Gary Rower of Rower Airshows donated a flight in his Stearman to the SUN ‘n FUN Media pool drawing and on Friday morning, April 7, 2017, I won.
Abandoning dignity, I raised my arms in the air and gave a whoop of joy.
For the 24 hours leading up to the scheduled Saturday morning ride, I told everyone I encountered about it with evangelistic zeal. I was insufferable to friends, family, total strangers — you name it.
My husband had been telling me for years how much fun he had learning to fly the big beauties. He asked if the flight would include aerobatics. I hadn’t thought to ask. Any ride in a Stearman would suit me. I felt like quite the winner.
The next morning photographer Ken Strohm and I rode by golf cart to the airshow performer’s flight line. There Gary’s wife Gwen offered me her leather flight jacket to fight the 56° temperature. I had brought along a thin jacket and pink scarf, but in an open-cockpit flight, they would not be enough to keep me warm. Thank you, Gwen!
The pink scarf was an homage to my employer General Aviation News, whose staff wear pink shirts. I also wanted to emulate scarf-wearing pilots like Amelia Earhart, the Tuskegee Airmen, and Snoopy.Gary smiled at the scarf and suggested that after we take off to stuff it in the coat, so it doesn’t whip me in the face. That advice laid waste to my romantic notions of flying in an World War II open-cockpit biplane.
Gary asked if I liked amusement park rides. I said yes.
Okay, there was that one time with my daughter and her friends who dragged me onto the spinning teacup ride that left me hurling lunch into a trashcan, but I blame the onion rings.
I have performed a few simple aerobatics in a Decathlon under the direction of Flight Instructor Don Kohler. My first loop didn’t have enough airspeed, so at the very top of the loop the plane flipped upright, but hey, I eventually got it.
Don flew in the Berlin airlift in World War II, so my flailing early attempts did not disturb him.
Gary explained the aerobatic maneuvers he had planned. He said we’d “climb a couple thousand feet,” do clearing turns, then “dump the nose like we’re doing a dive-bomb pass. When we hit 160 mph we’ll pull four times the force of gravity, go straight over the top and you’ll feel positive Gs the whole time…We’ll come back up and if you’re smiling at me and looking in the mirror, then we’ll do a left barrel roll.”
By this time, I wished I had borrowed a Go Pro to record the ride.
Gary continued, “And if you’re really gutsy and you promise not to get sick, then we’ll dump the nose again and we’ll pull straight up into a hammerhead. And just before we slide backwards and do a tail slide, we’ll kick the rudder and come straight down…”
He told me to leave all loose objects in his van, so I removed sunglasses, cell phone, ID badge, my thin jacket, and keys. I donned Gwen’s flight jacket.
As he strapped me into a red seat-style parachute, he said, “If you hear the words ‘bail out, bail out, bail out’ that means I’ve left the aircraft. You need to release your seat belt, climb out onto the wing and dive for the ground. You don’t want to hit the tail. Grab this D-ring with both hands and pull it hard out and across your body like you’re starting a lawnmower.”
If a Top Gun pilot with over 1,000 hours of F-16 experience who was also the captain of the USAF Academy Soaring Team bails out of his beautiful Stearman, I will follow him.
Climbing into the aircraft required a step ladder to reach the wing, then walking up the wing to the front seat. There Gary instructed me to grab the handholds on the back of the top wing to step onto the metal seat frame. After fitting the seat cushion of the parachute on the seat, I buckled up, and Gary tightened the straps.
He handed me a set of goggles and a headset. He fastened the headset control to the parachute and that’s when I noticed there was no stick in the front. The rudders were beyond my reach as well. This was when I realized that although we were going to do aerobatics, I was simply along for the ride.
This two-seater open cockpit 1942 Stearman PT-13 has a nine-cylinder, 1,000 cubic-inch modified Pratt & Whitney R985 450 horsepower radial engine, a two-blade 9-foot prop, and a cruise rate of 110 mph at 50% power. Sporting a white and red striped pattern on the wings, it’s a rock star among vintage aircraft living the high life.
We flew out of Lakeland Linder Regional Airport on Runway 27 and cruised at 500 feet until we passed the power plant near Bartow on County Road 555.
“I have smoke leftover from the last airshow. Want me to use it?”
Gary climbed the Stearman to 4,000 feet and then did clearing turns to the left and right. He dove for the loop. Visibility from the front seat was limited by my lack of height and both upper and lower wings, so I watched the loop by looking out the side. I felt every bit of the 4.2 Gs.
It’s surreal to see the horizon turn vertical, then inverted, then vertical again before returning to normal. My pulse thudded in my ears. The airspeed indicator topped 160 mph. Unlike my scarf, the goggles were necessary.
Completing the loop, Gary passed through the plane’s wake turbulence.
He turned again, and I glimpsed our smoke trail. He asked if I was okay, so I signaled a thumb’s up in the mirror. He climbed and dove for the left barrel roll.
Wheeha! Seaworld’s Kraken ride can look up in envy.
I gave another enthusiastic thumb’s up. In the hammer head maneuver the Stearman roared up, up, up, and up until it ran out of energy, then Gary kicked in the left rudder and the plane fell off and dove before leveling out.
Adrenaline surged into my bloodstream like an IV-dose of Red Bull. The smoke trail floated like a ribbon.
We followed the Aeroshell team into the pattern. Like a kid on a sugar high, I waved at the operations crew on the taxiway. I waved at the driver of the fuel truck. On the flight line, Gary shut down the rumbling engine. Moments later, he appeared on the wing and told me to release the seatbelts and the parachute before climbing out of the cockpit. Mentally, I was so far behind the plane I hadn’t landed yet.
I thanked him, returned Gwen’s jacket, and gathered up my stuff. Gary was scheduled to give rides to Gianna Azzaro and Luke Liptak, juniors at the Central Florida Aerospace Academy, later that day.
My body relived the ride for hours. That night, I think I was smiling in my sleep. That ride was the biggest thrill I’ve ever had with my clothes on.
At SUN ‘n FUN 2017 Gary flew in the Friday daytime air show and the Saturday night air show. To see a recording of his night show routine from inside and outside the cockpit, go to RowerAirshows.com and click on GALLERY, then click on the “Rower Air Shows Night Show” video. It’s magical with smoke, lights, and music.