I almost died today. Or so I was told by former Space Shuttle Commander “Hoot” Gibson after it was all over. Somehow looking through a view finder on a camera makes everything less real. But let me back up — I’m getting ahead of myself.
You see, I’ve been here at the Reno Air Races filming the national championship races. In case you’re not familiar with the Reno Air Races — it’s fantastic. Air racing is the fastest, most dangerous motor racing sport in the world.
Imagine flying an airplane, souped up to go 500 miles per hour and racing it around pylons on a race course with up to 10 other airplanes doing the same thing. “Fly low. Fly fast. Turn left” as the saying goes.
The National Championship Air Races are divided into several classes depending on the aircraft type. Biplane, Formula One, Sport, T-6, Jet and Unlimited classes all compete in a week of eliminations resulting in the final championships on Sunday afternoon.
It’s really the most thrilling sport in the world. Of course, I’m biased – I absolutely love airplanes. I’m here with a skeleton crew documenting the races, interviewing the pilots, telling their stories and generally celebrating the love of flying…..really, really fast.
Today I got to go on a ride along in an L-39 Albatros jet pace plane to film the jet races.
Before you go up, you get loads of instructions on how to evacuate the jet in case of emergency. Basically, you learn how to open the canopy of the cockpit in case you need to escape. Although I’d really like to learn to sky dive, but I didn’t want to do it today — especially not because I had to eject from a jet.
It was super exciting to be in the back seat of the L-39 Albatros jet filming the race. First all the jets line up on the runway to begin the race. (I guess I better clarify here that the race starting line is in the air, not on the ground.) So we lined up on the tarmac and then we took off one by one. My jet was first since we were the pace plane. We peeled off from the line up and started down the runway. The jet was gaining speed and we just started to rotate (lift off the ground) when the pilot’s canopy broke loose, hit him in the helmet and flew off the airplane!
We were about to run out of tarmac and a very steep drop off was approaching quickly.
It’s funny how time slows down in an emergency situation. My camera dropped for only a few seconds while I accessed the situation. The pilot was okay. We still had runway — and by that time we were committed to landing. We weren’t egressing, yet…. So, I thought I might as well film it.
And that’s how I got close up interior footage of an L-39 jet canopy flying off a cockpit midstream –
After the pilot got the jet safely stopped, we were immediately surrounded by Airport Emergency crews wearing what looked like tin foil suits. I realize it’s the hazmat fireproof suits to fight extra hot burning aviation fuel fires. The gravity of the situation barely started to sink in. Our jet was not on fire. We didn’t crash. We stopped with just short of the end of the tarmac. We were both fine.
Later, I was talking with Hoot Gibson, former space shuttle commander and one of the jet pilots in that race. He came up to me and gave me a big hug and told me how close we came to a complete disaster — such as: the pilot being knocked out, the jet crashing off the end of the runway, etc. In truth, we were lucky. We were lucky we weren’t in the air. We were lucky the canopy didn’t hit the pilot any harder than it did. I was lucky that the pilot was an incredibly skilled pilot. Did I say, the pilot was incredibly skilled? I can’t emphasize that enough. His quick reactions saved us from disaster.
It turns out that several canopies of L-39 jets have flown off in mid-air. It’s not uncommon. It’s a defect of the design. With my footage they were able to reverse engineer what happened when the canopy flew off, fix the problem and hopefully mitigate further canopy malfunctions in other L-39’s.
As for me, I’m still waiting for my L-39 Jet ride.
Check out the slo-mo of the canopy coming off….