When I told people I would be spending the afternoon with an emergency chute glued to my back, while strapped into the front seat of a plane the size of a Smart car, they looked at me like I was not too long for this world.
I pulled up to Republic Airport in misty could-go-either-way weather, parked my car in a back lot and walked toward the hangar. In front of me was this model toy plane, red and blue, plastic bubble on top.
It was adorable, and presumably left there to greet guests, like me, at the entrance. I stopped and peered inside, then made my way to Lt. Colonel John Klatt’s trailer.
Klatt was in town to perform at the Jones Beach air show. And if you’ve ever been there, he’s the guy bouncing around the clouds in the world famous Staudacher S-300D, a 1,250-pound high-performance aerobatic aircraft, which tops out at 250 mph.
He’s also a veteran of three combat tours in Iraq, who has logged more than 2,000 hours at the controls of the F-16 alone and served in the Air National Guard for more than 20 years, flying combat, air support and humanitarian missions throughout the world.
Now a member of the 148th fighter wing of the Duluth Air National Guard, Klatt spends his free time wowing audiences across the world by defying gravity every chance he gets.
Today he was meeting me in Farmingdale for a tour of Long Island’s skies in his two-seater plane, capable of pulling more than 20 Gs, which is twice the load of the F-16 “Fighting Falcon” Klatt flies in his “day job.”
That toy plane in the parking lot—not a toy.
I was climbing in the front seat, and Klatt was climbing in behind me, with only a thin plastic canopy between us and the wild blue yonder. He’d be controlling the plane from the back so I’d get the full pilot experience.
I took a deep breath as one of the guys strapped me in so tightly I couldn’t move any part of my body even an inch. Then he tucked something under the belt on my leg.
“Just in case,” he said. It was a plastic bag. Now I was really getting nervous, and thankful the only thing I had eaten that day was a strawberry.
Klatt started the engine. I couldn’t see him but I was wearing a mic so we could talk to each other and I could ask questions.
We sped down the runway, I felt like I was strapped to a cannonball. Then, in a matter of seconds, I was in another world, 3,000 feet up.
I couldn’t stop looking down at the ground. The sky was blue up above the clouds, and another toy plane, this one red, pulled up right next to us.
The pilot waved to me. I waved back. I felt like the Red Baron—the Snoopy version.
Klatt asked me, “So, you want the regular ride or the wild ride?”
I was feeling great, so I didn’t give it a second thought before I asked for the latter.
With that the plane jerked 90 degrees and we were going straight up to the sun, perpendicular to the ground. I felt weightless as we paused for barely a second before swirling and spinning straight back down, then flipped over and flew in a straight line upside-down over the Robert Moses Causeway.
Strangely enough, dangling upside down over Long Island seems very natural. Things don’t look real from up there, where the tide is coming in above and the sky is at your feet.
Today, I can’t even get down to the beach because the bridge is closed. After super storm Sandy, the whole area is shut down. There are orange cones and construction vehicles everywhere so the view over the causeway just isn’t the same on the ground. But if I were up there, I’m sure nothing would be lost.
From above, everything looks so small, especially the things that are so big and heavy down here. We flew over a cemetery, which looked like a checkerboard of little white Chiclets from up there and nothing more, and I didn’t even realize what it was until I saw a group of little dots gathered around one of them.
“I’ve always enjoyed airplanes,” said Klatt, who began flying at 17. “My dad used to take me to air shows as a kid and I was always excited about it.”
After a few more loops, rollovers and a hammerhead or two—whereby the plane did a literal cartwheel across the sky—it was time to head back down to Earth. We had been up there about 20 minutes. I didn’t want to come down.
Slowly the beautiful white Chiclets became headstones and everything was real again. I felt sick, not in some spiritual and transformative way. I felt sick to my stomach, and I was reaching for the bag tucked in the straps on my leg, simultaneously glad that I had only eaten that strawberry and remembering that there was a video camera focused right on my face, recording every second of my in-flight experience.
Klatt later explained to me that the body has to learn to adapt to the changes in gravity. This was my first step. In other words, next time I’d be a little less nauseous.
Back on the ground, I climbed out of the plane, a little wobbly on my feet. Someone handed me a tape that I vowed to never let anyone watch, ever.
Back home, I turned the TV on, popped the tape in, cringed for a few minutes, then pushed the play button.
It was blank. The camera on the plane didn’t record.
I was a little disappointed and a little relieved. If something on the plane had to fail 3,000 feet above the ground, I’m glad it was the camera.