It’s doldrum season on my flying, when my pilot license and our airplane’s airworthiness certificate is being renewed. No flying for a while.
It’s time to write about one of my favorite aviation books. One I’ve given to my best pilot friends at Christmas.
No Visible Horizon, by Joshua Cooper Ramo, is a thrilling, breathtaking read. His writing credentials are drool-worthy: youngest senior editor in TIME magazine’s history, then foreign editor and assistant managing editor.
Then he learned to fly aerobatics, competed in the US Nationals, and lived to write about it. He placed 11th, missing the top 10 by 1/100ths of a point.
I could quote excerpts from the book all day. The problem is, the entire book is quotable, packed with rich, vivid excursions to the very edge of aerodynamic and physiological limits. A friend described the book as “fatalistic”. It’s on the same plane as Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, lots of angst, tension and alpha energy.
Ramo’s coach for the Nationals was a former Soviet Champion, Kazakhstani aerobatic pilot Sergei Boriak.
Boriak has a test for me. We are going flying for the first time and he wants to know will I get sick and will I be afraid? Fail or Pass.
“What do you want to do?” I ask him over the intercom. “You fly,” he shouts back. Your plane.” I feel a bit of relief. I glance at my watch as we take off. 10:45. If I am lucky, this will be over by 11:00. It’s a terrible attitude.
I level off at 3,000 feet. I want to get a sense of how she flies and one of the best ways to do this is to slow down to the point where the wing doesn’t have enough air moving over it to keep flying. It is like feeling up a girl during a slow dance, an easy way to see where you can put your hands and how this mystery is likely to react. And as the speed bleeds off we settle down into a stall. I calmly pop the nose down to pick up airspeed and stop the stall. We are flying again. The whole experience is very benign, almost no g’s pulled.
“Goot. Let me have plane for moment.” From the back seat, Boriak sounds happy, childish almost. “You must have plane trimmed just right to fly.”
Suddenly the sky is torn away. Sergei slams the stick forward and we are screaming earthward on a pure vertical line. The power is full forward. We are losing more than 5,000 feet per minute. Now 7,000. The meter runs out of room. I can make out branches on the trees below. I can see leaves. At 300 feet, Boriak slams the stick back with a tug that puts six times the force of gravity on our bodies and throws us into our seats with a thud. I relax for a moment. Mistake. Wham, Boriak is back on the stick hard, cranking us straight back up into the sky at about seven g’s.
Boriak sets the nose on a vertical upline. I float in the cockpit as he slams the stick to the right and we begin twisting up through the sky. As the plane teeters on the edge of a stall, Boriak taps us over into a dive and we are screaming earthward again. Twenty-one thousand feet per minute. Straight down.
I don’t feel sick. And I find that as the ground races up at us, as Boriak whips the Sukhoi around with forces that would pull an ordinary airplane apart, that I feel no fear. I look for the fear in myself like you might look for keys or a misplaced wallet. But it is nowhere to be found. Wham! He cranks us back into the sky. In this furious rummage of my soul, I have found a hint of real pleasure. Bam! We are level again, 300 feet, 250 miles an hour. “Okay, ” Sergei says. “Plane trimmed. All yours. How you feel?” It is 11:00. I am ready to learn to fly.
Posted from Bankgok, November 29, 2009
Next: Kirby Chambliss, Joshua Cooper Ramo and Neil Williams
Images from Huffington Post, amazon.com and Sergei Boriak’s website at http://www.sergeiboriak.com/