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The view from above: Flights offer insight into Wings Over Columbus acts

 

Two AT-6 Texans fly in formation above the Golden Triangle Friday. The flight was part of a preview day before the Wings Over Columbus Air Show.

Two AT-6 Texans fly in formation above the Golden Triangle Friday. The flight was part of a preview day before the Wings Over Columbus Air Show. Photo by: Alex Holloway/Dispatch Staff

 

U.S. Army Golden Knight Parachute Team member Teigh Statler prepares to freefall out of the open door of a UV18 Viking Twin Otter aircraft Saturday. The team performed for hundreds of spectators during Wings Over Columbus Air and Space Show Saturday.

U.S. Army Golden Knight Parachute Team member Teigh Statler prepares to freefall out of the open door of a UV18 Viking Twin Otter aircraft Saturday. The team performed for hundreds of spectators during Wings Over Columbus Air and Space Show Saturday.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff

 

Vintage planes fly over hundreds of people at the 2018 Wings Over Columbus Air and Space Show at Columbus Air Force Base Saturday.

Vintage planes fly over hundreds of people at the 2018 Wings Over Columbus Air and Space Show at Columbus Air Force Base Saturday.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff

 

Christian White, 5,

Christian White, 5, "flies" around, exploring the Columbus Air Force Base runway and all the planes on the ground during Wings Over Columbus Saturday. "I love the planes," he said. "They are so fast and I want to go inside more of the big planes." He is the son of Brianna and Christopher White of Caledonia.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff

 

Columbus Air Force Base hosted Wings Over Columbus Air and Space Show Saturday, where crowds of people arrived to see aviation displays and aerial performances, such as demonstrations by the U.S. Army Golden Knights Parachute Team and a F-22 Raptor Demonstration Team.

Columbus Air Force Base hosted Wings Over Columbus Air and Space Show Saturday, where crowds of people arrived to see aviation displays and aerial performances, such as demonstrations by the U.S. Army Golden Knights Parachute Team and a F-22 Raptor Demonstration Team.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff

 

Keith Pierce

Keith Pierce

 

 

Alex Holloway

 

 

I don't think I've ever gripped something quite so hard as I did the harness straps in the back seat of a North American AT-6 Texan as it dove after its sister plane in the skies over Highway 82 between Columbus and Starkville. 

 

Friday, when Columbus Air Force Base offered a set of flights for local media in various airplanes that performed in this weekend's Wings Over Columbus air show, marked my first time flying in anything other than a commercial airliner. 

 

The experience was incredible, and quite unlike anything I've had the pleasure of taking in before. 

 

The AT-6, a former advanced training plane that pilots in World War II would train in before going on to fly P-51 Mustangs in combat missions, was also quite unlike any other plane I've been in. The engines made the plane shake and thrum on the tarmac while we awaited takeoff. Gary Dedeaux, my pilot for the day, told me that, though it was hard to tell with our headsets on in the cockpit, the AT-6 is known for "converting fuel into noise." 

 

As Dedeaux, a local business owner and former West Point selectman, wove through the air above the Golden Triangle, the closest comparison I could draw to the experience was that it was a bit like being on a roller coaster without the rails. 

 

Even that doesn't fully describe the experience, as our vibrant yellow AT-6 flew second in formation behind a bright blue one.  

 

This generally involved keeping to the left or right of the lead plane, and slightly behind and underneath it. Dedeaux made occasional position changes from one side to the other at the lead pilot's direction, passing underneath to avoid turbulence chopped up by the airplane's propeller. 

 

As someone who generally prefers to keep his feet on the ground and once found the prospect of riding to the top of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis a little too exciting to bother with, these close passes -- sometimes coming as close as 20-30 feet -- with the other AT-6 were at once nerve-wracking and indescribably exhilarating. 

 

Further, as someone who doesn't have much of a poker face, I'm sure my occasional anxiety showed as I alternated between holding onto the harness as if that alone would keep me in the back seat or bracing against the glass canopy over the cockpit. 

 

Early in the flight, Dedeaux, who's been flying for 54 years and has experience flying in formation since 2006, explained to me that everything was safe. 

 

"We don't do anything that's not safe, and we never take anything for granted," he said.  

 

For all my nerves in the air, the 20 or so minutes we spent flying zipped by, and I found myself longing for more once we touched down at Golden Triangle Regional Airport. 

 

Friday's flight was just a taste of the experiences some of the pilots who are flying for the Wings Over Columbus air show will have this weekend -- and a mild one at that. While he had some good dives and relatively sharp turns, when the lead pilot went into doing flips and barrel rolls, Dedeaux broke away to so we could watch at a distance. 

 

Dedeaux, who is flying in Wings Over Columbus, grew up around airplanes, and remembered riding along for his father's training flights when he was young. Those experiences instilled a lifelong love of aviation in him, and he said he's happy to share it, and his AT-6, whenever he can. 

 

"As a kid, I always wanted to fly whenever I was able," he said. "Now I want to give anybody and everybody the experience that I had, because in this day and time, it's hard, especially for kids, to get up in the airplane -- any airplane, but especially a vintage World War II airplane." 

 

 

 

The Golden Knights 

 

Wings Over Columbus also featured the U.S. Army Golden Knights parachuting team. 

 

The Golden Knights, stationed out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, brought 11 jumpers, two pilots, a drop zone safety officer and a crew chief as part of their performance team for the weekend's air show. 

 

Sgt. First Class Keith Pierce, a jumper with the Golden Knights, described his work as a "dream job." 

 

Yet Pierce said he'd never anticipated that he would be skydiving when he joined the Army. 

 

"I never thought I'd even jump out of airplanes, never mind freefall," he said. "When I joined the Army, I wanted adventure, excitement, all of that stuff. After I joined as an Army Ranger, I found out one of the prerequisites was, in fact, jumping out of airplanes. So it was in the job description. 

 

"When I started freefall parachuting, I found out I loved it," he continued. "It became a passion, and now I love it." 

 

Pierce started his career as an Airborne Ranger. He did that for about 14 years, and for the last four years he's been doing freefall parachuting -- where jumpers jump from the plane and manually deploy their parachutes. He joined the Golden Knights after trying out in 2016. 

 

The prerequisites, Pierce said, were 100 free fall parachute jumps, a clean military and civilian record and being enlisted in the Army. 

 

Despite his vast experience in jumping, Pierce said parachuting still offers chances for self improvement. 

 

"A lot of people do it for the thrill -- it's really exciting," he said. "For me, it's always been about the challenge, and that challenge is really just for me. There's so many things to train in. You can always be better -- that challenge is there for me and really hasn't gone away." 

 

Pierce said the Golden Knights perform at about 35-40 shows per year at a range of venues, from air shows to college and high school events. 

 

He said he's thankful for the chance to perform in Columbus. 

 

"We really appreciate being invited out here," he said. "We appreciate the opportunity."

 

 

 

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