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Issue Date: August 2005 Issue


That's Fly, Baby

Touching the sky with Michael Mancuso, a stunt pilot and star of the Cleveland National Air Show
Amber Matheson

Where's my jumpsuit?" I ask, eyeing the perky little two-seater on the runway. (The red, yellow and blue-carbon fiber plane makes me feel like a regular Amelia Earhart.)

"Isn't it a little hot for a jumpsuit?"

It is 9:30 a.m. and almost 90 degrees already, but hey, I like to look the part, you know?

"Well, I still want one."

"You are the first person who's ever asked for a jumpsuit — from now on, I'll bring one with me."

The baffled voice on the other end of the conversation is none other than Michael Mancuso, stunt pilot, aerobatics wiz kid, professional scream-inducer. He flies a specially made, German-engineered Klein Tools Extra 300L aerobatics plane. And I am about to experience it firsthand.

Mancuso's in-air antics are billed as "a dazzling solo performance." I am under no false assumptions about what I am about to experience, and along with the excitement, there is an undercurrent of complete terror. If Mancuso has an itinerary for the morning's events, it must look like this:

9:15 a.m. — Joke with writer about whether we're giving her a parachute.

9:30 a.m. — Fit the writer with a parachute and show her how to use it, "just in case."

9:45 a.m. — Taxi down the runway in a zig-zag formation to get her stomach warmed up.

9:50 a.m. — Take off and immediately pull the right wing down hard so it looks like we're about to crash.

9:51 a.m. — Show the writer what 6Gs feel like, in between some routine tumbles, spins and rolls.

10:05 a.m. — Calmly land the plane and make sure the writer hasn't passed out.

Yes, it's true: I am woman enough to experience 6Gs of force. At 4Gs, Mancuso says, people can start to "gray out"; at 8, "it feels like you're hitting a brick wall." Stunt pilots like Mancuso and teams such as the Blue Angels will hit 10 or even more Gs during their aerobatic routines — the Angels wear special suits that help regulate their blood flow so they don't pass out.

Lately, Mancuso says, he's been getting back into flying in formations. He used to be a member of the world-famous Northern Lights Aerobatic Team, and this year he's joining up with fellow stunt pilot Matt Chapman for a two-man performance every day of the air show. Of the 18 shows they're doing this season, only six will feature the Chapman-Mancuso routine. "We like to save it for the best air shows," he says.

But the thing he's most proud of (and, as I learn, the wildest stunt he pulls) is the tumble. I don't know what the heck we are doing up there, but when he radios to me that we are about to start a tumble, my world suddenly goes haywire. Later, when we are on the ground, he demonstrates the variation using a business card to show the multitude of flips I had just experienced, but it still doesn't really make sense. Just imagine if the clouds really were your playground, and gravity was just something for those suckers on the ground. One second we are practically skimming Lake Erie, then the nose of the plane creeps up, up, up, until up is down and sideways is out the window, and I lose all sense of everything except the thrill of that moment.

I know, I know. You're jealous. But don't just jones for a 6G adrenaline special. Check out the Cleveland National Air Show over Labor Day weekend. You might also like to sign on to Discount Drug Mart's Web site at www.discount-drugmart.com, where you can register to win a half-hour flight in a historic, twin-engine Beech 18 airplane. Whatever you do, just remember this: I hit 6Gs and lived to tell about it. (And didn't throw up once.)

The Cleveland National Air Show kicks off at 9 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 3, and runs through Sept. 5 at Burke Lakefront Air-port. Visit www.clevelandairshow.com for more information.


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