Backseat in a P-40 by Pat Beardmore
December 1998, and negotiations with my girlfriend reach United Nations proportions as we discuss how we will spend our four weeks in California and Nevada. She wants to hike around the National Parks, I want to hike around aircraft museums; its as simple as that. So, we put the map out on the floor and mark out the places we want to go and create some strange circular route that includes such highlights as The Grand Canyon, March Airforce base, Yosemite national Park, Edwards Airforce base, etc.
That over with, I happily surf the web, making all the virtual visits to sites that I will actually visit in the real world in a few weeks. For many years Ive read about the 'Planes of Fame' Museum and seen the fruit of their labours take to the air at Duxford. Looking at their very professional website, one small window stands out; "Warbird rides by arrangement". Well, this could be something different, as riding in the back of a warbird is something I think we would all love to do. So after a couple of e-mails, I phone John Hinton in California and give him the dates that I will be in Chino. He actually apologises that the P-51 is not available due to an engine overhaul but, weather permitting, a ride in the P-40 should be no problem. Trying to sound as laid back as him, I assure him that the P-40 would be okay by me.
So, one sunny day in April 1999, Im trying not to show my girl friend how excited I am as we pull in to the 'Planes of Fame' car park. The weather is perfect but some cynical part of me says that there is bound to be some sort of technical problem, which is confirmed when we enter the museum reception. The staff tell me that the back seat flights have had to stop due to safety regulations! I knew it, I knew it. But after mentioning that I have arranged it directly with John Hinton, they phone the hangar and it looks like we are back in business.
Out in the hangar, John introduces himself and explains that due to regulations, he wont be able to do any aerobatics, but a straightforward flight should be okay. Still trying to be laid back in the true California style I pretend to be disappointed, but this could save me the embarrassment of throwing up after a couple of barrel rolls. So out comes the ever reliable Barclaycard from the wallet and the hopefully ever reliable P-40 from the hangar. Grinning away in the sunshine, other museum visitors gather around as the engine starts up. Like a child, I want to go up to all of them and tell them that Im the one flying today.
John beckons me over and I climb up onto the wing. After years of seeing "dont touch" signs Im actually on the wing! The back of the pilot's seat tilts forward and I manage to scramble into the back. Belt nice and tight? Check. Headphones connected? Check. New film in camera? Check. Stomach full of butterflies? Check.
The safety brief is truly brief and to the point. John indicates a handle on the right side of the cockpit. "If I become unconscious, and you need to exit the plane, you have to lean over me and wind this handle. The cockpit cover will then slide back". There are also a couple of traditional paper sick bags tucked into a side panel.
The engine starts again and the everything starts to shake. The sick bags falls on the floor, my lens cover falls onto my lap and Im having second thoughts about this. But as we taxi past some onlookers and wave frantically at them (Ive clean forgotten to be laid back about this by now), I try to soak up as much as possible. Over Johns shoulder, I can see some of the instruments, and over the headphones I hear him request permission to take off. At the end of the runway, he pushes the throttles and the acceleration really takes me by surprise. Quickly we are up and away. At this point I am struggling to describe the flight. It is quite simply superb. The view of rural California, the smell of the engine, the g-forces of a few tight turns and the sound of John pointing out some landmarks. After around fifteen minutes he points out a beautiful fishing lake and dives down to make a low pass over the very calm water. I try to imagine how this must look from the shore as we skim the water. At this point, I am not looking down on the shore side log cabins, I am looking through the front door! All too quickly, I hear John request to join the landing pattern. The landing itself is really smooth and before I know it, I am climbing out to have my photo taken by the plane and John signs a certificate for me.
Forty-eight hours later, we are hiking along the south ridge of the Grand Canyon but I can still only think of that flight and how quickly I can go up again. I love airshows and spend hundreds of pounds on entry, film and petrol but I would swap all that for another flight.
A year on and by the looks of their web-site, 'Planes of Fame' no longer offer back seat rides. If so, thats a great shame. Thanks to John Hinton and everyone at 'Planes of Fame' for a day I will never forget.