Flying Upside Down
My father took me flying in a small two-seater, single wing, Piper Cub several years before we were in Van Hook. He sat in front and I sat behind him. The overhead wing and large clear plastic side curtains made it easy for me to see outside of the airplane. But I wondered how a pilot could drive because when the ‘tail dragger’ was on the ground all he could see through the windshield was the sky. When my father started to move on the runway, he leaned out the side curtain and I wondered if he had to do that in the air too.
I don’t know if my father actually had a pilot license but he knew how to fly an airplane. I learned later that he had learned to fly a glider when he was in high school. He and some of his high school friends built a working, one seat glider and allegedly flew it off Mt. Crow Flies High near Sanish, ND. I also heard a story about them pulling it with a car and rope to get it off the ground.
There was a man in Van Hook who took people for rides in his tandem open cockpit Waco biplane. I was probably eleven the first time he took me up; I sat in the front seat. I could not figure why or how he could drive from the back seat. I did not realize until much later that it was for balance and that flying was much different from driving in a car. He told me that he could actually see the ground better from the rear cockpit because the forward one was over the lower wing.
He also explained that the Waco had dual controls in each cockpit and cautioned me to not touch any of them. He told me that I could tell if we were climbing, descending, or if the wings were out of parallel to the ground by looking at the tiny silhouette in the bubble on the control panel.
The second time I went up in the biplane, the man did several stunts, which I enjoyed at least as much as going on rides at the carnival that stopped in Van Hook that summer. The snap rolls rattled my head but after a few I got used to it. The regular loop-the-loops put a pressure on my stomach that I had not experienced before. The most exciting thing to me was when he did an outside loop over the town dump.
The best I can describe it is to compare it to being on a 2,000-foot high Ferris wheel and having the seat locked at the top of the circle. When the wheel turns toward the ground the seat does not turn and by the time you are at the bottom, all that is holding you in is your seat belt. Of course we had shoulder straps also, but it still felt very strange tipping my head to what was normally up to look down. The feeling in my stomach was the opposite of the inside loop feeling. I wondered where the result of my upchucking would land if I actually did. Maybe that’s why he did the outside loop over the town dump.
I still remember the change in the sound of the powerful radial engine when he took the plane straight up until it stalled and came over backwards. At that time, I really wanted to become a pilot but the closest I ever got was building and flying models.
The last time I went up with him was about the same as the second time. He did some stunts and it was just as much fun, but I had more confidence so I was not as afraid. However, when we landed on the airstrip that was more like a field, one of his wheels caught in a rut and we nosed over and broke the propeller.
That was as sudden a stop I have ever had until I crashed my neighbor’s pickup when I was a teenager.