“Off we go into the wild blue yonder, climbing high into the sun” — so begins “The U.S. Air Force”song, by Robert MacArthur Crawford. The song came to my mind on Friday morning, as Roger “Fritz” Fritzler, of The Lima Lima Flight Team, piloted his yellow Beechcraft T-34 plane down the runway at the Williamsport Regional Airport — with me in the back seat.
Marc Schefsky, general manager of the Genetti Hotel, and I had the privilege of going on a “ride-along” with two Lima Lima pilots as they flew a rehearsal through their routine. Lima Lima is the world’s original six-ship civilian formation aerobatic team, celebrating its 30th year of performing in air shows and for special occasions, according to its website.
The heart of the team is the T-34 single-engine trainer, which was built for the U.S. Air Force and Navy in the late 1940s through the ’50s. Climbing into one of these planes was an education in itself, complete with my own controls, which I did not touch.
Like any passenger entering most small aircraft, I was instructed where to step on the wing and how to enter the cockpit. The seat was more spacious than that of the last stunt plane I flew in, but the cockpit definitely showed its age with a real 1950s look.
Sitting on my own parachute, receiving instruction on how to buckle it up, and how to climb out of the cockpit and deploy the parachute was quite different from any other plane I’ve flown in. And, yes, you do grab a “D” ring on your chest and pull straight out to deploy the ‘chute, something I did not want to try out. No sir, no peanuts and soda on this flight.
Our flight plan was to take off in formation, with the two planes flying side-by-side and follow the West Branch of the Susquehanna River, then bear north to the Lycoming County Fairgrounds in Hughesville.
That was the easy part.
Then the pilots practiced flying in formation, almost wing tip to wing tip, with hard banks and climbing in altitude, then descending, giving the effect of 2 1/2 Gs.
Gravitational force, commonly abbreviated as Gs, is a measurement of acceleration that causes a perception of weight.
Two-and-a-half Gs mean my camera quickly weighed 2 1/2 times its actual weight.
Our final stop was a flyover of Williamsport and the muddy, swollen river.
Aside from the rigors of doing some real stunt maneuvers — and the lightheadedness that came with it — it was simply amazing to see and photograph, from the air, the same countryside I see almost every day. Somehow, the trip to Montoursville, Muncy or Hughesville looks very different from above.
The clouds may have obscured the “wild blue yonder,” but seeing the ground from several thousand feet up was simply amazing.