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Open Cockpit over Ottawa, a Capital Adventure

Buckled into an open cockpit Stearman biplane, with the pilot sitting in a separate cockpit behind me, I held my breath in expectation. The vintage canvas-covered plane started without even a cough. The wooden propeller, spinning about a meter and a half in front of me gave off a fairly stiff breeze. I could not see the runway over the nose of the plane and I assumed the back of my head blocked the view of Greg, the pilot. But we started to taxi towards the runway regardless of whether either of us could see. The foot pedals, which Greg had told me not to touch, jumped to life and the dials on the dashboard in front of me quivered into action. We taxied forward ... off the runaway onto the grass. Was Greg giving me a taste of what Rockcliffe Airport was like in the old days? No, he had spotted a plane waiting to take off -- and courteously taxied down the grass strip to allow the little Cessna to have the runway to itself.


Copyrighted image - used with permission.Finally we were in position for takeoff. The engine roared into high gear and I was thankful for the headphones, which served solely as hearing protection. The little wheel in the back (no bigger then my notepad) lifted off the runway and the plane sped on, perfectly horizontal to the runway. I had a magnificent view out the front of the plane. Gracefully, and without the laboring motion a jumbo jet goes through, we lifted off the ground with nothing between the sky and us. In front of me, a small windshield stopped some of the wind. Viewed through the windshield and the blur of rotating propeller blades, the landscape looked like an old movie: Everything was in color but it seemed like the cameraman had the jerks.

Ottawa is so picturesque this time of year. The fall leaves had painted the landscape with brilliant yellows, fiery reds and soothing apricots. Not only were the trees dazzling, but also the color seemed to have flowed with the leaves on to the ground, across roads, parks and rooftops, mixing like a giant paint pot in some places. Mingled among the bright colors were the darker blue of the rivers and canals and the white of the rapids. Where the river was slow and lazy, brilliant islands of green stood out like emeralds on a bed of diamonds. The parliament buildings and other historical beauties seemed even more exquisite from the air. As I was absorbed in the view, Greg tapped me on the shoulder. It was a prearranged signal that the sightseeing was over and it was time for some fun.

Before takeoff, I had asked for something a bit more exciting than just seeing the sights. We went into a steep bank, something worthier of a roller coaster than a biplane. I could feel my body pressing against the seat, not from fear but from the force of the turn. I was completely aware that we were not on a roller coaster safely following the tracks with pimply-faced teenagers screaming behind us. The only possibility for company would have been a bird enjoying the last warm fall afternoons. Disorientated from the constant turning and long-faced from the extra gravity from the last turn, I was glad we were alone. We began to dive and the wind howled faster and faster. The airspeed indicator in front of me inched up: 90…100...110...120... 130... Then we pulled up. Greg, of course, had been in complete control during the entire maneuver and was highly amused by my reactions. Slower and slower but higher and higher we went, our speed bottoming out at 50 miles-per-hour before we leveled off and circled back towards the airport. Greg executed a perfect landing. I was sad to be back at the museum so soon after experiencing the freedom of the sky.

The National Aviation Museum

It is a very rare day indeed, when you can have the pleasure of admiring a historical Stearman biplane, once so common in the skies. It is even a rarer day when you can have the pleasure of flying in such a plane, the wind tussling your hair and with nothing between you and the sky. The National Aviation Museum, home to Canada's largest collection of historic planes, lets you do just that. They have the Stearman and two other planes for passenger flights. It makes such a difference to your view of history -- being able to fly in a historical plane rather then just standing behind a barrier, unable to touch and feel what the pilots must have felt.

Copyrighted image - used with permission.Biplane History

The Stearman biplane I flew in was in production as far back as 1928, in the Stearman Air Company factory in Wichita, Kansas. Many were used as World War II training aircraft and for remote area mail delivery. The one that flies for the museum was built in 1940. It too started as a trainer for World War II. The Americans flew it out of Pensacola. Before it finished its training days it suffered a crash and was left to languish in a hanger for years. Eventually it was pulled out, rebuilt and sent to Venezuela as a crop duster. There an American company bought it and flew it up to the United States where it was sold to Greg. Among other things, he had it repainted and put in a new Continental W670, 220-h.p. engine. He flies for the museum most summer Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Rockcliffe Airport, where the National Aviation Museum is located, also has a rather interesting history. Originally an apple orchard and rifle range, the airport was first used by planes in August 1918. It was one of the earliest airports in Canada and for a while the only seaplane/landplane facility. These days it is fairly busy with historic planes and various small aircraft constantly arriving and departing.

At the National Aviation Museum you can also fly in a de Havilland Chipmunk, and a Havilland Beaver seaplane. The Chipmunk is apparently a pleasure to fly, and the pilot will let you take control of the plane for a while even if it is your first flight. The cockpit is of WW II design. In comparison, it has been said about the Stearman that it "Looks like a bridge and flies like one too." But with a pilot like Greg you would never guess it is not a gracefully aerodynamic flying machine.

The Cost of a biplane adventure

Prices are around $60 for fifteen minutes for both the Stearman and Chipmunk. The Stearman can fit two passengers in the cockpit quite snugly; rates differ for kids and are cheaper per person if there are two passengers. Thirty-minute flights are also available. Check before you go to ensure the planes are flying that day. Bookings can be made and are preferred as it can get quite busy over the summer. Waits can be in excess of two hours if you don't book ahead of time, however this does allow time to check out the museum. Flights can be mild or wild. If you are an indomitable thrill-seeker, tell Greg before takeoff and he will give you your money's worth. The planes fly between May and October depending on the weather. Dress warmly; it can be cold up there.

For information you can visit the National Aviation Museums web pages at www.aviation.nmstc.ca/e-home.htm or call 1-800-463-2038.

Thanks for the pictures used with permission from: www.aviation.nmstc.ca/exhibits/silverdart/sd106e.htm