LAKELAND — My foray into stunt-flying starts humbly. Before we even board the tiny RV-8 single-prop plane, I'm apparently a problem. "Hey Speedy, can you carry someone of this size?"
Danny "Speedy" Kight, a pilot with the Team AeroDynamix show crew, eyes me up and down as if this were Operation Dumbo Drop. In his jumpsuit and curled-down cap, he nods at flight formation leader Jerry "Widget" Morris: "Yeah, I can fit him."
Now that the lunky cargo has been situated — jeez, I don't even want to know what my call sign would be — it's time for some 2,000-foot-high derring-do with the stars at this year's Sun 'n Fun International Fly-In & Expo, the aviation-intense weekend that draws more than 100,000 visitors to Lakeland.
Federal budget woes forced the U.S. Air Force's Thunderbirds squadron, the usual F-16 headliners, to cancel their 2013 appearance. But FAA air-traffic controllers were cleared to work the towers here this weekend, when some 40,000 takeoffs and landings are expected at the air show. So Team AeroDynamix, the world's largest formation squad, was more than ready to step up, up and away, performing several shows at Sun 'n Fun this weekend. Their planes might be a lot smaller than Thunderbirds — I can attest to that — but the showmanship is very much the same.
The AeroDynamix club of weekend sky kings — retired military, smoke jumpers, commercial pilots — get together some 14 times a year to display all manner of perilously tight aerial formations, their trademark being flying ridiculously close to each other. They also give looky-loos below the usual oohs and ahhs: dips, dives, loop-de-loops.
Speedy has been with the crew since the club's 2002 inception. As we prepare to pull terrifying maneuvers that will threaten the calm demeanor of the breakfast waffle nestled in my belly, I ask the 49-year-old ace from Anderson, S.C., for his vitals. Military? United pilot? Crop-duster?
"Nope, just a civilian," he says.
Oh. Wait — what?
"I've been flying since high school," he says. "I built my first plane when I was 17."
I later find out Speedy works for a carpet company. Planes are a hobby, but one that he's really really good at. Speedy's plane today is "borrowed"; red, white and blue, it says U.S. Air Force on the side, but that's just a decal. "This is a kit," says the man with my life in his hands. "But we think these planes are as good as the ones built in factories."
I should hope so!
But hey, I find this out after I squeeze my 6-foot-2, 215-pound self into the wee plane. Truth be told, I think the guys took it easy on us tender media types; after all, who wants to clean waffle hurl out of their cockpit?
Still, the medium wind makes takeoff and landing more than thrilling, and the swooping, soaring moves up among the clouds are breathtaking — especially when you're the one making them.
At one point, all 11 planes in the Team AeroDynamix fleet form something called a "Delta formation" in which the fleet lines up in compact geometric order; pilots "Smokey" and "Leggs" are directly to our right, maybe 10 feet away! Seems like it, anyway. The gang then releases smoky vapor trails in one another's face. Wahoo! On the ground, it looks cool; in the air, it's beautiful mayhem.
We then pull 4.25 G's when peeling off of an "echelon formation" into an extended trail — imagine a roller coaster, a really fast one, with an extended oblong loop. But Speedy is so good, so smooth, I never barf or black out — although I do grip the seat in front of me intensely, my pilot no doubt wondering why his babbling XL passenger has suddenly gone so quiet.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.