Looking down, the beach appears tiny, and although the folks down there don’t know it, they are in for a show. At 4,000 feet, Sean says, “Ready, Wild Bill?”
“OK,” I reply, and down we dive in his little red airplane. Me, an 81-year-old man — who is by no means “wild” — is about to have the wildest ride of his life.
It all started a few years earlier at the Bethpage Air Show at Jones Beach on Memorial Day weekend. This annual event includes modern military aircraft, vintage World War II warbirds and aerobatic planes, one of which was sponsored by Oracle Corp. In 2011 I obtained tickets to the Oracle tent on the beach. There we met Sean Tucker, owner and pilot of the Oracle Challenger who spoke to visitors before his performance. Later he flew over the beach in his little red biplane and performed the most amazing stunts you could imagine. He did spins, loops and dives that were beyond my imagination. He hung the Challenger motionless on its propeller, then dropped tail first at 100 mph all the while excitedly speaking to the 230,000 spectators.
A year later we met again, and I mentioned my age (80), my interest in aviation and that I was still fairly active for someone ”long in the tooth.”
Another year went by, it was now 2013, and again I was at the Oracle tent. My conversation with Sean picked up where we’d left off the previous year. This time he offered to take me up for a flight in his two-passenger Extra 300 aerobatic plane. My plan was to ask him to fly over my home (and in my wildest dreams, let me waggle the wings) as my wife waved up to me from the backyard.
Three days later I am at Republic Airport, where Nick, a member of Team Oracle, tells me to get ready. I sign a waiver, empty my pockets (can’t have anything flying around the cockpit), put on my parachute and climb into the plane. Then Sean says to me, “Wild Bill, you ready for some aerobatics?”
With false bravado I give a confident, “Sure thing, Sean!” (Forget the wing waggling — that was just a dream.)
Cleared for takeoff, we accelerate down Runway 19, quickly reach flying speed and smoothly lift off — destination, the beach at Robert Moses State Park. Once there, we circle, gain altitude and at 4,000 feet Sean says, “Ready, Wild Bill?” “OK,” I reply and down we dive.
Picking up speed — 120 knots, 140 knots, 180 knots — we start the loop. One second I see the beach, then the water, next the sky, the sun and then directly in front the beach again as we start another loop. We do four complete loops, then a corkscrew barrel roll. Looking back I see the spiraling and looping white smoke marking our path through the sky. We finish up with a hammerhead (straight up till we run out of speed and do a quick turn to start another dive).
Then Sean lets me fly back to the airport. Easy turns and gradual altitude changes are no problem. With instructions, I fly the beautiful machine back to the runway approach where he takes over and floats the craft to a smooth, bump-free landing.
It was the thrill of a lifetime. Our picture was taken next to the plane, and I was given a video of the complete 22-minute flight. It was taken from the cockpit and shows me along with the trail of smoke that recorded my adventure. That video proves to me it was not a dream.