The fighters line up side by side on the runway. From the Sabre, Righetti nods then disappears ahead to our right. Snodgrass holds the brakes, adds full power, then smoothly accelerates. As soon as we lift off, he turns to cut inside the Sabre for a formation rejoin. Every movement of the stick is as smooth as I had expected.
In the back seat I watch our speed climb toward 230 knots. Then: the surprise.
When Snodgrass closed his canopy before the flight, we could not tell that it had jumped off its right front hinge. The front canopy can be unhinged and lifted off from the right side for maintenance and locks shut on the left. Before we taxied, it was sealed and locked tight, a perfect looking fit. As we neared 230 knots, the right side of the canopy began to lift. I did not know this, but felt a giant hand slap us as the airflow pried the front canopy off and flicked it end over end past my cockpit. Somewhere in the Everglades three fishermen are on a cell phone reporting a somersaulting canopy.
I’m hanging onto my helmet, my sunglasses, and the flapping pages of my notebook. Righetti is on our right wing in his F-86 checking our wings, fuselage, and tail for nicks. By the tone of Snodgrass’ voice, I gather he is talking to me, but I can’t hear his words. “I’m okay,” I say, but actually I feel like a scrawny-necked goose in a hound dog’s jaws.
Snodgrass methodically experiments with different speeds, different configurations. From the back seat I can feel the air nibbling at the wing when he slows to 170 knots. It feels skittish and slow, so he speeds back up to 180 knots.
The pressure of the wind roaring into the cave of the back cockpit is like dirt being packed into a hole. I can suck in air, but my neck is in a vise grip. I stay calm by focusing my mind on one continuous picture, which becomes real soon enough: a perfect touchdown, a smooth rollout, and a taxi in to waiting friends.