Le Petit Cirque

I just finished reading a book called “Le Grand Cirque” (the Big Circus).
It was written by Pierre Clostermann, a young Frenchman who enlisted in the RAF at the beginning of World War Two and scored 33 “kill” between 1942 and 1945.
In his book, he describes the fears and exhilaration of a fighter pilot engaged in almost daily dogfights with the enemy.

So, it is all pumped up that on November 4, I boarded (parachute, oxygen mask, regulation Smith & Wesson, Escape Envelope*) a 4 seat, single engine Piper PA-28-161.

Our pilot is Volodia, a family friend and a cool, skinny young chap in his mid-thirties.
The plane also carries his 7-year-old son (who, through regular flights with daddy, knows more about flying than most of us) plus Tamara and myself.

The Gnoss Novato field doesn’t have a control tower and I am surprised to see airplanes landing and taking off without seemingly any kind of supervision.

We strap ourselves to our seats.
Our pilot hands us a set of headphones so that we can all communicate with each other, and most importantly with some guys on the ground who are keeping track of our position in the big blue yonder.

Cockpit drill. BTFCPPUR (Brakes, Trim, Flaps, Contacts, Pressure, Petrol, Undercarriage, Radiator) and after a very short dash on the runway we are airborne.

“Hello Filmstar, Yellow and Blue climb and attack fighters above. Pink, Black and White engage Huns below. Filmstar Red diving for strafe… Go!”

Actually, we are flying at about 80 mph and climbing unhurriedly. It seems that we are moving slower than in a car.
The day is beautiful, with lots of sunshine, and very soon it becomes fairly hot in the cockpit.
I look above and under but cannot see what is behind us.
Careful, “the Hun is always in the sun”.

Very soon we are at 2000 feet flying leisurely at 120 mph.
We are heading toward San Francisco. We are flying over Marin County, San Quentin, Sausalito, Alcatraz, the Oakland Bay Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge and finally over San Francisco.

The pilot occasionally tips his wings to give us a better look at some famous landmarks and allow us to take photographs. Unfortunately the yellowish plastic canopy of the plane prevents us from taking clear pictures of the ground.

Coming over San Francisco I am surprised to discover that a plane is allowed to fly over such a densely populated area.
I am expecting any minute to see the back venomous mushrooms of ack-ack guns exploding around us.

We are loitering over the city for a while and follow the coast up to Stinson beach.Things look amazingly different seen from the sky.

We spend about 45 minutes over the Bay Area and head back to Novato.

I suggest a “victory roll” over the airport to Volodia. Surprisingly he nixes the idea.
From the co-pilot seat, I can see the landing strip approaching, but very soon the nose of the plane obscures the runway and I cannot see the ground anymore.
I trust Volodia who swore on holy icons that he already landed a plane more than twice.
The landing is extremely smooth. Spassiba Volodia!

On the ground again.
Time to go to the officers’ mess and gulp a few beers while bragging about our encounters with nasty Focke Wulf 190 and even nastier Messerschmitt 109.


PS: I was not really carrying a parachute, oxygen mask, regulation Smith & Wesson and Escape Envelope, but it sounded much better that way. Don’t you think so?

*The Escape Envelope contained 20 000 French Francs, 5000 Belgian Francs and 1000 Dutch guilders. Its purpose was to facilitate the escape of a pilot shot down over enemy territory.

***To look at pictures of this event, turn the sound on, click on the “Home” link at the top of the page, and click again on “My photos” located on the right side of the page.


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