Grand Canyon River Rafting in a Czech L39 Jet, December 15, 2007
by Bill Whiffen

More photos and some video clips will be up shortly

Click to enlargeDecember 15th was the beginning of my 51st year on this giant ball of fun we call Earth, and since I had done nothing special in several decades I decided to celebrate is a very unique way. Being a little over 20 miles from Area 51, my age at 51, the Flyboys in Red Flag and Air Warrior have to fly around Area 51, a pattern was apparent. I decided it was time for me to learn how to fly a jet.

On a flight home from the east coast I was thumbing through a magazine and saw an ad from Incredible Adventures. These are the same folks that send civilians into space. I checked out their website and discovered you can fly a Czech L39 over the ocean out of L.A. or even out of Vegas (costs a lot more..let's just say I will have to live in my travel trailer with my two dogs a year longer than I had planned), and so there was no choice as to where I was going to fly.

I was told there would be no problems in flying out to Rachel, that I would be able to do all kinds of maneuvers, fly canyons, and buzz Coyote Summit, so I sent all the coordinates (courtesy of Dreamlandresort and Joerg) along with the waivers and a check.

The day of the flight I was very disappointed to find out the pilot knew nothing about flying to Rachel and informed me that even if we took on an extra $200.00 in fuel we would probably end up landing in the desert on the way back. Not wanting to add a survival course to my education, I eagerly suited up for the ride of my life.

My pilot was the world famous Skip Holm. A Viet Nam combat vet with over 100 missions, shot down twice, and long time veteran Air Show exhibition pilot. How lucky was I?

I'm sure most of you know more about the L39 than I ever will, but it's a single engine two seater that goes about 650 mph at sea level. I do, however, know where the student override lever is, used by the instructor in actual training when the ground gets really really close.

I strapped a rocket with wings to my butt and moved the stick around a bit while Skip loaded the two DVD cameras (one aimed at me and the other forward) and climbed in the front seat. My friend Donna took some photos before we took off (gotta teach her about the zoom feature of the camera). Skip fired up the engine and my adrenalin was really pumping. We taxied down the runway, my hands on the stick and throttle riding along as instructed. We got clearance, and it was seconds before we rotated and the nose wheel came off the deck.

Click to enlargeNow, I knew he was going to do it, but it still caught my body off guard. As soon as we were airborne, wheels up and BAM! Popped into a straight up climb to altitude! Leveled out at about 5000 ft. and proceeded toward the Colorado River area. Fantastic! Skimming over mountain tops so close I could see lizards running for cover. Then down into the cracks and crevices, twisting and turning, body 3 times heavier than usual and in the blink of an eye less than twice as light (pos. and neg. G forces). No matter how many movies you watch of jets flying, you can't imagine the stress your body goes through going from + to - G's and back again in such a short period of time. I now know why flights are limited to just a couple a day. Really takes a lot out of you.

Skip showed me some firing solutions on various hills. As we flew almost directly over the first hill he said "See that hill down there? Here's how we would attack it" and in less than three seconds he rolled the plane and pulled the stick and it was smack dab in the middle of the windscreen in perfect position! Then he showed me some jinking techniques, and that got to me. I was doing all right with the pos. and neg. G's, but the jinking got me queasy. As a long time diver, I attribute it to some inner ear damage from the past. At that point I'm sad to say we had to tone things down, which was very humbling for me. We still did some great rockin' and rollin', but on a scale of 1-10 on what Skip could actually do and what we did, I bet we didn't go over a 4 or 5.

I got to fly the plane three times. The first time I did some hard banking on both wings and got a little over the top, but I don't mind saying I didn't have the stones to roll her over (my only regret of the flight). I was surprised at how sluggish it seemed in my hands and how responsive it was in Skips.

We buzzed down the river a few times to get some good video. Flew over a couple of fishermen that will have a great story to tell- "really, we were fishing on the Colorado River when a Soviet jet flew 100 ft. right over us"! Nobody believes fishing stories anyway……

After scraping some more mountain tops a little flatter, he gave me the aircraft for the third time. After about 10 minutes I asked him if he was on the stick and he threw his hands in the air and said "not for a while now". I said I was amazed. I had been trying to fly straight and level by using the artificial horizon, and wasn't doing too bad. He said I was doing so well that I could fly it all the way back to the airport and LAND IT!

Now I was truly scared. There is a very fine line between landing and crashing, and I did not want to find out where that line was.

All I could see directly in front of me was a black box (not the black box) and the back of Skip's helmet. "Aim for that pointy mountain" he said, which I did. When we were seconds from becoming a grease spot he took the airplane and took us through a saddle (a hole as he called it) and gave me back the airplane. I lined up on the center runway as instructed, felt some slight corrections from him from time to time, and followed his verbal commands all the way to the ground, whereupon I immediately said "You have the aircraft". He was laughing so hard I thought I would have to taxi in all by myself.

He said I did great and that he would sign me off for 30 minutes of flight time if I had a logbook. After some handshakes and pictures, and with shakey legs and stomach, Donna and I headed into Vegas in search of a Scotch (okay, a couple of them) and a bite to eat.

It was an experience I will remember for the rest of my life. Every time an Eagle, Falcon, Warthog or Raptor flies I will have a better understanding of what's going on and more appreciation for the job pilots around the world are doing to keep people everywhere free.


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