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The Stunt Pilot

By on March 27, 2014 in My Childhood Neighborhood with No Comments

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The house I grew up in was directly across from an elementary school with a huge, paved playground. It was great. We spent most of our waking hours on that playground. Many a day was spent playing baseball, football, basketball and kick-the-can on that playground. One of my favorite hobbies was flying gas-powered, control-line airplanes. You don’t see them much anymore, especially on playgrounds. That’s probably because they’re like a little buzz-saw, flying in circles, at 150 mph, with a tendency to sever fingers off. I’m sure that they could easily put an eye out too.

It all started for me when I got a “trainer” airplane for Christmas one year. It was made out of durable plastic pieces assembled with big rubber bands so when you inevitably crashed, it would simply break the rubber bands and spread debris around a fairly small radius. You would then just re-assemble it and crash it again, and again, until you eventually got the hang of it and could fly it without crashing.

Now, starting those engines was no small feat. You’d first fill up the little fuel tank with airplane fuel and then place a clip attached to a huge battery by a length of wire to the top of the engine, and then adjust the throttle. That was the easy part. The next step was the tricky one. You’d have to quickly spin the propeller with your finger until the engine started. When it did start it went to full speed with the flick of a finger, so if you didn’t get your finger away quickly, it would slice your finger(s) off. Imagine using your fingers to spin the blades on a blender, then flicking on the power switch while simultaneously pulling your fingers out of the way of the knife-sharp blades. What a fun toy! Some of the engines had a spring that you would use to wind up the propeller backwards until the spring was tight, and then let it go, again, being careful to get your fingers out of the way before they were sliced off. Once those little engines did start, they would scream like a huge bumble-bee in a helium atmosphere at 100 decibel.

At that point, it took two people to get airborne. I would get one of my buds to be my “co-pilot” and hold the plane while I would run out and grab the handle end of the 50 foot line, and then signal for them to let it go. That little airplane would then immediately accelerate to a speed of 100 mph, or more, while I controlled its flight with the aid of the handle and the control lines which caused the flaps to raise and lower. At 100 mph, this all happened in the wink of an eye. Add the factor of spinning around in one place like an ice skater doing a triple axel and you have the recipe for disaster. It definitely required many crashes with the indestructible “trainer” to get the touch of maintaining flight for more than a few seconds. The “trainer” was considerably slower and less responsive than the lighter airplanes made of balsa wood.

I flew that “trainer” constantly and quickly became very proficient at controlling it to the point that I could do barrel rolls, loops and fly inverted. I was on my way to becoming a flying ace.

I longed for faster, more responsive airplanes. I scoured the shelves of the hobby store for something faster. That’s when I saw it; The Li’l Satan Combat balsa wood airplane kit. Whoa, it was perfect. The Li’l Satan was basically a wing and an engine with a very small fuselage. It was fairly easy to assemble. It had a very light balsa wood frame which I assembled with glue and then covered the wings with a tissue which was attached with dope. I kid you not. It was called dope; liquid glue in a jar which was used to attach the tissue to the frame. I’m sure that the glue and dope added to my enjoyment of assembling the plane. At the time, the irony with the name of the plane, Li’l Satan, and my use of dope to assemble it, had escaped me. In retrospect, I suspect that it was probably the gateway substance for my pot use in later years.

That Li’l Satan would scream along at speeds exceeding 150 mph. I LOVED IT! I flew it so often that I could fly that little screamer in my sleep. I had become a flying ace with it, which presented to me the opportunity for the next logical phase of my aeronautical career … stunt pilot.

I wasn’t looking to do just regular stunts with my Li’l Satan. I had already mastered the loops, barrel rolls and all the other stunts. No, I needed more. I needed something more dangerous and daring. I needed stunt girls! I needed human volunteers to help me to push the boundaries of my flying skills … but whom? Where could I, a 12-year-old kid, find someone who would trust me with their very lives? Then it hit me. Of course! It was hobvious, almost too easy; the girl(s) next door. On either side of my house lived two girls, I’ll call them Stacy and Patty, who were several years younger than me. There were a lot of kids on our block, and I was one of the older ones so I had the prestige of being a neighborhood “big kid”. This designation came with huge power and absolutely NO accountability. I found them playing jacks on the front porch next door at Stacy’s house.

“Hi Stacy, hi Patty what are you doing?”

“Playing jacks, why?” Stacy replied with a bit of suspicion in her voice. The “Big Kids” on the block didn’t usually seek them out to play with. They were usually the ones who were trying to tag along with us.

“How would you like to do something really fun and exciting?” I already knew that being a “big kid” would make it almost impossible to refuse my offer. It was like offering them a position on our baseball team. “How would you like to be my stunt girls? It will be really fun and easy.”

“What do we have to do?”

“All you have to do is lay down on the pavement while I fly my airplane over the top of you. It will be so cool.” Cue the big smile.

“I should ask my mom first.” Patty said with a noticeable trace of concern on her face

“No, you won’t have to do that. It’s completely safe and we’ll just be right across the street.” I quickly interjected knowing that any parental involvement would not be good.

“Okay” they both said simultaneously, and just like that their very lives were in my hands.

I quickly ran home and got my airplane, my flying ace hat, scarf, and goggles, and then led Stacy and Patty across the street to the playground before they could change their minds. I gave Stacy some quick instructions on how to be my “co-pilot” by holding the Li’l Satan until I could get to the handle. I then had Patty lie down in a prone position with her arms at her side and her feet pointing straight toward me in the middle of the “circle of flight”, as I called it. I then instructed Stacy to lie right next to her after she let go of the airplane. That was about it.

Patty had assumed her position staring up at the sky, lying on the black-top. I donned my flying ace hat, placed the goggles over my eyes, wrapped the scarf around my neck allowing it to trail off behind me, and then started up that little .049 engine which instantly emitted its high-pitch scream. I had also attached a long, thin piece of red ribbon to the back of the Li’l Satan for a more dramatic effect. Stacy tentatively held the Li’l Satan like it was a huge, red bumble-bee, pulling insistently to be released. I looked over my shoulder at Patty who had raised her head with alarm at the suddenly screaming Li’l Satan. She was looking at Stacy, with an anxious look on her face. I gave her a thumbs up, motioned for her to lay her head back down, and then sprinted out and picked up the control handles some 50 feet away in the center of the “circle of flight”.

The stage was set. This was it, glory days. I motioned for Stacy to release the Li’l Satan and, in the wink of an eye, it was screaming in a circle at 150 MPH. It quickly gained altitude and I kept it flying high allowing Stacy to lie down right next to Patty. The red tail I attached to the Li’l Satan was held straight behind it in the 150 MPH wind. It looked so cool. Finally, after several laps, I was ready. I took the Li’l Satan down and did a low-level hpass of about two feet over Patty and Stacy. They didn’t move. I then went into a barrel roll which sent the Li’l Satan screaming in a huge arc up over the top of my head and then downward right toward the terrified stunt girls. Then, at the last second, I pulled it out of the dive just a few feet above their head. It was magic.

My dad was a Marine Sargent in WWII. He was a fighter airplane mechanic in the South Pacific. He was a tough guy. He had seen his share of “action” during the war. He had been bombed repeatedly by the Japanese. So much so that he was a bit hard of hearing. Dad was walking on our patio when he first heard it, just faintly. It was the high-pitched buzz of a small airplane engine in the distance. He had heard it many times before, but something about this time made him stroll to the front of the patio where he would look out over our front gate toward the playground. He momentarily stared in disbelief as he watched that Li’l Satan fly inverted right over the top of my stunt girls, missing them by mere inches. It then went into a barrel roll, from inverted flight, over the top of my head and down toward the hapless stunt girls, only to quickly pull up into level flight, barely missing them again. At that point I did a full loop which ended in another close fly-over which passed them so close that the prop-wash mussed their hair.

I was in my glory. I was in the flow. I was flying without even thinking. I was like an elite athlete at the top of their game. I didn’t want it to ever end. But looking up and seeing my dad running across the street towards us, appearing to me as if in slow motion, yelling expletives that could even be heard over the scream of the Li’l Satan, quickly brought me back to reality. So, after a mere 3 minute flight, I was unceremoniously grounded, thus ending my brief, yet illustrious career as a stunt pilot. I would still do it all again. Semper Fi!

 

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