Fantasy of Flight offers cockpit experiences from virtual to real

At Fantasy of Flight, the brave can indulge in their aviation fantasies with a hands-on, one-on-one instructional flight in a WWII-era Boeing Stearman.

10/27/2012 12:00 AM

10/24/2012 10:07 AM

“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.

MILITARY GENES

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.

TAKING CONTROLS

We weren’t in the air for long when he told me “Oh by the way, I haven’t been handling the controls for a the last couple of minutes.” As we went through all the maneuvers, he talked calmly, repeating over and over what we first learned on the ground, telling me when I had to pull the nose up or should look over my left shoulder at the magnificent view.

Then came the “S” word.

I wondered fleetingly if I could opt out of bringing the plane to a stall. The pitch and turns of the lazy eights had been frightening enough that I had turned down his offer to try one more.

But during the stall, when the plane, as promised, “knew” when to bring its tip down as we climbed too quickly and lost speed, my fears dissolved into the bright blue morning sky. Thrill replaced chill.

This I was ready to try again: true “seat of the pants” flying, where you could hear and feel the plane responding with whistles and shutters. Before I knew it, we were landing amid a dramatic cloud of smoke — to give my husband a start, Rob joked, before it was his turn to climb in.

AIRCRAFT HEAVEN

Besides flying, Fantasy of Flight offers other adventure opportunities including hot-air balloon rides and a new four-story Wing WalkAir ropes course and zip line with 33 separate challenges.

Don’t miss self-touring the core attraction, a mammoth facility that recreates wartime flight environments with a bit of Disney drama and lets you into vintage cockpits and simulators. Stroll around two hangars where some 40 aircraft are parked (self-guiding audio tours are available), and ride along on a heavily informative tram tour of restricted, behind-the-scenes hangars and storage areas. Newest is a large storage area that holds the wings, engines, fuselages, and other disjointed parts of aircraft awaiting reassembly.

First opened in 1995, Fantasy of Flight continues to grow with new acquisitions and exhibits such as The Tuskegee Airmen — They Dared to Fly. It also hosts special flight-related symposiums throughout the year.

The core attraction’s Fun with Flight sends children’s sense of adventure soaring with virtual flying experiences in a hot-air balloon and hang glider, along with other relevant hands-on activities. Specialty tours address interests such as wood shop and restoration, plus there’s a daily aerial demonstration in a vintage craft.

At the Compass Rose Diner, architecturally a cross between an art-deco airport terminal and a 1930s soda fountain, you can catch a snack between all the activities.

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