As I pulled into the Gary Jet Center for a sneak peek of this weekend's Air and Water Show, my fear of heights was foremost in mind. When I was first told there would be a preview, I imagined myself on North Avenue beach, beer in hand. I never guessed I'd be screaming my head off while strapped into a plane thousands of feet in the air.
Inside the Jet Center, I stuck out in the midst of all the tall male pilots wearing multicolored jumpsuits. I was to fly with the AeroShell Acrobatic Team. The crew of four veteran pilots, who are performing in the Air and Water Show, fly the North American AT-6 Texan, which made its debut in 1938 as a training aircraft for the U.S. Army Air Corps. Approaching the plane—the same model all U.S. airmen in World War II trained on—AeroShell pilot Bryan Regan wound up the front propeller. "I'm waking up the hamsters who run the engine," he joked, which put me at ease.
Regan showed me how to get into the old-school plane, an acrobatic stunt itself: left foot on the wing, right leg onto a stair, and finally a step into the center of the seat. Once seated, there was no turning back—mainly because getting out seemed more complicated than getting in. All around me were a variety of mysterious buttons, gadgets and levers. Regan began to strap me in. "Take those two straps and put them on like a backpack," he instructed. "That’s your parachute, in case you need it." Parachute? Gulp.
Regan also put safety straps across my midsection and thighs. My movement was restricted to pivoting slightly to one side or the other, just enough to take pictures. He gave me a headset, so we could communicate during the flight.
After a short taxi down the runway, we lifted off. After what seemed like just a minute, we were flying over Chicago—Soldier Field, Willis Tower, Navy Pier and Millennium Park tiny from my vatange point. I took out my phone and snapped a few photos of the skyline. Over the headset airwaves, I was privy to the pilots' discussions about who should take the lead, what tricks and formations to perform. Because we were in the city, Aeroshell wasn't allowed to perform major acrobatic stunts like flipping upside down, but the team flew in tight formation and made smoke-trail shapes in the sky at 1,500 feet.
All told, we were in the air for less than a half hour, which rushed by in what felt like five exhilirating minutes. The only downer? Touching back down in Indiana.
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