When a passenger is asked to don a parachute before stepping into an airplane for a trip skyward, the flight takes on a higher level of awareness. This is a prerequisite to any flight in pilot Ken Fowler’s Harmon Rocket. His plane is amongst the fastest aerobatic planes in the world. He powers through turns, loops and gravity defying moves at 300 miles per hour. Fowler and his partner in the air, Eric Hansen, know what they are doing and love doing it. To them twisting and turning through the sky at a high rate of speed is all in a day’s work.
After the parachute is buckled into place, Ken gives some instruction. “If there is trouble, I will try to save the plane, but if I can’t I will tell you through the headset that we need to bail,” stated Fowler. “I will undo the canopy and it will immediately tear away from the plane. You will have to unbuckle your seat belt, stand up on your seat and jump away from the plane. Then, pull your chute.” I said the instructions over and over again in my head a few times, so they would sink in solidly. This was important and I didn’t want to forget anything.
Ken and his aerobatic partner have been flying for years. Their planes sparkle from care and attention and in spite of the very serious set of instructions given before buckling in behind Ken, I feel safe and thrilled at the same time. I know this is a ride I won’t soon forget.
The pilots sit confidently behind the cockpit instrumentation. I look over to see long lean local pilot Dave Woodruff snuggly in place behind Eric in his plane. There is only one passenger allowed in each plane. The seat is right in behind the pilot’s with not a lot of room for wiggling around. Each plane starts quickly and runs smoothly, coasting out onto the runway. My stomach flutters and all my senses are on high alert. Here we go.
We are in the air in moments and like a true thrill seeker I can feel the perma-grin setting itself on my face. Ken and Eric talk in pilot speak to one another and then next thing I know Ken asks, “Ready to do a loop.” I nod. Then realize he can’t see me. “Yes,” I breathlessly half yell into my headset. Like the words that whooshed quickly out of my mouth, so does the air. We are climbing…I can only see sky…endless sky…how high are we? I don’t know, but before I have time to come up with an answer I am upside down. I see the ground…way below. Now we are heading for Princeton. It is getting closer fast. I am not afraid. Ken’s hands are sure. There is no hesitation. Just smooth movements.
Eric is beside us and he is upside down. I can’t tell if Dave is smiling in behind him, but I imagine he must be…cause I can’t stop. We do a thumbs up and then we pull away fast. These guys are experts at what they do…that is obvious.
Ken and Eric fly side by side. How close are they? It seems close. We are bouncing together through the same air turbulence.
When we land, I am still grinning. The ride was thrilling…much more than an amusement park could ever offer. We are hot and our faces are flushed as we talk about some of the details. “We were about twenty feet apart when we were side by side,” stated Ken. “Sometimes if the turbulence is low, we will fly five to ten feet apart.” I think twenty was good…real good.
Ken talks about some of his passengers. The guy who was really too big to fit in the snug passenger seat, but went up because his boss insisted and then, wouldn’t agree to any tricks. He just wanted out which turned out to be easier said than done. Or the lady in her seventies who didn’t want the tricks to end. She compared the flight as being better than one of couples favourite past times…wink, wink.
Ken and Eric have lots of stories to tell. They ooze knowledge and confidence about their skill and their planes. They are thrilling to watch from the ground and for a few lucky thrilling to fly with. This coming weekend they will show just how good they are at the Princeton Airshow on Saturday July 16.