Into the Wild Blue Yonder
Take to the skies for a once-in-a-lifetime experience and a perspective on the state you’ll never forget.
In order for you to truly appreciate this story, you have to first understand a few things. First, I hate flying. Not in your typical flying-is-a-nuisance way. I have been known to have full-blown panic attacks mid-flight; I’ve reported suspicious passengers to flight attendants; and when my entire family needs to fly I contemplate taking separate planes. Second, I get motion sickness. I get queasy in cars, I get sick on trains, and I turn green riding the merry-go-round. So the idea that I would even contemplate flying in an open-air cockpit of a World War II biplane and do aerobatics over the New River Gorge is frankly almost unbelievable. Just ask my mother.
But not only did I do it, I loved it. Loved it. It was the most incredible outdoor activity I’ve ever experienced in West Virginia—and I have Wild Blue Adventure, a company located between Fayetteville and Oak Hill, to thank for it.
“We have a wide range of customers,” says Chris Kappler, owner and pilot at Wild Blue Adventure Company. “Some have a bit of trepidation, but that quickly goes away. Most people never want to land.” Chris’ aerial tours aren’t your run-of-the-mill sightseeing tours because his planes aren’t your run-of-the-mill planes. He has two functioning museum-quality airplanes. Both are more than 70 years old and have been painstakingly restored to their original specifications. The most prized plane is the Stearman Biplane, which was built in 1940 for the U.S. Army Air Corps and spent several years in rotation at Army airfields, being used to train young pilots about to be sent off to World War II. It was sold in 1949 and converted into a crop duster, then sold again in the 1990s to a buyer who completely disassembled the plane and restored it. Chris also flies a vintage Piper Cub. The experience is a tad less intense, but it’s perfect for families wanting to fly together.
Riding in a vintage plane is nothing like flying in a modern-day puddle jumper, commercial jet, or helicopter. First of all, it is experiential. You aren’t a bystander; you are a participant in the experience and open to the elements (which I believe helped alleviate my motion sickness). You also are tethered to a parachute. Actually the seat cushion is the parachute—an authentic World War II creation by Butler Parachutes that has been modernized to current FAA standards. For some reason, I found that reassuring. As the plane takes off, your head isn’t thrown forcibly back—for those of you with a fear of flying, you’ll understand why this is important. It’s gentle—as is the landing. Instead of flight attendants pointing out the nearest exits, Chris points out local landmarks—Fayetteville, Hawks Nest, Kanawha Falls, Summersville Lake, and the New River Gorge Bridge, to name a few. A communication system allows you to talk back and forth with the pilot, and strategically placed mirrors gives Chris access to your face at all times, so he can gauge your reactions—and skin color.
When you take the biplane tour, you have the option to take the traditional “upright” tour or to add aerobatics. If you opt for aerobatics, Chris calmly explains what to expect before each stunt. He doesn’t surprise you, scare you, or make you sick. I chose to experience a mild aerobatic first to see if I could manage it, and to my surprise I was hooked—hooting, hollering, and laughing with abandon. A few vertical climbs into barrel rolls, hammerheads, and s-turns later, and I was smiling from ear to ear. “I think we really do make flying a visceral experience,” Chris says.
It is hard to articulate the feeling of flying in an open cockpit with the wind in your face and the world moving unaware beneath you. You are completely surrounded by the magnificent expanse of ridge-rippled sky. Not only are you experiencing American aviation history, but soaring over the state’s finest scenery renders one speechless. I’ve driven across the New River Gorge Bridge; I’ve walked beneath it; and I’ve rafted the waters below it, but the bird’s eye view is unbelievable. It feels as if you are traveling on an uncharted highway, seeing the world in a way that few get to experience. When you climb upward with the sun hot on your forehead, then roll, twist, and dip down—and it’s just you and the sky with the rolling hills and the rushing rivers beneath—it’s almost as if you are soaring into an embrace. It’s freedom. It’s peace. It’s unmitigated joy.
I’ve recommended the experience to everyone I know. I’ve given gift certificates to loved ones for special occasions. Usually the response is, “I don’t think I could do that.” Yes, you can—and you should. In more than 1,000 flights, Chris has never had an unsatisfied customer, and I’m willing to bet you’ll feel the same way.wildblueadventurecompany.com