A joyride in an open-cockpit biplane over the San Diego shore takes our writer to new heights.

By Susan C. Kim
June 11, 2009
Shelley Metcalf

Goggles―check. Helmet―check. Headset―check. “Bronco, I’m ready for takeoff.” The engine rumbles, the propeller spins, and the faint smell of fuel rises around me. I’m not piloting this open-cockpit biplane; that honor goes to Chuck “Bronco” Buckley, a retired Navy commander. I’m just along for the ride―an unforgettable adrenaline rush―over the San Diego coastline.

Our carefully restored aircraft, a 1920s Travel Air biplane, thrills passengers with a flight back in time. I’m joyriding with Barnstorming Adventures, a Carlsbad, California, tour company operating from the Palomar Airport. They don’t provide simply nostalgic trips, I’m soon to learn. More like near-spiritual experiences.

Our shiny, red machine zigzags across the airfield and finally makes a run down the strip. I listen in as my pilot, who is sitting behind me, radios the tower for permission to take off. Next to the fact that all the pilots have nicknames, the coolest feature of this ride is my communication with the pilot and air-traffic control.

We blast into the bright-blue sky over a glorious field of rainbow stripes. The Flower Fields at the Carlsbad Ranch explode every spring with 50 acres of blooms combed across rolling hills. It’s quite a spectacle viewing them on land, but from a bird’s-eye view, well, that is one trippy sight.

Soon we are cruising south toward San Diego. From 1,000 feet above sea level the coast becomes a work of art. Wavy brown seaweed creates hypnotic patterns under the translucent sea, and rows of breaking waves leave long, wispy wakes on the ocean’s surface. Colorful lobster buoys dot the water like a modern-art masterpiece. The beauty of flying in an open cockpit is that there’s nothing―except for some wood and a lot of air―between me and the seascape below. With the wind blowing wildly around me, the sun’s radiant heat hitting my face, and the taste of clean ocean air, it’s almost sensory overload.

We fly over the flour-white sands of South Carlsbad State Beach. In early winter, gray whales can be spotted migrating south. One sight guaranteed any time of year, however, is the parade of multimillion-dollar mansions teetering along the edges of high sand bluffs.

Bronco buzzes past Encinitas, a laid-back beach town lined with taco stands, juice bars, and markets selling tiki paraphernalia. On the ground, yellow road signs warn cars of surfers crossing. From the sky, the wave riders look like seals loitering in the waves off Swami’s Beach, a famous surf break named for a nearby yoga meditation retreat.

We breeze over Torrey Pines State Reserve, a scraggy piece of land contrasting dramatically with the famous manicured golf course, also named for the rare tree. “This is a little reminder of what California looked like before bulldozers arrived,” Bronco’s voice explains in my headset. Seeing the world from this vantage point is like peering into a seaside diorama. Kayaks off La Jolla’s coast appear as red slivers in the sea, while sunbathing sea lions resemble miniature logs. Parasailers float like bubbles beneath us, and I squint to look closer as we pass over clothing-optional Black’s Beach.“Do you want to take the controls?” Bronco asks. “Uh, no,” I reply. “Unless you want to end up in the ocean.”

But I’m still game for excitement, and ask him to try some aeronautical tricks he mentioned earlier during the ride. It’s unclear exactly what we’re doing next, but my heart is in my throat, the horizon is spinning, and I’m screaming like a baby―a crazily happy one.

Finally, we do a 180-degree turn over San Diego’s Pacific Beach and head back home. Passengers who take the sunset flight can look for a green flash as the sun dips into the sea. “Sometimes, we do a rapid climb into the sky and see a second sunset,” Bronco radios.

The landing is soft and easy, and we sputter to the hangar. “People always get off the plane happy and smiling,” Bronco says. He’s right. I feel lighter, fresher, more carefree. And as I walk back to the hangar, I can’t wipe the grin off my face.

Originally published March 2008