A discombobulating ride with an aerobatics pilot
ELOY, Ariz. (AP) Blank stares and belching were the only possibilities when it was over. Any movement, even raising my head to speak, was dangerous.
The climbing and diving at 220 mph, slaloming the tips of cactus and mesquite trees, corkscrewing, banking at 6Gs, flying upside down and end-over-end – more on that later – barely lasted five minutes, yet seemed to have the cumulative effect of a monthlong flu.
So, for an hour after the joyride ended, I sat on a folding chair inside Kirby Chambliss’ home hangar, feeling as if the blood had drained from my body, my internal organs swapped places, my stomach somehow bloated and twisted in knots at the same time.
”I try to give people an experience that they’ll remember for the rest of their lives,” Chambliss said.
Mission accomplished, though with a queasy caveat for me.
Chambliss? He treated it as if we were puttering around in a paddleboat.
Not much surprise there.
He’s been around planes all his life. His father was a pilot and the two of them built their own plane from scratch when he was 13.
At 24, Chambliss became the youngest commercial pilot at Southwest Airlines and had already honed his aerobatic skills by the time he made captain at 28.
Practicing three times a day, seven days a week, Chambliss turned himself into a five-time U.S. national aerobatics champion and was one of the founding pilots in the Red Bull Air Races when the series began in 2003. He’s still racing in the series, which concludes this weekend in Las Vegas.
So as our aircraft hurtled end over end like a paper plane with a bent nose, Chambliss spoke with the nonchalance of an airline pilot pointing out the Grand Canyon 37,000 feet below.
”We’re going to go on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride,” he said.
Friends asked why I was dumb enough to volunteer for such a crazy ride. I was wondering the same thing after watching Chambliss’ plane roar over the house upside down.
Death wasn’t what had me worried; Chambliss is one of the world’s best at contorting airplanes at crazy angles.
The concern was for my stomach. Something about intentionally making myself sick didn’t, uh, sit well.
Adding to the dread, I watched the previous rider sit in the hangar as Team Chambliss changed out the brake pads on the plane. For 45 minutes, he moved as if he were under water, occasionally asking for something bubbly to drink so air would come up from his stomach instead of something else.
My fate was to be a nauseous zombie and the suspense was chilling me.
”Don’t worry, you’ll be fine,” Chambliss said. ”We’ll go up and do a few things, see how you do.”
The first thing he did was turn the plane upside down. Not after gaining some altitude. Within a second of becoming airborne.
Our minds tell us the sky should be up, the ground down. Watching the green-and-brown desert blur over our heads and blue sky float below us – or was it above? – made about as much sense as a flying hippopotamus.
From there, we climbed, then dove – at over 200 mph- toward three houses on Chambliss’ Flying Crown Ranch. Instead of disintegrating, which seemed to be our certain fate, we started slaloming the houses to mimic what Chambliss does during races.
With the wings seemingly dipping between opposing bedrooms, my knuckles blended in with the white tubing that serves as the plane’s frame.
But, after going inverted again and another slalom round, I felt surprisingly good. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad.
Turns out, Chambliss had it on the easy setting. The spin cycle was about to begin.
Rocketing past his house, Chambliss took the plane into a 6G turn – on a 270-degree arc – that made me feel like a squished tater tot squeezing through a wormhole into another dimension.
My stomach: ”You’ve got my attention now.”
I lied and told Chambliss I was doing OK.
He followed with what felt like a diabolical gymnastics combo: Upside-down twist, front flip with a flat spin.
My lunch was ready to dismount.
”I think I’m done,” I said, tapping out after 5 minutes, 5 seconds of flying.
”OK, we’ll head down,” he said.
Just not to the ground.
Because the brakes were hot, we touched down and took off twice so he could fly around to cool them off.
”Better than ending up off the end of the runway into the trees,” he said.
I wasn’t so sure.
Between a flight suit that felt as if were made of burlap, a turtle-shell parachute strapped to my back and cocoon-like cockpit, those extra laps around the desert made me want to pull the eject button.
Thankfully, on the third approach, we landed. My stomach and head didn’t seem to believe it, feeling as we were still twirling through the sky.
Even my sweat was discombobulated. Instead of flowing, it formed tiny droplets on my hands and face, dotting me with what looked like liquid chickenpox.
The rest of the day was lost. After the blank-stare-and-belching stage, I made the mistake of looking at my phone for a second while driving, leading to an intestinal near miss on the side of the road. There was a car nap, a barely-get-it-down dinner and more weird sweating.
Even lying in bed, the aerobatic flu continued, the room spinning, the sweat beading as I closed my eyes.
Chambliss was right: It was an experience I’ll never forget – for reasons good and bad.