Health & Fitness

Rebooting life by taking to the skies

'Trike' pilot bases his quest on air pioneer's 1911 coast-to-coast flight

David Grabowski plans to fly a modified engine-powered hang glider from the Pacific coast of the United States to the Atlantic, a trip first accomplished in the ancient days of powered flight. That perilous but successful journey was made in 1911
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David Grabowski plans to fly a modified engine-powered hang glider from the Pacific coast of the United States to the Atlantic, a trip first accomplished in the ancient days of powered flight. That perilous but successful journey was made in 1911

David Grabowski stopped in a sunlit metal hangar at the Lodi Airport, tilting his head in dismay and examining his partially dismantled aircraft as planes whooshed off the runway outside.

His trike – a modified, engine-powered hang glider that he maneuvers using a bar attached to the wing – lost a strut during a recent practice flight, just days before his planned ascent into the sky and across the country.

The malfunction was one of dozens of hurdles the Land Park resident encountered while preparing to retrace the 4,000-mile journey of pilot Calbraith Perry Rodgers, who in 1911 became the first American to fly an aircraft coast to coast. On Friday, Sept. 16, with repairs complete and a film crew in tow, Grabowski plans to launch from the runway and into the air, marking the start of a 40-day adventure that he hopes will pay homage to the historic aviator by way of the big screen.

“He’s sort of my patron saint, if you will,” said Grabowski, 27. “I’m basically reliving his flight 105 years later.”

Three years ago Grabowski had never been on a plane that didn’t require a boarding pass, he said. The Carnegie Mellon graduate was slumped at a desk job in New York, struggling to find work as a composer and desperately searching for a sense of purpose. One day, while aimlessly browsing the Web, he came across mesmerizing video footage of trikes soaring through the air, and envisioned himself in the pilot’s seat.

Within weeks he had latched onto Cal Rodgers’ story and started making plans for a documentary.

“I just started formulating the idea of having a real adventure and I thought this is probably the craziest thing I could possibly do right now.”

Grabowski grabbed Stephen Tonti, a fellow Carnegie Mellon graduate who is directing the film and flying in the aircraft’s back seat, and drove to Sacramento because it was one of the few places where he could find a trike flight school, he said.

The trike, often called an “ultralight” or a “weight shift trike,” is a two-seat, motorized contraption that was developed over the 1960s and 1970s. The wing twist maneuver used to control the craft is similar to what the Wright brothers used in the early 20th century.

While trikes are getting more popular, they’re still expensive and something of a fringe pursuit, said Douglas Donaldson, Grabowski’s instructor and the founder of the Golden State Trikes flight school.

Getting a sport pilot license required to fly a trike technically requires 20 hours of instruction, but Donaldson said it takes longer to teach students landing skills and air regulations and help feel prepared in case of emergencies.

“They’re going to learn the control – how to keep it from veering – before they go off solo,” Donaldson said. “It can be pretty overwhelming, flying at first. If something odd or unexpected happens, you want them not to lock up, because you can’t really just pull over to the shoulder.”

On one of Grabowski’s test flights with his instructor, the engine failed and the trike plummeted 1,000 feet to the ground. The plane landed safely; Grabowski came out unscathed but shaken, and repairs put the film on hold.

Grabowski raised money for the film on crowdfunding site Indiegogo and scored a sponsorship from North Wing trike company in Washington, where he headed to help out with the trike’s assembly. Tonti captured footage while the pair worked and slept in the hangar for two months.

They drove the completed trike to its home in Lodi, and Grabowski continued to learn to fly. He got a supervisor job at Insight Coffee Roasters and earned his sport pilot license in March.

Once in the air, Grabowski plans to cover about 150 nautical miles a day (going 50 miles an hour at 1,500 feet), flying about three hours each morning and then spending the afternoon with the film crew. They’ll visit cities and towns in 12 states in the hopes of capturing what he calls a “pastiche of America.”

“We’re flying over the whole country, and really unique parts of it,” he said. “From small towns that people usually just drive by to major cities, we’re kind of canvassing America for opinions about where this country is going and some larger topics like that.”

Grabowski and Tonti have spent about $40,000 on the project, and anticipate a total budget of $96,000 including post-production.

A difficult journey so far, it won’t be smooth sailing from here, the young pilot said. Cal Rodgers crashed more than a dozen times on his adventure in 1911.

With Rodgers’ legacy in mind, Grabowski will strap on his helmet, say goodbye to his pregnant girlfriend and turn on the motor. “It’s been a whirlwind, but the thing that kept me in the driver’s seat was actually Cal’s story,” he said. “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, hands down, no questions asked.”

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola