Learning to Pilot a Boeing Stearman in Central Florida

Aloft!

“Okay, Chelle, now we’re going to try a stall,” I heard through my headset. My heart, reacting in kind, seemed to stop.

I knew it was coming. Flight instructor Rob Lock had forewarned us during our ground briefing at Fantasy of Flight, an aircraft-obsessed attraction between Tampa and Orlando. Our repertoire of 1,500-feet-high maneuvers would include, he told us, 10 to 45-degree-angle turns, 360s, lazy eights, and yes, a stall. Gratefully, no take-offs and landings.

Several years ago, my husband, Rob, and I decided to skip the obligatory anniversary presents. We would instead indulge in travel adventures together.

Husband Rob found this one on the ‘net when we talked about taking a small biplane ride. The half-hour hands-on one-on-one instructional flight trumped the 15-minute flightseeing tour with flying aces.

Flying aces, as a matter-of-fact, used to train in the WW II-era Boeing Stearman we were to fly.

 In Your Bucket Because…

  • The wind beneath your wings? You want it!
  • It’s the easiest, safest, most stress-free way possible to test your piloting dreams.
  • Great for wanna-be pilots or anyone who loves the sky.

Military Aircraft History

The canvas-covered, open-cockpit planes were made rather indestructible to withstand the abuse of 18-year old flyers, said instructor Rob, whose family owned this little two-seater since he was a lad, when they bought it for crop-dusting in California.

Its role in military history makes it a tight fit for Fantasy of Flight, a celebration of aviation. It is built around a collection of mostly war-related flying machines amassed by Kermit Weeks, a passionate Florida airman, aerobatics competitor and aircraft designer.

But for now, let’s deal in its role fulfilling our annual bucket trip celebration. We found we were soon to be in the same classification as George H. Bush, Ted Williams, Jimmy Stewart, and Chuck  Yeager – all Stearman alumni.

“Flying is really, really, really simple,” instructor Rob told us during that brief briefing. Chief pilot for Waldo Wright’s Flying Service, he runs the operation that contracts with Fantasy of Flight for its aerial tours.

He is a born teacher who understands how to calm first-time pilot jitters. He prefers, he says, first-timers without any bad habits to break. He belted me into the front seat of the shiny, lovingly maintained Stearman, then climbed in behind.

We studied instrumentation; he told me I needed to worry only about the altimeter and the level gauge. He’d take care of the engine. I practiced with the stick and rudder pedals that would raise and lower the plane, and turn it, respectively.

“Up, down; left, right; fast, slow,” that’s all there is to flying, he explained. Then there is that part about trying not to lose your breakfast just thinking about keeping the thing in the sky. Instructor Rob calmed, he joked, he told me he would be manning the controls for the first several minutes aloft.

The author takes the cockpit.

And we took off. Take-off is normally my favorite part of flying, which I have always loved — as a passenger. (“That’s traveling, not flying,” instructor Rob likes to say.) But I was more than nervous at this point, wishing I could just enjoy the ride without the fear of the unknown ahead.

The runways at Fantasy of Flight are grass and run alongside a lake here in Florida’s Land o’ Lakes. It’s also Florida’s land of flying; a number of small airports in the area serve small-plane pilots who come for year-round flight time.

Rob pointed out some old military airports and other sights as we soared above the grassy fields and clumps of trees. He continually talked me through maneuvers, telling me to look around at my surroundings, getting me to relax.

Taking Controls

We weren’t in the air for long when he told me, “Oh by the way, I haven’t been handling the controls for a couple of minutes now.” Okay, I can do this.

As we went through all the maneuvers, he talked calmly, repeating over and over what we first learned on the ground, telling me when I had to pull the nose up or should look over my left shoulder at the magnificent view.

Then came the “S” word.

I wondered fleetingly if I could opt out of bringing the plane to a stall. The pitch and turns of the lazy eights had been nerve-wracking enough that I turned down his offer to try one more.

But during the stall, when the plane, as promised, “knew” when to bring its nose down as we climbed too quickly and lost speed, my fears dissolved into the bright blue morning sky. Thrill replaced chill.

The stall I was ready to try again: true “seat of the pants” flying, where you could hear and feel the plane responding with whistling and shudders.

Husband Rob, he who five years ago could not swallow enough Xanax to make it to the Bahamas in a friend’s small plane, not only overcame his fears, but is already talking about another flying adventure.

Me? Ready to check it off my bucket list, I gently suggested a winery tour next year. I believe he used the word “lame,” so stay tuned to learn how we will top this one.

Practicalities

  • Besides “flying by the seat of your pants,” Fantasy of Flight offers up some other bucket trip opportunities including hot-air balloon rides and its new four-story Wing WalkAir ropes course and zip line with 33 separate challenges.
  • Don’t miss self-touring the core attraction, a mammoth facility that recreates, with a dose of Disney drama, wartime flight environments and lets you into vintage cockpits and aircraft.
  • Stroll around two hangars where some 40 aircraft are parked,  and ride along on a heavily informative tram tour of restricted, behind-the-scenes hangars and storage areas.
  • There’s also a restaurant in the Googie-style building, plus other special programs for airplane junkies.
  • Fantasy of Flight, 863-984-3500
  • Waldo Wright’s Flying Service, 863-873-1339

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