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An open-cockpit biplane flight over Virginia is a bucket list experience

View from the Waco YMF biplane over Sandbridge near Virginia Beach, Va., March 3, 2020. The view from the Waco YMF biplane over Sandbridge, near Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Step into Virginia Beach’s Military Aviation Museum and one of the first things you’ll see is a 1917 Sopwith Pup biplane suspended from the ceiling. It’s an eye-catching introduction to a world-famous aircraft collection, except something is bothering me this morning. The plane is hanging upside down.

This, I hope, isn’t a preview of what awaits.

At the Military Aviation Museum, visitors can see historic airplanes on display.

At the Military Aviation Museum, visitors can see historic airplanes on display.

I’ve come to the museum for a bucket-list experience: the chance to soar through the sky in an open-cockpit biplane. The flights, which leave from the museum grounds and last from 15 to 30 minutes, sail above the rural landscape of southern Virginia Beach and the ocean. “We guarantee a breathtaking experience,” the museum’s website boasts.

Now, though, I’m wondering if it’s such a good idea.

I’ve never been a nervous flier. In fact, on commercial flights, I enjoy a bit of turbulence. But the idea of climbing through the atmosphere in a single-engine aircraft that looks lifted from a history book is starting to give me pause. If I’m honest, I must admit my knowledge of biplanes is limited, drawn mostly from childhood viewing of Peanuts cartoons starring Red Baron and Snoopy, who pretended his doghouse was a Sopwith Camel. In fact, when I first signed up for the flight, I was hoping I could be outfitted like the canine flying ace, adorned with a white scarf to trail in the breeze behind me.

Not quite.

Boom Powell, right, reviews the flight with writer Larry Bleiberg.

Boom Powell, right, reviews the flight with writer Larry Bleiberg.

“That’s Hollywood; everyone’s disappointed when I tell them about the scarf,” says a white-bearded man wearing a well-worn leather jacket. The name tag identifies him as Boom Powell, and he’s going to be my pilot. A scarf would get caught in the wind and grab my neck, he says. I’d spend the whole flight trying not to choke. Instead I’m given a tan jumpsuit to pull over my clothes and am led out to the airfield behind the museum.

Cleared for takeoff

A 1930s-style Waco YMF biplane (built in 1989), at the Military Aviation Museum.

A 1930s-style Waco YMF biplane (built in 1989), at the Military Aviation Museum.

Any lingering doubts slip away. In front of me, a bright red biplane gleams in the morning sun. The Waco YMF-5 looks like a stylish convertible, and suddenly I can’t wait for a spin. 

“It’s a gorgeous airplane,” Boom says, echoing my thoughts. “It was designed to have fun with.” Despite his slightly unsettling nickname, Boom is the perfect pilot for my adventure. He’s a retired U.S. Navy captain whose career included 487 aircraft carrier landings before he went into commercial aviation. In his 50-plus years of flying, he’s piloted 747s and gliders, and he’s even flown in mock dogfights for paying passengers who want to experience a taste of aerial engagement.

Today’s flight won’t be nearly as combative. Our plane only looks like an artifact. It was built in 1989 as a replica of a famous aircraft favored by movie stars, explorers, and mail carriers in aviation’s early decades.

A museum worker straps writer Larry Bleiberg into the plane’s front seat.

A museum worker straps writer Larry Bleiberg into the plane’s front seat.

After our introductions, it’s time to board. I climb onto the bottom wing of the Waco and shimmy under the overhanging wing to twist myself into the passenger seat, which is in the front of the airplane. A staff member leans over me to buckle my shoulder harness into a lap belt. I put on a headset and Boom’s voice comes through. “Let’s go!”

The plane’s radial engine comes to life with a distinctive thump, thump, thump. As Museum Director Keegan Chetwynd tells me later, it’s a noise pilots never forget: “We have some that hear that sound, and it makes them cry.”

The instrument panel.

The instrument panel.

The plane rumbles to the end of the grass runway, where Boom parks to warm up the engine. He goes over the gauges, directing me to reset my altimeter, which seems to indicate we’re already 300 feet off the ground. That’s one thing we don’t want to go wrong.

“It’s going to be a little bumpy,” he says, pivoting the plane to face down the meadow that serves as our runway. “It’s when the bumps stop that you know we’re flying.”

The plane flies over farmland in southern Virginia Beach.

The plane flies over farmland in southern Virginia Beach.

And with that, the plane rolls forward. I feel the craft sway in the crosswind as we begin to pick up speed. Then we take off. I can’t be sure how Orville Wright felt when he first left the ground at Kitty Hawk, about 60 miles south of here, but now I have an idea. Wow! Wow! Wow!

Gaining altitude

The view of the coastline from the cockpit.

The view of the coastline from the cockpit.

As we gain altitude, I feel the sun on my face and a slight breeze in my hair. Boom notes landmarks over the town of Pungo, and soon we’re above the settlement of Sandbridge. We’ve reached about 1,000 feet when we cross the beach and soar over the Atlantic. Boom points south to False Cape State Park, where the surf rolls toward a coast unmarred by roads and buildings. “If you look down at the ground, you wouldn’t know what year it is,” he says. It’s only when I turn the other way that I see in the distance the high-rise hotels lining Virginia Beach’s waterfront.

Although we’re moving at nearly 100 mph, there’s little wind. But Boom has an idea. “I’m going to make you the gunner,” he says, and directs me to raise my arm outside the cockpit. Only then do I get a sense of our speed. I have to struggle to keep my arm from flying back. During World War I, soldiers would stand up in a plane like this and hold a gun steady to fire, he tells me. “They were a different breed,” he says.

The pilot has the backseat in the Waco YMF-5.

The pilot has the backseat in the Waco YMF-5.

Then Boom has another idea. “We’re not allowed to do aerobatics, but I can show you some hard turns if you’d like,” he suggests. I gulp my assent, and a moment later, the plane cuts to the right, and we start to corkscrew down out of the sky. It’s a moment of truth. Am I ready to be a flying ace?

I let out a yelp of joy. It’s the ultimate thrill ride, with the wind in my face and the ground spinning below. It feels like a roller coaster, and I don’t want to get off. 

Encouraged by my response, Boom tries another maneuver. The plane suddenly climbs and then we dive down. I rise out of my seat, the straps holding me in place as we plunge toward the waters of Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I holler in excitement.

The touchdown on the grass runway is surprisingly smooth.

The touchdown on the grass runway is surprisingly smooth.

Just when I’m getting the hang of things, it’s time to return to the museum. All too soon, we’re approaching the runway. Boom touches down light as a feather. A moment later, we’re back at the hangar, and I’m climbing out of the plane, a smile plastered to my face. 

Soon, Boom is airborne again, taking another guest to the skies. As I watch him take off, Chetwynd, the museum director, asks how I liked my flight. These excursions, he notes, not only support the museum’s mission of restoring vintage aircraft, but also let visitors experience a pilot’s joy of flight. “It never leaves you,” he says. “You’re in it purely for the joy of moving.”

Writer Larry Bleiberg next to the Waco YMF.

Writer Larry Bleiberg next to the Waco YMF.

I nod in understanding. Even back on the ground, part of me is still up there with Boom, sailing through the sky like a flying ace.

Top-flight museum

A desk in the control room of the WWII Goxhill watch office at the Military Aviation Museum.

A desk in the control room of the WWII Goxhill watch office at the Military Aviation Museum.

The Military Aviation Museum has one of the world’s largest collections of restored flying aircraft. Its 60-plus planes include a British de Havilland Mosquito and the Curtiss JN-4D “Jenny,” best known for being inverted on a 1918 U.S. postage stamp. Gerald Yagen, founder of Tidewater Tech—now Centura College—and the Aviation Institute of Maintenance schools, founded the museum. 

Aviation experts meticulously bring planes back to life in the museum’s hangar workshop, the Fighter Factory.

Aviation experts meticulously bring planes back to life in the museum’s hangar workshop, the Fighter Factory.

Tours include a visit to the Fighter Factory, which is the hangar workshop where planes are restored. The museum is open daily and offers twice-annual airshows and other special events. Adults, $15. Flights, typically offered April through October, begin at $175 for a 15-minute ride.

Larry Bleiberg is an award-winning writer and a frequent AAA contributor.

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