Pilot Adds A Twist -- Or A Spin -- To Flying

May 12, 1991|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff writer

Bill Finagin yanks the stick back and shoots the biplane straight up, climbing from 1,500 to 3,500 feet over the Chesapeake Bay in seconds.

The force of gravity inside the two-seat cockpit abruptly multiplies by four. A 150-pound man suddenly feels 600 pounds of pressure.

The number, 4 g's, measures it but describes nothing. To a novicepassenger, to a person who would pay to get off a roller coaster butnot to get on one, the force of this aerobatic maneuver, the vertical stall, grips the gut from one end to the other andsqueezes.

The mind races to make order of this. What is happening? Where is the horizon? Where is the ground? All right, all right. Look down at the cockpit floor. Shut it out. Let it stop, make it stop, please let it just stop right now.

So much for Right Stuff. Try sheer panic.

"It's your body telling you that disaster is imminent," Finagin would say later, trying graciously to pull his passenger's plummeting manhoodout of a spin.

Of course, disaster was not imminent.

For his part, Finagin might as well have been exiting the Baltimore Beltway ina Buick. He's a53-year-old Annapolis dentist and an international aerobatic champion, one of the best in the country. He won first place the last two years in the intermediate class at the International Aerobatic Club's competition in Fond Du Lac, Wis., one of the nation's two premier aerobatic events.

"He is a consistent and very good, precise pilot," said Mike Heuer, publisher and editor of Sport Aerobatics magazine in Cordova, Tenn., the official publication of the 5,000-member International Aerobatic Club. "He's very well-respected for his professionalism."

After last year's win, Finagin moved from the intermediate tothe advanced level of aerobatics and plans to compete on that level this year in Fond Du Lac. He carries with him that calmof someone who knows his own abilities, who has tested them and had them judged often by others. No brag, just a hangar wall full of plaques. No swagger, just the easy gait of a square-jawed man who is verygood at what he does and loves nothing more than a calm day and a high sky.

"I don't have another plateau" to reach in competitive flying, Finagin said Wednesday, sitting at a picnic table near his hangar at Lee Airport in Edgewater."You fly where you're comfortable. You do different things at different times."

Finagin has done one thing much of his life: fly.

He started flying as a 16-year-old boy growing up in Oxon Hill, the kid brother of a World War II fighter pilot. He got his pilot's license at 17. That's as young as the law allows. As a boy he spent many summer days at Lee Airport while visiting his aunt, who lived in Edgewater Beach. He would stand for hours and watch planes take off and land.

Now he teaches at Lee Airport, running a school called Dent-Air -- aerobatics and spin training. He teaches licensed pilots how to step up to the next plateau, into the world of spins, rolls, loops and vertical stalls. In aerobatics, pilots push the limits, finding what Finagin calls the edges of "the envelope" of the aircraft's capabilities and their own.

The sport's daredevil reputation notwithstanding, Finaginsays many pilots come to him seeking a greater sense of security in the air. They want to know how to get out of any number of dire situations. They want to be better pilots.

Hence, Finagin is sensitive about the term "stunt flying." Say aerobatics, Finagin suggested -- don't say stunt flying. That sounds too risky. And of course, he said smiling, there is no risk.

No, not even at the top of the hammerhead, at 3,500 feet, where Finagin slowed the engine and began the plummet through space. Right at thetop there, right before the Pitts 2-SB began the left-wing pivot andthe dive, was negative gravity. That means you feel yourself soaring, about to break the bonds of parachute pack and safety belt and fly out of the cockpit. Exhilarating. Then comes the dive and more gut-wrenching positive g-force.

Over the years, Finagin has built a tolerance to that kind of crushing pressure. He knows he's good for up to 9 g's in short doses. Very short. Three or four seconds of 8 g's isenough to blacken hisvision as blood rushes away from his brain. Pilots call that gray-out, and it is important to know your gray-out limit.

Finagin -- who will retire in September as a two-star admiralin the Navy Reserves -- knows he had the stuff to enter Navy pilot training. He was accepted for the program but at the time was also awaiting word from dental school. He decided to sign up if he had not heard from the dental school by the Navy's application deadline.

When the deadline came, while he was walking to the mailbox to send off his signed Navy form, he got word that he'd been accepted at dental school.

His full-time specialty now is prosthodontics -- reconstructive dentistry, crowns, bridges, cosmetic dentistry.

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