For truly great pilots the plane is simply an accoutrement, and the human body is an inconvenience. You fly your brain. Your brain flies the plane. This was the place I wanted to go when I took up aerobatics: a field where the line between the physical and the mental was dissolved by pure speed or crushed by many times the force of gravity. A place of pure faith.
Imagine walking through a minefield. Imagine enjoying it. "The problem with aerobatics is that it is very emotionally stressful," Sergei Boriak explains to me in his clipped Russian accent one night over a beer. Boriak is a former Soviet aerobatics champion. He still looks like the paratrooper he once was, his small body thickly muscled, his thinning hair slicked back over his head. He moves with a ballerina's precision, a robotlike efficiency that first drew the Soviet talent spotters to him decades ago. We are sitting on a veranda overlooking a lake in west Texas, where Sergei has spent his day refining the technique of two of the best U.S. pilots: Kirby Chambliss, the 2002 U.S. national champion, and David Martin, the 2001 winner. Boriak makes his living coaching Western pilots, sharing the fruits of decades of Soviet research into how you can make men do impossible, painful, perfect things in airplanes.
"To guide planes through the air you have to worry," Boriak continues, sucking on his beer. "Physically, you are stressed because it is not one G up there. It is like someone compressing your body for 18 minutes." Few pilots can practice effectively for longer than 20 minutes. Their bodies begin to give up. Their hands shake, they lose their eyesight, G-driven headaches push on their temples. Boriak is silent for a minute. "You should be uneasy," he says.
Boriak has a test for me. On a spring morning early in our relationship, he takes me out to the cockpit of his red-on-white SU-29, an unforgiving two-seat Soviet aerobatics plane. We are going flying together fore the first time, and Boriak wants to know, Will I get sick? Will I be afraid? As I snap on my borrowed parachute and lash myself into the front cockpit, I wonder too. I have asked Boriak to be my coach, and I have to show that I belong in his world. Flying with Boriak is the ultimate macho trial. It is a test to see what you are made of. You will feel nausea and terror...or something else. Fail or pass.
Boriak triggers the small air compressor that fires like a gun to start the Sukhoi's engine. Boom! The cockpit rattles as the radial engine kicks into uneven life, a few cylinders missing. "What do you want to do?" I ask him over the intercom.
"You fly!" he shouts back. "Your plane. We do what you want." I feel a bit of relief. Perhaps this won't be what I expected. I glance at my watch as we take off: 10:45. If I am lucky, this will all be over by 11. It is a terrible attitude.
I level off at 3,000 feet and begin easing the plane back into a gentle stall. I want to get a sense of how she flies, and one of the best ways to do this is to slow down to the point where the wing doesn't have enough air moving around it to keep flying. The plane will waddle and grunt into the stall, the engine backfiring, but in her gentle fury I'll have a sense of how she likes to move. So I pull the power back and nestle the stick up against my belly, bringing the nose up. As the speed bleeds off, we settle down into a stall. The right wing starts to fall away. I quickly pick it back up with the opposite rudder. I calmly pop the nose down to pick up airspeed and stop the stall. We are flying again. The whole experience is benign, almost no G's pulled.
"Goot," Boriak says. "Let me have plane for moment." From the backseat he sounds different now. Happy, childish almost. "You must have plane trimmed just right to fly." The airplane's trim is a small control that only Boriak can reach, a kind of power steering that helps keep the stick pressures from getting out of hand. Suddenly the sky is torn away from me. Boriak slams the stick forward, and in an instant we are screaming earthward on a pure vertical line, accelerating from a gentle cruising speed to nearly 250 mph. We are losing more than 5,000 feet a minute. Now 7,000. Then so fast that the meter runs out of room. I can make out leaves on the trees below. At 300 feet Boriak slams the stick back, pulling us to level flight with a tug that puts six times the force of gravity on our bodies and throws us into our seats with a thud. I relax for a moment. Mistake. Wham! Boriak is back on the stick hard, cranking us up into the sky at about seven G's. From the ground, aerobatics on the very edge looks graceful. This is the real story: an explosion of violence, the stick slammed from side to side as the airplane screams.
Boriak points the nose straight up with a tiny push, just enough to make the plane hold zero G for a second. I float in the cockpit, a little loose in my harness, as he slams the stick to the right, and we begin twisting up through the sky. The airspeed is slowly dissipating, and as the plane teeters on the edge of a stall, Boriak taps us into a dive and we are screaming earthward again. Twenty-one thousand feet per minute. Straight down.
The earth spools up and down, sometimes above us, sometimes below. After a few of these hard pull maneuvers, I begin to gray out as the blood rushes from my head, and at certain moments I can see little more than a dim tunnel of light ahead of me. With my visibility outside reduced, I begin to look inside. I find that I don't feel the least bit sick. And I find that as the ground races up at us, as Boriak whips the Sukhoi around the sky with forces that would pull an ordinary airplane apart, I feel no fear.