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Tue, May 24, 2005

Barnstorming: May 24th, 1981… A Personal Turning Point

Good God Almighty… It was HALF my life ago. Twenty four years. It can’t be.

Damn... I'm getting old.

We all have our turning points… points in our lives in which we made a decision, conquered an impediment, or came upon an event that was to have a  lasting effect on our existence… and for me, one of the greatest of those was an amazing day twenty four years ago that takes on greater prominence with each passing day.

Despite the years, the memory is indelible… kinda like those slow moving thoughts we have in the middle of a car wreck, when time slows down and the clarity of thought takes on Technicolor proportions (with subtitles).

Late one May morning, I was working my way laboriously to a point four miles above the earth in an amazing ultralight contraption that weighed little more than I did. It was a highly modified Pterodactyl Pfledgeling that started life as a weight-shift “Dac” and was later modified to include both a canard, a prop reduction drive (this was even before Designer Jack McCornack released his own, better, reduc drive) and a whole gaggle of other goodies. It was easily one of the most ungainly contraptions to ever take to the air, with a huge semi-rigid fabric wing, quasi 3-axis aerodynamic control and a pusher mounted Cuyuna engine that allowed this aluminum critter to climb as if commanded heavenward by the Lord himself. It was often compared to what night happen if a dragonfly had mated (reluctantly) with a lawnchair. It creaked, it rattled, it swayed, it was aero-elastic as hell… and was easily one of the best flying machines I have ever flown in my life… if flown by a pilot who spent enough time with it to learn its MANY intricacies and oddities. With practice and insight, it could turn on a dime, leap off the ground in but a few paces (any wind at all and you were off the deck in 50' or less) and was a surprisingly stable critter. It was way cool.

The Dac was unparalleled in its ability to land and takeoff in places that even made helicopter pilots cringe (no kidding… I used to mow a special crosswind Dac runway in the grass alongside Hanover airport in New Jersey… I rarely wasted my time in mowing more than 50 feet or so). The Pterodactyl had so many amazing features… it could be folded up and thrown on the top of a van (or ptruck) for the ultimate in transportability, it was incredibly stable with all that dihedral, it could easily house a folded tent and sleeping bag inside the wing so that it became quite the traveling adventurer, and it was a really inexpensive flying machine… rarely burning more than 1.5 GPH and cruising all day long at 40-55 mph, depending on how many June-bugs per hour you were interested in ingesting (many of which had unique textures and tastes -- take my word for it). Its only major caveat was that it couldn't handle a crosswind... but since it landed so short, all one had to do was point it into the wind just before touchdown and hit the brakes (which just happened to be one's shoes... flintstone-style).

The actual control of the Dac was a marvel of aerodynamic compromise, with a simple canard attached to a right side stick controller via a beefy pushrod and two huge vertical tip rudders that were operated by lateral stick motivation via a simple cable and pulley system. The tip rudders produced a subtle combination of yaw and roll that, with finesse and practice, could be operated with the delicacy and precision accorded a fine instrument, though it really took experience, experimentation and patience to develop such expertise. However; once one learned the beast’s innermost personal habits, the Dac became a beautiful tool with which to tour the skies, the ultimate off-road exploration vehicle and one hell of a climb-out king.

The climbing abilities of the Dactyl, were in fact, so impressive, that one naturally wondered just how high a Dac could go… which got me to where this story began… trying to see how high Uncle Jack’s delightful little Dac could really hoof it and to set a world-record for foot-launchable ultralight aircraft, in the process.

Meanwhile... Back Above Lakehurst NAS

So there I was… four miles high (in more ways than one)… with my butt hanging most of the way out of a way-too-insubstantial half-hammock hang seat over four miles above Terra Firma… While the Dac was a helluva great flyer, the last few thousand feet pretty much proved that in such rarified air, the Dac flew like five pounds of bat guano in a two pound bag… the lack of air was making the Dac a ponderous little beast that was hanging onto the rarified air for all it was worth… and all that kept it flying and climbing, it seemed, was a combination of prayer, luck and f***ing magic. Still, it was obvious that even the Dac had its limits and that I was THERE... and maybe a little past there, to boot. We could go no higher.

Just before heading home, I did something smart (possibly the first such move of the day...). I looked around…

What a moment: the colors were amazing… the thoughts profound, and the feeling of accomplishment beyond all imagining. I did it… though I was having a hard time remembering what “it” was. I wasn’t sure exactly how high I was, but I knew that I had reached an altitude that would serve my purposes, set something of a record, please my friends, and give me something to crow about for many moons to come.

Every sense screamed in response… the caustic, eerie, ear-splitting blare of the screaming Cuyuna, the gluey feel of the side stick controller in my right hand and the mushiness of its response, the sweaty/metallic air that I sucked in through the frosty/slimy mask, the sharp chill that leaked in from all quadrants (especially that which was coming in through the bottom of the pant-leg), the rocking motion of the ever-present cumo-bumpies, and that view… Lord, that view. I was colder than an Eskimo using an outhouse, having a really hard time (OK, impossible time) trying to talk to my chase plane though a Rube Goldberg lash-up of oxygen mask and microphone, and coming to the certainty that I was getting fairly hypoxic.

Not all that sure of where I was, how high I was (in more ways than one), the whole thing got to a point of truly bizarre proportions as high speed jet traffic was called off to me at 10 O’clock LOW. A Boeing. A big ass Boeing. A big Mother of a high-tailing-for-home Boeing. And me running around in little more than an aluminum mosquito.

Oh lord, the sky so big, the traffic so huge, my butt so exposed, and my craft so small… It was time to get out of Dodge.

Yeah, buddy.

There was this final moment though… one in which my mind threw off the hypoxia, and took one last look at the rich panorama before me. The only way to have improved the visibility from that teeny-tiny perch would have been to do a half-gainer over the side. But… enough was enough. So… with the annoyances of a frost encrusted oxy mask/beard and mike combo threatening to rip off my face as I turned to look from side to side, I slapped the kill switch on the 30-hp Cuyuna, shut that little puppy down, and enjoyed the first cool silence I had known for nearly an hour and headed home to Mother Earth.

It was a surreal moment containing the fiercest calm I had yet known. …The warm greens, browns and blues of central New Jersey looked so inviting and so bloody far away… but for the moment, all I could think of was the fact that I was thoroughly lost (but making damned good time…), freezing my ass off, and not all that sure of what it was that I was doing so high to begin with.

I had no idea where my starting airport Lakehurst NAS was, where my chase plane had gone to, or just what my next move was (outside of “don’t screw up”)… but the silence was a blessing and allowed me to collect my thoughts as my Pterodactyl, the aforementioned 220 pound contraption of endearing quality and ever-surprising ability, mushed its way home in rarefied air for which it was obviously only barely qualified to flit about.

What the hell was I doing there?

Well… that was kind of hard to explain… even then. Ostensibly; it was for an altitude record for foot-launch capable aircraft to kick off one of the largest airshows on the East Coast… I had left the Lakehurst Naval Air Station less than an hour before where a crowd of HUNDREDS of thousands of people saw me off as they waited for the airshow to begin, where I was something of an opening act. I now had less than half an hour to return before the airshow started (Silly me, I really expected to get much higher, much quicker -- yeah, right) and all that I could think to do was to reverse course and head South with the hopes that I would spot Lakehurst before my clearance to land was killed off by the start of the show.

They say the Lord looks out for fools and little children… and it sure helps to be qualified in multiple categories, because the light haze could not hide a field the size of Lakehurst NAS. Hot damn! In no time at all, I had that sucker right off the nose… and not all that far away (having had the foresight to take off into the prevailing wind at altitude… which was not all that bad -- never more than 50 knots… a good thing, otherwise I’d have probably found myself out over South Carolina by then…).

The descent from my apex of 21,210 feet (according to the barograph) took a lot less than the climb had taken… and my mind started clearing s-l-o-w-l-y even though my body, swaddled in several layers of the finest in borrowed snowmobile apparel, refused to even consider the thought of thawing out.

The landing went well, the aluminum tubing rattling and rumbling as I trundled to a stop next to a taxiway at Lakehurst NAS dead in the middle of the airshow staging area… but as it came time to get out of the critter, I found that the cold had seeped so thoroughly through my weary soul that there was no energy available to actually extricate myself from the beast… so I sat there gathering strength and willing my way out into the warm New Jersey sunshine and back to real life.

In a few minutes, my spirit convinced my body to get with the program and I was out and inserted safely into a reviewing car so that people could wave and clap as the announcer informed the crowd that I had set something of a record… I waved to nameless faces… though my mind was miles away… in a vertical reference… and it would take quite some time before normality returned to my thawing, experientially overloaded and thoroughly victorious soul… It was a pinnacle for me... one of many to come... but one that set a standard for much of the rest of my life. Every inch of that 4 mile climb was won as much by force of will as by aerodynamics... and the lessons learned that day were intensely valuable. 

What a highpoint -- but best of all; I’ve had many amazing moments since then…

...blasting through the Mojave desert at well over Mach One, or boogying along at 400-500kph--wingtip to wingtip in a flight of nearly a dozen Snowbirds, freefalling-all alone-from nearly ten miles up, testing incredible new aircraft that had never flown before in any form, fighting the good fight alongside my friend and hero Bob Hoover, dogfighting with Scott Anderson F-16 to F-16 (I miss you, Scott…), practical joke after practical joke after practical joke with Randy Gagne, doing inverted spin after inverted spin with Bob Herendeen and laughing our asses off with the fun of it all, flying an impossibly tight formation with the irrepressible Jim Moser (so close I could touch him if the canopy hadn’t been in the way) and trading really sick jokes over the radio all the while with one of the most amazing guys I EVER met, telling a wonderful girl that I loved her while doing a barrel roll around the moon, freefalling through the blackness of 2 a.m. on a full moon with seven other skydivers lit only by man in the moon and the chem-lights taped to our jumpsuits, landing an ultralight on the island that supports the Statue of Liberty, looping side-by-side in TIGHT formation with Jack Britton, flying another Dac from coast to coast and having more adventures than any person has a right to, fighting for my fellow flyers against those who would harm them, aerobatically representing President Reagan and the Air and Space Bicentennial at airshow after airshow, kissing yet another very pretty girl underneath a red Staggerwing at Oshkosh under a nearly full moon, logging dozens of hours of Zero-Gravity time among some of the finest people I've ever worked with, chasing SpaceShips and recording history from an unbelievable vantage point... so many memories, so many highs (and a few bizarre lows), and I thank God I’m not quite all the way to my fifties… meaning that there is plenty of time and opportunity for even greater adventures… and I can hardly wait.

Hot Damn!

Times a wastin’!

Twenty four years/half-a-lifetime ago… a record set, some personal demons slain, and the realization that for several minutes in that rarified air, the only thing that kept me alive and aloft was a sheer force of will and clarity of purpose. I remember the feelings and sensations well…and have called upon them again and again as I grew older and had to summon personal resources to see my way through the many challenges that have come about in the interim.

No matter what has happened… no matter how difficult the journey through life became, no matter how much I had to fight to make it to the next day, it was moments such as that frigid panorama at 21,210 feet that have allowed me to grin through the travails of life and get my butt in gear to take whatever next step was necessary. All I had to do was take a moment and abandon the world around me to return to that lofty perch and the joyously insane wonder of it all…

It was a turning point… one of many… but an early and a pivotal one that returns to me the minute I close my eyes and relive the moment… in perfect clarity.

Time after time…

--Jim Campbell, Editor-in-Chief, and World's Highest Ultralight Pilot, twenty four years ago.

FMI: Barnstorming: May 24th, 1981


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