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October 8, 2009

Wild flight offers preview of air show at McEntire

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Hanging out upside down over Lake Murray in the cockpit of a stunt plane, I could feel the weight of my entire body pressing into the safety harness.

That harness was the only thing keeping pilot and passenger from tumbling 2,000 feet into the water. Only a window separated us from the air.

Lt. Col. John Klatt, the stunt plane pilot and an Air National Guard F-16 pilot, loves it.

He calls it "inverted flying." It's what got him hooked on aerobatics as a young pilot in the Minnesota Air National Guard.

Klatt will perform inverted flying and other stunts Saturday and Sunday at the S.C. National Guard Air and Ground Expo at McEntire Joint National Guard Base. The free show runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. both days.

When Klatt's not flying fighter jets, he is a professional stunt plane pilot, touring the country to perform in air shows.

"It's just sort of a strange love affair with airplanes," Klatt said. "Once you start going upside down and doing aerobatics, you just want to keep doing it."

When Klatt travels to air shows, he invites reporters to go on rides. The reporters get the thrill of a lifetime, and Klatt creates a little publicity for the air show and the Air National Guard, which sponsors his stunt plane.

Klatt invited me up for a 20-minute flight in his German-built, two-passenger Extra 300-L. It's pretty much a bunch of steel tubes welded together, with a carbon composite fuselage. I hoped those Germans knew what they were doing because there really wasn't much to this airplane.

Photographer Tim Dominick volunteered to ride in the photo ship, a six-passenger Beechcraft, to take pictures. (For the record, the Beechcraft's doors were open and Tim bravely leaned out the side to shoot photos. Don't worry, he had a safety harness, too.)

For 20 minutes, we banked, flipped, rolled, flew giants loops and did something called a "hammer head turn around."

In the hammer head, Klatt flies the airplane straight up until the engine stalls. Then, he kicks the rudder left, making the airplane shoot back down.

From the front seat, it's at once frightening and exhilarating to see Lake Murray coming at you as the plane whizzes like a bullet toward the water. Somehow, Klatt pulls the plane level with more than 2,000 feet to spare.

The final trick - and the one that ended the fun for me - was a torque roll.

For this one, Klatt blew smoke from the plane to add to the drama.

We shot straight up until the plane ran out of airflow and the ailerons - the pieces on the edges of the wings that control the way the plane banks and rolls - quit working.

The plane spun like a top. I could see the sun and sky swirling above my head as we slid backwards through the smoke the plane had just released.

Klatt worked the controls to keep the plane flying backwards until, in his words, "the tail flips and we're pointed down towards the earth."

At this point, my mind was having a blast. But my stomach was whimpering: "Enough."

It would be natural to assume a daredevil like Klatt gets a kick out of pushing reporters to their limits. But he insists he does not like to make his passengers sick.

"That's no fun," he said.

We had planned to fly over downtown, but I suggested we head back to the Columbia Metropolitan Airport because the queasiness wasn't going away.

Let's just say I almost made it.

Even so, the flight was worth it.

I volunteered for it. I wanted to do the torque roll. I had seen it in videos, and it looked so scary.

In flight, it happened so fast that I didn't have time to freak out. Looking back, I just remember the sun spinning above me and thinking, 'This is wild!"

This weekend, Klatt will be flying solo in his Extra 300S.

"I'll make the airplane tumble and fly backwards," he said. "I'll make it do things most people will think an airplane shouldn't be able to do."

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