“OK, Chelle, now we’re going to try a stall,” I heard through my headset. My heart, reacting in kind, seemed to stop.
I knew it was coming. Flight instructor Rob Lock had warned us during our ground briefing at Fantasy of Flight, an aircraft-obsessed attraction between Tampa and Orlando. Our repertoire of 1,500-feet-high maneuvers would include, he told us, 10- to 45-degree-angle turns, 360s, lazy eights, and yes, a stall.
Several years ago, my husband and I decided to skip the obligatory anniversary presents. We would instead indulge in travel adventures together.
I had visited Fantasy of Flight a few years back and remembered that it offered small biplane rides — something on our bucket list. But then we found its half-hour hands-on, one-on-one instructional flight in a WW II-era Boeing Stearman. Flying a biplane trumped the 15-minute flightseeing tour with aces. Flying aces, as a matter-of-fact, used to train in the Stearman.
The canvas-covered, open-cockpit planes are nearly indestructible, made to withstand the abuse from 18-year-old trainers, said Rob, whose family bought this particular two-seater for crop-dusting when he was a lad in California and still owns it.
The Stearman’s role in military history makes it a tight fit for Fantasy of Flight, a celebration of wartime aviation. The attraction is built around a collection of mostly war-related flying machines amassed by Kermit Weeks, a passionate Florida airman, aerobatics competitor, and aircraft designer. Rob is chief pilot for Waldo Wright’s Flying Service, which provides the aerial tours and demonstrations for Fantasy of Flight.
We found we were soon to be in the same classification as George H. Bush, Ted Williams, Jimmy Stewart, and Chuck Yeager — all Stearman alumni.
“Flying is really, really, really simple,” Rob told us during that briefing. Rob is a born teacher who understands how to calm first-time pilot jitters. He prefers, he says, first-timers without any bad habits to break.
He settled me into the front seat of the shiny, lovingly maintained Stearman, then climbed in behind.
We studied instrumentation; he told me I needed to only concern myself with the altimeter and level gauge. He’d take care of the engine. I practiced with the stick and rudder pedals that would raise or lower the plane and turn it, respectively.
“Up, down; left, right; fast, slow,” that’s all there is to flying, he said. Then there is that part about trying not to lose your breakfast just thinking about keeping the thing in the sky. Rob calmed, he joked, he told me he would be manning the controls for the first few minutes aloft.
And we took off. Take-off is normally my favorite part of flying, which I have always loved — as a passenger (“That’s traveling, not flying,” Rob likes to say). The runways at Fantasy of Flight are grass and parallel a lake here in Florida’s Land o’ Lakes. It’s also Florida’s land of flying; a number of small airports in the area serve small-plane pilots who come for year-round flight time.
Rob pointed out some old military airports and other sights as we soared above the grassy fields and clumps of trees. He continually talked me through maneuvers, telling me to look around at my surroundings, getting me to relax.