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An Upside-Down World

It’s anybody’s guess how these things get started. Maybe you could blame it on the sun. The sun sets in the west, which puts it right in your face when you’re flying during the late afternoon or evening hours at Warren Kruse Field. Generally we like a bright sun and blue skies. But when they’re staring you in the face, it requires a different sort of flying. And that’s where the story starts.

Inverted SE5a

The sun was approaching the horizon on the evening of Tuesday, May 6th. Although it was a designated student night, there was only one student, who was being well taken care of by instructor Bill Malinowski. This left a cadre of hot-shot instructor pilots standing around the field with nothing better to do than fly. Of course, with the sun just a couple of feet (visually speaking) above the horizon, there are only a couple of ways to fly the pattern: above the sun and below the sun. Be-low the sun is preferable as the bright light is blocked by the brim of your cap. To most pilots, flying under the sun within a wingspan or so of the ground is pretty exciting, especially at full throttle. But to the unique breed of instructor pilots present that evening, some distinguished and others just distinct, a recurring close call with the ground just isn’t enough.

Inverted Corsair

As these things go, it’s often unclear who starts it, but credit for this evening probably goes to Russ Breuninger who, flying Pat (Binky) Monacelli’s Corsair, decided to cross the field inverted. One has to understand the atmosphere that prevails with a group of hotshot pilots watching the flight line. Anyone who has bounced a trainer in these circumstances, especially if that person is a qualified pilot or an instructor, knows that the commentary is not just an assault to one’s ego, but to one’s very manhood. And anyone making an inverted pass in these circumstances knows that one such pass will call for another lower one—and another.

Inverted Tiger 60

It would probably be an overstatement to suggest that Keith Zimmerly is an instigator. But when things happen at Warren Kruse Field, he is usually somewhere around. Keith is known as a good and careful pilot, one who never takes undue risks with his airplanes. But he also builds them to fly: Scale biplanes are intended for scale flight and simple aerobats are intended for fun. Inverted flight is probably a WWI scale maneuver, even at low levels. But, although it was inspiring to see his SE-5a making relatively low inverted passes, Keith was obviously not going to risk a good scale model to what, in more youthful days, might have been considered a urinating contest. But when he fired up his Tiger 60, an aging beater of an airplane, it was a different game.

Inverted Tiger Crash

The invariably winning stunt in an inverted-flight contest is to safely land your plane after obtaining grass stains on its rudder. This trick requires not only the right airplane, but the right speed and the proper attitude (pitch attitude, that is). It’s important to touch the rudder with a nose up (or down, relative to the airplane) attitude so that the tail touches and the propeller does not. There is no room for error as the airplane approaches its shadow on the field.

Inverted Corsair

All eyes were on the yellow Tiger as it made pass after pass, nearly tickling the grass with it’s rudder as the model came closer and closer to its shadow. But remember that, in a contest such as this, attitude can be everything. As it happened, the pass that might have attained the grass stains on the rudder got them on the propeller instead. A little grass trimming with the propeller is hair raising, but plowing the earth is usually flight ending. And that’s how Keith’s final pass ended: A cloud of dust, a final leap through the sky with the engine dangling from it’s broken nose, and the Tiger crumpling into a pile of balsa and covering on the ground.

Sometimes a crash will end a contest, but Pat Monacelli was not one to accept defeat (especially someone else’s) on the ground. No sooner had Keith picked up the pieces than Pat’s Corsair was back in the air, trying for grass on the tail. Alas, he never did succeed. But he did take his model home in one piece.