Every year Kirby Chambliss, a five-time national aerobatic champion and Red Bull racer, performs his airshow routine for the crowd at the EAA Airventure fly-in at Oshkosh, Wisconsin. It’s a gut-churning spectacle, an aggressive, low-altitude sequence of end-over-end tumbles, tail slides, flat spins, at what have you. Having ridden along with a few aerobatic pilots in the past, my main thought while watching Chambliss has always been: Thank God I’m not in that plane.
Then a few days before this year’s show I got an email from a PR representative at GoPro, one of Chambliss’ sponsors, asking me if I wanted to go along for a ride. My first reaction was to shudder. But as someone who writes a column called “I’ll Try Anything,” I feel a necessity to keep an open mind about things. So I said yes.
I met Chambliss and his team at 8am at a hanger at the north end of the field. The plane, a half-million dollar custom job that’s entirely built in the United States, was a gleaming work of art in aluminum tubing and carbon fiber: Strong, powerful, precise. “No matter what you do to this plane in the air, you can’t break it,” Chambliss assured me. I zipped into a flight suit, strapped on a parachute, and climbed into the front seat.
The drawback to flying at Oshkosh is that there are always a ton of airplanes trying to land and take off, making for long waits in the sweltering heat. By the time we finally were ordered to lineup on the runway, the prospect of getting up into the cool clean air with Chambliss was actually starting to seem appealing.
We climbed to 3000 feet, and the show began. He rolled upside down and flew inverted for a bit “to check if the harnesses are all right,” then asked me how I was doing – I imagine he was trying to get a bead on how game I really was. Then he launched into a whole series of crazy things. I don’t really remember precisely what happened, but it all went down incredibly fast, like getting beat up by Jackie Chan. Moments stand out: tumbling end over end; going straight up, then sliding straight down tail-first; a series of hesitation rolls while in a near vertical dive: Slam left, stop – huh! – slam left, stop – huh!… It felt like being tossed in the air by your dad when you were a little baby.
Eventually Chambliss leveled out the plane and I caught my breath. He asked me if I wanted to try performing a snap roll. Sure, I said. He had me put my hand on the stick while he demonstrated the maneuver. Ready? Chop-chop! He pulled the stick back and then pushed it forward again with lightning speed, causing us to flip end over end in a way that was totally disorienting and physically overwhelming, like getting thrown off a horse. Then, a second later, we were flying straight and level again. “Want to give it a shot?” he asked. “Uh, I have no idea what just happened,” I said. He performed the maneuver twice more to see if I’d catch on. Nothing. He suggested I do an aileron roll instead. They’re the easiest thing in the world, just push the stick to the side, the plane goes upside down and comes up the other side. I did a couple of those and realized that whatever gumption had gotten me this far, I’d run out of it. “Kirby, I think I’m done,” I told him. “No problem,” he said, and turned for the airfield. “You did great.”
I don’t think he really meant it. But I do think he appreciated my not having thrown up all over his shiny airplane. Not to pat myself on the back, but I had to dig deep for that one.