Peoria Journal Star reporter Dave Haney gets a preview of what's to come at the Prairie Air Show.
This plane ride is like a roller coaster running off the tracks.
Slowly, we ascend into the air, and the skyline disappears. Gradually, weight transfers from my seat to my back, and a tingling sensation takes over for several minutes.
By now, I should’ve reached the pinnacle, but this ride is still going. Still climbing.
Now, all the weight presses on the backs of my shoulders. Breathing is less automatic.
Surely, the end is in sight.
But there’s no tracks here, no telling how far it goes or when to brace for the inevitable.
Suddenly, a steep plunge straight down.
The sky’s mix of blues and whites quickly turns into a whirl of browns and greens. Eyes try to focus — rolling hills, roads, now houses, individual trees, an old pickup truck. All weight is gone; it’s a freefall.
My heartbeat works overtime, but is it exhilaration or fear? No time to think. The downward spiral continues.
Some unseen strap keeps me in the seat as Maj. John Klatt, the pilot sitting behind me, pulls back on a stick. There’s also a control lever in the front cockpit — where I am — that I see moving all about.
It feels like two invisible men have taken a seat on top of me. Must be the "g-forces" at work. Pilots and others standing around the plane before this ride chuckled about the effect of these gravitational forces.
My chin wants to move down to my chest. No sense in fighting it. I’m sinking in the seat. Breathing again takes concentration. Eyes are transfixed.
"How you doing?" I hear, still in the middle of an upswing.
At the moment, he gets no response. Too busy thinking about breathing. And it’s enough to raise my head, let alone my hand to reach and press the tiny red button needed to talk and be heard.
Finally, I respond, "Great."
Apparently, that was the signal for more in this 2007 Staudacher S-300, a two-seater owned by the Air National Guard that tops out at about 250 mph.
Leveling the aircraft for an instant, Klatt turns the nose up until the vehicle can go no more, and I am looking at our own exhaust as we are momentarily traveling in reverse toward the ground.
Coming about, Klatt, a veteran Guard pilot whose typical craft is an F-16 "Fighting Falcon," turns the wings to bring the plane upside-down.
He has no problem bringing his aircraft within a few short feet of another airplane, evident earlier when he and fellow aerobatic aviator Michael Goulian brought their planes alongside one another. It was close enough I could make out Goulian’s facial expressions.
Hanging by shoulder straps off the seat, my eyes feel as though they are bulging. A quick turn to the side, then level, then upside-down, then a turn.
It’s a whirlwind of gut-wrenching twists.
"How do you keep your eyes trained?" I squeak out.
"It takes some practice," Klatt replies, moving into more turns and a loop.
It was but a sample of the heart-stopping, pulse-pounding, high-energy maneuvers Klatt and Goulian will display this weekend at the Prairie Air Show, which includes many more aerial displays. Spectators, though, will be safely on the ground to see it all.
As we head back to Greater Peoria Regional Airport, Klatt hands over the controls.
"Take the stick," he said.
I swing the small piece of steel to the left an inch or two, then the right, a bit down. That was enough.
Dave Haney can be reached at (309) 686-3181 or dhaney@pjstar.