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

By Susan C. Kim
January 22, 2008
See the California coast by air
Shelley Metcalf

Goggles―check. Helmet―check. Headset―check."Bronco, I'm ready for takeoff." The engine rumbles, the propellerspins, and the faint smell of fuel rises around me. I'm notpiloting this open-cockpit biplane; that honor goes to Chuck"Bronco" Buckley, a retired Navy commander. I'm just along for theride―an unforgettable adrenaline rush―over the SanDiego coastline.

Our carefully restored aircraft, a 1920s Travel Air biplane,thrills passengers with a flight back in time. I'm joyriding withBarnstorming Adventures, a Carlsbad, California, tour companyoperating from the Palomar Airport. They don't provide simplynostalgic trips, I'm soon to learn. More like near-spiritualexperiences.

Our shiny, red machine zigzags across the airfield and finallymakes a run down the strip. I listen in as my pilot, who is sittingbehind me, radios the tower for permission to take off. Next to thefact that all the pilots have nicknames, the coolest feature ofthis ride is my communication with the pilot and air-trafficcontrol.

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

Soon we are cruising south toward San Diego. From 1,000 feetabove sea level the coast becomes a work of art. Wavy brown seaweedcreates hypnotic patterns under the translucent sea, and rows ofbreaking 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'snothing―except for some wood and a lot of air―betweenme and the seascape below. With the wind blowing wildly around me,the sun's radiant heat hitting my face, and the taste of cleanocean 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. Onesight guaranteed any time of year, however, is the parade ofmultimillion-dollar mansions teetering along the edges of high sandbluffs.

Bronco buzzes past Encinitas, a laid-back beach town lined withtaco stands, juice bars, and markets selling tiki paraphernalia. Onthe ground, yellow road signs warn cars of surfers crossing. Fromthe sky, the wave riders look like seals loitering in the waves offSwami's Beach, a famous surf break named for a nearby yogameditation retreat.

We breeze over Torrey Pines State Reserve, a scraggy piece ofland contrasting dramatically with the famous manicured golfcourse, also named for the rare tree. "This is a little reminder ofwhat California looked like before bulldozers arrived," Bronco'svoice explains in my headset. Seeing the world from this vantagepoint is like peering into a seaside diorama. Kayaks off La Jolla'scoast appear as red slivers in the sea, while sunbathing sea lionsresemble miniature logs. Parasailers float like bubbles beneath us,and I squint to look closer as we pass over clothing-optionalBlack's Beach.

"Do you want to take the controls?" Bronco asks. "Uh, no," Ireply. "Unless you want to end up in the ocean."

But I'm still game for excitement, and ask him to try someaeronautical tricks he mentioned earlier during the ride. It'sunclear exactly what we're doing next, but my heart is in mythroat, the horizon is spinning, and I'm screaming like ababy―a crazily happy one.

Finally, we do a 180-degree turn over San Diego's Pacific Beachand head back home. Passengers who take the sunset flight can lookfor a green flash as the sun dips into the sea. "Sometimes, we do arapid climb into the sky and see a second sunset," Broncoradios.

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 walkback to the hangar, I can't wipe the grin off my face.

Above It All
In addition to biplanes, Barnstorming Adventures(800/759-5667 or barnstorming.com) offers aerobatic rides in a WWIIwar-bird plane. Or, thrillseekers can play out a dogfight in twoVarga air-combat planes. Biplane flights start at $199 for one ortwo people; war-bird and dogfight flights cost more.

The company's Sunset Special Fly/Dine package for two ($569)includes a 60-minute sunset flight, followed by a three-course mealat the nearby Four Seasons Aviara Vivace restaurant. Rooms at the Four Seasons ResortAviara in Carlsbad start at $405 per night (discount packagessometimes available); call 760/603-6800 or visit fourseasons.com/aviara.