A front-seat look at why it's safer on ground Getting on top of a story, by plane

September 11, 1993|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

Staff writer Frank D. Roylance was invited to take a spin in a stunt plane in advance of this weekend's Chesapeake Air Show. This is his account We were screaming down Martin State Airport's main runway at about 20 feet and 190 mph yesterday, John Greenwood and I.

I'm sitting there in the front seat, figuring I'll snap a little picture at the end of the pass, kind of over my shoulder. I want to catch John in the back, with the little biplane's smoke trail streaming out behind him and the runway falling away in the background.

Great shot, I thought to myself. Page 1 stuff. I'm ready.

Then Mr. Greenwood pulled back on the stick.

The cherry-red 1978 Pitts S-2A shot straight for the sky. The G-forces zoomed and suddenly the camera, my head and everything attached to me were headed straight for the cockpit floor.

zTC Take a mental note: Riding with John Greenwood in his 1,000-pound Pitts is not like taking the off-ramp really fast in your Escort. And your Escort may actually be more luxuriously appointed.

"That was about two positive Gs," he told me later, after we landed. (Among other things, my sudden bow had yanked my intercom wire out of its socket, sparing him my initial comments on the maneuver.)

Two Gs means the climb doubled me up with about twice the force of gravity. "In my last air show, I got about seven positive Gs [down] and five negative Gs [up]," he said, "so my body went through 12 Gs of strain. That wasn't bad. That's one reason I run five miles a day."

I believe it. The hands on the dial of the plane's accelerometer still show the maximum positive and negative G forces from that show.

And the 160-pound Mr. Greenwood, a 62-year-old Korean War Air Force bomber pilot, still looks trim and athletic enough to sling Gs around with the best of them.

White-haired and handsome, he is a veteran of 400 air shows. He and his Pitts will lead off today's acts. They'll be the red blur doing snap rolls at 20 feet on takeoff.

The Pitts is a winged hot rod no bigger than a very narrow station wagon. Its cockpit is as plush and roomy as a beer keg. As a passenger, you sit surrounded by ribs, cables and the plane's fabric skin. That's the smoke canister between your feet, and the joystick knocks around between your legs in blind response to commands from the rear seat.

It's the sort of plane you strap on rather than step into. One heavy black strap up from the right side, one up through the crotch, another from the left and one over each shoulder.

Tighten them all down real snug, then snap an extra set of red belts over the whole web -- just in case. Now slip on the soft Red Baron helmet with its headphones and microphone, duck while the pilot closes the bubble canopy, and you're ready to fly.

Oh, there's a plastic grocery bag tucked down there beside your foot, just in case. "It'll hold about two quarts," your pilot announces.

After a short, and very loud race down the runway, the tail wheel hops from the pavement and you can finally see more than wing and engine cowling in front of you. Then the biplane jumps into the air, the horizon disappears and the Pitts' 200-horsepower Lycoming engine yanks you to 800 feet.

Now you're bouncing around in the gusts off the bay, with parking lots, trees and boatyards swinging crazily up over your head, or down past a wingtip and out of sight.

You vow to catch the next air show from the grandstands. And you can, this weekend.

The 4th Annual Chesapeake Air Show begins at 2 p.m. today and tomorrow at the Martin State Airport in Middle River. The airport will be open to air show fans from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is $7 for adults, $3 for children.

The event is sponsored by the Essex/Middle River Chamber of Commerce. Proceeds are to benefit the Salvation Army Boys and Girls Clubs, the Civil Air Patrol, Essex Community College and the Glenn L. Martin Museum. Parking is free.

In addition to offering the airborne acts, sky divers and a hang glider demonstration, the show will afford visitors up-close looks at modern and antique military aircraft.

The third aerobatic act is Ned Surratt, the only local pilot on this weekend's bill.

The 53-year-old flier is a civilian chemical engineer at the Aberdeen Proving Ground. He has also been stunt-flying professionally since 1970, performing at shows from New York to North Carolina.

In his 850-pound Midwing Special -- a highly modified Piper Supercub with an open cockpit -- Mr. Surratt will perform an 18-minute series of loops, rolls, stalls, tail slides and spins.

There will be 20 passes in all, none of them faster than 170 mph or higher than 1,100 feet.

How do you learn stunts like that?

"Get a good aerobatic instructor and learn the maneuvers with the instructor at high altitudes. That's the only insurance," he said.

"Then, little by little, you let yourself down to low altitude in the air show area. It takes years of practice."

For this performance, Mr. Surratt put in 10 practice sessions this week and last, flying through the routine twice each time.

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