By Jon McGinty
“Don’t bump the throttle with your arm. Keep your feet off the rudder pedals. And don’t touch the control stick between your knees.”
This was my pre-flight briefing before taking a ride with pilot Harvey Meek at the Rockford AirFest last Saturday, June 2. Meek is lead pilot in the three-ship aerobatics team called Aerostar. The other pilots, Dave Monroe and Paul Hornich, were busy giving similar instructions to their wide-eyed passengers as they strapped us into the rear seats of their Yak-52TW airplanes.
The Yak-52TW is a single-engine primary trainer aircraft originally designed for the Soviet Air Force in the 1970s. Modern versions are now manufactured in Romania, and used extensively all over the world, especially by aerobatic pilots.
“And don’t bump the canopy release lever with your camera. The canopy will fall off in flight, probably hit the tail fin, and, we’ll … well, just don’t bump it,” Meek said.
As we sat on the runway, warming up the 9-cylinder engine before take-off, I mused at my situation. What is it that compels me to put my life in the hands of a total stranger whom I just met? I guess some would call me an aviation nut. I’ve worked at all the Rockford air shows, never taken flying lessons, but would rather be up in an airplane than just about anywhere else.
“If it hasn’t got wings, then it’s just transportation,” I’ve often told others.
As we sped down the runway, black streaks from other landings became blurs in my vision. Tail wheel up, then main wheels left the “surly bonds of earth.” The hard bumping ceased, and we were flying, another plane on each wingtip, its propeller just a few feet away.
At this point, I tried to remember the order of tasks I was told to perform if we had to bail out: unbuckle the five-point safety harness that held me to my seat; remove the headset/mic from my head; open the canopy lock and slide it back, then jump and, when clear of the plane, pull the big D-ring on my chest.
“Don’t worry,” Meek had said. “We’ll only abandon the aircraft if a wing falls off.”
Suddenly, the pilot announced we were to start the aerobatic maneuvers, so the formation spread apart. First, a loop, as the sky and then the ground filled the view over my head. Four times the gravity on earth pushed me down into my parachute, my arms struggling to hold the camera upright. Then, a barrel roll, as the horizon rotated 360 scary degrees ahead. Finally, one-half of a Cuban eight (imagine the numeral 8 lying on its side). At the top of that final maneuver, we approached zero gravity, and my now weightless camera tried to float out of my hands.
Fifteen event-filled minutes after take-off, we landed on runway 27, streaking past the gathering AirFest crowd.
When not flying in air shows, all three pilots in the Aerostar aerobatic team are also commercial pilots. Meek and Monroe fly 767s to Europe for American Airlines; Hornich is a corporate jet pilot. They have flown as a team for about 10 years.
“It takes a lot of teamwork and precision flying,” Meek said. “Formation aerobatics in any aircraft is like an aerial ballet. The maneuvers are gentle compared to the gyroscopic moves done by solo stunt pilots.”
Gentle, but thrilling, I thought, as I recalled my 15 minutes of fame over RFD.
From the June 6-12, 2012, issue