My First Stearman PT-17 Flight — June 1999

 In Sarah Byrn Rickman

Open Cockpit Stearman — What a Ride!

WAFS Reunion … Continued from last week’s blog

Nancy in her Super Cub.

My hostess, Nancy Batson Crews and I discussed Dr. Jim Pittman’s offer to take me up for a Stearman Flight. “You should do it,” she said. I sensed an importance to her that I do this—for myself, yes, but also for her and for Dr. Jim.

Friday, after the WAFS Reunion, Nancy took Teresa James and me for a ride. She pointed out her property where she hoped, someday, to build a house. She showed us where there was room for a grass landing strip across the road. The pride in her land, her accomplishments with it, and her hope for the future radiated from her descriptions

We put Teresa on her plane Saturday morning, stopped for lunch at Nancy’s favorite barbecue joint and headed to Pell City airport. It was trying to rain. Dr. Jim was at his

hangar waiting for us, and there stood the blue and yellow, open cockpit Stearman. I climbed up on the lower wing, stepped down into the front seat and checked out the cockpit. Stearman Flight, here I come!

Threatening Weather but Stearman Flight “a Go”

Dr. Jim and Nancy kept looking at the sky. The clouds were low and looked full of rain. “Let’s go check the weather station,” he said. The three of us piled into Nancy’s car and drove over to the operations building. There, the radar screen projected a rapidly-changing weather picture. He studied it for a minute, then pointed to a slightly lighter area on the screen. “We’ve got a half an hour, maybe,” he said. “You wanna fly?

He helped me buckle into a WWII vintage parachute. It was so heavy it almost pulled me over backwards. I set my shoulders against its weight. I’m not sure I could have pulled that ripcord, but I suppose if my life depended on it I would have found the strength and leverage. I climbed into the front seat. Dr. Jim handed me earphones and helped me adjust them. “So I can talk to you,” he said.  Then he helped me fasten and check the safety harness. I was in. I was ready.

“We’re Gonna Do a Roll” 

We took off into a lowering sky, ceiling three hundred feet. Bare minimum. We flew out over the lake and recreation area created by TVA in the 1930s. “We’re gonna do a roll,” his voice came through my earphones.

 Sarah and the parachute

The airplane began to roll over to the right, hung upside down for an instant, then rolled up the other side. Whoa! What a feeling! That was my first. We didn’t do rolls in the Cessna when I took flying lessons. Before I knew it, we were rolling to the left. Then we were right side up again. I looked down at the boats on the lake and wondered if they could possibly be having as much fun as I was.

Stearman PT-17 

Are You Ready for a Loop?

“OK, now for a loop,” Dr. Jim said, and the airplane went up, up, up, and over on its back.  I was hanging upside down in my harness. Then, smooth as silk, it continued over and down and suddenly we were back to level flying. Now that one almost got me. My stomach wasn’t quite sure what had happened and didn’t believe me when I tried to tell it, “Hey, it’s OK.”

“We better head in,” I heard Dr. Jim saying, indicating the dark clouds heading in our direction. The airport was off our left wing. “OK, to help us lose altitude and get down quicker, we’re going to do a falling leaf.” The airplane began to lose altitude, not a spin, not a dive, but in a drifting motion — like a falling leaf. We entered the landing pattern on the base leg. Gently the ground closer. He turned onto final and moments later the wheels touched down. Slick as a whistle. As we sped along the runway and took the turnoff, I felt gentle rain falling on me.

We were down, and the rain had come to stay. My first aerobatic ride.  Now I was beaming, if a little woozy from the loop. Nancy sat in her car reading a magazine. “How was it?” she asked. I wondered if I looked a little green around the gills, because she eyed me closely. “Fantastic,” I said.  She beamed. She had been doing a lot of that.

A Phenomenal, Very Full Week!

Nancy and I headed home. It had been a full week—a phenomenal week—but now it was almost over. After dinner—takeout from Cracker Barrel and a beer from her refrigerator—we sat and rehashed the whole extraordinary experience. It was truly a time neither of us would ever forget. She had made it happen. That was Nancy. She was someone who made things happen.

The next morning, Nancy and I said goodbye. I would begin working on The Originals“the book” about Nancy Love and the WAFS — though at that point I hadn’t a clue how to go about it. I had just spent two years of my life sharpening my creative skills in order to write fiction. Now here I was being challenged to go back to my first calling, nonfiction, to train myself to be an historian and to write the history of twenty-eight incredible women pilots. I knew nothing about historical research and when I got home, my day job — writing and editing newsletters for two nonprofits —was waiting.  But Nancy had given me an assignment.

Above: The end product of Nancy’s WAFS Reunion.

 

 

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