A strange thing happens when you're catapulting through the upper layers of the troposphere, upside down, and inside a plane that weighs less than 500 pounds. Your higher synapses suddenly shut down, and while the rational part of your brain knows -- knows -- you're completely safe, that you're with a trained professional, that you'll make it out of this scrape alive, some portion of your consciousness isn't so sure.
This part wonders a lot of things.
Namely: What the fuck am I doing in this thing?
This was my exact thought last Wednesday at precisely 10:47 p.m. when I looked out at the Everglades, fast approaching like some apocalyptic mirage, and realized that my "legendary" stunt pilot, Jason Newburg, was about to attempt something he kept referring to as "aerobatics."
I was here because I thought it would be vaguely interesting to see feel what it would be like to take part in the Fort Lauderdale Air show. I'd never sustained any kind of motion sickness -- not car sickness, nor seasickness, and not one airplane bellyache. So when an affable press agent offered me a ride, I gamely accepted.
Then, I started Googling Jason Newburg, referred to on the Internet as an "extreme aerobatic pilot." Some basic sleuthing unearthed a viral Youtube video of a gal screaming -- just screaming -- as she was almost hit by Newburg at a Texas airport. (The FAA later probed the incident: "Several points along the way, this guy could have made a mistake that would have killed himself, and the two people filming the action," one aviation expert said.)
Then I learned that in 2008, Newburg's stunt pilot company was tied to a 2008 helicopter crash (http://bit.ly/W2IaLX) in Cedar Hill, Texas -- and that the helicopter pilot hadn't been licensed to fly the aircraft.
Then -- because I'm stupid -- I accepted the PR flack's inquiry. I was going to tangle with one of the most controversial stunt pilots in the business. And I was going to do it looking good. So I pulled on one of my best button-downs -- a J Crew number -- and got out there to the tarmac at North Perry Airport in Pembroke Pines.
There, I met Newburg, a big straightforward guy who looks like he should be playing Guile if the world's ever blighted with another Street Fighter movie. He jostled my elbow as we shook hands, and showed me to me to the cock pit. After a series of short, though vaguely emasculating, procedures that included Newburg buckling on my parachute and fastening a camera to my cranium, he settled me inside the plane.
And we took off. At a very fast speed. I saw the Fort Lauderdale skyline glimmering against a backdrop of ocean and urban sprawl, and I thought, This is ain't half bad. And this Newburg gent? What a swell dude.
This feeling of amorphous goodwill lasted for about three minutes.
Then, once we reached the Everglades "to play a little," Newburg took us into our first "loop." This included many harrowing maneuvers that I don't recall in their entirety.
I do recall my face muscles losing their fortitude, and the skin drooping to the side like a stroke victim.
I do recall us flying upside down for several long and excruciating moments.
And I do recall vomiting. Twice. On my shirt. This I definitely do recall.
"It's OK," Newburg cooed from the seat behind. "Everyone reacts to the aerobatics differently."
When we got down to the ground, I saw the PR woman. I told her what had happened and she looked panicked -- seeing her glowing review of the ride dissolve. But it was OK, I told her.
Vomit makes every story better.
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