Fairfield Ledger
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Neighbors Growing Together | Jul 29, 2014

Flying high

By JULIE JOHNSTON | May 12, 2011
Photo by: JULIE JOHNSTON/Ledger photo Local businessman and pilot Pete Nelson poses with the 1942 open-cockpit Stearman bi-plane Wednesday morning at the Fairfield airport. Ledger photographer Julie Johnston was invited along for a quick flight Wednesday and tells about the experience in her column.

Having none-too-gracefully climbed into the cockpit of the 1942 open-cockpit Stearman bi-plane on Wednesday morning I felt a bit like Snoopy as I snapped on the leather helmet. I hadn’t gone to work that morning prepared for flying, so I didn’t have the long neck scarf and was wearing a dress to boot. Seems that when I am least prepared for it, things happen.

However, I firmly believe that when opportunity knocks you should at least open the door. Better yet, invite him in.

An unexpected meeting with local businessman, farmer and pilot Pete Nelson brought the offer to go up with him, “I am headed to the airport now,” he said. Then he added, looking me over, “It won’t be easy getting in and out.”

Nothing was said about the kind of plane into which I would have to climb. I have been in small planes before and it is no big deal getting in wearing a dress. A surprise awaited.

It’s a good thing I can make snap decisions. As I headed toward the airport I phoned editor Vicki Tillis and told her what was up, or rather, what would soon be up — me. It is also a good thing that my position as Ledger photographer gives me, not only the opportunity for such fun in the name of work, but the encouragement to do something out of the ordinary. Presumably Ledger readers will enjoy the photos I take during these chance encounters.

I have flown many times in a variety of aircraft; a Cessna 185, a Beaver, an Otter, a Norseman and others, landing and taking off on land and water, but never had I been in a bi-winged open cockpit plane. Now you can have your jet aircraft and fly so high above the clouds you can’t see anything but clouds, but give me a small plane any day. Better yet, give me the open cockpit style of aircraft. As Pete said, “ THIS is flying. You simply drive the others, but this is flying.”

Pete and two other fellows, relatives I think, own the plane, usually hangared in Illinois. Periodically, Pete has the aircraft here at the Fairfield Municipal Airport and flies it when weather permits. With rain predicted for the afternoon on Wednesday and a meeting he had to attend, the window of opportunity was brief indeed. Also, it is better to fly when it is warm, and it has been a cold spring. This morning was nearly perfect for flying.

To get into the cockpit, one has to be able to climb onto the lower wing, walk up the wing to the cockpit, hang on to the upper wing and climb over the side of the cockpit, standing on the seat. You then hold on to the sides and lower yourself into the seat. The pilot flies from the back seat — a true back seat driver! Buckled in with both a lap and shoulder harness you are ready to put on the helmet. I am thankful there were no mirrors and that I saw no one as I am certain I looked at least as goofy as, well, Goofy. The helmet not only controls the hair and protects your ears; it has built in headphones and a microphone to enable conversation between passenger and pilot.

The flight was short, twenty minutes to 1/2 hour, but was long enough for me to get some aerial photographs of farmers planting corn as well as various landmarks and city locations.

Thanks, Mr. Nelson. I didn’t tell Jeff (Wilson) you said it would be his turn next time. What he doesn’t know might give me a chance to go flying again. Please, though, give me a little notice so I will be appropriately dressed for the occasion.

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