Pulling seven Gs can be tough on the stomach

Stunt plane ride gives reporter an upside down air show preview
by: Christopher Onstott Tribune reporter Stephen Alexander, in the front passenger seat of John Klatt’s two-person Air Guard Extra 300L, begins a climb Wednesday near Hillsboro Airport. Klatt is a stunt pilot in this weekend’s Hillsboro International Air Show. Alexander’s stomach took a few twists and turns as Klatt put his plane through a couple of barrel rolls.

I was on the phone to my father as I stood in the hanger at the Hillsboro Airport.

'Guess what I'm about to do,' I said to him. 'I'm about to ride in a stunt airplane.'

I explained that the 24th Oregon International Air Show was happening at the Hillsboro Airport this weekend and that I was going to be writing a story about what it was like to fly in one of the planes.

'You know Buddy Holly died in an airplane crash?' my father asked when I was done explaining.

'Wasn't that the day the music died that Don McLean sang about in 'American Pie?' ' I asked.

'Yeah,' my father replied.

'Well, hopefully today isn't the day the writing died,' I said.

Despite thoughts of Buddy Holly, Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne and Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder Roberto Clemente meeting their ends in airplanes, I was not afraid. Heck, as I looked at the two-person Air Guard Extra 300L that I was going to be flying in - which was so small it looked like it would lose in a fight with my Chevy Blazer - I began humming the theme from 'Top Gun.'

Before the flight I met with pilot John Klatt. He told me that he had been flying for 25 years. That is a year longer than I have been alive. I felt confident.

Before the flight, I had to put on a parachute and was given instructions about how to pull the ripcord. For the first time, it occurred to me that I had taken on a story with a little more peril than sitting in the press box during a football game.

I climbed into the front seat of the plane as Klatt climbed into the backseat. A member of the Air Guard strapped me into the cockpit. As he fastened and tightened four seatbelts he explained how to unfasten them if I needed to. By the last harness I had forgotten how to get the first one off.

So basically, if the plane went down, I was going down with it.

The first half of the flight felt like an average ride in a 747. I was more concerned about whether the Tribune's photographer Christopher Onstott was going to fall out of the open door of the chase plane than I was about my own safety.

We flew around downtown Portland, going low enough to see Pioneer Courthouse Square and Jeld-Wen Field. I saw my apartment building beneath us and marveled at how small it looked.

After circling around downtown, we headed back toward Hillsboro.

'You want to try flying the plane a little?' Klatt asked over the headset.

Remember how nervous you were the first time your parents let you drive a car? Imagine that happening hundreds of feet up in the sky and you will know how I felt.

The control stick was more sensitive than you can imagine. When I moved it two inches to the right, the wings tilted until we were almost sideways. When I pulled the stick back a quarter of an inch we climbed 100 feet in less than three seconds.

I was shaking and adrenaline was pouring through me by the time Klatt took over.

Ten minutes later, we were over farmland.

'You ready to have some fun?' Klatt asked.

'Absolutely,' I said.

Too many barrel rolls

As I write this story, my stomach still has not recovered from what happened next. Klatt spun the plane around until we were flying upside down over the chaser plane. The harnesses strained to keep me from banging my head against the plane's glass ceiling.

Thirty seconds later - or what felt like about 30 days upside down time - the plane righted itself. I did not have time to catch my breath before we tried a 'hammerhead' stunt.

The plane climbed straight up into the air. We hit seven G's, or seven times the force of gravity. That means that an object that weighs 10 pounds on earth weighs 70 pounds. Seven G's slams into you like a freight train. It pulls the skin of face back until it is impossible for one not used to it to keep his eyes open.

Just as I felt as if I would be crushed by the force against me, the plane flipped and we dove straight down. With the negative G-force, I felt completely weightless.

When we finished the 'hammerhead' we began doing 'barrel rolls,' going around and around. It was like rolling down a hill as a little kid, except that you are doing it at hundreds of miles an hour.

We then went through a loop where the plane goes in a complete vertical circle. The G-force slammed into me on the way up and disappeared on the way down.

A few more 'barrel rolls' did it for me. I hit the intercom button. 'I think my stomach is about good,' I said.

'You're good?' Klatt asked, misinterpreting my statement.

Before I could hit the intercom button to tell him that I had meant the exact opposite, we were in a elongated 'barrel roll,' spinning I could not count how many times.

My hand was on the intercom button as soon as the plane leveled off.

'That's all I can handle for today,' I said, making sure to be more concise with my words this time.

'All right,' Klatt said. 'We're heading home.'

When I got back on the ground, I felt my legs giving out. The rush of blood to my head and back down to my feet over and over had disrupted my body's natural blood circulation. It took a good 10 minutes and a bottle of water before I felt able to stand.

As I left Hillsboro Airport, I had sweated through my t-shirt and I still felt motion sick. But, there was also the thrill of having an adventure few get to experience and living to write about it.

Don McLean will have to wait for American Pie Part 2.

International Air Show

The 24th Oregon International Air Show takes place at 6 p.m. Friday, Aug. 19, 9 a.m. Saturday-Sunday Aug. 20-21 at the Hillsboro Airport. It will feature the likes of The Patriots 6-Jet Team, F-15 and F-16 and F-18 demos and an Aerobatic Racing Challenge and other thrills. Prices for tickets vary. Motion sickness bags will not be needed for spectators. www.oregonairshow.com, 503-389-3153.