There is flying in a plane and there is true flying, soaring into the cerulean sky, twisting, turning, spinning, shooting toward the sun, then dropping down and looping back up — up and away.
On this day we are truly flying and if you’ve seen the movie “Avatar,” or the TV series “Game of Thrones,” riding on the back of a flying dragon is nothing compared to riding with a guy named Mike Wiskus.
With the Great Pacific Airshow in Huntington Beach Friday through Sunday, Wiskus offers a taste of what it’s like to be an aerobatic pilot.
Until you’ve flown with a pilot like Wiskus, you have no idea what man and machine can do.
It’s a marriage made for the heavens.
I enter the Lyons Air Museum at John Wayne Airport, a place I know well, and for the first time I’m nervous.
Knowing you are about to climb into a tiny plane with a stunt pilot does that.
As I walk on the tarmac toward an orange biplane with touches of red, white and blue, there is electricity in the air. A guy with hair the color of the Iowa corn he picked as a boy, pauses pumping fuel, grins and extends his hand.
There is an unspoken understanding that we both know this handshake is more than just a handshake. Our grip is a bond that I trust my life with this stranger.
Fortunately, Wiskus understands. Without prompting, he quietly assures, “I’m not going to bounce you around. This will be more visual than physical.”
Ah, a baby ride, I figure. So wrong, lol.
My first clue was the parachute.
Think riding the world’s biggest, fastest roller coaster — except you are 4,000 feet in the sky strapped in a tiny tube of thin metal flying at speeds well over 200 miles an hour.
When you look out the glass cockpit, there are no steel tracks, no metal beams supporting you. There is just, well, nothing.
Above, there is sky blue. Below, there is ocean blue. But when you’re thousands of feet above liquid, it might as well be concrete if something goes wrong.
Still, as we taxi on the runway I know the pilot just behind me has logged 27,000 hours of flight time without a scratch flying stunts. His only emergency landing was when he was flying a corporate plane and had to put down in a cornfield because of ice on the craft.
Wiskus’ love for flying took off when he was just 10. His father took him to his first airshow and the boy saw his future.
At 14, Wiskus started riding his bicycle to the local airport. That summer, he went every day and begged for a job cleaning hangers and washing airplanes. If life was a cliche, it would have been smooth flying from then on.
But Wiskus was like a lot of us. School wasn’t his thing. His teacher said his grades were so bad, he’d never be a pilot.
Then, Wiskus stumbled on a book that caught his attention, “The Little Engine That Could.” Sure, it was a kids’ book about a railroad engine. Still, it gave him confidence to never give up.
Instead of wages, Wiskus started asking pilots for flying lessons. By age 17, the teenager had his own license. Today, he flies corporate aircraft, services general aviation planes near his home in Minnesota and works April through November flying airshows across the country.
“I never thought I’d have this aviation career,” Wiskus, 59, confesses. “It’s the craziest thing — I look at a plane I’ve never flown before and I just want to see how it flies.”
Married and the father of four adult children and grandfather to five grand-kids, Wiskus explains, “I’ve still got that 10-year-old kid in me.”
Wild blue yonder
As the Pitts S-2C leaves John Wayne Airport far below, I pick out mountain biking trails that my wife and I ride in the coastal hills. We fly down rugged, winding trails but we are earthbound.
As we fly over a glistening ocean, the view stretches into forever. Catalina Island is to the south, the San Gabriel mountains are to the north. But …
Without warning — and trust me, Wiskus knows that’s the most fun — the plane does a barrel roll to the left — and I don’t mean it veers left. The plane rolls, as in, like, all the way around.
“Holy smoke,” I yell, or perhaps something more adult-oriented.
Before my brain settles, Wiskus rolls another 360 degrees, this time clockwise.
With the plane on its side, I turn to my left and look straight down to planet Earth. In a flash, I am again completely upside down. Then, I am rightside up.
Next, we perform a couple of stunts that experts call “half-Cubans,” something I loudly call, “OMG, totally insane.”
Flying writer Merrill McPeak explains the maneuver invented by Len Povey like this in Wikipedia: “He intended to perform snap rolls at the top of a loop but was going too fast, so (he) elected to continue over the top of the loop and on a whim, did a half-roll on the way down.”
Uh, yeah, like that.
Wiskus’ calm voice crackles over my headset. “Tighten your butt, stomach and leg muscles.”
I know this means we will be pulling a few Gs. But I also know I have nothing to hold onto, so I grab my thighs and, somehow, feel more secure.
From 3,000 feet, we climb straight up, like a rocket. We top out at 4,000 feet and as the speed decreases, Wiskus applies the rudder.
For a moment, we hang in mid-air. No sound. No movement.
To the uninitiated, it is both calming and somewhat terrifying. Then, the plane rotates. The nose points down and the real terror begins.
We dive directly into the smoke Wiskus released just before the ascent. White wisps offer a dizzying perspective. We are in the middle of nowhere.
Is it a rush? Oh, yeah, baby, it is.
A minute or so later, we shoot up toward what seems like the stratosphere, but is really only about 4,000 feet above sea level. Wiskus plans to execute something called “a vertical line to a P loop.”
But forget the lingo. Just imagine a giant “P” suspended in air and that is our invisible path.
At this point, my brain and body can only gasp with appreciation and admiration over Wiskus’ command of his flying machine.
After we land, Wiskus explains what it’s like flying his stunt one-seater, a 400-horsepower torqued-out plane called “Super Stinker” and sponsored by Lucas Oil. “From the moment I get in that airplane and I break ground, there’s such freedom.
“I’m in there so tight, I can barely breath, but it’s like I can make that airplane talk, the controls become an extension of my personality.”
All I know is that I finally understand what it’s like to ride in the Millennium Falcon with Han Solo at the controls.
Great Pacific Airshow
What: Mike Wiskus, Super Stinker; U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, Jeff Boerboon, Yak 110; fighter pilot Paul “Sticky” Strickland; FedEx 757; Special Operations Para-Commandos; more.
When: Friday (practice day), main show Saturday and Sunday; 11:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
Where: Huntington Beach Pier area for best viewing.
How much: Beach viewing free; VIP and pier seats, $20-$30; flight line club, $107-$169.
Source: Orange County Register