Danny’s Nightmare aboard Betty’s Dream
If one slogan could capture my thoughts at lunchtime on May 7, this would be it: “I flew in the belly of a B-25 bomber, and all I got was this lousy motion sickness bag.” That’s how I felt as I exited the floor hatch of Betty’s Dream, stepped onto the tarmac at Culpeper Regional Airport in Virginia and inhaled a much-needed breath of fresh air after a rough flight.
But if a pilot in the Commemorative Air Force had asked me later that day whether I’d ever want to fly in a World War II aircraft again, I probably would have said, “When do we take off?” I don’t think I could resist an adventure like that — even though I get anxious about flying in general and even after having endured the worst flight of my life.
I am a writer for the Federal Aviation Administration and talked my way onto Betty’s Dream while reporting an advance story on the Arsenal of Democracy Flyover for the agency’s internal website. With several high-profile media outlets covering the event, I figured my chances of getting a seat were slim but made my pitch anyway for a flight with good video potential.
Two months and many pestering emails later, I finally heard from Leah Block at CAF: “I will put you on one of the trainers, so you should be able to take some great shots. … You will fly from Culpeper. In the air about an hour.”
And that’s the point at which my nerves began to fray. The journalist who practically begged for a seat in a 70-year-old warbird suddenly remembered he used to drive up to 10 hours one way for assignments in order to avoid flying in modern aircraft.
When I asked to fly along, I thought I’d be in the air a half-hour max. Fifteen minutes would have been plenty. Now I was looking at an hour in a “trainer”? I didn’t even know what that meant until I clicked to the Arsenal of Democracy website again.
Then I started asking frantic questions. “Do you know yet what type of trainer I will be flying in? And just to prepare myself mentally for the experience, what maneuvers can I expect in the air? My co-worker who is a pilot said I probably want to avoid being turned upside down.”
That was an understatement. I definitely did not want to be part of any acrobatic maneuvers, but I couldn’t bring myself to openly admit that.
Leah reassured me that the flight — later confirmed to be on this Stearman biplane so I could get the best GoPro footage — should be relatively calm and that the pilots had been told not to subject us newbies to any “funny business.” But I was on edge for the next 10 days.
By the morning of the flight, I was more excited than nervous — at least for a few hours. I stopped at a 7–11 on the way to Culpeper to check for Dramamine, but the store did not have the non-drowsy formula. I opted for alertness over peace of stomach, a bad choice in hindsight.
I was in awe as I drove past the airfield and saw the array of aircraft on the tarmac. My favorites were the P-51 Mustangs and F4U Corsairs, the latter of which I remembered best from the short-lived 1970s television series “Baa Baa Black Sheep.”
I went to work after registering at the press office. I snapped a few photos of the warbirds from a distance, listened to part of the pre-flight safety briefing for all pilots and attended a short press conference.
Soon after the press conference, a guide pointed a few of us toward the Stearman planes. We found our designated rides by using the tail numbers on our press badges.
“I’m now at my assigned plane — and pretty well terrified,” I posted to Facebook at 10:07 a.m. My hands were shaking uncontrollably, and my legs were wobbly. I couldn’t even picture myself maintaining enough composure to climb (or fall) into a plane that small, let alone fly in it for an hour without having a panic attack.
Fortunately I only had to ponder that potentially embarrassing fate for a few minutes. When owner/co-pilot John Weyrich arrived, he said he hadn’t realized the ride-along was part of a practice run for the flyover the next day. That being the case, he didn’t have a spare seat for me — but the event organizers found me another spot on a B-25 Mitchell.
Weyrich and I found CAF President Stephan Brown in the hangar, and he drove me to Betty’s Dream in a golf cart. I was completely at ease, and it occurred to me then that the larger the airplane, the less intimidating it is — even if it was built in 1945.
Some of the instructions I heard before boarding were unsettling: Don’t touch anything red; don’t grab sharp metal edges to steady yourself; keep your head and your camera equipment back from the uncovered side hatch; and brace yourself for landing. But with a camera around my neck, one GoPro mounted to my head, another one in my hand and an iPhone in my pocket, I was ready to fly and capture every angle of the journey.
Texas Flying Legends Museum, which owns Betty’s Dream, had two photographers on board, father and son Moose and Jake Peterson. They rode in the belly of the bomber with me. Another rider joined pilot Alan Miller and his co-pilot/father, Bill Miller, in the cockpit. (Bill worked for the Honolulu Flight Standards District Office until he retired.)
I didn’t have window access during takeoff, so Jake agreed to hold the GoPro and record the takeoff. Once we were in the air, I snapped a few pictures with my iPhone and posted them to Facebook. Then it was my turn to do the photographers’ shuffle to the open side hatch.
I quickly learned how difficult it is to take pictures while standing in a B-25 bomber with wind blowing in your face and the yaw motion shifting the aircraft beneath you. So I knelt. I sat on the floor. I fidgeted every which way while trying not to grab any of those sharp edges.
As I photographed the other two bombers in formation to our right, I appreciated my good fortune, not only of living that moment but of living in a country that is free because of men in my grandparents’ generation who flew those aircraft in war. I was even more grateful later that day when I read the history of Betty’s Dream. The bomber was one of six that escorted Japanese officials to the island of Ie Shima during the surrender process in August 1945.
With his firstborn infant daughter (my mother) at home, my maternal grandfather was en route to the Philippines for a two-year tour of U.S. Army duty when the war ended. He might well have been part of an Allied invasion of Japan had that country not surrendered when it did.
My stomach was fine as I took pictures and absorbed the atmosphere, but when I pulled my eye from the viewfinder and stood to switch places with Jake, the yaw motion overwhelmed me. Airsickness hit me full force within the 30 seconds it took to get back to my seat.
That was about 15 minutes into the flight. I overcame the queasiness long enough to shoot a little more usable GoPro footage and take a few photos. But the last half-hour of the flight was a battle of wills between my stomach and my ego. Thankfully my ego won, as I was able to keep my unused motion sickness bag for a souvenir.
Alan consoled me later by saying I wasn’t his first passenger to get airsick. I felt even less humiliated when he said the yaw for our flight had been greater than I realized while enduring it. A tablet of Dramamine prevention might have made all the difference.
The irony is that my worst flight also now ranks as my favorite assignment in a journalistic career full of them — hitching a three-day ride on the USS Kearsarge and returning to shore by helicopter, spending a half-day in jail to write about prison labor, and interviewing professional wrestler Jake “The Snake” Roberts, to name a few.
To top it off, the next day I got to watch the flyover from the tower at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport with my parents. A Navy veteran, my father really wanted to see the flyover, but he didn’t think he could tolerate a long day outside in a hot, crowded city. The air traffic manager allowed me to bring both of my parents to the tower as guests while I photographed the event from there.
That ended up being a wonderful vantage point. A few formations flew over the tower after veering south of Washington, D.C., and we had a close-up view of the one plane that broke formation. A Grumman TBF Avenger made an emergency landing because of a small crack in a hydraulic line, briefly extending the ground stop that had been in effect for the flyover.
As we ate lunch in the airport that afternoon, I asked my parents if they noticed how relaxed the air traffic controllers were when the Avenger left formation. I knew from stories I’ve written for the FAA that controllers excel at staying calm in stressful situations, but it was amazing to see them in action, even for a minor incident.
Family and friends who know I work at the FAA periodically ask me whether I feel safer on airplanes now that I’m an aviation “insider.” My answer is always an unequivocal yes because I learn something new almost every day about how dedicated my colleagues are to ensuring safety in the national airspace system.
That’s why I had the nerve to ride on a warbird in the first place, something I never would have done before working at the FAA.
Maybe I’ll fly in a Stearman next time.
A version of this story originally appeared on the FAA’s internal website.