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Flying high and upside down over Sydney
Aerobatic flying looks so graceful: But climb aboard, and the show takes off inside your head
It’s more corset than a seatbelt –- a four-arm harness that squeezes my thighs and lower back so deep into the seat it prevents me from taking too big a breath. “Can you loosen it a little?” I ask pilot Joel Haski.
“No can do,” he replies. “Once we take off, you’re going to get pulled out of this seat at 8 Gs.”
“What’s a G?”
“You really have no idea of what you’re going into, do you?” he says, closing the glass panel above our heads. “Oh well. Maybe it’s better that way.”
G force Red Baron-style
After two years of procrastinating, I’d finally taken the plunge and booked a half-hour aerobatic sessions with Red Baron Adventures at Bankstown Airport.
Using a German-built, aerobatic monoplane called an Extra 200, the session gives punters a taste of what it’s like being in the annual Air Race World Championships or World War I.
Taxiing towards the runway, Joel explains a G is a measurement of the force of gravity. “We experience one times the force of gravity when we’re on the ground," he says.
"Most commercial jets are stressed to about 3 Gs, but the most they ever reach is 1.5 -- or perhaps 2 Gs -- if they’re doing something really extreme. Fighter pilots regularly fly at between 4 and 7 Gs, but they do a lot of training to be able to withstand that.
“How many G will we do?" I ask.
“This is a competition acrobatic aircraft built to very high specs,” he replies. “It’s capable of withstanding plus or minus 10 Gs, though we won’t go any faster than 8. You ready?”
The first half of the flight is exactly how I imagined it would be before Joel’s pre-flight scare-talk. The Red Baron shoots into the sky, offering colossal views over Prospect Reservoir in Sydney’s outer west.
Soon we’re darting though fluffy white clouds, climbing to 1,000 meters -– the minimum height required for aerobatics.
But how dangerous is it? Don’t planes always go down at air shows doing this?
“Pilots at air shows are known to suffer something called ‘air show-itis’, Joel says. “Instead of doing maneuvers they’ve trained for and have done hundreds of times before, they do something to impress the crowd.”
“I can tell you just about every accident that happens at air shows is caused by this -- not mechanical error.
“Okay, we’re going to start nice and slow. Is your harness tight and secure?”
I give Joel the thumbs-up and he launches into a barrel roll, introducing me to G forces. My head gets sucked into the headrest, the fat on my face starts rippling and my eyeballs want to explode. It hurts like hell but eases as we level off.
“You want more?” Joel asks me. I give him the thumbs-up again.
Next comes a hammerhead turn. We go straight up and turn around with a roll on the way up and a roll on the way down. I break out into an uncontrollable sweat. I scream. I cry. I swear bloody murder.
Joel again offers me the chance to opt out. I shake my head. I’m going through with this.
“Now, we’ll do the world’s most famous aerobatic move, the loop-the-loop," he says with dentist-like calm. "When you feel the G come on during the other side of the loop, try squeezing your thighs and your abs to force the blood into your head."
"Otherwise you may pass out.”
The world spins around and suddenly we’re flying upside down. Joel pulls off a couple of four-and-eight-point turns, a tailslide, a knife-edge, and half a dozen other maneuvers and sequences.
In one instance, we dive straight towards the ground at more than 300 kilometers per hour. When we finally pull out of it, it feels like a car is running over me and I temporarily black out.
The come down
By the time we land, I’ve soaked in sweat, shaking like a junkie. I hobble to the office, run into the toilet and spew my guts out. Joel suggests I take a nap on his sofa. I take him up on the offer and unceremoniously pass out.
It’s late in the afternoon when I regain the strength to drive home, but it’s not until the next day that I’m back to normal. I feel good about having done such an incredible thing, but wish it didn’t have to hurt so much. Never has the term "no pain no gain" rung truer in my life.
“It’s like skydiving or bungee jumping – something to put on your bucket list,” Joel says. “But any person who’s done those things and who’s also been on an aerobatic flight knows what we do is much more extreme.”
Red Baron Scenic and Aerobatic Flight Adventures, cnr Marion & Birch streets., Bankstown Airport, +61 (0)2 9791 0643, www.redbaron.com.au
Price Range: 30-minute Air Race experience $520; Harbour Bridge & Northern Beaches scenic and aerobatic flight $585; small group Sydney city scenic flight $130 p/person (minimum two persons).