The phone call seemed innocent enough.
“The Red Baron Squadron is in town. Do you still want to interview them?”
I immediately affirmed my intentions, grabbed a tape recorder and camera, then broke several traffic laws while driving to the airport. I arrived without incident and managed to find the correct airplane hanger.
I stepped through a small door to look through an open hanger at three bright red Stearman biplanes sitting in intense sunlight on the tarmac. I started walking towards the airplanes and was met by three young men in red flying suits who politely introduced themselves.
“Ready to go?” asked flying officer Randy Brooks of Marshall, Minn.
I stammered, “You mean we are going flying?”
“Yes, we thought you might enjoy a little hop.”
“Oh yeah,” I said with a great deal of boyish enthusiasm, still not believing what was about to happen. “I'm more than ready.”
Minutes later I sat in the front cockpit of the plane Brooks flew. He strapped a parachute on me with a harness that was made for someone with a smaller belly. I was warned by Brooks that in case of emergency, use my fist to punch the airplane harness release. Then fall free of the plane after I hear him say “jump” three times over the radio.
“The faster you get out the faster I can jump,” Brooks said. “I will not jump until you are clearly out. We will only have seconds to open the parachute canopy, so pull the harness immediately when clear of the plane.”
I hoped not to experience that scenario.
Next the plane's harness straps were tightly draped over my shoulders and between my legs. I thought man, they really strap you in for a simple plane ride. My flying garb was topped off with a leather helmet that included built-in ear phones and goggles, standard equipment for an open cockpit airplane. I could not help but think of Snoopy and the Red Baron after viewing myself in the wing mirror.
Brooks made sure I was completely comfortable before climbing in his cockpit for a pre-flight check.
I listened on the ear phones as each pilot affirmed they were ready. Then the word “contact,” sounded through the earphones and three Pratt and Whitney engines roared in unison, a very satisfying sound that vibrated through my whole body.
The smell of high-octane fuel found my nostrils for an instant and then drifted away in the powerful propeller wash. I looked ahead at the propeller that blurred in a powerful circular motion. My thoughts drifted back to World War I when pilots staked their very lives on this whirling piece of wood.
I heard Brook's cool voice over the radio, “Are you ready Kenny?”
I am not sure what my answer was, but it should have been, “I've been ready for this all of my life.”
Minutes later all three planes taxied across a broad tarmac while waiting for the air traffic controller to grant clearance for take off. Brooks had to drive the plane from left to right for front vision because the nose of a Stearman raises high above the back cockpit. Otherwise he would have to taxi blindly.
The air traffic control tower and Brooks continued to talk with an obvious calmness in their voices, business as usual for them and the experience of a lifetime for me. Soon we were in position for take off.
I could hear their exchange through my ear phones and felt a rush of excitement when he said,
“You are clear for take off, have a nice flight.” I closed my eyes for the pre-flight prayer and felt our plane picking up speed down the runway and lifting into the air. I could see the other planes to my right and left, not over five or six feet away. The addictive sounds of those coarse, deep engines promised that we would indeed have a good flight.
We swung over a river and circled before heading east. I marveled at the beautiful planes while shooting dozens of photos. The open cockpit would not allow baggage, so I had to stuff the film canisters down the front of my shirt. I was packed in the cockpit too tightly to reach pant pockets.
The three aircraft continued reaching higher altitudes while flying to open country.
“Kenny, would you be interested in joining us for some aerobatics this afternoon?”
I had not expected this and meekly answered, “Yes.” After all, I thought. Brooks has years of experience and thousands of hours flying this very plane. Why not?
The three planes flew level a bit further while I wondered what was about to happen. Suddenly, all three biplanes did a right side barrel roll followed by a sudden shift upwards. Everything was happening fast and I realized that we were hanging on our props. The engines sounded like they were really laboring as we climbed. We flew straight up and engaged in a hammerhead stall before nosing over in a power dive.
My stomach left me sometime during the power dive as the earth drew closer at an alarming speed.
About this time, Brooks heard me scream out an excited Rebel yell, not believing the sheer adrenaline that coursed through my entire being. I was experiencing the sensation of flight while defying gravity.
The whip over from the hammerhead seemed 50 times faster and steeper than any roller coaster ride. Wind screamed through the cockpit as we flew in a half Cuban, a maneuver that places the airplane in a half-loop upside down position.
I leaned my head back and looked straight down at the ground. A couple more rolls in formation brought our flight to an end and we started back for the North Kansas City Airport. I was not ready to quit.
The three planes stayed in formation throughout the maneuvers and only broke apart for a short time before heading home. During this last leg of our adventure, a down current pushed all three planes down, a hazard of flying the lighter airplanes. I watched the lead plane dip with us and felt a moment of lost control, although the pilots claimed they did not — they had complete control.
The radio crackled just before our final approach to the airport. Air traffic control warned us of an approaching jet who had landing clearance. I could see the jet pilot looking and wondered what he must have thought while glancing at three bright red Stearman biplanes in tight formation to his right.
We touched down on the runway in formation. I marveled at the precision of each pilot and plane.
Their professional abilities had given me the experience of a lifetime while literally keeping us alive.
Everything happens extremely fast in an airplane, especially when doing maneuvers that most planes are not designed to do.
“We appear at most air shows with four planes and perform 20 maneuvers,” Brooks said. “We showboat the versatility of the pilots and showcase our planes.”
Brooks notes that most pilots are not capable of doing close formation stunts and there are only a certain number of aerobatics that can be done in close formation. Most stunts are variations of loops, rolls and the squadron's signature hammerhead turns.
“A hammerhead turn is when the airplane executes one-fourth of a loop until it goes from horizontal to vertical,” Brooks said. “Most aircraft run out of airspeed sooner or later. The rudder is kicked precisely when the aircraft reaches zero airspeed and the plane is pivoted around 180 degrees until pointing straight down. Another one-fourth loop is performed to bring the aircraft back to level flight. There is actually no engine stall in a hammerhead turn, also called a hammerhead still maneuver. Air show announcers gave it the more common term of hammerhead stall and it stuck.”
The squadron performs breath-taking stunts five to seven feet apart. Sadly this very aspect of formation flying cost Randall L. Drake and James Edward Lovelace their lives in a Kissimmee, Fl. air show several years ago. Wind gusts up to 30 miles per hour pushed the top plane into the lower plane from a close four plane formation.
I had spoke with Lovelace two years before this tragedy and found him to be a very sturdy, likable man with a Red Baron mustache and broad smile. He understood the risks and loved flying in formation as do the rest.
The Red Baron Squadron flies around the country performing at air shows and making good will personal appearances. Red Baron Pizza, the owners, donate a fair percentage of funds received to local charities. The squadron exists to promote pizza sales, but the public receives a treat at most major air shows.
I walked away from the flight feeling slightly sick but excited beyond all imagination. Try this if you ever get the chance. The nausea will pass.