A pilot stands in front of a sleek wooden propeller and turns it by hand, as if the whole plane were going to fly by a tensioned rubber band. The engine turns over with a throaty roar as the propeller spins faster and faster.
Open cockpit bi-wing crop dusters are iconic, swooping over Valley freeways and fields. I've always wanted to fly in such a tiny, vulnerable craft, mere canvas stretched over wooden frame, one wing over the other, single engine spinning, cockpit open to the wind, the sound, the sun.
The pilot pushes the 1943 Stearman out of the hangar as sun cascades over bright yellow wings. He hands me a classic leather helmet and we taxi to voices of pilot and tower, lifting. Emotion swells in my throat with a long-awaited thrill.
Outside the protection of the windshield, my hand hits a hurricane-force, 100 mph slipstream that could rip my watch right off my wrist. I look down at the stick and to my feet, resting on the metal floor, safely away from the brakes. "Don't put your feet on those pedals," the pilot warned, "whatever you do, don't touch them." The implications are obvious.
I think about aviation pioneers like Beryl Markham, flying low over African savannah, crossing the Atlantic solo, without altimeter or gas gauge, out of fuel, crashing in the surf of Nova Scotia, the first person to cross the Atlantic east to west. And Amelia Earhart, with an alcoholic navigator because no other man had confidence in her. Amelia, as her Electra glided to the sea, hitting the tops of the waves, sinking.
We fly over rice fields. Banking hard, the wings dip and we head straight for shallow water. Down we go, low, very low, leveling off just feet above delicate green blades of new growth almost tickling the bottom of the plane. Pulling hard on the stick, the pilot banks for the sky. Again, down we go, diving, my senses intense. In the banked turn, gravity has no pull, no G-force, just steeply angled to 45 degrees, looking straight to Earth, graceful and eerily silent within my helmet.
Ahead, the Sacramento River flows in a straight line, splits into the Delta, a mass of channels. Fields, old Delta homes, boats, marinas and orchards pass slowly below, and Mount Diablo in the distance, hazy.
The bi-wing, a trip back in time, heads north, glides down to the tarmac and gently touches down without a even a squeak from the tires.