The most exciting perk of working as an aviation reporter is that, occasionally, I get invited to ride with airshow performers. Four of us from the media pool at SUN ‘n FUN 2018 enjoyed that thrill on Thursday, April 12, 2018.
Kimberly Moore of The Lakeland Ledger newspaper, Phil Lightstone, a freelance writer for the Canadian Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association publication, John Munn of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, and I were selected to fly with the Phillips 66 Aerostars.
Last year, they flew the Romanian-built Yak-52TW. Now, in their 16th year of working together, the team fly the Extra 300L. Like kids headed to Disney, we crowded into a car and took off for the giant NOAA hangar on the Lakeland-Linder Regional Airport grounds.
As a general aviation pilot, I once flew with pals in four aircraft from Bartow, Florida, to the Triple Tree Fly-in near Greenville, South Carolina, but flying together in a loose group isn’t at all like flying in formation. Not. At. All.
Flying with the Phillips 66 Aerostars in their new Extra 300Ls was a completely, thrillingly different experience that began with Phillips 66 Aerostar Pilot Gerry “Fossil” Molidor’s briefing on how to deploy the parachutes we’d be wearing.
As they say — stuff got real.
Then he explained how to climb into the plane, what to touch and what to avoid touching, such as the bright red ejection levers on the $25,000 canopy. Gulp.
He also admonished us to avoid bumping the stick because we will be doing maneuvers in formation. We were also instructed to remove keys, coins, sunglasses, media lanyards, and cell phones because loose objects can end up flying around inside the plane and get lost.
According to Phillips 66’s Kathleen Al-Marhoon, one time mechanics had to remove a seat to recover a dropped cell phone.
I tucked my four-pound Nikon D80 into my backpack and left it behind rather than risk being smacked in the head with it.
Al-Marhoon introduced us to the team. In the number 1 plane was Harvey “Boss” Meek, Paul “Rocket” Hornick was in plane 2, David “Cupid” Monroe in plane 3, and in plane 4, the oldest pilot and newest member of the team, Gerry “Fossil” Molidor.
Then, like kids on the playground, we waited to be selected to join a team. Molidor pointed to me and said with a wink, “I’ll take her.” Having just celebrated a milestone birthday, I was flattered.
He might have selected me because I was the smallest passenger, but, hey, it got my engine humming.
Kimberly followed Meek to the yellow and blue Extra 300L. Lightstone and Hornick headed to the Navy blue and white plane. Munn and Monroe strode off to the orange and white Extra 300L, and I followed Molidor to a garnet and white aircraft.
Kimberly and Phil had the foresight to bring along GoPro cameras that can be securely mounted to something in flight. Ah, well. I did bring my logbook…
We donned parachutes, climbed in, powered up, and taxied to the runway.
To say we departed would be an understatement. In pairs, the planes launched off the runway. After encountering thermals that bounced us a bit, the planes moved into a snug diamond formation.
In the flight briefing, Gerry didn’t mention how screaming close we’d fly in formation. He said we were a plane-width apart at all times, but from the back plane, it looked like we were all one sneeze away from swapping paint or meeting God.
Just as I was settling in, the formation dove and then after feeling four times heavier than normal, we climbed into a loop. I have flown loops before. In a Decathlon. The Extra 300L loop was faster and wider than expected. Wheeeeeha!
I apologize again to Gerry for whatever involuntary shouts blasted his headset. I feel as if we are on a first-name basis after that kind of thrill. Maybe I owe him dinner and drinks…
After the loop, the four Extras transitioned into a barrel roll to the left. Kind of like the best theme park ride, without rails, at 4,000 feet. Again, sorry about the involuntary sounds of awe.
The formation performed more steep turns, or perhaps it was half of a Cuban 8. Having only seen a Cuban 8 in an airshow, I could be mistaking steep turns for a different maneuver.
The team then broke formation to line up to land. Bravo on the gentle touch down, Gerry.
We taxied in plane number order, parked in a neat line, and climbed out. While I did not fling myself to terra firma, I did walk around to look for paint transfer. Spotless.
Since Gerry is also a flight instructor, he logged .3 dual formation aerobatics in my logbook. That should get my instructor’s attention at the next bi-annual. Hehehe.
“I saw my hometown in a way I’d never seen it before — from a few thousand feet high and upside down!” said Kimberly Moore, a reporter for The Ledger.
Kimberly uploaded her view of the ride on YouTube.
In the video, note the placard on the inside of the canopy. It lists the speeds required for maneuvers in the Extra 300L.
“Flying with the Aerostars was an incredible way to see SUN ‘n FUN and experience it from the airshow pilots’ perspective,” said AOPA’s Munn. “What a blast!”
Thank you, Phillips 66 Aerostars for the flawless joy ride! And, thank you, Phil Lightstone for the photos!