By Andy Tarnoff Publisher Published Jul 14, 2006 at 5:28 AM
It only takes a few minutes of flying with the Red Baron Squadron flight team to realize that the art of aerobatics is harder than it looks.  That is, if you were doubting that performing sophisticated airborne stunts, feet away from your wingman, was actually hard in the first place.  I know I wasn’t.

But with the Red Baron team (yes, it’s the promotional arm of the frozen pizza company) in Milwaukee to perform at this weekend’s TCF Bank Air Expo, I would’ve been crazy to pass up a chance to go for a spin in one of their WWII vintage Boeing Stearman biplanes.  On the other hand, as I sweated through the hour and a half delay Thursday afternoon (the media tours were a little overbooked), I was starting to feel crazy for signing up in the first place.

However, after strapping myself -- incredibly tightly -- into the open-cockpit seat, donning the goggles and listening to the parachute deployment directions should pilot Matt Losacker yell, “Bail out, bail out, bail out,” I felt a strange sense of peace as we took off in formation.

After all, Losacker seemed like he knew we he was doing. The son of an Air Force pilot, he was a flight instructor in Arizona until he joined the squadron in 2003.  And while these pizza pilots aren’t affiliated with the military, they’ve logged more than 48,000 flying hours and are the longest-serving, non-military air show act in America.

Gradually climbing and heading due south, the flight aboard the two-seat antique trainer plane felt incredibly smooth, and a gorgeous windless day didn’t hurt, either.  Compared to my dog and pony show on the Cessna chase plane at last year’s event, in which I just watched the aerobatics from a whopping five feet away, this ride was like cruising in your grandpa’s vintage Cadillac convertible.

Then things got fun in a hurry.  Losacker politely asked me if I was up for some maneuvers, and what I didn’t tell him was that I was fond of neither flying nor rollercoasters.  But sensing one of those “it’ll be good to tell the grandchildren” moments, I gave him a shaky thumbs up.

Now east of Racine, the group began with a steep dive over Lake Michigan, which resulted in a loop, which afterward Losaker told me pulled about four g’s.  To call it intense would be an understatement. For a newbie like me to avoid passing out, or more embarrassingly, to lose my lunch all over the pilot, I just stared straight ahead while Losacker deftly brought the plane back to right-side-up. (Closing my eyes didn’t help.)

Next, we broke formation, peeling off to perform a barrel role, hammerhead and finally something called a Cuban eight. Losacker reminded me to look to my left and marvel in the weightless and completely vertical sensation.  I think there was some upside-down action in there, too, since I saw earth, then sky, then water, then sky again above me -- but I couldn’t tell you for sure, and it probably wasn’t in that order.  The sensation of lifting off my seat was enough to keep me focused on survival, even though this was a walk in the park for the squadron -- they said they’ll get far more adventurous this weekend.

After our four tricks, we rejoined the other three planes and flew back to Mitchell Field, rarely more than 10 feet apart from our neighbors.  And it was like they say -- the pilots watched each other, not the sky ahead.  I confirmed it with Losacker over the intercom -- your leader’s plane is the only thing to keep your eye on, no matter what.

Of course, we landed in dramatic fashion, too -- breaking formation at the last minute and pulling a tight turn to circle in front of the runway.  The landing was smooth as silk, and only then did I realize how much I was sweating … and how my stomach felt like it was in my throat.

But for these pilots, it was just a long day of ferrying around the media, all of us giddy as schoolgirls.  These guys do 80 events a year, and the team has been flying stunt planes since ’84. For them, it’s a full-time, year-round job, and this weekend’s lakefront expo is just another show.  For me, though, a quick spin with these pros was terrifying – yet exhilarating – and I’d jump at the chance to do it again.

The Air Expo takes place July 15-16 on Milwaukee’s lakefront.  It runs from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and is, of course, free. In addition to the Red Baron Squadron, the event will also feature performances from the Golden Knights Parachute Team and the Air Force Thunderbirds.

Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.

Before launching in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.

Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.