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Halfway through our 30-minute “aerobatic” flight”aerobatic” being fancy aviator-speak for “ass over elbows”stunt pilot Adam Cope’s chummy, reassuring voice crackles into my headset: “Hey, man, I’ve got some bags back here just in case.”
Bags. Barf bags. This is bittersweet news indeed.
On the one hand, it’s comforting to know that if I do indeed hurlI purposely skipped breakfast this morning, but I’ve since grown quite confident that I could churn up a little something if necessaryit won’t be all over the snug, well-kept cockpit of Cope’s classic 1978 Bellanca Super Decathlon plane. Then again, Cope, seated behind me in the two-seat, one-prop aircraft, is obviously sensing that his passengerso cocky and chatty on terra firma, so suddenly silent 4,000 feet above Prince George’s Countyis perhaps feeling a tad vomitious after pulling two loops (fun and freaky) and two rolls (scary and really scary).
“No, I’m fine,” I gulp. “Just give me a couple of minutes to get situated.”
Oh sure: Cope knows all about “situated.” “Situated” means that his passenger is losing his daredevil nerve. “Situated” means that his passenger, wrapped tight like a mummy in a five-point “hooker harness system,” wasn’t kidding about getting carsick on the short ride from downtown D.C. to Fort Washington’s Potomac Airfield. “Situated” means that his passenger is just now realizing that boastful preflight comments such as “I love roller coasters, so I’ll be fine” were maybe a touch naive. “Situated” means that his passenger is thinking. And thinking leads to puking. And puking in a small, cramped plane is bad, very bad.
So Cope wisely cuts me short: “We’ll do one more thing. This is my favorite.”
And with that, the 28-year-old charmingly fearless flyboy takes over the controlsthat’s right, I was cruising the skiesnoses the beautiful red-white-and-blue Bellanca down toward Earth and prepares for the furious 145-mph entry speed for our final thrill maneuver of the day: the hammerhead, in which the 1,300-pound plane with the 180-HP engine shoots straight into the sky, climbing and climbing and climbing 600 vertical feet (on top of some 3,400 feet), until the craft can go no further. And then, just before we hit the Gates of Heaven, gravity takes its toll: The plane slows, stops, flips…and plummets dead-straight down toward the Back Door to Hell, falling and falling and falling a helluva lot faster than the craft climbed skyward.
Taking a thrill ride with Cope, who lives in his native Alexandria with his wife, seemed like such a good idea in the pilot’s turbulence-free hangar. I needed a jolt, something to slap me out of an overworked torpor. When your days are filled with incessant chatter about grown-up crap like stocks and marriage, life-affirming moments are few and far between. And what could be more life-affirming than pulling five organ-rearranging Gs (five times the force of gravity) during a fiendish aerial pirouette high above the sun-kissed Potomac?
Ever since he expanded his flight-school business, Flying Lemur Inc. (check out his animated Web site at dcaerobatics.com), to include thrill rides six months ago, Cope has incorporated some ba-da-bing showman flourishes into his relaxed teaching approach. A few minutes after I met him, Cope informed me that this gorgeous autumn morning wasn’t simply about loop-de-loopsit was about do-it-yourself loop-de-loops. That’s right: hand on the stick (up and down), feet on the rudders (left and right)and ta-da! I’d be flying.
After a somewhat confused pause, I politely informed Cope that I’d never flown a plane before. “I haven’t, either,” he said, helping me into a parachute. “Read the book, though. Haven’t got to the landing part yet.”
Great: My life was in the hands of Capt. Shecky Greene.
At Averett College in Danville, Va., Cope majored in aviation management. The more time he spent around the runway, however, the more he realized that the business end of flying wasn’t half as exciting as, well, the flying end. So in 1989, he officially took to the wild blue yonder. In 1993, quick-learner Cope began flight-instructing. But all too soon, “flying straight and level all the time got a little boring,” so he took up aerobatics, which quickly became “an addiction.”
“When I started, I was the worst: Every time I flew aerobatics, I would get sick. I could only go up 10 to 15 minutes at a time,” Cope tells me later, perhaps trying to make yours truly nauseous feel better.
In 1996, Cope shelled out $65,000 for the Bellanca, which is capable of up to four minutes of sustained inverted flight. These days, Cope averages four hours of air a daywith a good part of that accumulated fly time spent upside down.
“Every time I get to my fishbowl, the airport, every time I fly, I think, Jesus Christ, I’m up in the air. This job is pretty damn cool,” Cope told me preflight. “I try to be upside down as much as possible. It’s cheap chiropractic therapy. Keeps your back loose.”
And with that, Cope stuffed me into the front seat of the Bellanca, prattled a whole bunch of blahbadeeblah about fuel and danger and stuffcouldn’t really hear anything over my beating heartand climbed in behind me, where I’m sure my enormous pumpkinhead provided a lovely view.
After we battle the choppy waves of runway wind, herk ‘n’ jerk over the tiny cars zipping down Indian Head Highway, and elevate to proper cruising altitude, Cope starts getting excited: “Are you ready for your first loop? Keep your eyes straight ahead, and don’t look around or it will mess you up.”
There’s no time to protest: The plane dips down slightly and thenwhoooshwe’re looping, and I’m looking straight aheadgolly, that roller-coaster remark wasn’t too dorkyand just as I’m about to unleash a hearty Hail Mary, all those pounds I talk about someday shedding surround my throat in a blubbery half-nelson. Then the houses and cars and red, orange, and yellow seasonal-appropriate trees show up where I don’t expect them, and the plane evens outeven though my eyes continue to spin Bugs Bunny-style.
“How was that?” Cope asks with a yahoo.
That, as a matter of fact, was pretty damn cool. So I rebel-yell like Slim Pickens riding the bomb in Dr. Strangelove, and Cope unleashes an ominous laugh: “Good, ’cause now you’re going to do one.”
Needless to say, my loop is not as tight as Cope’s. In
fact, for what seems like an hour, we’re just kind of
hanging upside down like a dim-bulb bat. Cope shouts, “Pull the stick back harder!” So, fearing for their little lives, my testicles head east and west, and I pull that stick so far into my body that I’m afraid it’s stuck there for life. But hey, I’m all about loops, and I manage to bring us around safe and sound.
Rolls are basically corkscrewsreally horribly terrifying corkscrews. Instead of up and down, the stick is jerked left and right, and the plane obeys by tilting hard and spinning like a bulletkind of like that falling-off-the-Chrysler Building dream that slaps you awake at 2 a.m., except in this case, instead of drifting back to sleep, you hear a chipper “Now it’s your turn!”
Which leads us finally to Cope’s specialty: the hammerhead. Which is just as euphoric and mind-scrambling as I described above, except for this: I have never experienced anything as pure and beautiful and, yes, life-affirming, as those blissful seconds of climbing into the sky with nothing but blue in front of me, the sun to my right, Icarus on the wing, and all of life’s nasty little twists so many miles below.
And then we slow. And we stop. And we flip.
But I don’t barf after the hammerhead. Not even one of those chunky little upchucks. Although I do need a few minutes to get, you know, situated.Sean Daly