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A Need for Speed

by Richard Ong

When I was a kid, I used to watch the Snowbirds aerobatic team take flight and perform several death-defying stunts in the air above the Toronto harbour at the Canadian National Exhibition. Since then, the speed rush never left me, and I dreamed of the day when I would be behind the helm of such a finely engineered machine.

Years later I found myself clambering up the side of a light attack aircraft in Florida. It belonged to a small privately owned company offering thrill rides in the air for a few thousand dollars a pop. The cockpit of the two-seater L-39 Albatross — formerly owned by the East German air force during the Cold War — was a very tight fit even for my modest 5-foot 8-inch frame. The control stick was literally sandwiched between my knees, along with the ejection pull handles. Howard laughed and told me to try and be comfortable. He was both my pilot and co-owner of the company.

Richard Ong ready

It was like being back in school as I furrowed my brows in an attempt to listen and absorb everything Howard had to say about all of the essential controls and pre-flight safety checks. We went over the complex ejection process should it become necessary to operate the dreaded mechanism.

Howard warned me to be extremely careful not to accidentally pull the two orange handles for the ejection seat once the system had gone live. Should the seat eject while the plane was still on the ground, rockets would propel it a few hundred feet up in the air. There wouldn’t be enough time or distance to deploy the parachute. “If that happens,” he said with all seriousness in his face, “you will surely die.”

Half an hour later, the L-39 was bearing down on the runway. Howard told me to push the throttle on my left forward for maximum thrust. The powerful single jet engine lit and we took off like a rocket. The nose lifted and we accelerated at a moderate angle before levelling off at 15,000 feet in a matter of minutes.

I saw the beaches and scenic coastline of St. Petersburg shrink to a mere outline etched over the blue water of the Gulf of Mexico. During the rapid acceleration, I felt both hands grow heavy and drop on my knees. An overpowering pressure pushed down on my chest as we punched through the clouds. I strained my neck around to get a gratifying glimpse of the curvature of the earth and whistled. So this is what it feels like, I thought with a grin, to be a top-gun pilot.

Florida coast

After performing several aerial manoeuvres, Howard dropped us down to an altitude of about 8,000 feet. We leisurely cruised around the Tampa Bay area, savouring the view of the multi-million dollar beach resorts as the aircraft slowly began its descent towards the airfield.

As we approached the runway at breakneck speed, I noticed that along with the queasiness in my stomach, my arms were tingling. Howard said I was hyperventilating. I did my best to hold it together till we reached the ground. It was, after all, a small price to pay to feed my insatiable need for speed!

Copyright © 2012 by Richard Ong

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