WESTFIELD -- The perks may be few and far between in the world of journalism, but this reporter, along with her "Fly Girl" co-worker, got the opportunity of a lifetime last week!
Leo Dube, president, and Harland Avezzie, vice president of the Pioneer Valley Military and Transportation Museum (P.V.M.T.M.) Board of Directors, arranged for me and my co-worker Courtney Llewellyn to ride "shotgun" in a fully-restored 1942 Fairchild PT-23A aircraft.
This model, along with 255 others manufactured during the early 1940s, was constructed based on a two-place open cockpit configuration, used to train pilots in the United States Army Air Force during World War II.
Harland found the aircraft in Somers, Conn., in the early 1980s, where it had been rotting away in a barn since 1958. It took him four years to restore the PT-23A to its former glory and he's been flying it ever since, and let me just say, it's one smooth ride!
The P.V.M.T.M. Board of Directors has labored for over 10 years to establish a living museum with fully functional artifacts such as unicycles, airplanes and military vehicles ready to roll.
The P.V.M.T.M. board has secured an eight-acre site for their museum at Barnes Airport through a 50-year lease with the airport and the city of Westfield. Their aim is to construct a hangar for the artifacts and offer rides to all those willing to brave the skies or the off-road terrain in their 1953 M59 armored personnel carrier or their deuce-and-a-half truck.
However, the board is still far from its goal of $500,000 needed for the facility; they've only got about $50,000 in the bank with several fundraisers in the works. Fundraising events include a trips to the Intrepid Museum in New York City and the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in Rhinebeck, N.Y.; the Experimental Aircraft Association Fly-In at Barnes Airport and the annual Hangar Dance and Cruise-In at Barnes later this year.
I thought I'd be scared, terrified in fact, of flying in a 66-year-old plane with an open-air cockpit just daring me to fall out. However, I've rarely felt more at ease, and that's saying something considering I was about 1,300 feet off the ground moving 100 miles per hour.
I climbed up onto the silver cloth-coated mahogany wing and into the rear cockpit -- wearing wedge heels, probably not the best idea -- complete with my own set of controls.
Leo and Harland fastened me in nice and snug. Then I tied up my golden locks and tucked them into the cloth helmet and headset, careful not to touch any of the controls, despite Harland's suggestion that I try my hand at maneuvering the aircraft once airborne.
Harland climbed into the "driver's seat" and Leo pulled out a metal crank and inserted it into the front end of the plane, like a windup toy. Leo rotated the crank with all of his might, yelled, "Clear!" and the propeller whipped into motion sending a huge rush of exhaust right into my face. Note to all: wear protective eyewear.
We took off from Barnes Airport on an April evening and climbed into a cloudless azure sky. Harland showed me a new perspective of the Holyoke Mall and Springfield, and we followed I-91 and the Connecticut River north to Mount Tom and the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Amherst.
I thought UMass was a gigantic campus but with the wind whipping past my face at 1,300 feet, as we circled the Mullins Center, I felt as if I could squash the arena with my pinky.
The flight was noisy, there's no doubt about that, and you don't get a beverage or peanuts on this ride but you get something better: your own personal chauffeured tour of the skies. I could hear Harland loud and clear through my headset and he was sure to point out the landmarks, while giving me some flight instruction.
He said he takes his plane out whenever he needs to relax and now I understand exactly what he means. The experience may have the occasional bump, or fierce, loud winds but the flight is surprisingly peaceful -- an experience where, like the angels above, you're watching life move feverishly below from a blessed vantage point.
Ms. Courtney's Wild Ride
Roller coaster enthusiasts are all about the stats. For example, the Superman ride at Six Flags New England features a drop of 221 feet and a top speed of 77 miles per hour numbers that add up to a pretty thrilling experience.
The coaster pales in comparison to what my co-worker and I did, though.
Imagine seeing the Superman from an altitude of about 1,200 feet, traveling at 110 miles per hour. Oh, and you're not on a solid metal track -- it's just you, some wood, steel and cloth and the air.
Modern transportation is all about making passengers feel as safe and enclosed as possible, making them feel as if they are not traveling at all. Flying in the Fairchild let me feel the 40 degree air whipping past my face, let me feel the rumble of the engine, feel the canvas straps pulled tight against me, and put me face to face with empty space. It was amazing.
I felt like I had traveled back in time flying with Harland. We were on a reconnaissance mission, scoping out the Holyoke Mall and Springfield College and Six Flags New England. It was thrilling. It was something I think everyone should get to experience at least once in their lives.
Harland said we had visibility of about 25 miles while up in the air, but I felt like I could see a lot farther.
There were no loops, corkscrews or zero-gravity moments on this ride, and sadly, no commemorative photos mid-flight, but I think this was definitely my most memorable trip high above the Pioneer Valley.
As we ended our journey, Harland lined up to the runway and we glided onto the pavement without a jostle. Courtney described Harland's smooth take off and landing of this approximately one-ton aircraft as "like butta," and I'd have to agree.
I was in the air for almost an hour and I could have stayed forever.
I highly recommend becoming involved with the P.V.M.T.M., not just for the flight experience but because this is a group of the nicest people dedicated to preserving what our ancestors bled and sweat to build and preserve.