I catch the 10 p.m. newscast as it’s about to go to commercial; the anchor teases a story to come in the next segment.
“A vintage airplane crashes in the desert, killing two,” she says.
It could be any vintage plane, any pilot. But I know it’s not. I turn the TV off. Moments later, my phone rings. It’s Alexa, a friend and colleague at The Arizona Republic.
“Justin, there’s been an accident,” she says.
Where Pilots Are Born
It’s an ungainly beast, this T-6 Texan. No enemy fliers feared it. The Japanese didn’t give it an ominous nickname like “Whistling Death.”
But the sunlight and its deep-blue coat of paint make it look just enough like Pappy Boyington’s F4U-4 Corsair to reach the 6-year-old boy I used to be — the boy that refuses to miss an episode of Black Sheep Squadron.
And really, the T-6 Texan made the Corsair – and the P-51 Mustang and sundry other American fighters. Or at least the most important part of those planes: the pilots. Yes, every fighter pilot of the era started here. A few hundred hours in a T-6 Texan, then into planes twice as fast, twice as powerful and heavily armed. Into the fray against the Luftwaffe or the Japanese.
Carl Schmieder is only 6o — too young to have flown in WWII. But he’s a member of Cactus Squadron, an aerobatic outfit flying the T-6 Texan to its limits at airshows. He’s fairly short, fit, genial. But I expected to see him in a vintage flight suit. In his striped button-down shirt and slacks, he looks like a jeweler sneaking out of work. Which he is.
I climb into the cockpit behind him. There’s a plaque bolted to the instrument panel: Intentional straight and level flight prohibited.
The Takeoff Roll
The radial engine harrumphs to life. The vibration reaches me at the cellular level. I’m more excited than I’ve ever been. We taxi, wagging around so Carl can see what’s in front of the Texan’s elevated cowling. We gather speed, and we’re in the air.
The next hour or so is the stuff of my dreams. Carl starts slowly, with aileron rolls. It’s the first time I’ve ever been upside-down in an airplane. A laundry list of combat maneuvers follows: Cuban 8, Immelmann turns, steep banks, barrel rolls. Carl explains every maneuver – I hear the still-awestruck young boy in his voice. He’s done this countless times, and the little boy still lives.
I learn what a four-G turn feels like. I grunt and tense every muscle in my lower body – quads, core, arms … all clenching to force enough blood into my head to stay conscious. Still, I feel an invisible electric blanket cranked to "HIGH" settle over me. The edges of my vision distort just slightly. It’s amazing.
Back Down to Earth
We land, and I’m physically wrung out, nauseous, over-heated. Carl slides the canopy, and I drink the air. It smells of exhaust and is barely any cooler – but it’s refreshing as lapping water straight off an Icelandic glacier.
I’m delighted, maybe as much as Carl is. He got to fly — and share the magic of aerobatic flying.
But Carl is gone, along with his final passenger and his priceless, dynamic piece of flying history. The National Transportation and Safety Board report can tell you why. A sad piece of aftermath: The Arizona wing of Cactus Squadron disbanded after the crash.
Maybe we shouldn’t embrace risk. No aerobatics, no mountain climbing, no polar expeditions. It’d save lots of lives.
But it would sure make living a lot less interesting.
(UPDATE: Jan. 2020: My original story for the Arizona Republic is no longer online. I’ll see if I can find it somewhere else or even scan it. It wasn’t great, but I was new at this newspaper thing!)