As the Flying Classroom arcs across the U.S. heartland this week, I find myself remembering two things from our visit to Piqua Airport in Ohio last June: the heat reflecting off the tarmac and the sight of a tiny red airplane falling from the sky—on purpose.
Barrington, Shaesta, Jenny, and I had come to this rural runway to spend a morning in the sky with Sean D. Tucker (left), the world’s top airshow pilot. Inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame and named one of the Smithsonian’s 25 Living Legends of Flight, Sean has racked up more than 25,000 flight hours since he first got his pilot’s license at age 17. “I was the most dangerous pilot out there,” he says of his early crop-dusting days, “because I didn’t trust myself.” To conquer his fear of crashing, Sean signed up for an aerobatics course with an instructor named Amelia Reid. Once they rolled the plane in the air and didn’t crash, he was hooked. And before we left Piqua, Sean hoped to get Barrington hooked, too.
But first, Sean taught us about g-forces. He didn’t quote Wikipedia and say that a g-force—or “G”—was a unit for measuring a specific type of acceleration. Instead, he had us imagine a roller coaster. Try it. Imagine the most terrifying, gut-churning roller coaster you’ve ever ridden. As you roar over that first drop, negative G’s are what make you feel like your stomach is in your throat; when you begin racing up again at the bottom of the drop, 4 to 5 positive G’s are what pin you to your seat. The same thing happens to pilots when they perform steep dives, loops, and turns.
In his airshows, Sean Tucker routinely endures between -4 and +9 G’s. “The only way I can do it,” he says, “is to practice and go to the gym every day. My body can only handle three 20-minute flights a day. It takes all day to recover.” Right ... so now with no preparation, Barrington was going to attempt around +4 G’s while performing barrel rolls, loops, hammerheads, and the dreaded outside loop? “With all the blood rushing up, wait until you see how big your face is gonna get,” Sean said with a smile. “It’s going to be two Barringtons.”
One hundred and nine years earlier, two other men you might know were getting ready to fly over Ohio. In 1905, the Wright brothers constructed the world’s first functional airplane just a few miles from Piqua in the city of Dayton. The site—1127 W. Third Street—is now an empty lot (left) because Henry Ford moved the historic building to his museum in Michigan in 1936. But a block away at 22 S. Williams Street, you can visit the “Birthplace of Aviation,” the bicycle shop where Orville and Wilbur first began tinkering with the idea of powered flight.
In August 1896, the Wrights were going about their business repairing bicycles, when they came upon the obituary of German inventor Otto Lilienthal. The "flying man" had recently died after losing control of his newly-patented hang-glider.
Humans could fly? The Wrights were hooked. After a few years of false starts, they began to question the accuracy of Lilienthal’s lift data. Wind tunnels had just been invented, so the Wrights took their prototypes to one and soon perfected the shape of an airplane’s wing, improving efficiency by 1-1.5%. “Not bad for two guys who never officially graduated from high school,” notes Robert Petersen, a ranger at Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park (below).
“If the Wrights hadn’t done it, experts believe flight would’ve been figured out within ten to fifteen years,” says Petersen. “The genius of the Wrights was that they challenged every assumption. They were the first to apply the scientific process to flight.”
The brothers also had two other advantages: 1) Dayton, which had become a hot spot for manufacturing and led the nation in patents per capita in 1890; and 2) each other. Working as a team, rather than as lone inventors, the brothers doubled their capacity for innovation.
On December 17, 1903, they took their refined design to the frozen, windswept dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Leaping from a tall dune, their first flight lasted 12 seconds and carried Orville 120 feet. Their fourth and final flight of the day carried Wilbur 852 feet and lasted 59 seconds before a hard landing damaged a wing. The day was deemed a “grand success.”
Returning to Ohio, they made further revisions to their flying machine, and by 1905 were aloft for nearly 40 minutes, making circles and figure eights over the grasses of Huffman Prairie. Through analysis, teamwork, and a whole lot of hustle, they had done it. The Wrights had made the world’s first practical airplane.
Over the next five years, they sold patents, built a factory, and established the world’s first school for aviation. Between 1910 and 1916, the Wrights taught 119 people how to fly, including: Roy Brown, the Canadian pilot who shot down the Red Baron in World War I; Henry Hap Arnold, the commander of all Allied Air Forces during World War II and the only five-star general in the history of the U.S. Air Force; and Cal Rogers, who 103 years ago, made the world’s first transcontinental flight from New York to California in 49 days after only 90 minutes of flying lessons from the world’s first flight instructor, Orville Wright. Must've been a good teacher.
Back in the skies high above Ohio, Sean Tucker was giving Barrington a quick lesson of his own. “We’re here to dance, baby!”
“I want you to drop down at 160 knots (185mph) and then take that energy at 3 G’s and pull that airplane sixty degrees above the horizon and roll it at the same time. You’ll do a beautiful barrel roll.”
“Dive down at 180 knots (210mph) and pull up at 4 G’s. When you can’t see the ground in front of you anymore, look out over the left wing and you will see the Earth. Do that until you’re almost upside down and then you can look back in front of you cause you will see the horizon again. Then just pull out of the dive.”
“It’s just a quarter of the loop. Pull it like you’re gonna pull a loop and just hold the stick until you’re going straight up. Then relax it. Let the airplane fly. Eventually it’s gonna run out of speed and you’ll be weightless at 0 G. Kick in the left rudder and the airplane will pivot and we’ll go straight down. Enjoy the ride. It’s your roller coaster, baby.”
“Right here on Earth, when we’re standing on the ground, we’re at 1 G. If we’re flying straight and level upside down, how many G’s are you feeling there? 1 negative G. You’re going to feeling a lot of pressure on your face as your blood flows to your head. Relax and breathe softly to relieve the pressure.”
“We're gonna roll upside down, and then you got to push. You’re going to feel the pressure of -3 G’s as you push away from the Earth until you’re floating over the top at 0 G. Keep pushing the stick through another -4 G’s until you’re out of the loop.”
We would later learn from Sean, once they were safely on the ground, that Barrington didn't pull -4 G's. He pulled -6! He exited his outside loop with such speed that he had six times his body weight pulling him from his seat as he dove toward the Earth, inverted.
“It hurt bad,” Barrington recalls now, as if he can still feel it. “All the blood rushing to my face, I thought my eyes were going to pop out.”
From the ground, it appeared far more graceful, like two brothers gliding above the prairie.
NEXT EXPEDITION: The Bionic Chef