“It’s refreshing to have two pilots on board,” said Dr. H. Jay Bruninga as he walked with GAN publisher Ben Sclair and me onto the ramp at Tacoma Narrows Airport in Washington State. We were going to see the turbine-powered Bonanza that is the photo airplane for Tim Weber Airshows Inc. We were going up with Bruninga to shoot the air-to-air photographs that aviation magazines crave.
“Are you going to be okay with this?” Bruninga asked, gesturing to the sans-door Bonanza.
Ben assured him that he would be fine, referencing his time flying an ultralight, and I assured him that I had done my share of door-off flying in both fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft.
Bruninga, a retired airline and military pilot and the pilot for the photo flights, was pleased because the plan called for us to be flying at 1,900 feet over Puget Sound. Because he was unfamiliar with the area and I am very familiar with it, he pulled out the sectional and pointed to where we would be flying. He wanted to know if there was anything to “look out for.” I asked about the altitude, then pointed to the popular reporting points for aircraft that intended to land at Tacoma Narrows Airport.
Ben was put in the left back seat, I in the right. Both seats faced backwards.
Bruninga admonished us to keep loose objects secure and keep hands and feet inside the aircraft at all times.
“And above all else,” he began and Ben finished the sentence for him: “Keep your seatbelt on!”
MAKING IT WORK
Communication is key when doing photo flights because the aircraft are so close together. Bruninga told us it was imperative that Weber follow his lead during these flights and then showed us the hand signals to use in flight to communicate to Weber.
“This means come closer,” Bruninga said, drawing both his hands toward his chest, palms first. “This is move back,” he said, motioning as if he was pushing something away. “This is go higher,” he gestured with a thumb up. “And this is go lower,” he gestured thumb down.
He then added, “Tim doesn’t see anything but this airplane when we do these photo flights. He is really focused.”
Ben and I strapped in while a few feet away on the ramp, Weber, clad in a bright red flight suit, was maneuvering his red, white and blue Extra 300. The plan was for us to do a formation takeoff.
We donned our headsets. I supplied the tower frequency. Bruninga handled all the radio communications. We pulled onto the runway.
Weber went on the radio and advised the tower that he intended to turn the smoke on shortly after takeoff. “Thanks for the heads up,” the tower controller replied.
The turbine-powered Bonanza roared to life. We rolled down the runway, then broke free from the Earth. To our right, Weber’s aircraft did the same.
We headed to the west. Weber hit the smoke as we passed over the departure end of the runway.
We continued to climb. We reached altitude just outside the airport’s airspace. Bruninga advised Weber that they were going to make a turn to the left. I leaned back in my seat and Ben leaned forward, getting the images he wanted.
Ben motioned for lower.
Weber put the airplane into sort of a sideslip, never taking his eyes off the Bonanza as he obediently dropped a few feet. We flew around for about 10 minutes using the gorgeous Puget Sound as a backdrop.
“I have what I need,” Ben told Bruninga over the intercom.
Bruninga passed this information to Weber, who peeled away and headed back to the airport for landing.
“Tim lands first,” Bruninga explained.
A few minutes later we were all on the ground.
Weber reinforced what Bruninga said about focus when he said, “When I broke off today I had to look around to see where I was. I sort of lost the airport. I saw the bridge next to the airport and figured it out, then I noticed all the water. It’s kind of pretty around here,” he laughed.