Enquirer reporter tastes 4-point rolls, 4 Gs
Michael Mancuso is a pilot. Not the "Thank you for flying whatever airlines" kind of pilot, but the kind of pilot that makes you kiss the ground once you're back on it.
Technically, I suppose, he's an aerobatics pilot or a stunt pilot. What it boils down to is Mancuso doesn't fly much in straight lines or even right-side-up.
He is the James Dean of pilots, dressed in chinos and a T-shirt, a couple days of stubble on his face. Obviously, he knows what he's doing, but he seems just a bit cavalier. Not careless enough to be dangerous, but cocky enough to be a bad boy.
Being a curious reporter, I got to ride along on one of Mancuso's flights Thursday. I wore a parachute, was told not to touch the little red levers inside the cockpit, and was strapped tightly into place by a five-point harness.
I was a little nervous, to be sure, as Mancuso taxied to the runway. The fact that my 36-year-old pilot has been doing aerial stunts for two decades and began flying before he was 11 years old was a great comfort, though.
"Every little boy wants to learn how to fly. I grew up around it, so I just had the opportunity to learn," he said, remembering his grandfather's flight school on Long Island.
That's the same grandfather, he said, who was too short to be a World War II pilot, so he became a flight instructor for the Royal Air Force.
Mancuso said he's been flying in air shows around the country for 10 years. He's done about 18 shows a year, including one in Germany, and possibly one this fall in Spain.
"When you're a little kid and you have an airplane, what do you do? My goal of being in aerobatics was to be a competition pilot, which I did for a few years," he said. "Most good competition pilots end up being air show pilots."
Back to my flight. We're about 4,000 feet over Gull Lake, flying about 200 mph when the earth and sky suddenly switch places. There's a little space under my backside, but a lot of pressure on my shoulders.
Stomach's OK. Head is clear. Eyes are open. It was quite a rush. There's something inherently thrilling about seeing the sky and ground switch places over and over and from different angles you just can't get from a movie or simulated experience.
Mancuso maneuvered his NYJet.com Extra 300 plane through barrel rolls, a four-point roll, a loop, a "hammerhead" involving the plane climbing straight up then falling off to one side and diving toward the earth, and a tumble, which I can't really describe because ends and sides were changing so fast I couldn't keep up.
For me, the best part was pulling out of the dives. Mancuso said we were pulling about 4 Gs, which I think means pressure on the body about four times the force of gravity.
I was reminded of the scene in "Spies Like Us" with Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd when they went through flight training and they came out of the spinning machine with their faces contorted from the centrifugal force. I smiled to myself. Well, I think I smiled, but it's possible no one else would have been able to tell because my face was sliding down off my skull.
Mancuso was calm and collected through the entire flight. He should be. He's the pro.
But he's done so many of these flights, I asked him if he still enjoys it.
"I'm flying 210 miles an hour, 10 feet off the ground," he said. "We're doing things in air shows that are normally illegal. It's still a rush."
When I asked Mancuso if he has any heroes, his reply was, "All dead." Then he smiled.
Apparently, Mancuso doesn't have heroes, but there are people he looks up to.
One of those people is Gene Krantz, NASA's mission controller in Houston for many of the Apollo missions, who was portrayed by actor Ed Harris in "Apollo 13."
After we were back on the ground, I learned the last person to sit in the seat in front of Mancuso before me was Krantz.
"I took a little bit from him," Mancuso said of his flight with Krantz. "I think I have a lot of pilots I look up to and take a little bit from all of them. They all have exceptional qualities that you'd like to emulate."
You've read my story, now watch my video.
Just a couple things to keep in mind while watching the video.
1) Turn up the volume on your computer.
2) The black thing I'm putting on in the beginning of the video is a parachute.
3) The video camera is directly behind my head and aimed at the back of the plane. (Yes, that means I'm in front.)
4) Everything you see is real, and really am in the plane. You can hear me a couple of times, especially when Mancuso goes into the tumble.