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Warbirds Briefing

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Panic on Static Display

If you have been associated with a warbird aircraft on display at an event, then at some point you surely have had this experience. Even a highly experienced warbird owner, pilot, or volunteer has been embarrassed by a studied 7-year-old. The following is a humorous story as told by Steve Betzler.

Panic is a fickle visitor. Like Aunt Edna and Uncle Herbert, you never know when it is going to show up for a visit or how long it might stay. My latest visit from Panic took an unexpected form and came at an unlikely time.

After my first cross-country jet ride in the back of Paul Keppeler's T-33, Shooting Star, I was feeling quite chuffed. The ultimate "wannabe" opportunity.

The flight suit I found at Goodwill was a bit snug (must be mismarked?), but I was ready to play the part of a jet/backseater at the 2013 Hamilton, Ontario, annual air show. My wife, Robyn, had sewn a few patches on it, including my inspirational Snoopy, so I wouldn't look like I was giving out Jiffy Lube coupons on the flightline.

After a couple of fast passes and pull-ups in the pattern before landing, we arrived in style. The international media had already stationed themselves outside the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum and began to swarm as we taxied in.

My "Too Cool for School" feeling ended shortly after taking off the mask and helmet and writhing out of the harness. I think I pulled something while unceremoniously dragging myself out of the cockpit and practically falling off the wing, but I didn't let on. Not exactly a Swan Lake moment. Having studied up on the specs of the aircraft, I was ready for their questions.

With a manufactured combination of "aw shucks" humility spiced with just a hint of swagger, I started in...

"Yep...this here is a Canadair-built T-33, Rolls-Royce Nene 10 engines, yes...it was a beautiful flight from Waukesha, Wisconsin, 5,000 pounds of thrust, built 1956, top speed 500 knots. Did you register Paul's landing on the Richter scale? Blah, blah, blah."

They were eating it up. Cameras clicked. I looked down just to make sure my fly was up. It was. Once the jet was towed and parked on the flightline, the crowds gathered with considerable attraction to this pristine ex-RCAF jet. I was fielding questions like Esposito in goal. Kick save, glove save, stick save all in quick succession. My confidence soared.

Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.

We didn't pre-brief our mission; however, as "lead," Paul tended to greet the more "attractive" visitors while I fielded the kids and babies in strollers. A wingman knows his place.

Paul was accommodating a particularly enthusiastic Sabrina and soon helped her up onto the wing for a closer look at the cockpit. She was in full starry-eyed gaze while Paul waxed eloquent on arcane jet-guy subjects.

Wingmen should stay with their leader. But I broke formation to go work the crowd line solo. A rookie mistake, and I would soon pay the price.

He came out of the sun, like a seasoned veteran, and was on me before I knew it. At first, he seemed like just another air show kid. Angry Birds T-shirt, wire-rimmed glasses, and standing about 4-foot nothing. But the eyes were different. Piercing. Black. Lifeless. A shark's eyes.

Diving directly toward me from the crowd, he stopped at the rope/stanchion line, his pair of little bore sights locked onto mine.

"Sir. I am Benjamin and I am 7 years old...and...can you tell me precisely the effect on the center of gravity by jettisoning the tip tanks when full?"

I felt a sudden itching sensation on my palms.

"What is the critical angle of attack, and does it vary with flap deployment?"

There was a cool breeze, but I could feel sweat beading on my forehead.

"Do the ailerons lose effectiveness if the speed brakes are deployed?
Sir? Sir! Can you hear me?

The questions were fired with precision and the cadence of a GAU-8/A Gatling gun from the nose of an A-10. His words started to fade in and out. His right thumb depressed the trigger as he fired again. Brrrrrp. Brrrrrp. He let off a couple more short bursts in this first head-on pass.

"Precisely where are the hard points located in relation to the center of gravity?"

The little twerp now had disdain in his tone like a Broadway star dressing down a tardy waiter at Sardi's.

"I assume that you are with this aircraft?"

His little beady lizard eyes, behind those Coke bottle lenses, were focused, and he had radar lock. The missile launch tone in my ear was deafening. I had stumbled into my first dogfight and was on the receiving end of multiple hits. I couldn't muster the courage to counterattack this pit bull, so I tried in my near-paralyzed state to develop an escape strategy.

Trained fighter pilots react by instinct. But I was a "wannabe" in my first dogfight with a seasoned aerial assassin. Snoopy couldn't help me now.

Escape now! But where?

"Sir? Sir?" He circled for another pass.

I scanned the area for my leader. He was fully engaged with Sabrina's extended VIP personal cockpit tour and was borrowing her camera so she could have a permanent photographic record of her brush with greatness.

I was on my own. The moment of truth. The rope/stanchion line was clear of people to my left, so an escape in that direction would be futile. He would be on my six with no chance to shake him.

A group of ladies in cumulus hats had drifted along the rope line to my right. Suddenly I had a plan. I only had to make it about 10 feet, and they could block the little bastard like a defensive wall on a soccer penalty kick.

I had one chance and took it. With a bootful of left rudder to keep my nose pointed at Benjamin and disguising my maneuver until the last moment, then inching my way toward the blocking cloud layer of puffy ladies...

"Lovely hats, ladies. Perfect day for an air show, eh?"

I realized that I had just put the "eh" at the end of my sentence and hoped that they didn't think I was making fun of their Canadian speech pattern. I couldn't survive a 4 v 1 attack. Poindexter had marked me and was jumping up and down between the ladies in hats like a Whack-a-Mole trying to fire a short burst at the apogee of each leap.

"Sir? Sir? Did...you...hear...me?"

Unconsciously, I swept my hand over my bald pate, and it was drenched. Then I noticed a shortness of breath. My head spun with sudden memories of my fifth grade spelling bee semifinal round collapse, my last encounter with Panic. I had been given the word "acquiesce," and I had butchered it.

"Are the speed brakes hydraulic or...?"

Benjamin fired the last killing salvo. I banked hard right and pulled. My vision slowly narrowed as g-lock extinguished my last conscious thought.

The next thing I remember was the face of a smiling angel looking down at me. Her head blocked the sun, giving her a lovely halo. Her "Paramedic" patch started to come into focus on her blue jumpsuit.

"Breathe slowly," she said. "You seem to have fainted...it might be the heat. It's all right now."

I realized that I was wearing an oxygen mask...just like the one in the jet. It was comforting like an endless hug. Benjamin was gone and would now only haunt me in my dreams. (Any resemblance to real persons or actual facts is up to the reader to determine.)


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