By the time I learned the evacuation sequences for a media flight at the Abbotsford International Airshow Thursday, I was already strapped tightly into an aircraft.
I was in a borrowed flight suit, grinning like mad, and locked firmly in the back of the two-seated Acemaker T-33 Shooting Star. For those unsure about these things, yes, it’s a fighter jet.
Used in the Korean War 70 years ago, it’s one of my favourite aircraft to watch in flight.
This is a good time to tell you that I’ve been on many aircraft in my life. I’ve travelled on all manner of commercial planes, prop planes, helicopters — I’ve even flown a glider. I was an Air Cadet and so was my son. I love planes. I love speed. I love flying.
While growing up in Richmond, our family would sometimes drive to the end of the YVR runway and sit on the hood of the car as planes flew over us to fascinating places around the world.
But this was about to be an all-new thrill for me. These jets are capable of G-force moves, and would be the first time I’d need a jet pilot mask.
My adrenaline had been revving since the airshow coordinator had called my editor just a few hours before. And now I was locked and loaded. There was nothing that could deter me from this experience.
And to my knowledge, this would be my first flight piloted by a former Snowbird lead. In this case, Vancouver-area pilot “Scratch” Mitchell.
He is who led me through the evacuation sequences, while buckling me in. I had to step into the harness and parachute combo, which was already attached to my seat. It’s a complicated contraption of levers, tabs, pulleys, buttons, leather and cloth straps, and a locking knob.
It took about five minutes to lock me in, ensuring every lock, lever and loop was attached in a very particular order. Why? Because they need to come undone smoothly, instantly.
I pushed this reality way back in my mind as Scratch explained that all I’d have to do, if we needed to abandon the flight, was push the knob to my left, and sit back very straight with my knees close to me.
“And then?” I asked.
“And then it gets windy,” he said.
By now, you can imagine that everything went well. After an hour or so of unexpected mechanical upkeep and a test run on the ground, we were on our way. I waved to the people already lining up on Huntingdon Road to watch the planes as they come and go. And who can blame them?
By Thursday, “my” T-33, two CF-18s, the Thunderbird team and a huge American fuel tanker were among the aircraft already in place for the weekend.
We took off into the friendly skies and I watched Abbotsford become a patchwork quilt of berry farms, sports fields, housing developments, and roadways. A little further and we were cruising over green pastures and waterways, and pointing toward the Salish Sea.
Scratch took me on a tour to the Langley Airport, where we almost landed and then lifted up quickly again before popping over to buzz the Pitt Meadows Airport.
Just as I was settling in and getting used to the dips and bumps of a busy sky, we were flying over North Vancouver.
And then we were tipping, quickly.
Scratch banked to the left and all of Stanley Park was now below me as we flew over Kitsilano, dumping smoke to get the attention of everyone on the ground. If it weren’t for the two anti-nausea pills I popped on the way to the airport, I may not have stayed conscious through the turn.
“I’m still here,” I told Scratch through the helmet.
“That’s good!” he said back.
Once we were over the Lower Mainland and back to the Fraser Valley, he turned the control over to me for a few seconds. The T-33 is as responsive as my Honda Civic, dipping left and right and back to centre with a gentle touch on the joystick.
We were back at YXX in less than 30 minutes, and Scratch headed off to a briefing for pilots while I got my land legs back.
Sweating, hungry, exhausted, but mostly exhilarated.
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