August 31, 2013
It all began when I was sitting in the Cessnas2Oshoksh tent during EAA Airventure 2013. I had been working with the Cessnas2Oshkosh on their training videos and had flown my shared Cessna 182 alongside dozens of other Cessnas during the mass arrival. I had pitched a tent under the wing, endearingly known as the smallest tent at Oshkosh. I was browsing Facebook while waiting for my phone to charge in the little charging area that had been set up and powered by our sponsors. I scrolled down to see that Fantasy of Flight had a sweepstakes contest to fly with Kermit Weeks, and decided to apply. I had been to Fantasy of Flight 2 years before at Sun and Fun 2011, but never as an honored guest. Although I do consider myself to be an optimist, I knew that I never had any success winning contests. However, I did not let the slim odds persuade me as I was a recently instrument and commercially rated single engine pilot eager for opportunities in the fine new world of aviation.
A few weeks pass after Oshkosh, and out of the blue I received an email that I had won the Fantasy of Flight “Fly with Kermit Weeks” sweepstakes. I clearly remember the excited exclamations that filled the halls of the office when I received the email. It seemed that my luck was changing and a door had opened up for another amazing opportunity. I decided to go with the “I just won the lottery” response and immediately accepted the opportunity of a lifetime. According to the organizers, the first winner had not responded to their selection email, and I was selected next. The winner of the Explore, Express, Experience Sweepstakes was to fly with Kermit in his Fieseler Fi-156 Storch. I arranged the dates and times with the organizer and figured the most efficient way to get from Texas to Florida was by way of the Cessna 182.
Fantasy of Flight sports a grass runway that Kermit uses to fly his aircraft. It’s a private airstrip and Kermit personally invited me to land at the museum. The journey started in Houston, TX with my first stop in Bay Minette (also coined “Babe Minette”), Alabama. The airport has been known to have women in hooters outfits working at the FBO, and was a popular destination for military training flights and general aviation pilots alike. The fuel was also decently priced, and the FBO always had free gumbo and ice cream available to visiting pilots. As a typical August day, there was no way to avoid storms around the Gulf of Mexico. As I approached Northern Florida, I started to see the storms ahead. While I did have experience with cross country flights, I hadn’t flown around Florida and ended up a bit more off the coast than I would have liked. However, I managed to keep the airplane dry with the help of visual cues and NEXRAD, and continued into the night to Kissimmee. Normally there is a TFR above Disney, but on an instrument approach you fly right over it at 2000ft. I distinctly remember flying overhead and looking down past the wheel pants as fireworks lit up the air beneath my wheels over Disney. I landed safely in Kissimmee and went to a hotel for a good night’s sleep. After all, I was expected at Fantasy of Flight the next morning by Kermit and the crew.
The next morning, I was up early to make sure that the arrival into Orlampa (FA08), as Kermit has coined Fantasy of Flight, was uneventful. I executed a perfect soft field landing and taxied back over to the maintenance hangar where Kermit was waiting. He came over and shook my hand, and said that since I had traveled so far that he would “drop the ropes” and give me the experience of a lifetime. For many years I was bound to secrecy about the extra rides until recently.
The first airplane I flew with Kermit was a 1909 Curtiss Pusher Model D replica. It was one of my first experiences in an experimental aircraft, and it looked very old but in immaculate shape. He gave me a set of goggles and a cloth hat to put on since there was no cockpit at all. It was like flying a lawn chair with a whisky compass to guide the pilot. We flew just above the tree lines and landed within the length of the runway. The airspeed indicator looked like a 2ndgrade science project beaker that you would measure liquids in. The airplane didn’t like to turn well, so a few times Kermit had to jump out and turn it to get it re-aligned with the runway. It was one of the most exhilarating moments of my career, and it gave me a great appreciation for those early 20thcentury aviators.
After the Curtiss Pusher flight, he prepared the Storch for the main event. I hopped into the Storch and was immediately impressed by it’s short field performance. I attribute my interest in STOL to this moment as we were able to take off and land on the paved area in front of his hangar! After takeoff, we joined up for a quick formation with a Stearman flown by one of his pilots. The Stearman put their smoke on and then bowed out to continue the ride they were giving to another client. Kermit and I flew around the Fantasy of Flight property and lakes, and then Kermit demonstrated the plane’s incredibly short takeoffs and landings. I was grinning from ear to ear. I had started flying N148T, the Super Cub I would eventually buy and become my beloved Patches.
After flying in the Storch, Kermit gave us passes to the museum and the WingWalkAir ropes experience. As I walked through the exhibits, I was once again in awe at the level of detail and effort put into each exhibit. Kermit never let anything to anyone else- his hand was in everything and his passion would show through every little detail. Part of the tour included an audio tour for each of the exhibits. I distinctly remember seeing a little girl watching an early 1900s barnstormer for the first time and getting her first airplane rid. I imagined that this likely inspired her, and figured that I would have been a barnstormer if alive in that era.
After touring the museum, we had lunch at the cafe at the museum, and then walked out to the flightline for Kermit’s daily flight display. Kermit had pulled out his P-51D, “Cripes A’Mighty 3rd”, and it sitting there shining on the ramp in front of a packed audience. Kermit began to give the history behind the plane, and then unbeknownst to me looked over and “Sarah, do you want to fly in my P-51?” In complete disbelief, I apparently shrieked (according to witnesses) and ran out to the plane fast as I could, just in case he would change his mind had I merely sauntered over. I had always wanted to fly in a P-51, but at the time it was never in the budget. It was the experience of a lifetime. After all, I was flying with an aviation legend in an aviation legend!
The first thing I remember about the plane was how loud it was, and how that powerful engine shook that plane. As Kermit brought the power up, I couldn’t stop smiling. The plane accelerated as if it had been wound up tight eagerly waiting flight and the acceleration pinned me to the seat. As we eloped into the sky the trees got smaller and my smile even bigger. After a few low passes over the audience, we came back and landed. I was in a state of euphoria, and had to be gently reminded to get out of the airplane as I would have likely stayed there the night if not prompted! After the ride, I was invited to sit in the pilot’s seat for pictures. One of the museum staff saw me looking over the controls and contemplating my great escape and jokingly told me “don’t start it up”. Kermit and I posed for some pictures.
Shortly afterwards, I saw Kermit taxing an odd-looking amphibian airplane with an engine on the top that was painted like a leopard. It was a flying boat, a rare 1931 Sikorsky S- 39C, which was one of a few that are still flying. He motioned for me to jump in, and I climbed through the back of the airplane into it. I asked him why it was painted like a leopard, and he explained that these flying boats were originally intended for mission in Africa, and that they were painted to look familiar to the natives. Kermit added that while the concern was real, the natives actually didn’t have any problem accepting the aircraft but most Sikorsky S39s are still known for being painted like exotic animals.
Kermit demonstrated a takeoff in the Sikorsky and he then handed the controls over to me to let me fly. I had never been in a seaplane before, and it couldn’t have been a better introduction to something that I would eventually seek experience and obtain my license in. After our last landing, he lowered the landing gear while we were sailing on the lake and then drove the plane up his boat ramp and then back down. We took off and landed back at Fantasy of Flight, where he encouraged me to get my seaplane license.
Pretty soon it was closing time, but Kermit stayed and gave us a tour of his woodworking shop where he was building a Benoist XIV from scratch to re-create the world’s first airline flight from Tampa to St. Petersburg in 1914. He also gave us a tour of the Howard Hughes’s Sikorsky S-43 that he had been restoring, as well as wild stories of Howard Hughes.
After the Sikorsky tour, Kermit invited us to meet his family and told us about his future plans for Fantasy of Flight. He explained that his goal has always been to inspire people. He explained that the airplanes are a metaphor for reaching beyond what you think you can do. In a way, I felt like he wanted to change the world, and I respected him for it. He was going to encourage people to soar as high as their dreams can reach, one person at a time. His passion inspired me to begin the beginning of a long process in which I began thinking of my own life and its associated goals, dreams, and aspirations. I left Fantasy of Flight realizing that I had more potential than I ever knew, and in a way thinking differently that when I first landed on that grass runway. It began as an expectation to ride in an exciting plane, but became a journey of self-discovery and introspection. It was the first part of a journey that would eventually push me from my network engineering job to following my dream to become an airline pilot.
I have kept in touch with Kermit since, and he was incredibly excited when I told him the news about getting a job at a major airline. I would like to express my sincere gratitude for the kind and generous actions of Kermit Weeks and Fantasy of Flight. This is a memory and experience that set me on a path toward accomplishing those dreams, and have used the lessons I learned that day to continue to inspire others.