On May 10, EAA’s flying Spirit of St. Louis replica made its season debut at the organization’s annual Fly Your Plane to Work day. I had the chance to fly with Sean Elliott, EAA’s vice president of advocacy and safety who oversees the organization’s flight operations, on the Spirit’s departure from Pioneer Airport at the end of the day. Sean sat up front with the forward facing windows and the instrument panel, while I got comfortable in a small wicker chair reminiscent of the one Lindbergh would have used. As he powered up the engine and the prop blast blew air into the open windows at my sides, I couldn’t imagine how Lindbergh managed to keep all of his charts and calculations organized, on top of actually flying the airplane.
Once we were in the air, Sean offered up the controls, and I — a pre-solo student pilot — was flying the Spirit of St. Louis. For as unstable as my research had said the airplane would be, I didn’t need any guesswork to figure out what to do. Every control input had a predictable — if out of the ordinary — outcome. The Spirit was no airplane to be dainty with. My full hand was on the stick, and when Sean instructed me to make a turn to the left, I could feel my physical exertion being used up. Air was gusting into the cockpit, heightening every sensation and causing me to sharpen my focus into the movements I was making. With no instrument panel in front of me to fall back on, it was my first time truly feeling an airplane around me and responding to what it was telling me (that and Sean’s instructions in my ear). For as focused as I was, it was one of the most liberating moments of my life. I heard myself shout in excitement as we leveled off definitely not pointing in the direction I had been instructed to go, after having been surprised by the heaviness of the ailerons.
After a few more turns, Sean took back over and demonstrated how with a tap of the rudder pedal the airplane would smoothly enter a crab, the large windows to my sides framing a moving picture below. Further showing off the airplane’s independent nature, Sean pulled back on the stick and let go. Rather than settling back down on its own, the Spirit just kept pitching up, and up, and up. I can’t speak for taking off or landing the Spirit of St. Louis, or how it would feel to fly it for 33 1/2 hours straight, but my rookie assessment would be to describe the airplane as predictably unstable. Although I only spent five minutes at the controls, I will always look back fondly at one of the earliest entries in my logbook, N-X-211.