Breit Skies

“This next one is called a ‘Cuban Eight,’” David said into my headphones as we soared through the air. David, the pilot I’d met mere moments before.

I’d read about — and dreaded — the Cuban Eight: essentially a vertical figure eight with the plane flying upside-down and rolling at various points during the maneuver. I tugged on my harness and shouted “Let’s do it!” in my best gung-ho voice, displaying a confidence that my already-quivering gut most certainly did not share.

A Risky Proposition

I’m something of a newcomer when it comes to the world of things that go. Since starting at Hagerty three years ago, I’ve learned a lot, and a stint at rally school (“Crash Course,” HCC Summer 2012), as well as a certain eagerness to take on new experiences, have earned me my nickname: “ClaireDevil.”

When my boss mentioned the opportunity to do an aerobatic plane experiential story, I clamored for it, writing off any possibility of motion sickness with a wave of the hand. “I’ll be fine,” I said. Unconvinced, my colleagues placed bets on whether I’d lose my lunch.

Then came that warm March day at Amelia Island, Florida.

I pulled up to a large hangar next to Fernandina Beach Municipal Airport and spotted the beautiful, bright red Extra 300L, a two-seater emblazoned with yellowflames and the word “BREITLING.”

I felt a strange combination of exhilaration and terror, which only increased as several waivers were produced for my signature, and then evolved into full-fledged panic as a crewman
strapped a parachute to my back.

“What if I accidentally pull the cord inside the plane?” I asked, only half joking with him.

“Don’t,” he said, with no trace of a smile on his face.

I kept my arms glued to my sides as he strapped me into the front seat’s elaborate harness and lowered the bubble top into place.

The harness would come in handy, since I’d be spending a lot of time upside-down, and this particular breed of plane packs a punch: Its fuel-injected Lycoming AEIO-540 flat-six produces 300 hp, and its airframe is designed to withstand the stress of ±10 G with one person on board, or ±8 G with two.

The pilot who would be putting her through her paces, David Martin, is well known in the competitive aerobatics arena, and has been a member of the United States Aerobatic Team since 1997. His tenure has included a term as team captain and a victory in the United States National Aerobatic Championships.

These skills led to his selection as a Breitling ambassador — an honor since the watch company, which has longtime ties to the field of aviation through its chronograph technology, only selects the best of the best to don the prestigious Breitling flight suit.

Up, Up and Away (And Upside-Down)

David’s slight Texas drawl and easygoing manner quickly put me at ease, and he pointed out local landmarks as we made our graceful, leisurely ascent. Then he asked if I was ready.

The first maneuver was an Aileron Roll, which consists of a 360-degree roll on the longitudinal axis. “You’ll see the sky, then the ground, then the sky again,” David said.

The speed of the roll took me by surprise, and my stomach seemed to rotate with the plane, and then quickly churned again as we spun into a second roll. “I’m glad you can’t hear me screaming,” I said, since David was mercifully protected from the obnoxious sound by his bulky headset.

Next up was a loop. “We’re going to go straight up, be upside down for a second, then straight back down,” he said. “You’ll feel a little bit of what we call ‘G’ pushing you down in the seat.”

I definitely felt the G, and the harness dug into my shoulders while we made the slow loop, but this time my screams were replaced by uncontrollable laughter.

David checked in to make sure I was still conscious before launching into the third maneuver, a Hammerhead. “This time we’re going to go straight up, and we’re just going to keep going straight up, until we stop, and then we’re going to pivot around and fall straight back down,” he said.

While there is something disconcerting about the feeling of a tiny plane plummeting toward the earth, I was starting to feel cocky. “Awesome!” I yelled. And it really was.

Next, however, was the one I’d been dreading — the Cuban Eight.

The plane climbed quickly until it looped upside-down and then hesitated for a moment as we hung there, suspended, staring at the ground. This was followed by a roll as we descended. We then repeated the maneuver, closing it out this time with a roll and a half, and I struggled to focus as a kaleidoscope of ground and sky and ground and sky swirled by, with some glittering coastline mixed in for good measure.

My head continued to spin, and then David asked me if I’d like to try flying. I was excited by the prospect but still dizzy, so my attempts to tilt us to the right and left were pretty disappointing, though they may have saved me.

A Close Call

As the wheels touched the runway and the plane coasted toward the hangar, I felt a sense of great relief as the rush of pure adrenaline settled. But that was quickly replaced by something else: a highly uncomfortable, very hot and sweaty lightheadedness. I fumbled with the vent, desperate for a blast of cold air to the face, and I tried to keep it together.

The plane came to a stop, I groped at the harness, freed myself and jumped to the ground, only to sink down with my head between my knees. While I needed a few minutes to recover, I’m happy to say that none of my coworkers were able to cash in on the “Claire Will Lose Her Lunch” bet.

Despite that little hiccup, this was easily one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. And my ClaireDevil persona remains — somewhat tenuously — intact.

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