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Free as a bird - Herald reporter gives first-hand account of flying in WWII fighter plane
041008 FLYING PHIL 4
Two World War II era Naval training planes are prepped before takeoff. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff
    Last Tuesday morning, my editor, Jim Healy, presented me with an interesting proposition.
    “How do you feel about doing loop-dee-loops in an airplane?” he asked mischievously.
    “Well, not if it’s a Southwest Airlines flight,” I replied.
    He then proceeded to tell me about the World War II plane group — History Flight — that would be coming to Statesboro and asked me if I wanted to go for a ride, take some video and have an experience.
    “What exactly is my insurance coverage?”
    Thursday was the big day. As cliche as this sounds, it was a perfect day for flying. The day was warm, the sky was clear and the wind was light. I was excited. To ensure I had plenty of energy, I ate a light lunch — a little salad and a cup of gumbo — nothing with sharp edges if you get my drift.
    When Studio Statesboro producer Matt Bankhead and I arrived at the Statesboro airfield, the pilots were checking their planes. We were escorted inside by a member of History Flight. She promptly stuck a two-page waiver in front of each of us.
    Nothing is more reassuring than signing your name ten different times and promising not to sue anyone should anything go wrong. At the end of the agreement, there were a few lines to list next of kin.
    It was at that point I decided to call my mom and dad and tell them that I love them.
    After literally signing my life away, we went outside to meet our pilots and see our planes. John Makinson was my pilot and was flying the T-6 Texan SNJ-6. Built in 1945, Texan is a Scout Navy Trainer originally designed to train fighter pilots for World War II. Inside this plane, young pilots learned air-to-air combat maneuvers, dive bombing techniques and how to land on an aircraft carrier.
    Matt would be flying in a PT17 Boeing/Stearman built in 1941, designed to be the first plane World War II pilots would train in before moving to the Texan.
    Makinson told me he had more than 4,000 hours logged flying this particular Texan during the last five years. When I realized that — strung together — 4,000 hours equaled more than 166 days, I visibly relaxed.
    I asked what kind of “aerobatic maneuvers” Makinson would be taking me through.
    “Well, we’ll start with a couple barrel rolls, then do an Immelman and then finish with a couple of loops,” said Makinson.
    When I asked about the Immelman, he told me it was a maneuver credited to the German World War I flying ace Max Immelman, designed to chase down an enemy plane that has passed overhead. Essentially, it is a half-loop followed by a half-roll, resulting in the plane being at a higher altitude and going the opposite direction.
    Then Makinson strapped me into my parachute and the plane. Before he got into his own seat, he walked me through the evacuation procedure. If I heard him yell, “Bail out, bail out, bail out!” I was to open the canopy, release my harness, roll out of the cockpit on my stomach and then pull the chute.
    I should say at this point that I wasn’t really concerned about anything going wrong. As I said, 4,000 hours is a lot of time in a plane.
    We fired up the propeller and taxied down the runway. As Makinson taxied toward takeoff, he explained that he couldn’t actually see straight ahead, which was why he was snaking back and forth down the runway.
    The takeoff was smoother than any commercial flight I’ve ever been on and I could see anywhere I turned my head.
    “Ready for a roll?” Makinson asked.
    “Sure,” I replied.
    Left roll, right roll, Immelman, loop and loop. Just like he said. The physical feeling was much like being on a roller coaster, though a bit milder. Afterward, though a bit disoriented, I was exhilarated. And a little white-knuckled, to be honest.
    But it was (how can I say it better) COOL to be able to look over Bulloch County while the rumbling of a 600-horsepower engine vibrated the bottom of my feet. It really was amazing how far I could see, yet how much detail I could still make out on the ground.
    What’s really cool about History Flight is that these guys are using their airplanes to help raise money to find the bodies of more than 78,000 soldiers lost on the thousands of small islands that were such a big part of fighting in the Pacific Ocean arena during World War II. Makinson told me they uncovered the graves of 68 American soldiers just last year.
    For more information on the planes, their current mission or the cost of a flight, go to historyflight.com. Since History Flight is a charitable organization, the cost of the flight is tax deductible. The planes will be at the Statesboro airport through Monday. If you’d like to schedule a flight, call 888-743-3311.
    If you’ve got the time and the funds — take a ride. It’s well worth it.
    Phil Boyum may be reached at 912-489-9454.

    For a view of Phil and Matt’s flights, see Friday’s edition of Studio Statesboro at statesboroherald.com.
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