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Flying Old School 

Touching the sky in WWII plane rides

Want to experience the feeling of flying WWII-style? You can at the Sunriver Airport. Photo by Lyle Jansma.

Want to experience the feeling of flying WWII-style? You can at the Sunriver Airport. Photo by Lyle Jansma.

In today's modern commercial aircraft, flying can be a relatively boring experience. Being cramped in a narrow seat with only a small window to look out of isn't particularly adventurous. Luckily, Central Oregon thrill-seekers have a chance to fly boldly like the pilots of old.

With the Erickson Aircraft Collection at Sunriver Resort, budding aviators can fly the skies in authentic WWII warbirds. Rides take off from Sunriver Airport from 10 am to 4 pm on Aug. 20 and 21 and Labor Day weekend, Sept. 2 to 5. Flights cost $150-$250, depending on the plane and the length of the flight.

Pilot Jim Martinelli says the flights give riders a taste of what most people have only read about or see in movies. "The general thing is to experience an open cockpit biplane, to experience that thrill and feel of 1930s, 1920s barnstorming aviation. The wind's right in your face," Martinelli says.

Martinelli was specifically talking about the PT-17 Stearman, a WWII biplane trainer in which riders are seated at the front. The plane is most commonly associated with crop dusters these days, but it was the first plane for war pilots in training, says Michelle Forster, Erickson Aircraft's assistant manager.

"These warbirds are tough to fly, and they made them that way so that if you get in any situation you know how to get out of it. That's why pilots spent so much time on these trainers," she says. "As military (pilots) learned how to fly, they would start with the primary trainer, the Stearman. Once they got comfortable in that and passed a few tests, then they would move on to the Texan."

The T-6 Texan is the other warbird flying out for the Sunriver flights. It's the quintessential WWII plane, often depicted in war films and paintings. Since both planes are trainers, they are outfitted with dual cockpits and steering. Forster likened it to the instructor's brake on a training car.

"The purpose was if you're learning to fly and you make a mistake, the pilot can correct it," she said. Those mechanisms don't get much use today, but the maintenance team at Erickson Aircraft keeps them up-to-date like the other parts of their planes.

Forster said a full-time maintenance team completes annual check-ups—sometimes manufacturing out-of-production parts—to keep the planes flight-ready. Martinelli is also Erickson Aircraft's maintenance director, and he said flying the old planes isn't different from flying modern planes. Much.

"It's the same exact thing as driving a 1935 car versus driving a 2016 car," he said. "(The Stearman, for example,) It's old, it's shaky and clunky, it throws oil at you, the wind's in your hair, it smokes, stuff like that. But it still flies great."

The Erickson Aircraft Collection currently houses 24 planes, including warplanes from the Korean and Vietnam wars. Just two planes are not flight-capable. The planes make appearances at multiple airshows around the country, including the upcoming Airshow of the Cascades in Madras on Aug. 26 and 27.

Jack Erickson started the collection in 1983, housing the planes in a hangar in Tillamook for 20 years until structural issues forced the collection to move to Madras two years ago.

"It came to a point where the building was leaking and causing corrosion on the planes. So we decided we either need to build something inside the building or find a new location," Forster says. "The drier weather, extra sunshine, and the open airspace at the Madras airport (next door) allows us to fly our birds basically anytime during the daylight."

At the museum, visitors can check out the planes, or "soar with the warbirds" through a membership program. Forster said the flights are an important and unique aspect of the collection.

"We are, what I like to say, not necessarily a museum of artifacts but a flying collection," she said. "We try to keep the history alive by allowing passengers to go up in these planes."

To reserve a flight at Sunriver Airport, visit sunriver-resort.com/events or call 419-541-5067. For more information about the Erickson Aircraft Collection and their upcoming events, visit ericksoncollection.com or call 541-460-5065.

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