My stunt ride in a Chinese warbird

TEST RUN  Pioneer reporter Kevin Nimmock (left) with pilot Geoff Latter give the thumbs up with Geoffs plane Nancy, a 1958 Nanchang CJ-6A, behind them. Nancy is one of the oldest planes involved in the North American air show circuit.Pioneer photo
TEST RUN Pioneer reporter Kevin Nimmock (left) with pilot Geoff Latter give the thumbs up with Geoffs plane Nancy, a 1958 Nanchang CJ-6A, behind them. Nancy is one of the oldest planes involved in the North American air show circuit.Pioneer photo

I had never skydived, I had never bungee jumped and I had never paraglided. All this considered, I somehow found myself strapping on a 20-pound fire retardant suit and a cloth helmet fit for a 1950s air combat fighter.

On August 17th, I participated in media day activities for the Canadian Rockies International Airshow, which is coming to Cranbrook on August 5th, 2016.

Media days main event: flying in a plane alongside one of six of the best air show pilots in North America.

I had no idea what to expect. I was not really nervous, because I didnt have a reference point for what I was going to encounter.

So there I was, sitting on the grass beside the runway at the Canadian Rockies International Airport, waiting for my turn to experience aspects of an air show routine. I had decided to fly with a pilot named Geoff Latter, who is the owner and operator of one of the most beautiful planes I have ever seen.

Geoff flies a fully restored Nanchang CJ-6A from the Peoples Liberation Army Air Force, which he has affectionately nicknamed Nancy. The extremely rare warbird (120 in the world) was manufactured in 1958, giving it the charm and style of a vintage plane. I figured if I was going to do something crazy, I might as well do it in a plane that has been through much scarier situations.

After fitting into my stylish flying outfit and taking a few obligatory selfies, I was told to climb onto the planes wing and lower myself into the passengers cockpit. It was a small area with a surprisingly comfortable chair. As I sat down in my heavy suit, I looked around at the various buttons and levers in front of me, all labelled with Chinese characters.

I had about 30 seconds to think about how amazing it was to be sitting in a warbird that was built on the other side of the world more than a half-century ago. Then I heard Geoffs voice coming through my headset, telling me it was time to take off.

I pulled the glass roof of the cockpit over my head and Geoff started the engine. As we taxied along the runway, I felt the familiar sensation of bumping and rolling along, just like in a commercial airliner. Once we were cleared for takeoff by the airports air traffic control, Geoff asked if I was ready to experience stunt flying for the first time. I gave a thumbs up, and we were off.

As we lifted off the ground, I immediately experienced an unprecedented rush of adrenaline. Compared to larger airplanes, every movement felt incredibly vivid. When Geoff steered Nancy slightly to the left, my body moved, giving me a strong sense of connectivity to the planes trajectory.

We flew south from the airport, diverting towards the mountains just before reaching the city of Cranbrook. As I looked around, I could see all of the beauty of the area I have come to love this summer. Below me were imposing mountain peaks, sparkling lakes and fields of green grass. From the air, I felt like I could see forever into the distance.

First, we did a roll to the right. Nancy is heavier than the average stunt plane, so it took a little longer to do any trick.

According to Geoff, this just meant my body had more time to freak out about whatever we were doing.

The roll was phenomenal. As I found myself looking straight down at the mountains, I felt a strange sense of safety since gravitational forces pulled my body back into the seat. I couldnt move if I wanted to. Instead, I tried to breathe, take it all in and enjoy the trick.

When we re-stabilized, Geoff asked if I wanted to try a loop, which was the most daring trick he was allowed to do with media members. I had told myself prior to my flight that I would agree to do any trick, regardless of how scared I was, because I probably wouldnt ever get to do this again.

Without reluctance, I gave a thumbs up and we steered towards the ground to pick up speed. Suddenly, Geoff jerked the plane upwards and we started our loop. It was the most intense force I have ever felt. I couldnt even blink as I saw the mountains quickly disappear from view. Suddenly, time froze and I was staring straight across the horizon, desperately trying to take in the incredible scenery while I had the chance.

Then, Nancy finished the loop and we got back on track. I was informed by Geoff after that we had felt four Gs of force while doing the loop, which is a G more than astronauts feel during rocket launches.

After doing a few more little tricks and touching ground back at the airport, I triumphantly exited from the plane, profoundly impacted by the wicked rush I had just felt.

In a year, people from all over B.C and Alberta will travel to Cranbrook to see Geoff, Nancy and a few other impressive flyers show their best. From first-hand experience, they are absolute artists in the air.

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