I have never been one for bucket lists. It seems as if my life has been made up of plenty of adventures here at home and around the world. If I were to make a list of travels it would include Egypt and the pyramids, China and the Great Wall and perhaps flying in a vintage bi-plane over the Pacific Ocean.
Pismo Beach, California remains a small beach town of the past on the Central Coast, where the 101 Freeway meets the Pacific Coast Highway south of San Luis Obispo. Twenty years ago, my husband and I bought a vacation home in Pismo Heights. The house, cantilevered over a cliff, giving us a great view of the canyons and the ocean, had been in foreclosure. It was a bit frightening when you looked down and realized none of the house was built on ground. This is where I had seen a yellow bi-plane for the first time as it circled the hills around our house, and sometimes did a flip and roll over the blue Pacific.
As time went on we sold the scary house on the cliff, buying and selling a few more fixer uppers, and moved closer to the beach. Pismo has a great, wide beach that is perfect for running, dog walking, parasailing, and … taking a bi-plane ride. It was a spontaneous decision to go for it on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Googling biplane rides, I found the Banner Airways website that read:
“THE PIER AND DUNES TOUR, a fun scenic flight over the blue Pacific Ocean. Fly north to view Pismo Beach’s diamond-shaped pier, which extends 1,100 feet out into the ocean. Watch surfers ride the waves near the pier. A nice, fun, scenic flight for all ages, young or old. Rides starting at $225 first person, if two fly together add $125. Let’s fly! 30 minutes with briefing and flight: minimum 15 minutes flight time.”
Another tour they offered was longer and more expensive, taking the passengers over the famous Oceano Dunes, where four-wheeling and car driving is still allowed. It was also the location for the filming of the movie "The Ten Commandments," directed by Cecil B. De Mille in 1923. Supposedly, De Mille just covered the entire set with sand after filming. It is believed that portions of the set still remain, buried under almost 100 years of cream-colored sand.
Since cost is always a factor, we chose the less expensive option and booked the flight. Banner Airways is run by J. R. Smith, a veteran pilot who seemed enthusiastic to take us for a ride. The plane is a 1943 yellow Boeing Super Stearman, which is the same one I had seen over 20 years ago. Boeing Stearmans were used during World War II as primary trainers for fighter and bomber pilots of all stages. Stearmans are fitted with R-985, 450 horsepower Pratt and Whitney Wasp engines. After the war they were typically used for air show performers who wing-walked; and aerobatics consisting of 5 maneuvers: lines (horizontal and vertical), loops, rolls, spins and hammerheads. Stearmans were also used extensively for farming as dusters and sprayers.
Before heading to the open cockpit, Scott and I were each fitted with a leather jacket, helmet, goggles and a life jacket. We were instructed that flights over the Pacific Ocean require a hands-on life jacket (Mae West) briefing. Communication between us had to do with hand gestures like thumbs up or down, or if we were in trouble, a waving hand. We were told what to do if the pilot had to make an emergency landing on the beach or in the middle of the ocean, and in which direction to swim. Our only question was: Had he ever had a crash landing? His "Are you kidding?" response made us feel a little better, but as we sat side by side (more like squashed side by side), unable to hear anything but the Pratt & Whitney engine, I wondered, whose idea was this?!
The little yellow plane took off and headed for the Pismo Pier, flying right over our house. The pilot was directly behind us, navigating and describing over the radio the area that we know and love so well. As we climbed higher over the ocean, he asked if we would like to do a loop and roll, and both of us gave a big thumbs down in unison. Not this time, not this bucket list.