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.
Since the aviation bug wouldn’t abate, he turned to models instead. Sometime in the 70s he’d acquired a magazine containing a picture of Van’s original RV-3 – with Van in it. Since human dimensions are pretty constant, he’d used the size of Van’s head – visible inside the bubble canopy – as a given and scaled the entire airplane off that. (Yeah, I know. There are a whole lot of things that could be said about using Van’s head as a starting place, but I’m not brave enough to open up that one….) Scrounging up materials and working out the proportions had taken him a lot of time and effort, but the result was readily identifiable as an RV-3.
Two decades later, the Iron Curtain had collapsed and he was able to visit his daughter, who had managed to leave Czechoslovakia and settle in Oregon. When he found out that Van’s Aircraft and the man who had built the RV-3 were only an hour away, he insisted that they come. “It’s very important to him,” his daughter said. “He’s so embarrassed about his English and uncertain about how things work, he’s very reluctant to go out in public in America. But he really wanted to come here.”
So we all piled into a car and drove over to the airstrip. The man could barely contain his glee – he just couldn’t believe he was actually going to see a real RV. We didn’t have an RV-3 to show him, but we had an RV-6 and an RV-4 and an RV-8 and he could look, touch and sit as much as he liked.
And better yet, here was the very man who’s head he’d measured to build his model! Van took a few minutes to chat, through the daughter, and then had to leave.
I helped the fellow into the front seat, then the back of N118RV, the original sea-green RV-8. He acted like any other pilot. He wiggled the stick, he measured the distance between the canopy and his head with his hand, and he twisted around to see the elevators move. He was so excited he could barely stay in the seat.
What the heck. There’s no way he’s going to buy an airplane kit, but surely anybody who’s kept the dream alive after all he’s been through deserves a chance. Would he like to go fly?
This took a couple of translations. You mean, actually fly? In this airplane? Right now?
Could we get permission from the authorities? Would they let us take off?
Things are different here. We can go any time and almost anywhere we like. No permission needed.
But surely there must be some paperwork and some cost?
No paperwork, and there’s no way we’re taking any of your money.
He looked stunned. According to his daughter, he’d managed a few rides in Yaks and the like, and of course he’d traveled in an airliner. But just to go fly, whenever you wanted, in a place where ordinary people kept airplanes in their garages like a car…it was all a bit overwhelming. Overwhelmed or not, he was not going to pass this up. Yes, he’d go.
We took off the grass. The 200 hp RV-8 pulled us into the sky at an impressive rate and I sneaked a peak into the back seat to see how he was doing. He was relaxed and grinning like mad. When we leveled off, I wiggled the stick and told him “go ahead.” For a guy who’d had so little chance to fly, he did darned well. He quickly connected with the sensitivity of the RV-8 and for the next few minutes we curved around the Oregon sky easily and smoothly.
After a bit I took over again. He was feeling great, so I pulled the nose up and did a big lazy aileron roll. As the airplane leveled off, the only English word I’d heard him say came through the headset.
“Nice,” he said, quietly.
And it was. A really nice ride.