A Profusion of Thrills


"This turn's going to be tricky," Luke says as he surveys the 90-degree angle onto Runway 18/36 at Oshkosh.

I glance around the Mustang speedster convertible we've borrowed from Roush Racing for this particular job. There is a roll bar, but it's also still a convertible.

"Just don't roll it," I say.

Luke shoots me a look. His left arm, ensconced in the casually rolled-up sleeve of a military flight suit, is draped over the steering wheel as he checks the frequency on the boat-anchor-sized "portable" military radio between us with his other hand. He's wearing sunglasses, so I can't actually see his eyes. But I get the gist, which is something along the lines of not trying to teach your grandmother how to suck eggs.

"I'm just saying ...," I say with a laugh.

Luke turns his attention back to the radio, which is being annoying silent, considering we're supposedly on the tower frequency. I glance at my watch. Well, at least we still have 15 minutes to straighten it out before we're "on." Except, as I glance past Luke, I see a suspiciously long-winged black silhouette approaching the field.

"Ummm, Luke?" I ask, pointing.

He glances up. "Shoot!" he says. "That's them!"

"But they're 20 minutes early!"

"I know," he answers sharply. "But that's them!"

"What are we going to do?" I ask. It's not an idle question. The whole reason we're sitting here at the end of the runway, in a sports-car racing convertible with a military radio on board, is that the approaching U-2 spy plane, one of the longest-serving aircraft in USAF history, is also one of the most challenging to land. Its two sets of wheels -- one set of main wheels and a tailwheel -- are arranged in a tandem configuration, making the U-2 a very difficult airplane to land and keep straight on a runway. And because of the long wings and radar nose, as soon as the pilot begins to raise the nose in the flare, he can no longer see any part of the runway.

So to land the U-2, a second pilot has to drive "chase" behind it on the runway, conveying its alignment and altitude above the runway over a radio to the pilot landing the plane. The approach speed of the U-2 is about 100 mph, and the chase car has to wait until the plane passes by to pull out on the runway, leading to a pretty tire-screeching acceleration to catch up. Hence the concern about the 90-degree turn angle of the taxiway at Oshkosh. But if our radio is inop, it won't matter. The U-2 pilot will be landing completely blind.

Luke doesn't answer my question, because he's already leaped out of the car and dashed over to the truck beside us, which is carrying three additional crew members and "pogo" wheels to place under the U-2's wings as soon as it stops, so it can taxi without scraping its wingtips along the pavement. This is not a simple operation, bringing a U-2 back to Earth again.

Seconds later, he's back with a handheld radio. "Okay," he says as he throws the car into gear, eyes fixed on the fast-approaching U-2 to our left, "it's gonna get fast, it's gonna get loud, and it's gonna get exciting!" The black shadow of the U-2 sweeps over us and Luke hits the accelerator, screeching around the corner and into a tight slot position on the U-2's tail. The plane touches down, tailwheel first, and the pilot starts the wrestling match required to keep the plane from swerving off the runway. It's pretty impressive, especially when it's all playing out only a few feet away from me. I flew a tailwheel airplane for years, but the famed U-2 "Dragon Lady" -- so named because of its difficult landing characteristics -- clearly requires a whole different level of tailwheel flying skill.

The U-2 rolls to a stop, and we pull around the wing to where we can see the pilots. Most U-2s are single-seat airplanes, but this is a training version, so it has a second, raised cockpit for an instructor. The cockpit windows are small, but they're still big enough for me to see the space helmets the pilots are wearing. Space helmets. Wow. How cool is that? I just chased a plane down the Oshkosh runway that's returning from such a high altitude above the Earth that its pilots have to wear space suits!

That alone is something you wouldn't see every day of the week. But what makes this particular week, and this particular fly-in, so supercalifragilisticexpialidociously amazing and unique is that this is only ONE of the thrills I've been able to experience in the past few days.

Three days earlier, I found myself strapping into a T-28 owned by Dr. Ralph Glasser, who moonlights as the lead solo acro pilot in the Trojan Horsemen six-ship T-28 airshow team. I was headed with Ralph and his wingman, Walt Fricke, out to Sheboygan, Wisconsin, to join up with the main T-28 group for a formation arrival into Oshkosh that afternoon.

We took off and headed out over the lake, with Walt closing in our right side. I've flown in any number of photo mission formations over the years, but the experience and sensation of having another airplane sliding into formation next to me is still ... well, let's just call it attention-getting. Brings a whole new meaning to the concept of trust. And no matter how many times I experience it, it still feels completely strange to see two people in a plane in flight, large as life, just like the cover photo on a magazine ... and realize that I'm actually in the picture, a very real 20 feet away.

On the far side of Lake Winnebago, Ralph and I break away from Walt so I can try a little T-28 flying of my own. I do some turns, surprised that a plane as large as the T-28 can be so light and harmonized on the controls. Then Ralph asks if I want to try an aileron roll.

"I don't do aerobatics," I say. It's true. I never have; never had any desire to.

"Would you like to see what one is like in this plane?" Ralph asks. I can tell from the gentle tone in his question that the option is completely open. He has no need to prove anything or take me somewhere I don't want to go. And somehow, that knowledge makes me more willing to explore. I also know this is something well within his skill envelope.

"Okay," I say.

Ralph calmly talks me through the maneuver. Line up on a road, stabilize, raise the nose 10 degrees, then throw the stick sharply over to the right. As the roll progresses into inverted, push forward just slightly on the stick to keep the nose up, then neutralize the stick and correct for pitch as the airplane rolls level again. The T-28 has enough power to keep it from losing positive G forces as it rolls around, so it's really a pretty smooth maneuver.

"Are you sure you don't want to try one? I'll follow through with you," Ralph says. "I won't let you screw up."

Perhaps it was the realization and knowledge of just how good he was at this. Or realizing what a good instructor he really was. Or feeling comfortable in an airplane specifically built to do this kind of maneuver. Or feeling absolutely no pressure to be a kind of pilot I'm not. But somehow, for the very first time in 22 years of flying, I found myself actually agreeing to attempt an aerobatic maneuver.

The first roll was pretty pathetic. All I can say is, the good news about the T-28 is that it has enough power that, even when you DO dish out of an aileron roll, it recovers amazingly well. But with a little post-maneuver debriefing from Ralph, I then went on to execute a passable aileron roll to the right, complete with the right amount of forward pressure in the inverted position to maintain altitude. And I felt like someone had suddenly given me the key to a cryptic language I'd never understood before. "Ah," a voice in my head sang out. "I get it! That's how they do this kind of thing!"

I quit after the second roll, declined the option of a loop, and still have no great desire to pursue aerobatics any further. But I have to say ... that second roll felt good. It was fun. And I'm stupidly proud of myself for accomplishing even that tiny little toe-in-the-water feat.

A little later that afternoon, I found myself in a 16-ship formation flight of T-28s, flying above a 36-ship formation of CJ-6s and Yaks, converging in the skies over Oshkosh. "HOLY MOLY!!" my shaky, scribbled flight notes read. "There are airplanes in the sky EVERYWHERE!!!!" And I'm here to tell you ... those words don't even begin to do justice to the experience.

As the T-28s did a military-style break over the field and circled around to land, the pilot I was flying with told me to hold onto my hat, because he was going to open the canopy before landing. You sit pretty high in a T-28, so when that bubble canopy slides open, you get a breathtakingly intense encounter with the wind and sky that, even with all the open-cockpit biplane rides I've ever gotten, added yet another entirely new sensation to my logbook.

I've been going to Oshkosh for the EAA convention for over 20 years now. And in many ways, the years begin to blend. The exhibits and exhibitors return, year after year, and sometimes I think I'm the only thing that's changed; the only piece of the picture that's aged or altered with time. And yet, even after all these years, and all the times I've been around the aviation block, I can still go to Oshkosh and find not just one new experience, but a whole cornucopia of new sights, sounds, and moments that expand my world and thrill my senses.

I could have gone to Beale AFB and chased a U-2. Or probably found a couple of T-28 pilots somewhere in California to fly with. But to fly with the lead solo acro pilot in the only T-28 aerobatic airshow team? And fly in formation with 15 other T-28s? Over 36 Yaks and CJ-6s? Or, more to the point, do all of those things in one place, over the span of a mere four days?

Not likely. Not likely, that is, except in the magical place we all create, once a year, out of the cow pastures of central Wisconsin. A place where the best, the brightest, the exceptional and the ordinary all meet for a few short days of sensation overload. And for a week out of time where everyone is welcome, anything is possible, and where ... as with any truly memorable party ... each moment is filled to overflowing with abundance, laughter and distinctive memories that linger long after the music fades, the lights go out, and the guests all find their way home again.


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