“Okay, take the stick.”
It was the moment I had been waiting for all week: my first time at the controls of an airplane. My palms sweating, I reached down and grabbed the controls. The stick shook and hummed as I put on a brave face. I pulled back. Less than a second later I was hanging upside down above the Texas plains.
You may be asking: how did I, someone who has never taken a single flight lesson, wind up rending heaven’s vault at an airport just outside of Dallas?
I don’t really know.
My instructor, Mika Brageot, may only be 27 years old, but he’s been flying since age 12. He hasn’t wasted any time, either; when he’s not winning air races, he’s flying for the French National Aerobatic team and competing in air shows around the world. (Also: look at him. Sometimes life's just not fair.)
I was willing to overlook these many faults because he was going to let me fly. It was only as I was pulling on the sweltering Red Bull flight suit that this fact really sunk in. Was it too late to reconsider? Yep. After all, I needed to pay attention while the flight crew told me how to bail out and use my parachute…
As Mika did the plane-equivalent of flooring it, my heart leaped several beats. The small aircraft had barely hit 80 mph when it lifted off the runway and screamed into the blue Texas sky.
The sensation of pulling Gs was unlike anything I could have imagined. My face suddenly felt heavy, as if an NFL linebacker was hanging off of my cheeks. As we pulled in towards the gate, less than a hundred feet off the ground, I realized I had stopped breathing. By the time I remembered to exhale we were hurtling through the gate at more than 200 mph. This maneuver brought to life all the fantasies my eight-year-old self ever had of being a fighter pilot.
I had barely dipped into this reverie when I realized I was upside down. Mika had snapped us through a barrel roll as we climbed out. As we inverted I almost involuntarily reached out to grab the cockpit, forgetting that I was strapped in.
My embarrassment was short lived, though, as we soon began the real maneuvers. I was expecting to go through a few maneuvers to ease things in, but as soon as we had clearance from the tower he told me to take the stick for the loop. Yes, that's me right there.
The experience of pulling the plane through the maneuver with Mika's hands off the stick was stunning...and only slightly marred by the fact that he had done all the hard parts already. As soon as I had gotten the aircraft pointed back in a sane direction Mika took us straight up until the plane just stopped. Now, that is something that aircrafts really shouldn't do, but the feeling is amazing. A moment of weightlessness, and then the entire world rushing past.
The next two aerobatic maneuvers were...gosh, how do I explain it? There was another climb, the aircraft hanging sideways in midair and then a lot of rolling (see above!). I am sure what happened had a name, but to my senses, it was just a holiday from reality. The rest of the trip was a blur. We were back on the ground before I knew it; frankly, it was too soon. I could have stayed up there all day.
At different times in my life, I have maxed a car on the Autobahn, driven a super-car over a mountain pass at 14,000 feet of elevation, and run towards the sound of gunfire. None of those experiences evoked the same kind of excitement I felt during those few minutes in the cockpit.
The experience of flying with the Breitling team will not soon be forgotten. Every time I get a chance to watch Red Bull Air Racing I will take it, if only to re-live the memory of that incredible morning in Texas.