Silly Airplane Stunts

Kids, don't try this at home

October 1, 2005

There's a bridge that links upper Manhattan with mainland America. It's the George Washington Bridge — "the GW," for short — and its span crosses a goodly height above the Hudson River. Each time I fly down the Hudson Corridor for a sightseeing trip to New York City I'm overwhelmed by an urge to douse the Mode C and dive beneath. The thing that stops me is not losing my certificate, although that would shatter me, but rather the prospect of ending up in the federal prison system as the romantic interest of a large man nicknamed "Tiny."

Stunts like that just aren't my bag, baby. But I can be a daring aviator; in fact, I'm a recordholder. Stop laughing! Back in 1995 I set the national speed record from New York to Martha's Vineyard: 1 hour, 38 minutes, 29 seconds, flying a Cessna 152. (Yeah, a little slow, but to be fair I had a stiff headwind.) It was a positively Lindberghesque accomplishment — I mean, there was a long overwater stretch I had to fly across. Unlike Lindy I didn't get a big cash prize; in fact, I had to pay $700 to the National Aeronautic Association — the recordkeeping body here in the United States — to qualify for the record. (I did receive a nice plaque from them later.) But now my name is ensconced in the NAA's record book, World and United States Aviation and Space Records, a 400-plus-page volume (with the recordholders' feats in small print) released annually (I'm on page 201 of the 1999 edition). Most of those records are categorized under "Speed Over a Recognized Course." As long as the airport you want to fly to is 200 kilometers from the one you will take off from, you're allowed to attempt a record. You have to alert the NAA first, of course, and pay the fees, naturally, and the NAA will send you the necessary paperwork.

For the NAA's Recognized Course category there are different weight classes, from 661 pounds all the way up to commercial aircraft. There are various other records, such as altitude and time to climb, for other classes of aircraft ranging from balloons to models. It's not all Guinness-Book-of-World-Records-Tiniest-Airplane-Longest-Wing stuff here.

Lindbergh and I share something more than those long, daring overwater flights: We both have firsts. No one had ever attempted to set a speed record from New York to Martha's Vineyard; his was the landmark solo New York-to-Paris trip. In its own way it's a silly first. What's more important is to carry passengers across the Atlantic. But Lindbergh's feat also proved some things: For one, airplanes and their engines had grown reliable enough to spend hours in the air without conking out. And it had a surprising result: He fired enthusiasm for flight like never before and seldom since.

A lot of records are set to publicize a point, some subtle. In 1949 the Boeing B-50 Lucky Lady II girdled the globe nonstop in 94 hours, 1 minute; then, eight years later, a trio of Boeing B-52s flew the same route in less than half the time: 45 hours, 20 minutes. Folks had been circling the Earth since 1931 (Wiley Post, with navigator Harold Gatty, in the Lockheed Vega Winnie Mae: 8 days, 15 hours, 51 minutes; and once again, solo, in 1933: 7 days 18 hours, and 49 minutes) so the warbirds' records were nothing new — except it proved to the Soviets that a flight of our bombers could plant an atomic bomb anywhere on their soil and be back home before the fallout reached the continental United States. Of course, when the Soviets became the first to launch Sputnik on October 4, 1957, and put the first man, Yuri Gagarin, in orbit in 1961, they also subtly showed us that they could target their missiles anywhere on the planet.

Lately, though, to perform a real first you have to think of a unique approach. In 1986 Burt Rutan and Jeana Yeager flew the Voyager around the world on a single tank of gas in 9 days, 3 minutes, and 44 seconds; in 1999 the Breitling Orbiter 3, flown by Brian Jones and Bertrand Piccard, made the first nonstop around-the-world balloon flight in 19 days, 21 hours, and 55 minutes; and, on March 3, 2005, in the GlobalFlyer, Steve Fossett set the speed record for flying nonstop around the world in 67 hours, 1 minute, and 10 seconds at 342.24 mph. Someone's already done it by helicopter — Ross Perot Jr. and Jay Coburn, in 29 days, 3 hours, and 8 minutes in 1982; and by helicopter solo — Ron Bower, 24 days, 4 hours, and 36 minutes in 1994.

Though perhaps not as much today, in the old days aviation feats were the fast path to fame and fortune. Witness Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart (first woman across the Atlantic, but as a crewmember in 1928), and Jimmy Doolittle (coast to coast in 21 hours, 20 minutes in 1922, plus he flew the first outside, or inverted, loop).

OK, so what about a real-life, nonrecord stunt such as flying under the GW? For many pilots, the lure of flying beneath a fixed structure is too strong to pass up (if this applies to you, see "License to Learn: The Stranger Within," page 50, before your next flight). Witness Lincoln Beachey, who in 1911 flew his Curtiss Pusher over Niagara Falls and beneath the International Bridge before a crowd of 150,000 onlookers. In 1942, soon-to-be-America's-top-ace Richard Bong looped San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, enduring only a mild butt-chewing from his commanding officer. After plugging his 40 Japanese airplanes, Bong was labeled a hero and taken off combat duty and reassigned to the relative "safety" of flight-testing. But this bold pilot never got the chance to grow old; at age 24 he died testing a Lockheed P-80 in 1945.

It's not only Americans who fly beneath bridges. In May 1942 five airplanes owned by Dutch KLM were stranded in Australia — Holland had been overrun by the Nazis — and the pilots decided to donate their aircraft to the United States. On their way to the U.S. air base they flew in formation beneath the Sydney Harbour Bridge. When they landed, Aussie officials fairly reamed the crews, but there were no regulations against it at the time. Almost immediately Australia declared that anyone flying under the bridge in the future would have to pay $200 for each person on board. In May 2004, Australian Louise Campbell flew her two-seat ultralight, a Skyfox Gazelle, under the same bridge and faces up to two years in jail (while Campbell claims she did not know it was illegal to do so, her stunt is still under investigation — and authorities are shaking their collective heads in amazement).

Some stunts seem more bizarre. In 1973 Nikki Caplan threaded her hot air balloon through St. Louis' Gateway Arch — without permission, naturally. Five airplanes are known to have duplicated the feat, although none of them has been identified. And here's the stunt to end all stunts: In late March 1984 Robert Moriarty filed a flight plan to Shannon, Ireland, and took off from Paris' Le Bourget Airport. When air traffic control released him north of Paris he descended his V-tail Beechcraft Bonanza and pointed its nose toward the south in the direction of the Eiffel Tower, flying a low, slow approach along a two-mile stretch of gardens, then underneath the tower (with room to spare), and on to Shannon. French aeronautical officials called and took a pretty reasonable attitude toward his stunt, although Moriarty and the officials agreed that he should stay out of the country for a few years.

Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, pretty much everyone takes a dim view of anyone coming anywhere near any structure. In short, you'd probably find yourself in the sights of an F-16, and maybe spending some time with colleagues of my pal Tiny.

Enough about all this serious stuff. Aerobatics can be fun, especially when performed with jet airliners. Test pilot Tex Johnson was flying the Boeing 707 prototype before a Seattle crowd of 200,000 in 1955 when he decided to show off: He rolled the big jet — twice. Boeing President William Allen chewed him out, but legend has it that customers started lining up after that stunt. That has to be the record for the largest aircraft rolled, at least intentionally. A little more conventionally, perhaps, is the record for flat spins — inverted flat spins — held by Wayne Handley. At a 1989 airshow in Salinas, California, Handley took his Pitts Special up to 12,000 feet, flipped it over, and went into a flat spin. He went out of it 67 turns later. Not long afterward the NAA declared such stunts too dangerous and stopped giving out records. But 10 years later the Guinness Book of World Records' television show wanted him to do it again for the cameras. This time he climbed to 16,000 feet and 2 minutes and 14,000 feet later he rolled right side up and stopped spinning — after 78 revolutions. Unfortunately, on October 3, 1999, Handley crashed his Oracle Turbo Raven, suffering serious injuries including a broken back. He made a miraculous recovery and on August 20, 2005, flew his last flight at the Northwest Antique Airplane Club fly-in and retired his Raven to the Evergreen Aviation Museum in McMinnville, Oregon (home of Howard Hughes' giant H-4 Hercules — the Spruce Goose — which holds the record as the aircraft having the largest wingspan of any aircraft ever built).

Jenny Forsythe and Bob Essell perform a wing-walking airshow routine. On a Quicksilver MXLII ultralight. With no restraints. Essell bills himself as "Always Steady Bob"; Forsythe calls him "bio-dad" (adopted by the Forsythe family as a baby, she discovered Essell, her biological father, when she was a teenager). Forsythe took up the routine from Essell's former wing walker Jon Falkner, who perfected the restraintless routine. He says he simply got tired of getting tangled up in the restraints. "I can stand on the front with no belts, no harnesses, no goggles, and fly with my body," he says. "It's a hoot." Seriously, kids, don't try this at home.

Some tricks sound good enough to be true, but they may well be apocryphal. One story has pilots at Edwards Air Force Base flying low and fast to see whose jet can set off the most car alarms in the parking lot. Officials quickly dispute the existence of? such competitions. "It's a common [rumor] at any Air Force or Navy base where pilots fly high-performance aircraft, and it circulates here as well," says an Edwards spokesman. "If any of our pilots intentionally tried to do that, and it could be substantiated, they would be looking for a new job immediately."

Sadly, perhaps, the day of the silly flying trick seems to be over, a victim of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. And the truth is, I would never really fly under the GW. But I always get a thrill considering it — turning off the transponder, cutting the power, swooping underneath it — for a second. Then the bridge, and the thought, passes.

Phil Scott is a freelance writer and pilot living in New York City.

Real GA Records You Couldn't Make Up

  • Duration in a hang glider, solo: 34 hours, 3 minutes; James W. Will; UP Gemini 165; Makapuu Point, Hawaii; June 3 to 4, 1986.
  • Fastest time to visit all the state capitals in the contiguous United States and the District of Columbia: 13 days, 7 hours, 42 minutes, 25 seconds; Dr. Hypolite T. Landry, pilot, Clifford H. Rice, copilot; Cessna R172K; August 6 to 19, 1990.
  • First family to fly over the North Magnetic Pole in a single-engine aircraft: Olin, Paula, and Jack Branstetter; Piper Cherokee 180; June 29, 1984.
  • First person to circumnavigate the Island of North Dumpling: Richard Rutan; Enstrom N36DK; 1 minute, 34 seconds; June 29, 1988.
  • Number of consecutive inside loops: 2,368; David Childs; Bellanca Decathlon; North Pole, Alaska; August 6, 1986.
  • Number of different aircraft flown in one day: 65; Col. Tom A. Thomas; Frederick, Oklahoma; June 1, 1985.
  • Fastest time to visit all 128 hard-surface public airports in Michigan: one day, 12 hours, 5 minutes, 3 seconds; Patrick J. and Juanita D. Curley; Piper PA-28-181; June 30, 1993.

And now, space

SpaceShipOne has taken record-setting to new, er, heights. On September 29, 2004, the aircraft, flown by Mike Melvill, set the record for altitude above the Earth's surface — 337,601 feet. Just five days later, the aircraft, flown by Brian Binnie, broke that record, flying in altitude above the Earth's surface at 367,483 feet (see " You're the Pilot," August Pilot). Additional records set by the aircraft (according to the NAA) in 2005 are:

  • Duration (from release to landing): 24 minutes, 10 seconds; September 29; Mike Melvill, pilot.
  • Length traveled along a trajectory: 28.75 statute miles; September 29; Mike Melvill, pilot.
  • Number of persons in suborbital flight: 1; September 29; Mike Melvill, pilot.
  • Greatest mass lifted to altitude: 3,174 pounds; October 4; Brian Binnie, pilot.
  • Minimum times between two consecutive space flights in a reusable vehicle: 95 hours, 5 minutes, 8 seconds; October 4; Brian Binnie, pilot.