Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Fantasy of Flight; Antique Biplanes Take to Skies of First Coast

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Fantasy of Flight; Antique Biplanes Take to Skies of First Coast

Article excerpt

Byline: Christina Abel

The last thing my Red Baron pilot did before firing up the engine of his 450-horsepower biplane was ask if I liked roller coasters.

I said I did, and that stuck with me as we barrelled down the runway at Mayport Naval Station. Pilot Bryan Regan also gave me oral bale-out instructions, fortunately; the written instructions on a metal tag in the cockpit were mostly scratched off.

I also considered the items I wasn't supposed to touch -- the tri-colored throttle gears, the rudder pedals at my feet and the missing volume knob for my headset. But I could press the big red button to my right, which allowed me to talk to Regan.

Sitting on what felt like a riding lawn mower, we weaved down the tarmac as Regan explained that, because the front of the plane is higher than the back, it's necessary to move left and right to make sure the path is clear. I hoped this somehow also explained the smell of lit fireworks coming from the front propeller.

The ride was part of a media day that Jacksonville Beach and Mayport Naval Station hosted Thursday in preparation for the Jacksonville Sea and Sky Spectacular, which continues through the weekend. The Red Barons fly in close formation and perform aerobatics for the sky show, which also includes Navy Blue Angels supersonic jets and wing walkers.

On Thursday morning, Regan said he would be the lead pilot and that two other pilots would fly on either side of us, mimicking our moves.

As soon as we were up in the air -- and I opened my eyes -- it became clear why the plane was Regan's favorite. With an open-air cockpit and roomy interior, the Red Barons, built before World War II, fly very smoothly and seem to glide on currents of air.

Regan, who has been flying for 20 years, said 12,000 of the planes were built to train the Air Force for the war and that they are so over-built that "even a kid without a driver's license could handle one."

After that comment, though tempting, I resisted turning over the waiver that I had signed.

The Red Baron in which I rode, manufactured in April 1943, had a maximum altitude of 14,000 feet and a maximum speed of 186 mph. Fortunately, we stayed well below both.

From 3,000 feet, the Beaches are pretty easy to distinguish, the grid-like apartment and housing complexes in Mayport, the eclectic shapes, sizes and colors of houses in Jacksonville Beach and the smooth, manicured golf courses in Ponte Vedra Beach.

What was surprising were the shades and varieties of green spaces throughout the Beaches. There were dense clumps of trees near Mayport, the murky lime color of the marshes, the streaks of blue-green that snake along the waves of the Atlantic and the regulated sod of baseball diamonds and football fields. The distant skyscrapers of Jacksonville seemed a world away. …

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