`Postage-stamp' landing thriller

Pilot: An experienced air-show pilot still butterflies before he lands his Piper Cub on the back of a speeding pickup.

June 19, 1999|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN STAFF

Imagine squeezing the family van into one of those "compact car" spaces in parking garages -- the kind so narrow you are forced to wiggle out of your vehicle sideways.

Now imagine hurtling toward this space at 50 mph.

And one more thing: The parking space is moving.

That, in effect, is the challenge before Roger Lehnert today at the Jack B. Poage Air Show in Westminster, where he will attempt to land his yellow Piper J-3 Cub on the back of a speeding pickup truck.

The truck's 8-by-20-foot steel landing pad provides little room for error -- 6 inches in the front and back. Less than that on either side. There are no hooks, wires or safety nets. No communication between the truck and Lehnert. He has one chance to get it right.

"I've been told I'm crazy," said Lehnert, 51, who during his saner moments works full time as an aircraft paint-finish salesman in Avondale, Pa. "Who are they to say? Compared to Evel Knievel, I'm pretty mild."

Or maybe just well-rehearsed. Lehnert approaches the stunt with military-like precision. Timing is everything. If the pickup truck, dubbed the "Teenie Weenie Airport," goes too fast, Lehnert's airplane could easily miss its target and crash. Too slow, and the plane could flip over the front.

"It's like trying to hit a postage stamp," Lehnert said.

That's one reason only one other pilot in the country attempts the stunt. And although Lehnert has completed dozens of performances since 1984, he still gets a case of air fright before each show.

"I still get butterflies," he said. "I get very intense, petrified. I get cotton mouth before I fly."

The opportunity for such thrills drew Lehnert to airports at a young age. As a teen-ager, he got a job cleaning and fueling aircraft in West Chester, Pa., where he started taking flying lessons. By age 16, he had taken his first solo flight. "I've been an airplane nut since I was a little kid," he said. "It still fascinates me to land and take off. It's an incredible feat of physics that an airplane can fly."

But while other pilots were making names for themselves pulling their planes into corkscrew spins, rolls, stalls and loops, Lehnert concentrated on making a show out of takeoffs and landings with his 1941 Cub.

In his first air-show act, Lehnert played a drunk who stumbles onto the air field and persuades a pilot to give him a ride. Just as the pilot is preparing for takeoff, the drunk accidentally pushes the pilot out of the cockpit and bumps the throttle, sending the plane down the runway and into the air.

The plane appears to be out of control, tossing in the air like a leaf before stalling and disappearing behind a stand of trees at the end of the airport. The crowd often falls silent.

"Most of the kids fall for it -- some adults, too," he said.

Several years ago, he modified his act by playing a farmer out mowing grass near the runway, who accidentally ends up piloting an airplane. Air shows promote him as "The Flying Farmer."

"I can't be a drunk. It's not politically correct," he said.

Lehnert's decision to land on the back of a moving vehicle was inspired by a popular aerobatics act from the 1940s, during which a pilot steered his plane onto the back of a moving landing pad.

"They were crazy back then, too," Lehnert said.

Bringing the act back to life was more difficult than Lehnert thought. He built a steel landing pad on a Ford pickup and made his first attempt landing on a windy day in 1984. It took hours before he built up the confidence and timing to make a landing.

"I was so doggone frustrated I was ready to sell the platform to a rock band to set up a stage," Lehnert said.

David Schultz, who is coordinating this weekend's air show, said Lehnert is regarded as the best Piper J-3 Cub pilot in the world. "He can make the aircraft do things it was not meant to do," he said.

Or maybe the truest measure of his talent is that his wife, Lynne, whose name is emblazoned on the side of Lehnert's Cub, does not worry when he flies.

"He's so good at it," she said.

Though he has had a handful of close calls performing or practicing the act, Lehnert has not crashed. He said he once lost his nerve briefly when his friend, Jack B. Poage, was killed during an air show at Martin State Airport in 1990.

Poage, 62, who managed the Carroll County Airport, was taking his 1989 Pitts S-2B biplane through three corkscrew spins during a nose dive from 1,500 feet when he added a fourth spin to the maneuver. The plane flew too low and before he could pull out of the dive, he crashed.

"It was a big slap in the face," Lehnert said. "But we didn't stop flying."

Many of Poage's friends will be performing during this weekend's air show, which is in its fifth year.

"It took three or four years to build [the air show]," said June Poage, who named the event in honor of her husband. This year she expects 16,000 spectators.

Many, she said, will be coming to see Lehnert park a plane on a moving truck. It's enough attention to make his trusted pickup driver, Stanley Mann, envious.

"Every year I threaten to try it myself. Then I chicken out," said Mann, while watching Lehnert touch down after a flight practice yesterday afternoon. "He's the master."

The air show runs today and tomorrow from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. rain or shine at the Carroll County Regional Airport in Westminster. Flying starts at 12: 30 p.m.

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