In his own words: Shawn McClosky finds lost love in a sunny SoCal Waco

December 2, 2003

Shawn McClosky jumped at the chance to flee a snowy winter in Front Royal, Va., to enjoy the open-cockpit thrill of a Waco biplane in Long Beach, Calif. Even a snowstorm the morning of departure from Dulles International Airport did not deter his enthusiasm.

He made two flights in early February at Mike and Kendle Hanson's Biplane Rides on Long Beach Airport. Shawn was a winner in AOPA's Waco Flight Experience to fly in a 1987 Waco, which approximates the totally restored Waco that will go to a lucky winner in early 2004. The sweepstakes prize plane is a restored 1940 Waco three-seater UPF-7.

In his own words, here is Shawn's report about the experience:

I remember back in May when AOPA called and told me I had won the Waco flight experience. I was asked if I would accept the prize. My reply was "is this a trick question? Of course I will!" It was one of the smartest decisions of my life.

My trip started at 3:30 a.m., Friday, Feb. 7, 2003, in the middle of a snowstorm. My normal 1-hour and 5-minute trip to Dulles took more like 2 hours and 30 minutes. I got there in time for the JetBlue flight to Long Beach, Calif., which was only my second trip since 9-11, the day that changed aviation. It was a nice trip out, but during commercials (JetBlue and satellite TV are a great combo), I started having some doubts about my flying abilities. I had only flown once since 9-11.

A combination of the airport shutdown after that day and a commitment to building a house made me decide to ground myself for financial reasons (building a house "ain't cheap"). The questions running through my head came faster than the TV commercials. Would I still remember how to fly? Will I look like a lunkhead trying to pass myself off as a pilot? Could I still even fly straight and level? What in the heck was a 225-hour pilot doing even thinking he could fly a classic like this?

Once I arrived in LGB, I just marveled at the 70-degree temperatures and the joy of watching aircraft in the pattern. [ Meanwhile, five to seven inches of snow lay on the ground in the Washington area, and East Coast air travel was delayed up to two hours at select airports.—Ed.] There is something about watching an airport as alive with flight training as LGB that touches my heart.

I tried to call Mike Hansen (my instructor for the ride) to let him know I had made it but got no answer. After an hour and a half watching airplanes, I called the van to take me to the hotel. I wasn't in the room 10 minutes when Mike called me. He told me he was sorry he wasn't available when I tried to call and asked if I was I ready to go. We agreed to meet at the hangar an hour earlier than planned. I hung up the phone with doubts still running through my head.

I got to the airport a little early and met Bob, Mike's brother-in-law. He showed me the airplane, assured me Mike was on the way, and I just admired that beautiful airplane until Mike got there.

When Mike got there, he presented me with that great leather jacket and the ball cap. Each one fit like a glove. We preflighted the aircraft and went over a plan of what we would do: just a little sightseeing to start out and then maybe out to Catalina Island and possibly some aerobatics. I could tell Mike was having a great time and looking forward to flying.

We taxied over to the pumps and fueled up. Then it was out to the runway, a quick runup, and we were cleared for takeoff. I felt my heart to start come alive when the airplane did. Old feelings started to come back, ones I hadn't felt in quite some time. A quick left turn out of the pattern, and we were on our way. We headed towards L.A. and the first sight was the famous Hollywood sign. That was the beginning of the sights, which ended with a trip through the VFR special flight rules area directly over LAX. Mike was full of interesting facts and showed me things left and right. All the while he was talking on the radio and switching frequencies. We then turned out to sea and he showed me Catalina and said those words I worried about hearing, "You have the airplane."

I was amazed how fast it all came back. The straight-and-level flight, the coordinated turns, the instrument scan. It felt familiar and good. I slowly started to slip into the old relaxed flying mode. Light fingers on the stick, not a death grip. Minor adjustments, not gorilla yanks and tugs. Scanning for traffic, not fixating on just one thing or another. Mike even complimented me on how well I was doing. I was starting to get back a feeling I didn't realize I'd lost. We climbed to 3,500 feet for the trip across the water.

About halfway across, Mike asked for the airplane back and asked if I were up to a loop. I could tell he loved showing what the airplane could do. Well, there is a first time for everything, so I said yes and gritted my teeth, determined not to feed the fishes. It was great! A quick barrel roll, and he gave the airplane back to me. We slowly descended to 500 feet and started a trip around the island, Mike again talking, pointing things out, and me just enjoying seeing new things and having my hands on the controls of this great airplane.

We then climbed up and landed at the Catalina Airport—seven knots of crosswind, but Mike made a great landing. After we went inside, I realized how cold I was. I guess excitement will make you forget any discomfort you may have. Mike bought some tea, and I had a delicious chocolate chip cookie. Then it was time to takeoff before it got too late. We held it down after liftoff and both enjoyed that feeling as the ground drops away steeply at the end of the runway. We finished the trip around the island and headed back across to the mainland. Before we made landfall we did a couple more loops, a hammerhead stall, a barrel roll, and an Immelman. I regretted that cookie. I won the war, and it stayed down.

We called the tower and did a touch and go, me holding the controls to get the feel of the airplane and what went into a landing. Another landing the same way and we called it quits for the day.

Mike gave me a ride to the hotel. We decided to meet at 10 a.m. the next day. I was really looking forward to flying again.

That evening after a great meal (I highly recommend Baja Sonora, a block from the hotel), I sat down with my logbook. I looked back over the entries, my first solo, my checkride, the trips with my wife for the hundred-dollar hamburger, taking my brother to Ocean City (his first small airplane ride), and the times I had taken my kids up. The entry that touched me the most was very simple: ANP-FRR-ANP. It was a trip from my old home to my new home, but a trip I'll never forget. The route back was over Dulles Airport at 3,500 feet, then over DCA (Reagan National Airport) at 2,500 feet, then to ANP (Annapolis). I remember being able to look out as I passed the White House, the Washington Monument, and the Capitol. A trip I might never make again. I would be lying if I told you a tear didn't come to my eye.

Saturday I met Mike at 10 and we set up a route for that day. Another preflight, and we were ready to go. I started the taxi to takeoff, and Mike only had to take over once to prevent a ground loop. This time the takeoff was mine with him backing me up. Not my best performance, but better than I had expected. I turned south, and we started down the coast. Flying was really starting to come back to me. I was able to hold altitude and heading almost as a second nature. We turned inland and through some of the small valleys. We both commented how little free space there is between L.A. and San Diego. It was then time to head back. We got a straight-in approach from the tower, and I managed to get lined up with the runway. Altitude, airspeed, power management, and attitude all came back to me. Mike was able to keep me from screwing the landing up too badly, and then it was over. I was sad but too overjoyed at the flying to let it affect me.

All I can say is "thank you, AOPA." Thank you for giving me two sunny 70-degree days away from the snow. Thank you for letting me fly an open cockpit for the first time. Thank you for letting me fly a taildragger for the first time. Thank you for having an instructor like Mike for the experience. But most of all, thank you for reuniting me with a lost love.

03-1-073