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What joy of flight looks like

The principal photograph on the cover of the September 2021 double issue was taken in the summer of 2014 on a flight out of West Palm Beach, Florida. AOPA Senior Photographer Chris Rose took the image on air-to-air assignment, planning to see it published in an upcoming issue of AOPA Pilot—it might have made the cover then, because it is one of those images where a lot of things come together.

Not long before that issue was to go to press, we got word that the German company XtremeAir that produced the two-seat XA42 aerobatic airplane in question had fallen on hard financial times. Further deliveries of the XA42, also known as the Sbach 342 and designed a decade before by Philipp Steinbach and Albert Mylius, were in doubt, so a magazine story singing the praises of this powerful, agile airplane capable of flying unlimited aerobatics with two people aboard, wound up “on the spike,” as we say.

That’s how it goes with airplanes, sometimes. Even good ones can wind up on the spike.

I long since lost touch with Joe Brinker, though I occasionally think about that flight with a smile. The 7.8-G pull that I managed, after the air-to-air photography session was finished and we headed to a practice area to put the XA42 through its paces, remains the highest G-load I’ve personally experienced. I was flying competitive aerobatics at the time, and while the International Aerobatic Club’s Sportsman sequence that year has certainly been better done, I had never had so much power to spare, or such a responsive, capable airplane. Brinker was kind enough not to dwell on the deductions, as I recall.

For me, a pilot with just a smattering of time in truly high-performance aerobats leading up to that day, the XA42 was a revelation. From the moment the Lycoming AEIO 580 B1A was pushed to full power (315 horsepower) and the wheels (very quickly) began to roll down the runway, to the final, almost grudging (on my part) shutdown about an hour later, I most likely did not stop smiling. There was serious work to do that day, but I had the privilege of being an accessory to the tricky bits, with the far more experienced Brinker behind me handling the flying duties while I scanned for traffic, watched for hand signals from Rose (as a backup—Brinker had his eyes locked on the camera ship), and did my best to remember to smile. Under the circumstances, tucked in close formation, anticipating high-energy aerobatics to come, that was a very easy “job.”

So, while I never forgot that flight, or the aircraft, the fact I had written a story about it, or smiled for a camera, had largely faded from memory when Rose called a few weeks ago to explain that one of the photos he captured that day was about to wind up in print, seven years later. It was, he explained, one of his favorite photographs, and had been offered to the editors of Air & Space/Smithsonian for a special double issue celebrating the joy of flight from all kinds of different perspectives. The “We All Fly” theme of the issue is built around hundreds of personal stories, from the recollections of famous aviators published over the years, to readers who submitted tales of aviation humor, mystery, and history from their own flying lives. “Taken together, they show how varied a life the airplane has led since its birth 118 years ago, and how its cousins—the balloons, gliders, and yes, the rocket belt—have contributed to the richness of aviation history,” the magazine noted in its online presentation.

The result amounts to a general aviation family album, as an editor aptly put it in a recent email to AOPA: “This is a ‘crowd-sourced’ issue created by people who love flying in all its forms for people who love flying in all its forms. It conveys the spirit and variety in the family of general aviation.”

Aviation is like that. If you fly long enough, you’re going to have days spent in airplanes that you want to remember forever.

If you get really lucky, you’ll wind up sharing them with the rest of the family.

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