Professional demo pilots working for popular aircraft and kit manufacturers fly hundreds of demo flights a year. Every once in a while their work goes beyond the same old pitch and becomes something different, something memorable. In this piece, longtime Van’s Aircraft employee Ken Scott tells about a demo ride that almost didn’t happen and that turned into that ride that both the demo pilot and the prospect would remember forever.
– Robert Goyer
A Really Nice Ride
We had a quiet moment – for once – in the tech help section of Van’s Aircraft this morning, and the cross-desk chatter turned to demonstration rides. A Van’s employee, I can’t remember who, asked, “What was the most memorable demo ride you ever gave?”
I had to think about that one.
Over the last 16 years or so, I’ve probably flown close to 2,000 rides. I kept track one year and logged over 200. There have been a lot people who left me feeling privileged just to get in an airplane with them. There was the older gentleman who’d bailed his crew out of a burning B-17 in World War II and just barely managed to get out himself. There was a lady who had served as a WASP in the War, and had flown everything the Army Air Corps could throw at her. (Which was her favorite? “Whatever I was in at the time,” she said.) There was a guy who claimed not to have touched the controls for 40 years who still managed to fly with a precision and grace that made me just put my hands in my lap and smile. There have been kids recovering from cancer, men and women trying to rebuild their lives after a spouse had died…lots of memorable people.
But I think the one I remember best came when Van’s was still based back in North Plains, Oregon. A lady in her 30s came through the front door, followed, rather hesitantly, by an older man who looked very much like her. She explained, in slightly accented English, that her father was visiting from Czechoslovakia. It was his first trip to America, and he was interested in airplanes. Were there any here that he could look at?
Well, the airplanes are on the other side of the highway, over at the grass strip – but sure, we could find an airplane for a visiting gentleman to see.
When she translated this, his face lit up and he reached inside his sweater and pulled out a rather wrinkled black-and-white photograph. It had evidently been taken many years before, and it showed a model airplane that bore a very close resemblance to an RV-3.
Slowly, through the daughter’s translation, the story came out. Her father had grown up in post-war eastern Czechoslovakia under the iron-fist occupation of the Soviets. Although he was fascinated with airplanes and desperately yearned to fly, there was only one avenue open to the cockpit and that was the military. At this time and place, military pilot training was restricted to those who met a criteria of political correctness, as well as mental and physical requirements. Given the tensions between the subjected Czechs and the Russians who controlled the military (and some other political realities that I didn’t quite understand) that avenue was not open. And it was that simple. You want to be a pilot? No. End of story.