California Flying

Big Bear's jet

November 1, 1999

Pete Bonofiglio, with his Czech-built Aero L-29 Delfin jet trainer, is a pilot for whom blue sky is an ever-present beacon. With some 30,000 hours in his logbooks, the retired Delta captain is always ready to roll.

The only jet based at California's Big Bear City Airport, the Delfin — christened the Pasta Burnerrrrr, a name influenced by Bonofiglio's Italian roots — is a fixture in the airspace over the high mountain community. "I should have named it the Lira Burnerrrrr," he quips of the jet, which burns 150 gallons of fuel an hour. The Pasta Burnerrrrr also has been featured at a number of airshows, garnering First Place Jet at the 1997 Camarillo Air Show and First Place Warbird at the 1998 Big Bear Air Show.

The Delfin, Bonofiglio says, is a counterpart to the Lockheed T-33 jet trainer. In 1961, the Delfin became the standard advanced trainer of the Warsaw Pact countries. Bonofiglio's warbird was built in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1968. It redlines at 368 knots, cruises at 270 kt indicated, has a maximum speed of Mach 0.7, and is certified to fly up to 39,000 feet. "It'll pull eight Gs positive, six negative," Bonofiglio says.

A member of the Classic Jet Aircraft Association, Bonofiglio is one of a growing number of people who roar through the skies in jet airplanes that have come out of retirement. Depending on the day and the destination, he has invited others to go along — making flights of fantasy a reality for dozens of passengers.

Though skies above Big Bear are frequently wind-swept, the solidly built Delfin barely appears to notice, moving as if there was not even a ripple in the air. "It's built like a Sherman tank," Bonofiglio says, rapping the jet with his knuckles. "The wing skin is thicker than your car bumper."

When Bonofiglio flies with passengers, he has a typical routine that leaves them astounded, nearly breathless, and happy for whatever it took to make the trip to Big Bear City Airport. "I like to do maneuvers abeam the airport, at a safe altitude," he says, "so their families and friends can get videos. It's a lot of fun."

Bonofiglio adds that passengers, who must be at least 18 years old for insurance purposes, are equally split between men and women, but he observes that women "are more aggressive than men" when it comes to aerobatics. Sensitive to his passengers' beginner status in the cockpit, he is careful with limits. "Most people like to do the rolls and high Gs," he says. "Those are fine, but I won't do violent maneuvers. They're not trained for that."

Passengers, sitting where the radar officer would be on a standard training flight, are told how to release the webbing of straps that fasten them tightly to the rear seat, how to open and close the canopy, and how to release their parachute in the event that a quick exit from the jet is needed. "I don't want the plane going down with you in it," he says, explaining the timing and succession of events that must be followed in the event of an emergency. He adds that the Delfin, which does not have ejection seats, would be inverted just before pilot and passenger push away from the airplane and fall to earth.

The briefing also heightens the sense of excitement that goes along with the ride. It's a tiny taste of the real thing — what it's like to prepare for a mission.

There's a panel of instruments in the rear that allows passengers to monitor such parameters as airspeed, vertical speed, and G forces. There's also an intercom so that passengers, never out of touch, can hear radio calls and communicate with the pilot.

On takeoff, the ground falls away like a caterpillar's cocoon, and with a climb rate of 1,500 feet per minute, it soon seems a world apart. The Delfin is in its element, and the aerial ballet begins. When Bonofiglio lifts the nose and pulls the stick to the left, the jet leans into a precision 360-degree roll. The scene through the canopy is like a view through the looking glass. In a heartbeat, the ground and sky change places. As the jet glides through loops and rolls, clouds blend with earth in a kaleidoscopic panorama.

At cruising speed, the Delfin is surprisingly quiet. During a high-speed pass, the air seems to scream past the canopy. A pullout and a roll at the end of the high-speed run measure gut levels of endurance and fortitude, as well as offering a quick check of how well head and neck are attached to shoulders. Passengers can call it quits at any time. Bonofiglio says that no one ever has.

Bonofiglio has always been a dauntless pilot. When he began flying in the early 1960s and worked as a pilot and A&P mechanic for Don Barber at Riverside Air Service, his career literally took off when the gutsy pilot/mechanic, wearing greasy overalls, managed a tarmac interview with the chief pilot from Zantop Airlines. Did Bonofiglio have a suit and tie, and could he be in Detroit in five days? Answering, "Yes, and yes," Bonofiglio was hired on the spot. He went on to fly for Western Airlines, becoming a captain at age 41. Western was bought out by Delta in 1987, and Bonofiglio retired as a Delta captain in August 1994.

Flying long before metal detectors were imperative to airport security, Bonofiglio's career spanned the evolution of commercial aviation. He holds the industry distinction of having received the most bomb threats — five in all. "Three times we had to return to the gate," he says. "And we had two evacuations right on the runway. One of the evacuations was on a flight from Minneapolis to Hawaii. None of the passengers had overcoats; they were all wearing shorts. It was January and 20 degrees below. We were out there for an hour before anybody came for the passengers. We just kicked the chutes out and got people off the plane. Nobody thought about grabbing blankets."

Another flight resulted in a four-hour onboard party in the wake of a near disaster. "We were flying the entire cast of Airport '77 to Alaska," Bonofiglio recalls. "And we blew out the tires on the runway. It was funny — that whole movie was about airport disaster, and here we were with Charlton Heston. I asked him if he was responsible for all this."

While repairs were made to the airplane, Bonofiglio's crew and Heston's crew mingled aboard the Western jet. "They told us all about making the movie, how stunts were done on the set," Bonofiglio says. "We had a really good time with them. When the movie premiered in Alaska, we all got invited."

Looking back over his career, Bonofiglio misses the "old" days. "There was a lot more camaraderie in the early years," he muses. "It's different now. Crews worked as a team and played as a team. We'd all take three or four days off and go skiing or fishing together. It's not the same anymore. Now every time you land, you've got different airplanes, different crews, different gates, different flight numbers. You don't know who you've got back there."

He believes that a positive change in the industry is in-creased safety. "As far as quality and de-pendability, planes are a lot safer now. This new generation of planes is a hundred percent better than before. Now you can fly for years and never have a problem."

But Bonofiglio enjoys flying his current steed, even if it is a jet from an earlier generation. If you're ever in the neighborhood, stop by Bonofiglio's hangar at Big Bear City Airport. If he's on his way out, you might get lucky and get to go for the ride of a lifetime.

Links to additional information on flying in California can be found on AOPA Online ( Kresse Armour is editor of the Grizzly Newspaper in Big Bear, California. She has held a pilot certificate since March 1996.