@story MARCUS COKER
@images JAKE LANDIS
Marcus was one of the lucky few who got to fly during the Fort Smith Air Show last month. Here’s his account of his time in the sky.
I’m about to fly, upside down and in circles, so I’m wearing my Superman shirt. The sky’s clear, and the afternoon sun beats down as I cross the tarmac at TAC Air. The wind shuffles my hair, and as I continue toward the 1980 Super Decathlon aircraft, jet engines roar behind me. I think I hear “Highway to the Danger Zone” begin to play. But maybe that’s just my imagination.
I’m introduced to the pilot, Brian Correll. He’s thirty-four, and he’s been flying and instructing acrobatics for the last ten years. Good, I think, this may be my first rodeo, but it’s not his.
I duck as I step under the right wing. Brian opens the door. I hoist myself in the backseat and notice all the straps and buckles. I first attach myself to a parachute, which looks like an oversized backpack and fastens around my thighs and chest. There’s a D-shaped ring that Brian calls the Oh S#*@ Handle, and I pray that I don’t have to pull it.
Next is the seatbelt, so complex it requires Brian’s guidance to fasten. By the time it’s over, I know what my one-year-old nephew feels like in his car seat — stuck. There’s a control stick between my knees, and I assume I’m not supposed to touch it.
Brian gets in, shuts the door, and hands me a headset so we can communicate. He starts the engine, radios the tower to get clearance and says something about Foxtrot, which I assume has nothing to do with Dancing with the Stars. We’re on the runway now, speeding up. The plane vibrates, and we’re airborne in less than 1,000 feet. Brian asks if I’m okay, and I say, “You bet!” then think, And I hope to God I don’t lose my lunch all over your nice plane.
We climb to 3,000 feet, and Brian tilts the plane so the nose is just above the horizon, and gets ready for a maneuver called an aileron roll. The control stick, which Brian is moving from the front seat, drops to my left knee, and the plane rolls 360 degrees. When Brian asks how I’m doing, all I can do is laugh. He tilts the plane up again — which prevents the loss of altitude while the plane is upside down — then rolls to the right.
During the rolls we maintained 1 G-force, which is what you experience as gravity when you’re standing on the ground. However, we’re about to step things up to 3.5 G’s, which means that if I weighed 200 pounds (which I don’t, by the way), and were experiencing 3.5 G’s, I would exert the same amount of pressure on my seat as a 700 pound person.
We begin a loop, which would look like a big circle if you were watching the side of the plane. We ascend 600 feet, and the G-forces increase. I feel like I’ve been pushed against a brick wall. The pressure slacks off at the top of the loop, and the plane slows. I notice that the ground is where the sky should be. As we descend, the G-forces return, stretching my face like Silly Putty and forcing blood from my head to God-knows-where. I’m starting to get woozy.
Again we begin to climb straight up, this time 800 feet. From my perspective, the world is turned on its side. As we reach the apex, we slow to 30 miles per hour, a dramatic drop in speed from the 160 at which we started. Brian pivots to the left, turning us upside down. For a moment, I feel weightless. We begin to fall straight down, nose to earth, then level out. I’m short on oxygen, so I take a deep breath. Then I ask to do it again.
Our last maneuver is called a Cuban Eight, which looks like an infinity symbol, or an eight laid on its side. We start by flying up, like a loop. The G’s come on, then back off. We’re upside down. As we get five-eighths through the loop, we are nose down, inverted. Brian rolls the plane, and now we’re face up, headed in the opposite direction. Just as I’m getting my bearings, we loop down, and the pressure begins to build as we climb back up. Arenaline is coursing through my veins, and I can’t name the feeling, except to say it’s equal parts freedom and nausea.
We begin our descent and as we approach the airport, Brian turns the plane slightly to the right in what’s called a side slip. Acrobatic planes don’t have flaps to lower to increase drag, so the side slip creates friction, slowing the plane. We land effortlessly, having spent nineteen minutes in flight. The safety belts come off easier than they went on, and as I exit the plane, I think I could fall over at any moment. I’m wiped out but can’t stop smiling. For the rest of the day I feel lightheaded, and I’m sure even Superman would recommend a Dramamine next time. Well maybe not Superman, but at least the guy who plays him.