A little EXTRA work for the air show
I may have mentioned a few times already that most days I love my job. Some days, though, I really love my job.
Thursday was one of those days.
Jon Gagné and Fifi Kieschnick at the NAS-Kingsville Public Affairs Office called me a few weeks ago and asked if I would be interested in a media flight with Jan Collmer, one of the aerobatic performers from the Wings Over South Texas Air Show. Collmer flies the EXTRA 300L, a small, two seat acrobatic plane about the size of a car. The plane is rated up to 10gs and can do a complete roll in less than a second, Collmer’s press packet noted. I’m only rated up to about 1.5 gs, but I am able to accept such offers in less than a second, which I did.
On Thursday, I met Collmer and Fifi on the flight line at NAS-Kingsville in front of the Air Operations Center. Collmer’s fellow pilot, Dave Seals, strapped a parachute on my back before helping me into the front seat of the Extra 300L. As he strapped me into a complicated harness system, he gave me a slightly modified version of the safety demonstration you get on commercial flights.
“Now remember, if something happens, pull this lever and this lever to get out of the harness. By then the canopy will be gone, so just stand up on the seat and jump away from the plane. You’re going to want to make sure you’re well away before pulling the D-ring on your parachute, to make sure you don’t get tangled up in the plane. When you pull it, pull in a swift motion from the left side of your body toward your right knee, because you’re going to need to break some strings to deploy the chute. Any questions?”
I thought about mentioning how he had lost me at “stand up on the seat once the canopy is gone,” but thought better of it and said I understood.
We received permission to take off, and in no time were in the air heading south over the Kleberg County brush. Collmer let me take the stick for a minute, and I tentatively wagged the airplane’s wings and followed his instructions to turn to the left. I was amazed at how responsive the small plane was, with the controls responding almost as quickly as I could think about moving them.
Back in control of the plane, Collmer started with a series of barrel rolls, forcing the horizon to tumble like clothes in a dryer in front of me. We then went into a loop, and the Gforces instantly dumped about 600 pounds on my chest. I tried to look up through the bubble canopy to get my bearings, and saw brown grass, a caliche road and mesquite trees. Leveling off from the loop, he turned on the smoke trail used in exhibitions and pulled back on the stick, dumping more weight on me as we headed straight up. Just as my mind became oriented to our new trajectory, Collmer let the plane run out of speed, kicked the nose over and we fell back through our smoke trail. As the spinning ground again approached us, he leveled off in a smooth motion.
“So, how are you doing,” Collmer asked. “100 percent, 50 percent?”
“Pretty good,” I lied. “About 80 percent.”
“Well, we go back for anything less than 100 percent,” Collmer said, laughing.
It’s hard to blame him, since I’m sure neither of us wanted to clean vomit out of an airplane cockpit.
Collmer slid the plane sideways as we approached the runway, partially fighting a crosswind and partially to see past my head, straightening out at the last second before a ridiculously smooth touchdown.
Back inside the lobby of the Air Operations Center, Collmer talked about his first flying experience, as a 19-year-old entering Naval flight training in 1954.
“We did acrobatics in our first training flights. It was the first time I’d ever been in an airplane, and I got sick,” Collmer said. “Through the first 20 hours of training, they teach you aerobatics, because they know that when you go solo, you’re probably going to try it, and they want you to know how so you don’t kill yourself.”
Collmer flew F8U Crusaders, a jet fighter, from 1954-58 in active duty, and served in the Naval reserves until 1966. While in the reserves, he received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics with a minor in physics from the University of Texas in Arlington and started his own electronics company. He didn’t fly for more than 10 years, until he attended an air show in South Texas in 1977.
“I wasn’t going to fly some dinky civilian airplane. I’d been flying jets,” Collmer said. “Then I went to an air show down here in Harlingen and saw the little airplanes do acrobatics. I thought, ‘Wow, I didn’t know they could do that.’”
Collmer dusted off his pilot’s license and bought an entry-level aerobatic plane, and began flying air shows in 1980. He’s since flown in more than 400 shows, and now (at age 77) averages 15 shows a year.
“I love it,” Collmer said. “Everything. I like the people, I like the crowd, I like the other pilots, I like the people that organize the show.”
While Collmer loves performing in air shows, he said they are a small part of his life. He is heavily involved in several civic organizations in the Dallas area, and founded the Frontiers of Flight Museum at Love Field in 1990 to increase education about flying. He speaks often as a guest lecturer at university management schools, and recently wrote a book compiling those lectures entitled, “Go Start Something: Live Life On The Edge.”
Collmer said the museum and performances like the two he will do at Wings Over South Texas this weekend, are opportunities to encourage young people to get excited about not just a career in flying, but the math and physics necessary for flight.
“It’s 100 percent the kids,” Collmer said. “The reason for the museum is education, motivation and inspiration. That’s right in our mission statement.”
I enjoyed my flight, but I’m looking forward to watching his performances at the Wings Over South Texas show from solid ground Saturday and Sunday. Hopefully, the taste of toenails will be gone by then.
Christopher Maher is the publisher of the Kingsville Record and Bishop News, and gladly accepts any offers of free flights that come his way. Readers may reach him by email at cjmaher@ king-ranch.com or by telephone at (361) 221-0242.