Reporter earns his wings.

First Posted: 1/15/2009

As I climb in and wedge myself into the front seat, I look to my right and see a black sticker with silver text stating “This aircraft is amateur built. It does not comply to the Federal Aviation Standards for a ‘Standard Aircraft.’ Fly at your own risk.”
Now, I have flown many times before but never in something this small or with a warning label like that.
But it didn’t phase me — I was up for anything.
Gary Ward of Lincolnton, Ga., an exhibitor for the Mid-Atlantic Fly-In at the Lumberton Regional Airport, let me strap into his purple, green and white speed machine that has a top speed of around 260 mph.
Gary hands me a parachute. This being the first time in my life that I have ever needed to put one on. He gives me a run-down on safety.
“We won’t need this (parachute) unless the plane is on fire or it starts to fall apart for some reason … Any other problems we will try to land.” Gary adds, “If we do need to use the parachutes I will pop off the canopy and then you have to unstrap yourself and you are on your own.”
So with the safety talk further cementing the dangers of what I am about to do, we are ready to hit the runway.
Just before we begin to taxi, despite the fact that I have assured Gary of my strong stomach, he hands me a Ziploc bag and paper towel.
Now on the main runway, I get thrown back into my seat and unlike a commercial airline we are in the air in no time. We climb to around 2,000 feet and begin the acrobatics.
First is Gary’s “seatbelt check” as he flips the plane 180-degrees and we fly upside-down. Words cannot describe seeing the clouds and earth in each other’s place.
Going forward we do a figure eight, which throws me back into my seat like never before … going into the base of each side of the eight we are pulling-up after making a dive. My eyes are on the G-force meter for short periods to see how high it would go. It jumps to 4.4 G’s in no time. (That is 4.4 times the force of gravity, for those of you who don’t know).
During all of this I have a giant smile on my face and can’t stop laughing. I get a bit disoriented for a few seconds after I keep throwing my head around trying to see the world below during a loop, but I am having fun.
At one point in all of the craziness we climb straight upward until the engine can no longer take it, then make a quick turn into a nose dive toward the ground.
Next, Gary asks if I have ever flown a plane before and my answer is “No.” So, he instructs me to take control of the stick and rock it side-to-side to get a feel for it. Gary’s voice over the headphones instructs me to pull up a bit and then cut it hard to the left so we do a roll. The only thing on my mind is: “Am I really doing this!” I couldn’t believe how easy it was. He lets me do it again, and then I make a big sweeping left turn to get us heading back in the direction of the airport.
Rather than making a landing right away, Gary informs me we will do a fly-by.
Whizzing by the blurs that resembled other planes and people, while traveling only about 30-feet off the ground, I look at the air speed meter — “180 knots,” that is around 208 mph. This is a blast. I am sad it has to end.
Shortly after we are firmly back on the ground, after a smooth landing, we head back to the hangar. I hop out and hand Gary the UN-used Ziploc and paper towel.

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