Leisure

The Slickest Ride Ever

For views of our Valley's autumnal splendor, John Race's fancy machine offers the best front row seat.

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Thursday, October 06, 2011
Photo By Mark Roessler
John Race pilots his Waco biplane over the Quabbin

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John Race has the finest ride around. Perhaps the slickest I've ever seen.

Chances are, if you live somewhere in the Connecticut River valley, you may have seen it yourself while Race was taking a spin around your neighborhood, speeding past, engine roaring. Can't miss it: cherry red, open top, and fins. But what makes it most distinctive is the mighty single propeller and the twin set of wings.

I first spotted Race and his Waco UPF-7 biplane a year or so ago. I was standing in my back yard, and the familiar hum of a plane approaching from the Northampton Airport was somehow not so familiar: deep and powerful, but with more resonance than the modern small planes I've mostly seen and heard. More Pavarotti than Ethel Merman. Shielding my eyes from the sun, I spotted Race's plane high in the skies beyond my neighbor's yard, buzzing along on a clear spring day. To my delight, its powerful propeller was framed by two sets of red wings.

I've always had a thing for flying. All my life I've had flying dreams (instead of a propeller or wings, I kick my legs and steer with my arms, Superman style). Whenever I take a plane crosscountry or overseas, I always try to get a window seat. Crammed in my tiny seat with my cheek pressed against the glass, I don't get bored staring out at whatever goes by, be it an endless patchwork of farmlands or a never-ending blanket of cumulus. Being aloft can be as thrilling and as awe-inspiring as it gets for me.

Still, as magnificent as some of the views I've had from a 747 are, there's little sense of actually being in the air or on the wing when I'm traveling in a jumbo jet. If turbulence interrupts my heavily-edited in-flight movie, it feels like an intrusion. Some of my most desperately bored eternities have been spent rubbing elbows with strangers in a pressurized tin can a mile high. My only view is the back of the next person's headrest, and the windows are several laptops and $6 beers away, usually closed to prevent glare on the screens.

At these moments, I close my eyes and dream of flying in the open cockpit of a biplane.

Jet engines and supersonic speeds don't interest me much. While technology has made great progress in many areas, as I see it, air transportation is not one of them. Instead of making flight more accessible and enjoyable, demands for speed and security have made most flying a far from welcoming experience.

Give me an aviator's cap and goggles over a cockpit or passenger cabin any day. Biplanes have always seemed to me the most graceful of the winged, motorized aircraft—dolphins of the sky, truly enjoying and experiencing the jet streams within which they swim.

Spotting John Race flying around the Valley rekindled my interest in the world far above my head. Instead of just watching the tree lines for blue herons, I started looking a little higher. Fairly regularly I started spotting the red biplane passing far above the maple trees in my own yard. Like the herons, I deduced the plane's nest must be somewhere nearby. An email and phone call later, I found that Race flew out of Northampton Airport.

His main gig is flying corporate jets all over the world, but whenever he can, he likes to share with customers the thrills of unadulterated flight—nothing but air between you and the ground below. He said he'd be happy to give me a ride.

This is the first of a series of stories on Valley flight fanciers who spend their time thinking about and enjoying our Valley from a heightened perspective—people whose head space is most often in our airspace, not from a seat with a snack tray hovering over your lap, but physically out in the big blue.

*

"My earliest memories are of sitting in my dad's lap, flying," Race said as we stood on the tarmac, admiring his bright red biplane. "He was a pilot—first for the Air Force in World War II and then professionally. Flying is what we talked about around the dinner table."

Race didn't just like to fly. He'd been taught to think in an added dimension, and unlike most of us who are regularly bound to gravity's pull, he saw himself and his world from aloft. Racing through the sky is where he felt he belonged.

He got his license as a teen, and around that time in the early 1960s, his father bought the Waco.

As soon as I met Race—before much else was said—he emphasized both that the pronunciation of his plane's manufacturer rhymed with "taco" and that the company had been based in Troy, Ohio, not in Texas.

During the 1930s, when his plane was built, the Waco company was the largest manufacturer of aircraft in America. This changed in 1940 with the onset of war and the need for faster, stronger fighter craft. Before the tables turned, though, Franklin D. Roosevelt began the Civilian Pilot Training Program, anticipating a need to train a new generation of pilots quickly. Though biplanes most famously flew in combat during the first World War, many of the fighter pilots of the second were trained in the Waco UPF-7 single engine biplane.

The plane is ideal for training as it has two open cockpits, one in front of the other. The student gets to sit in front while the teacher steers from behind. Both cockpits have rudder pedals and a flight stick. As the plane is flown by the flight instructor, the student sitting in the front can watch the controls move on their own, giving a sense of the subtlety involved with maneuvering the slipstreams. When he is ready, the student can take control himself.

What makes the planes perfect for training also makes them fun for joy rides. Chances are, as a sightseeing passenger, you won't spend a whole lot of time looking at what's going on inside the cockpit.

I spent most of my time in the front seat, leaning over the side, beyond the protection of my tiny windscreen. The fierce wind whistled in my teeth, my eyes in their sockets wobbled like Jello in a bowl, and my cheeks flapped like a running basset hound's ears. I was agog with all there was to see, and it was hard to know where to look.

After we'd talked a short while, Race suggested I climb aboard.

While the fuselage has a metal skeleton, the wings and body of the plane itself are made from wooden ribs and a fabric skin, which keeps the plane as light as possible. Getting into the front cockpit, which is directly under the wing, required walking along a narrow, foot-safe strip on the wing and then some acrobatics as I slid into place.

Once in my seat, though, the space was ample—large enough, in fact, for two people (who weigh less than 340 pounds combined). All I had keeping me in place was a seat belt across my lap, and I was able to see in every direction, even to lean out far enough to see what was directly beneath our big rubber wheels.

"When we're up there, I usually take things easy with customers," Race said as I seated myself. He seemed to be testing my mettle. "Don't want to scare anyone, so I keep the flight as gentle as possible."

I smiled and shrugged. "Do your worst."

After priming his engine by manually rotating his polished aluminum propeller a few times, Race hopped in behind me and started the engine. On the ground, we could shout over its mighty din; once in the air, we needed to communicate through the microphone and headset attached to our aviator caps. But at 1,500 feet with the autumnal Valley all before you, there's not a lot of cause for chitchat.

On the ground, the fuselage tips backwards at a fairly steep angle, so though I realized I had the best seat in town that Wednesday morning, initially I was staring at a gray sky and we were sitting on a sea of pavement. We taxied through the airport toward the runway. As we waited for clearance, Race pointed to an open hangar.

"See the refrigerator, microwave, table and chairs?" he said. "That's the scene around here a lot of the time." As much as the owners are working on their planes, they're also hanging out with the planes and with their fellow flight enthusiasts.

I knew we'd taken to the air the moment we leveled out and the Holyoke range tipped up into view.

What single engine biplanes give up in terms of speed, compared to more modern monoplanes with multiple engines, they make up for in lift and maneuverability. Though the engine's hum did increase to a deafening roar, we weren't going that fast, and it all seemed pretty effortless. I quickly relaxed and soaked in my privileged perspective.

*

We flew east, low across the Connecticut River and along the mountain range, slowly climbing as we passed over the Hartsbrook School and Hampshire College. The new traffic circle near Atkins Farms Country Market in Amherst was under construction, as was its ever-expanding grocery market. We turned there, the Moan & Dove brew house below us.

As we circled over Amherst College, downtown Amherst and UMass-Amherst in a wide, lazy arc, the three entities blended together with greater harmony than at ground level. Their green spaces and buildings are all organized in rigid, colonial right angles. Even the university looked as if it were the product of thought and careful urban planning.

To the north, I spotted the white dome of the Peace Pagoda in Leverett nestled majestically in the folds of the mountains. Though it was gray out and there was still a haze in the air, it gleamed. I pointed, but Race suggested we take a jaunt out over the Quabbin first. How could I argue?

Climbing to about 2,000 feet, we crossed over the thick forests of Pelham and Shutesbury, all on the brink of bursting into their autumnal splendor. Near New Salem, Race tipped the wings toward the ground. As we banked, I had a clear view down the long, twisting body of reservoir water. It glinted in the first direct sunlight of the day. Below me, the sandy banks and tiny archipelago choked with overgrowth looked like the details from a map in a Robert Louis Stevenson adventure come to life.

He told me to look for roads to the towns that had been submerged when the reservoir was built, and I thought I spotted one or two going nowhere across these small islands.

We soared away from the water and back west down toward the Peace Pagoda, Mount Toby and beyond. After passing over Leverett Pond, Race began circling the monument. Flying high and far away enough not to be badgering the Buddhists, Race banked his plane more tightly and quickly over the Pagoda than he had around Amherst.

After wheeling eagle-like over the mountains, we came down into the Valley again over Deerfield. We flew in a wide arc over the farmlands ravaged by Hurricane Irene near where the Deerfield River met with the Connecticut. While elsewhere in the Valley the patches of growing crops were vibrant shades of green, these fields were a faded khaki. Vast swaths of grey dust with tiny work vehicles were lost in their emptiness.

On our way back toward Northampton, Race approached Mount Sugarloaf from behind, then flew across its southern face into Sunderland and Mike's Maze. This year the maze artist Will Sillin made the plantings in his neighbor's cornfield look like Noah Webster from the air, seated in a frame of letters. We climbed and circled until we could make out his likeness.

Passing over Whately and Hatfield, we followed the crazy twists the river takes heading toward Mount Tom. Before I knew it, we were entering the Paradise City's airspace.

Unlike the other town centers our shadow crossed over that morning, from the air Northampton's twisted, medieval-like street plan is less distinct. Downtown is blurred among the neighborhoods, industrial parks and new development all around it. It took me a while to get oriented, even if we were in my home town.

The first landmarks I identified were Smith's quadrangle, the boat pond and then, on the hill that crowns the small city, the newly minted headquarters of Kollmorgen Electro Optical. The plantings in the parking lot, which was designed to be ecologically friendly, still haven't filled in the space, but the large flat roof is covered in energy-conserving solar panels.

North from the facility, the yet far from realized village on the hill remains as unfinished as the final term of the city's recently departed mayor. There are a few rows of new homes—low-income and high-income varieties—but things seemed to have stalled since the real estate bubble burst. Where trees and historic buildings once stood, now paved avenues stand as empty cul-de-sacs without any driveways attached.

Nearby, more hopefully, the city's community gardens thrive with democratic order and the harvest's bloom.

I was lost trying to capture this strange juxtaposition of urban planning approaches when I noticed the houses of my immediate neighborhood flash below our wing. I located my house, pointed and shouted, and again Race circled his plane for me.

After a wide, lazy loop over the Oxbow, we passed Northampton's other recent development: three new red and white barns in the center of the Tri-County Fairgrounds. Large, bright and bold, they dwarf the older structures around them and seem a little imposing, if not downright daunting. What ambitious project might be undertaken to match their scale?

But then we crossed the highway, turned tightly, came in low over the Calvin Bridge, and landed. We'd been in the air for much longer than Race's customary rides, and the grin he returned as we came to a halt let me know he'd been enjoying himself as much as I had been.

"Every time I fly in the Valley, I see something new," he said.

*

Though Race's dad flew for a living, he missed the sensation of flying in an open cockpit.

The Waco was flown for pleasure and treated as something of a family member, always kept in good health, but not babied. It went on more than a few multi-state-spanning jaunts. When John took over ownership (his dad's still around, but at 90 doesn't fly any more), as a licensed airplane mechanic, he was also able to take over its care and maintenance.

It shows. The plane looks brand new. He said the 220 horsepower Continental engine had been completely rebuilt in the past few years.

"You might think it's hard to find parts," Race said, "but it's actually gotten easier."

In addition to the large number of Wacos built for the government to train pilots around 1940, a new company—Waco Classic Air Craft Corporation, based in Battle Creek, Mich.—has started building open cockpit planes based on a couple of the original designs, but with updated flight technology. They're pretty damn handsome, but I much prefer Race's old-school analog controls.

Race offers two basic rides. For $90 ($45 per person), he takes passengers for a 10- or 15-minute spin over the Valley immediately around the airport. For $180 ($90 per person), he does a wider, more scenic loop that takes in Northampton, Amherst and Mount Holyoke in about 20 minutes.

"A lot of times people come with friends or family who say they just want to watch," Race said. "But when they see the look on the face of their pal who's just been up, everyone wants a turn."

The best way to schedule a flight is to email him (johnraceaviation@gmail.com). Since he spends a good deal of his time flying jets for corporate clients, he could well be in Paris when he gets your email, but he'll be thinking of returning home soon to Northampton Airport.

The plane's previous home had been in Pennsylvania, but Race wanted its hangar to be located at Northampton's airport because, he says, the size and style is appropriate to the golden age of aviation his plane came from.

"There's not a lot of these small, local airports open any more," he said, "and they seem to be closing all the time. Or, since 9/11, they get surrounded by chain link fences and you can't get anywhere near the planes or the air strips."

The Waco shares a hangar with Race's other plane, one that can land on large bodies of water such as the Connecticut River. When he's not continent-hopping for a paycheck, Race is likely to be in the hangar, too, trading stories with his pilot neighbors. If you catch him there and voice an interest, there's a good chance he'd be happy to leave off whatever he's doing to share the skies with you.

 

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