Flight of the Beaver Affords View From First-Class Seat; [FINAL Edition]
Angus Phillips. The Washington Post (pre-1997 Fulltext). Washington, D.C.: Dec 2, 1990. pg. d.16
Full Text (1035 words)
Copyright The Washington Post Company Dec 2, 1990
Something there is about a wing: So simple, so perfect. Push it along and it splits the wind. Air on the bottom shoots across a flat surface, but air on top must go further, over a curve. Nature orders the two gaseous factions to rejoin, so the air on top hurries to catch up, leaving behind a pressure vacuum the wing rises to fill. Presto: Lift! The whole, heavier-than-air contraption goes aloft.
That's the miracle of flight. Bruce Peters first addressed it as a boy when he was given a windup toy float plane for the tub. Try as he might, he couldn't get it to lift off for lack of power, which was frustrating.
He wanted to soar like his father, an Army Green Beret who leaped from planes in Korea, then Vietnam. On his 13th birthday, Peters got his wish when his dad gave him a gift certificate for a hang-gliding lesson.
Peters went airborne that day, and the 15 years since have been one liftoff after another. Now he's president of Fun Flight Inc., an Alexandria company dedicated to the idea anyone who wants to can have his own, personal airplane.
"When you amortize the costs over 60 months," said Peters, who pushes the $10,000, two-seat, 350-pound, 48-horsepower Beaver RX 550 and its more powerful, $12,000 kin, the RX 650, "the costs of ownership are negligible."
That depends where you sit financially. From one perspective, it sounds like a lot for a hobby. From another, it's the bargain of the millennium.
How many millions of years has it been, after all, since man first cast a glance skyward and yearned to share the glory every dove, eagle and starling takes for granted?
We can climb aboard a commercial airliner and blast off for Boston in pressurized comfort these days. But who among the billions of humans passing through this too-short life ever got to strap on his own wings and soar with the hawks alone, just for the fun of it?
"There's one now," said Peters as we eased along at 45 mph, 1,000 feet above Piscataway Creek last week. "Let's join him."
It was a red-tail, hunting lunch from the tangled river-bottom below. We took him by surprise when Peters banked, dropped 200 feet and pulled in alongside, flying wing-to-wing with a predator on the prowl. The hawk looked nervously at his noisy, new sidekick, flapped twice and banked off to blue oblivion.
"Wow!" said the pilot.
It was rare, exclamatory outburst from the sobersided Peters, who at age 28 has perfected the gravelly, reassuring tone of the commercial jet-jockey. "We're banking now for final approach," he ho-hummed through the earphones as our two-seat trainer dropped toward the treetops for a landing at Oxon Hill's Potomac Airfield. "Might be a little bumpy here for a second or two . . . "
But if it was, I was to goo-goo-eyed to notice. Just the idea of being aloft, a fifth of a mile up with no more constraints than a fiberglass seat, a plastic windshield and a harness gave me goose-bumps.
This theoretically being a learn-to-fly introductory lesson, Peters kept urging me to fiddle with the joy stick, which controlled the elevator in back and the ailerons out on the wings, or the pedals that moved the rudder, or the throttle bar at my left hand.
But all I wanted to do was gawk at Canada geese in the cornfield below, at cowpaths snaking through the woods, at the serpentine beauty of an Indian Head Highway cloverleaf, so ugly from the ground; at the circular patterns of tractor tracks in the fields, the geometric precision of new housing tracts and the meanders of a marsh creek; at the naked scar of a sand pit. Even that looked pretty from here.
Personal recreational aircraft like the Beaver RX 550 we flew have come a long way from humble origins in the last decade, Peters said.
"They started out as flying lawn-chairs," with no creature comforts and few safety features, he said. But these days, they are complete, tiny aircraft with all the appropriate controls and precautions, though with no actual cabin structure to keep out wind and rain.
Peters, who spent his early years hang-gliding and soaring in unpowered craft, got into flying the little motorized craft in the early 1980s when his bosses at the Flying Circus Air Show in Bealton, Va., where he worked weekends as a "prop boy," hand-starting planes for the aerobatic shows, voted to let him pilot a tiny recreational plane loaned to them for promotional purposes.
Peters, who still flies miniplanes at the Circus, found himself the object of increasing attention from show-goers asking for flying lessons and for information about buying the little planes.
Having studied marketing at George Washington University, he recognized a business opportunity and dropped a budding career as a radio announcer to devote full time to hawking flying machines and teaching people to operate them.
He picked the Canadian-made Beaver because it was popular, with over 2,000 units sold, and in his view well-built and safe. "There has never been a fatality in a Beaver," Peters said.
The little planes have a glide ratio of about 10 to 1, which means for every foot they drop in altitude they'll glide 10 feet without engine power. Thus at 1,000 feet, you have almost two miles of gliding to find a place to land.
They climb at about 1,000 feet per second and take off in as little as 100 feet of runway. So powerful are the lift forces of the rayon-covered wings, the Beaver looks almost comical taking off as it sprints briefly down the tarmac and shoots into the sky at a mere 35 mph, helicoptering almost straight up into the wild blue.
Then it's just you and the hawks and that miracle of a wing out there, climbing, climbing . . .
Fun Flight Inc. offers a 10-hour recreational flying course at Potomac Airfield whose graduates are capable of soloing in recreational aircraft, Peters said. The introductory hour costs $59.99, the rest are $69.99.
Ultra-Light Fright Flight; [FINAL Edition]
Mariah Burton Nelson. The Washington Post (pre-1997 Fulltext). Washington, D.C.: May 27, 1988. pg. n.61
Full Text (970 words)
Copyright The Washington Post Company May 27, 1988
"I'M TOO YOUNG to die," said Larry Fox, another Weekend writer. "You go."
That's how it came about that I flew in a flimsy, open-cockpit aircraft not with normal trepidation, but with death on my mind.
Before liftoff I talked with Bruce Peters, owner of Washington Sky Sports, a company specializing in tiny, dragonfly-shaped aircraft called Spectrum Ultralights. Peters has 12 years of piloting experience, he assured me. Even if the engine goes out, the plane can safely glide down. It can land in a cornfield. "You're in for a treat," he promised.
The day of liftoff we drove to a short runway behind a southern Maryland trailer park. I wore my aviator shades and my closest approximation of a flight jacket; Bruce wore normal clothes. After Bruce's pre-flight inspection, I did my own. Much to my horror, I saw plane parts fastened with bungee cords, zippers and duct tape. ("Nonessential parts," Bruce explained.) Made of Dacron, the wings were sewn in the zig-zag stitch I used to use in home ec. Maybe it's me, but I find it difficult to trust an airplane constructed on a Singer.
To make matters worse, Peters, a dimple-cheeked man with the springy step of a Muppet, is only 25 years old - which, since that's younger than I am, is very young. Turns out his 12 years of experience began on a hang glider at age 13. For the past six years he's been performing loops, stalls, and wingovers in Stearman biplanes in Bealton's Flying Circus. My fate was in the hands of a kid who gets his jollies flying upside down.
"Today is a good day to die for all the things in my life are present," said Crazy Horse, which was very evolved of him; but when it came to the possibility of my exchanging life for one airborne thrill, today did not seem like a good d-d-day at all. No longer in my reckless teens or roaring twenties, I have noticed that the more intensely I love life, the less romantic I feel about an early death.
Yet I can't play it safe just because cautious colleagues and homemade airplanes petrify me. "I don't need to fly because flying doesn't frighten me; I need to fly even though it frightens me," writes Diane Ackerman in On Extended Wings, the saga of her flying lessons. "To me, real courage . . . has to do with keeping one's passion for life intact, one's curiosity at full stretch, when one is daily hemmed in by death, disease and lesser mayhems of the heart." I decided it was as good a day to die as any.
Also, I trusted Bruce. On the way to the airfield, he drove his black Fiero (license plate: Vader 1) carefully and confidently, even slowing to the required 5 mph through the trailer park. He spoke with knowledge and humility - a rare combination at any age - about weather patterns and the physics of flight.
Before I knew it I was strapped into the dragonfly, head protected by a helmet ("If we crash, should I try to land on my head?"), control stick between my knees. In front of me was a motorcycle-sized windshield; behind me was Bruce, now elevated to the status of savior. "You've got controls back there, too, right?" I squeaked into the microphone attached to my helmet. The control stick in my right hand, the throttle in my left, and the pedals under my feet all wiggled in response.
First we hopped, baby-bird style. Taxi down the runway, nose up, wheels off the ground, wheeee . . . and set her down. "Do that again," I said, a child tossed in the air. On the second hop, I was grinning like a toothpaste commercial. On the third, we abandoned the earth altogether.
I can't speak for Orville Wright, but I'd bet that the first time he soared - not that 12-second, 120-foot skip but his first real flight - he felt, along with elation, another primal feeling: terror. After all, many of his predecessors died in the attempt. Flying is not natural, despite the ubiquity of flying dreams; anyone with sense should be, at very least, nervous. Flying in an ultralight is like heading toward the heavens on a lounge chair. You're not even in the plane - there is no "in." You're seated, legs outstretched; lean to the right or left and a seatbelt is the only thing keeping you from your first and last skydive.
But it was, indeed, a treat. Cruising directly into the wind at 3,000 feet, I felt suspended, motionless, like an Amelia Earhardt actress with a fake earth below. We peered at the shimmering Potomac, its yardstick bridges, Monopoly neighborhoods. I looked for cornfields, just in case, and spotted instead our own shadow, surprisingly beautiful as it bumped over trees and houses. My stomach plunked into place as if, after abandoning it on a hundred youthful Ferris wheel rides, I finally caught up with it.
Bruce showed me how to turn the plane and how to keep it level. After a while he put his hands on my shoulders. "Congratulations," he said. "You've been flying the plane for a full minute."
"Don't you dare have a heart attack," I answered.
The truth is, I like to be scared, though I prefer having been scared. So when we touched down, returning to the conspicuously flat two-dimensional world, I was all smiley again - scared silly - and grateful for another risk taken and survived. Thanks, Larry.