, with no horizon, no beginning, and no end.

I pull the stick toward me, and suddenly I feel like I’m blasting off. The ground totally disappears as we climb and then begin to flip over backwards. I feel my body pinned back against my seat, and my head feels like it weighs a thousand pounds (in flight lingo, I’m experiencing pressure of three “G’s). I’m totally disoriented; I’ve lost any “compass point” in the sky or the land. I literally cannot hold my head up. I’m having trouble keeping my eyelids open because of the pressure. Upside-down images of blue and green and white are whooshing past me.

Finally, I see the ground floating up toward me as I begin to level off…and I feel my stomach finally beginning to catch up to me. We go into a sideways roll – 180 degrees – and, as we pass through a cloud bank, we see a brilliant rainbow.

“North County Texan on its approach,” I tell nearby air traffic.

And as I slow down on the runway, I think of the pilot, all those years ago, who sat in the seat  I’m sitting in now.

Seaplane parked at dock
About to go up in a seaplane in the Pacific Northwest