Finding Francine

If you’ve read the posting on “Flying Weightless” then you’ll understand the connection to this one.  Briefly, in 2009 I flew to Las Vegas to take a ride on G-Force One, the craft that flies vertical parabolas to induce weightlessness on the 40-odd passengers and crew inside.   It was the adventure of a lifetime, and this story is an ongoing spinoff.

When the Zero Gravity passengers gathered for a pre-flight breakfast, I worked my way around the room putting temporary tattoos on peoples’ hands, showing the logo of the Canadian Centennial of Powered Flight.  It was an excellent excuse to introduce myself to people and start a conversation, as well as an opportunity to illustrate to people from all over the world that Canadians don’t live in igloos any more.  I got the tattoos from the Canadian Forces tent at the Klondike Days fairgrounds in Edmonton.  I wanted to visit the display, but I’d recently broken my foot and didn’t want to limp for miles looking for it, so I checked out the on-line map.  Nothing there.  I phoned the exhibition grounds office, they didn’t know for sure where it was.  I went to the web site, and found nothing there either, so I shot off a quick note to the webmaster to see if there was any help available.

What followed was a series of emails that surprised me.  The name on the home page wasn’t the webmaster, but the Brigadier General in charge of the Air Force contribution to the Centennial.  Oops.  The General was exceedingly co-operative and immediately asked Captain Harding to provide me with some help.  Captain Harding emailed a Lieutenant located in Alberta to find out where the display was, and he emailed back that he’d know in an hour.  Less than an hour later he had the directions for Captain Harding, who relayed all this to me.  I took a taxi to the north entrance of the fairgrounds and walked straight into the Canadian Forces displays.  I’m so impressed with the co-operation and alacrity of the Air Force!

I went to the Air Force tent and bought a few souvenirs (the tank top hasn’t fit for years now and is long gone), played with a flight simulator for a bit, and struck up a conversation with the airman in attendance. When I asked for stickers, he gave me a big handful with the event logo on them, as well as a handful of Air Force temporary tattoos, and pencils.  He said it was the last day and there were still a lot left, so I could have all I needed.  Another airman made sure I got a pen as well.  Off I went, all loaded up, and stopped at the Alberta Aviation Museum, which already had a lot of Centennial material at the front desk.  I found a couple of empty baskets and filled them with freebie stickers and tattoos, which pleased the ladies at the desk.  I took the rest home and counted out enough to cover everybody at the G-Force One flight, then pocketed the remainder for handing out.  Amazingly few people knew about the Centennial.  I hadn’t heard anything until the radio ran a blurb about the only flyable Lancaster bomber coming to Edmonton and landing at the aviation museum later that day.  I went straight there and waited for the big moment, which was a deeply thrilling event.

I parked in the lot out front, and every time somebody vacated a space closer to the tarmac I moved up and into that space.  Inside of an hour I was parked with my nose right up against the fence — no better view anywhere in the airport.  I had no camera with me, though, and phoned a couple of friends to see if they wanted to join me and bring their cameras.  No luck.  I sat on the hood of my car and made friends with a man on my left, who was as anxious as I was to see the Lanc.  In time we were joined by a young fellow on the right, who asksed if he could put his pop bottles down in the shade of my car … I said if he wanted he could put them in the cooler I had in the back seat, which he did.  In the course of conversation it turned out he’d just been to Nanton, where a Lancaster was being rebuilt in their Bomber Command Museum and he had a bunch of pictures on his digital camera to share with us.   We stood on the hood and fender of my car so we could see over the chain link, and we were looking through the barbed wires on top, which I held apart so he could take pictures of the Lancaster as it landed and as it sat on the tarmac afterward.  I gave him my email address and not only did he send me copies of his Nanton pictures, he sent me the pictures he took of that day’s Lanc landing.  Great souvenirs.

A few weeks later I was in Las Vegas at the Zero Gravity breakfast, sticking temporary tattoos on people.  The flight suit had lots of pockets so I used one for tattoos, one for wet wipes to moisten the tattoos, and one for garbage … a very efficient system if I do say so myself.  The flight was a triumph of fascination over fear, and I disembarked knowing I wasn’t going to travel on the frightened flyers program any longer.  Before I left the hotel I had written a note to Captain Harding, describing the events of the last few weeks, and expressing my appreciation for the co-operation of the Air Force.  The reply was signed “Francine” which s how I found out my captain was a lady.  She advised me that she had posted my letter to the website blog so members of the forces could read for themselves how their work impacts civilians. Thus began our ongoing correspondence which is still running today.  I told her about the great success in spreading the word about the Centennial, and how exceedingly helpful it was to have small freebies to hand out.  A couple of weeks later there arrived at the post office a whole carton of SWAG (Stuff We All Get) for this very purpose — temporary tattoos, an assortment of stickers, pencils, rulers, aircraft trading cards, etc. and for me, a die-cast model of Hawk One (a separate story).  I talked up the Centennial at every opportunity and handed out swag to kids and grown kids everywhere I went.  I’m certain there are hundreds of people who might otherwise never have known about the event.

Later it turned out that there was another centennial coming up — the Canadian Navy was turning 100, and due to her experience with the Air Force Centennial, Captain Francine was being transferred to help coordinate the many events attached to that.  Along the way there was a promotion, so she became Major Francine in my correspondence.  I practically begged her to let me help out somehow, any way at all, and I ended up proofreading the website in 2010.  My plans for that summer were to take my motor home across Canada, and there was a carton of swag to take with me, and I spread the word as before.

After a couple of days in Halifax I decided to watch the ______________ where the Queen inspects the Fleet from a cruiser and all the ships are lined up in neat rows for her to sail past while the crews cheer.  This took place in __________ Bay and I had an excellent view from the side of the highway.  I don’t recall how she heard about me, but a reporter for CBC Radio met me down there and interviewed me for the next morning’s radio program.

I pre-ordered tickets for the Nova Scotia International Tattoo in Halifax, but when I got there Major F. phoned and asked if I could come early on Tattoo day.  One of the gentlemen in the organization that put on the Tattoo had heard the interview and wanted to meet me, so I was going to join her and the higher-ups in the reception room before the show.  Wow!  That meant I couldn’t wear jeans, so I phoned the lady I’d watched the Fleet _____________ with and asked her where could I get a pair of dress pants, and she suggested Sears — perfect, I could find that.

So the next day I was as dressed as I could be and showed up at the Civic Centre in Halifax and got swept upstairs by a nice young lieutenant.  Suddenly there she was, Major Francine Harding in her gorgeous uniform, looking terrific — we finally got to meet each other!  Big hugs, hurried introductions to the gentleman who had liked me on the radio, and I was placed in the care of another officer so I wouldn’t have to stand around all by myself.  Francine had work to do at the Tattoo, so she gave me a ticket to a gold seat and found me a lieutenant to sit with me for the show.  (This lieutenant was a very pretty young woman, and it turned out the Naval Centennial postage stamp bore her image.)  We had a fine time, loved the show, enjoyed a glass of wine during the intermission, and I got a copy of the VIP program autographed by everyone I’d met.  After the show I had a drink with Francine and we arranged to meet the next day for lunch and get to know each other.

We did that — I had my very first prime rib hamburger, and we had two or three delicious drinks to wash it down.  Francine gave me her Navy coin, virtually a medallion in a plastic case, which went back hundreds of years in Navy history.  Apparently Naval officers would give money to their crewmen who had done good work on a mission, and that evolved into beautifully crafted, important and treasured mementos.  I’m keeping mine forever.  After lunch we walked back to the Civic Centre and she loaded me up with several more bags of swag for the rest of my trip.

Swag got me some interesting encounters.  Whenever I’d board a plane (especially if I was wearing my flight suit) I’d hand the head flight attendant enough stickers and such to distribute to the cabin crew, then I’d raise my voice and ask if I could give some to the pilots as well.  They always heard me and called me into the cockpit to receive their freebies and the little lecture that went with them.  One captain even came to my seat afterwards and gave me a set of wings … he felt it only fair to trade something and that was all he had.  When I was driving through the northeastern United States I’d stop at toll booths and give the attendant enough swag for all his kids, and often would get waved through instead of being charged the road toll.  A Mountie in New Brunswick followed me for a while on the highway and turned into the same gas station I did … I was afraid I’d done something stupid on the road, so I grabbed some of my best swag and trotted over to his patrol car.  He had a kid, so our conversation never got around to my driving skills at all.  A woman on the desk at an aviation museum in Philadelphia wanted a Navy lanyard like mine, and if I gave her one she’d get her husband to give me a turn on the flight simulator … he flew me along Captain Sullenberger’s route down the Hudson River and happily crashed the airliner into New York City.

So that’s the story of how I found Francine, who has turned into a good friend with whom I occasionally exchange emails.  Like I said, I’m keeping the coin, and there’s no swag left except a few brochures which I’ll whittle down to one of each.  Some souvenirs are harder to part with than others.  I probably won’t be able to part with the autographed Tattoo program.

Welcome to Paris

An email arrived the other day from a tour company I had taken a river cruise with a couple of years ago.  That trip started in Paris and followed the Saone and Rhone rivers south to Tarascon, near Nice.  A wonderful excursion, but no part of all that scenic beauty and architectural history left an impression as forceful as did Paris.

I and my niece, Zenovia, arrived very early on a drab morning after flying all night, figured out where the luggage retrieval was, and dragged our bags over to the exit to wait for our car — we had come two days early to have more time in “gay Paree” and I’d asked for car service for the transfer to the hotel.  We waited and waited, all the drivers that had come had also gone and none had my name on their cards.  The obvious next step was to call the cruise director, so we did, and learned that a number of other guests had elected to arrive early so the company had sent a shuttle bus, but neglected to tell us about it.   They’d hold the bus for us, only three terminals away.

Off we hustled, in a hurry to catch the bus.  This sure didn’t feel like the start of a first class holiday in Paris any more.  My fat old legs couldn’t keep up much of a pace, but about two-thirds of the way along I got an unexpected break.  At a T-intersection of very wide halls a tall policeman stepped out of the cross hall and authoritatively brought the scurrying crowd to a halt, including us.

After I finally stopped wheezing, I started paying attention and discovered that the scuttlebutt had it that somewhere nearby there was some unattended luggage, and it was being dealt with by the police, no doubt as a potential bomb threat.  The people either milled about or sought a place to hunker down and wait, and we waited what seemed like half an hour.  The wait was ended by two more policemen coming around the corner at a run, windmilling their arms and yelling at us to move back, way back.  Another wait, this one shorter than the first, and this one terminating in an explosion — BOOM!  Nobody moved, despite the shock, and after a moment’s thought it seemed apparent that the explosion hadn’t been big enough to be a bomb — although stunningly loud, the building didn’t shake and windows were intact.  Our conclusion was that the Paris police bomb squad blew up the offending luggage, just in case.   Somebody got a really disappointing welcome to Paris.

Post-apocalyptic aside:  we phoned the cruise director because we were taking so long to get there, and he said to just take a cab.  So we found a legitimate taxi and headed for the hotel.  It was a wee bit embarrassing when the phone rang about halfway to our destination — it was the cruise guy, wondering why we still weren’t at the bus; turns out he’d meant for us to take a cab to the bus, not the hotel!  We didn’t care, we were arriving in a car, as per the original plan, and getting reimbursed to boot.  Welcome to Paris!

 

The Tuck Shop

The Tuck Shop was the beating heart of the University of Alberta for many decades, a holdover from the days of racoon coats, jalopies, tearing the goalposts down and 23-skidoo. It was a compact building on the edge of University property where students could get a haircut, buy toothpaste and razor blades, or get a great meal at a good price.  The restaurant had two mirrored walls, and a window wall — these were always painted with what amounted to posters for campus events, of which there were always many.  The fourth wall was a long counter with stools, and a chest-high bar in the center where you ordered your food and picked it up when called.  In the morning before classes started and offices opened they were sending huge pans of the world’s best cinnamon buns through the pass between the kitchen and the bar.  These buns were gigantic, feather-light, hot out of the oven and heavily buttered — the most fortifying and decadent breakfast imaginable, and incredibly popular.  (After the old building was demolished another campus cafeteria tried making these buns, but never succeeded in replicating the original … the University published two different versions of the recipe, but they never got it quite right.)

The place was loud, boisterous, always packed, and always smelled amazingly of home cooking.  There were dozens of booths, with trophies occupying the shelves between the high backs.  The huge round booths in the corners were always in demand, so your whole gang from all over campus could cram in together.

One spectacularly magical moment was late on a winter night when several of us were working late in the Surgical-Medical Research Institute. Three of us decided to go for dinner and discovered it was snowing, huge soft flakes drifting thick and slow toward the several inches already accumulated.  The street lights were diffused and the very air glittered in the silence.  We three linked arms, Renan, my hunky Brazilian chest-surgeon boyfriend on one side and John, the lab technician, on the other. When they broke into song I felt as if I’d been transported into a fantasy from the forties’ movies — their excellent voices, the surroundings, and undisturbed snow to kick through.  The closer we got to the Tuck Shop the slower we went, nobody wanted it to end.  I still smile and get a little thrill in my chest when I think of it.

I guess now I can toss those cinnamon bun recipes, especially since I don’t eat wildly extravagant pastries any more.  Well, I actually do eat them, I j

ust don’t bake them in my tiny kitchen so I don’t “knead” the instructions now.

 

 

 

Space Centre

I found a newspaper clipping from 1988 announcing that the Space Sciences Centre had decided not to renew the contract of their executive director.  I kept the article because of the fond  memories I have of the man, whose name was John.  When I met him he was executive director of the Queen Elizabeth II Planetarium, a beautiful little building that was erected to commemorate the coronation of our Queen in 1952 or thereabouts.  The construction, that is, not the coronation.  By the early 1970s it was old, very small, and badly in need of renovations, and the Department of Parks and Recreation was about to ask city council for approval of a replacement planetarium.

At that time I was temping at Parks & Rec as a staff writer (a whole ‘nother story) and since I was there for a couple of years I’d been in the habit of attending employee outings.  On one memorable occasion John was sitting across the table from me at a luncheon and we got into a deep conversation about relativity and the speed of light and associated problems (like if you had a torus moving at near-light speed would its centre diameter expand or contract?).  We scribbled up quite a few napkins that day, as I recall, as that was me in my scientific prime and I understood all that stuff.  One Thursday my boss, Ken, phoned me at home during my vacation and asked if I could come in and work with John on a project that had to be ready for the Tuesday night meeting of Council.  This was right up my alley — sharing a project with a guy who is that much fun and scoring big points with my boss at the same time?  — of course I’d come in.

The next morning I went in early and John was waiting for me at my office, and we agreed to go work in his office where all the project resources were.  At his office in the little planetarium he’d set up a typewriter across from his chair at the desk, which was covered with all kinds of paperwork already.  He told his secretary to hold his calls, bring in a fresh pot of coffee every few hours, and don’t let anyone as far as the door.  With that, we got down to business, and he oriented me to the project — it was nothing less than the Master Plan for the new planetarium —  I was so excited to be working on that, my fingers were typing in midair before I’d even sat down!  He’d been investigating sites and researching construction costs and where to get the best projector, how much more space and staff he’d want, even how many parking spaces would be needed.  He had determined how many more schoolchildren the city had who would need time in the theatre, and had held preliminary discussions with executives of related organizations. He had all the information on his desk or in his head, but Ken had sent me in because I had lots of experience with preparing material for council, digging up facts if needed, and editing.

So off we went, with a working title of Planetarium Master Plan.  We quickly settled into a routine, John dictating and me typing what he said but editing as we went along.  There was a formal outline to the project, which later became the table of contents, and if something came up too early in the sequence it would be set aside to be put into a later segment, or become an appendix.  A lot was left out altogether, being too detailed for inclusion in a master plan.  We worked on the document all that Friday, all of Saturday, and most of Sunday.  Food had been arriving periodically, but when we were done we went out to Sunday dinner, leaving behind  a draft that was easily retyped by the secretary and graphics that his technicians could readily produce.  We were both so confident of our work that we felt no need to read it one more time, double-check things — none of that.  It was good and we knew it.  On Monday I was back on vacation, but John phoned to tell me the booklet had passed the Superintendent of Parks & Rec. and had ben sent on to the city clerk to be added to the Tuesday meeting agenda.  I was thrilled when I heard it was approved by council on the first reading, and very proud to have been associated with its production.

A couple of years later a gleaming white spaceship was put up in the park next to the original planetarium, surrounded by trees and parking.  It had been designed by Canada’s premier architect and was just stunning, inside and out.  In time there was also a shed out front where telescopes and paraphernalia were stored for viewing nights — volunteers manned the scopes to help long lines of viewers get their peek at the eclipse, comet, planetary phenomenon, or anything else that made the sky interesting to look at.  The entrance let into a long curving ramp that was lined with science experiments people could get hands-on with, under a spinning solar system that was accurate in scale and relative speeds if I remember correctly.  John had managed to purchase a star projector from a superior manufacturer in Germany — he never went cheap, consistently pushing the envelope to ensure that his was the best possible facility.

I occasionally borrowed books from John’s gazillion-volume collection, and we’d visit and chat sometimes.  My biggest kick was the story about the planetarium production of a famous science fiction tale wherein computers were made more and more powerful until eventually the universe descended into complete entropy and the last stars faded to black, leaving only the artificial intelligence in another dimension.  John wanted the author, Isaac, there for the opening, but Isaac refused to fly.  John offered to drive to Boston to fetch him, which was going well in discussion until Isaac found out John intended to transport him in a Triumph!  Isaac never did show up, but the show was fabulous.

There’s another clipping here about how John retired early and spent a lot of time on his boat in the Maritimes before passing away at an age too young for someone so vital.  That made me sad.  The clippings are gone now, and my copy of the Planetarium Master Plan was donated to the archives of a branch of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada in the city.  The old Planetarium is still there, awaiting renovation, and the newer Space Sciences Centre has become a shadow of its former self, having only static displays and no crowds of kids learning science by experimentation and curiosity, and the new operators are even messing with the architectural exterior.  At least it’s cheap, which is what the city wanted from John.  That makes me sad, too.  John had put together a world-class facility, but the bean-counters thought he’d gone too far.  It’s not world class any more, but it’s still pretty nice.  I hope John was proud.  I sure was.

Flying Weightless

After twenty years of being an aviation buff, I’d had three bad experiences in a row on airplanes which (combined with other negative life experiences) left me with a fear of flying that lasted many years.  During that time I missed out on a lot of fun stuff because I wouldn’t get on the airplane.

One night in 2009 I was surfing the internet idly, not looking for anything in particular, and came across an article about a company that flew people in a weightless state — not just celebrities but anyone who had five grand to spare and met the minimum health requirements.  I went to their website and it was all true, and in a few months they were flying their plane out of Las Vegas.  I’d been a space nut my entire life, and the thought of being weightless was irresistable.  For this, I’d get on the airplane.  Within minutes I had my flight booked, along with my connecting flight to get to Las Vegas, and a hotel reservation.  I even threw in an extra flight to visit a friend in Victoria.  I’m pretty sure I didn’t sleep much that night, nor was I concerned about draining the savings account.  I was dazed and confused, but happy — I was so ready for an adventure!  Plus, that I was finally taking the big step that would help me overcome my fear of flying.  If I could get through this flight, I wouldn’t have any problems with regular, right-side-up flying any longer; I even checked this out with my doctor, who referred to it as my graduation.

September came along and I packed a small suitcase and boarded the Boeing 737 to fly to Las Vegas.  The whole way I couldn’t make up my mind whether or not to be scared .. a strange noise or a little bump would provoke a nervous reaction, but I’d think about where I was going and what I was going to do there and somehow that calmed me for a while.  Besides, I’d been an airplane fan and it was just too stupid to love something and be scared of it at the same time.  The flight went well … the worst part was trying to find somebody in the terminal to make change of a dollar so I could phone my hotel for the shuttle bus.  I think I walked the entire airport, and found most of it closed.  Even- tually I went out to the bus loading area and finally came upon one labeled with the name of my hotel — yay!

Unable to sleep, I spent half the night in the hotel’s business center emailing friends in far-flung places about my butterflies and excitement.  Slept a little, didn’t eat breakfast (the Zero Gravity company would provide appropriate food), and called a cab to go to the hotel where they were  holding the breakfast and briefing.

A few weeks before the flight I’d visited the Canadian Forces display at the Klondike Days midway and the guys at the Air Force gave me fistfuls of temporary tattoos showing the logo of the 2009 Canadian Centennial of Powered Flight, most of which I dropped off at the Alberta Aviation Museum so they’d had something to give to little kids.  The rest I took to Las Vegas —  while we waited for all of the passengers to show up, I wandered around sticking these tattoos on the hands of everyone I could, engaging them in conversation about Canada.  Turned out most of them were American, but with quite a number from Europe and Australia.  I still have a couple of these tattoos in my den. Maury, a nice man from San Jose, was very friendly but his lady friend not so much — she saw me holding the tattoo in place on Maury’s hand and came charging through the crowd to give me a really nasty glare.  What else could I do?  I grabbed her hand and smacked a tattoo on it, complete with 30 seconds of holding it in place.  She forgave me for holding hands with her boyfriend, and we all went to eat.

The breakfast was important — they served only things that tended not to upset stomachs very much.  Coffee and carbohydrates, pastries and fruit.  I’d never been airsick so I didn’t bother to take Gravol.  The briefing was a video of what to expect, and some warnings about things like overcoming the instinct to swim because all that would accomplish is kicking other people.  There were about 30 people booked on the flight, and we all got flight suits to put on over our clothes, complete with patches showing the plane, the company logo, and a US flag.  After we got dressed, we were ushered out to a bus which would take us to the airport.  The standard airport security was done right there at the hotel as we would not be going through the airport terminal, then we were off on the short trip to the airport, the same one whose terminal I’d explored so thoroughly the night before.  We disembarked on the tarmac beside a Boeing 727 named “G-Force One” and spent some time taking pictures and having our pictures taken in groups with the plane in the background … the groups were gold, silver and bronze, representing which section of the plane you’d fly in.  I’d asked for gold, which I thought might bring perks, but all it meant was that I’d be at the front.  You got colored socks so staff could tell which group you belonged to.   Shoes were all dumped in a big bag.

We climbed the steps into the hatch at the underside of the tail, and came up into a cavernous cargo hold all covered in padding, with a few rows of seats in the tail.  I took my seat and just sat there for a bit with my butterflies.  The plane rolled out and took off promptly to the designated flight zone, a moveable box in the sky ten miles long, ten miles deep, and I’m not sure how wide. Once airborne we left our seats and moved to our assigned sections with our coaches, people in charge of seeing we all had fun and didn’t get into trouble.  When we reached the near end of the flight zone we were told to lie down, as the plane was about to dive and give us the experience of Martian gravity, where our weight would be about a third of Earth normal.

The first thing I noticed in the dive was that I didn’t feel like I was being pushed up, more like the floor was moving out from beneath me.  I was able to do pushups with great ease and even bounce a few times.  The second thing I noticed was that everyone aboard was laughing.  I was completely unaware that the plane was diving, I just felt light.  When the plane got to the bottom of its dive and started climbing again there was a sudden drop to the floor and extra weight pulling me down.  The next dive was calibrated to simulate Moon gravity, a sixth of Earth normal, and a light push was enough to lift me off the floor, but I’d come gently back down again so I was (as instructed) on the floor when the coach called “Feet down, coming out!”  This was followed by another heavy climb.  The third dive was the real thing, with the plane undetectably moving out from under me and leaving me in midair, truly weightless!  I could fly across the cabin and stop myself with a light touch on the padded wall, to rebound across the area once more.  The laughter was giddy, people calling to their friends, the coach calling to passengers to try this or that maneuver.  Unbelievable noise, happiest sound I’ve ever heard.

Each dive gave us about 22 seconds of zero gravity, but it felt like so much longer.  There were 15 dives, 12 of them completely weightless.  I have to admit I was a bit timid and spent way too much time clutching the safety lines, just bobbing there in midair, soaking up the sensations.

It was all over way too soon, but I was thrilled to realize that I hadn’t been frightened in the least,  and I knew that I wouldn’t be avoiding air travel any longer — the world was open to me again, I could go wherever I wanted.  The only bad news was realizing near the end that I should have taken the Gravol … got a bit green, but managed not to use my sick bag. After the landing we were bussed back to the hotel for lunch and chatting with our section’s coach.  Gorgeous man, got a huge crush.  After lunch we were given our certificates in a fancy folder with an 8 x 10 of us in front of the plane.  I went back to the hotel and emailed everyone about the flight.  Then, as now, I completely failed to convey the joy and the sensation of weightlessness.  All I can say is that everybody should try it at least once.  One of my emails went to the Air Force, which is worth another post all its own.

I dined out on the Zero Gravity experience for months, and used my flight suit to display my small collection of crests and badges.  The plane had been equipped with video cameras to record the experience in high resolution; there had been a photographer aboard as well, who took hundreds of still photographs of the adventure.  I bought copies of everything, which I spent an inordinate amount of time reviewing over and over.  I regretted having been so timid and having wasted the opportunity to somersault and twirl … so much so that when I got an emailed ad for a special flight, I signed up for it without a second thought.

In April of 2010 I found myself southbound again, all the way to Florida, complete with a new haircut suitable for the occasion.  This time the Zero Gravity flight was going out of a small airport not far from Cape Canaveral, one of the few places on Earth I’d dreamed about visiting.  As I’d hoped and expected, the flight to Orlando wasn’t very scary.  This time I had arranged to rent a car, quite a distance from the Space Coast.  In a fit of foolishness, I decided to make the drive in a Corvette.  I also traveled in my flight suit, which had a military look about it and made it easy to strike up conversations everywhere.  It also  reduced my baggage considerably as I didn’t have to bring clothes to wear except a couple of tee shirts and some pyjamas, and there were plenty of pockets for my wallet, camera, passport, etc..  No checked baggage — I only took the backpack that had been a souvenir of my first Zero Gravity flight.  The drive to Titusville was pleasant, despite discovering that putting a Targa top onto a Corvette required arms six inches longer than mine.

The drill for this Zero Gravity flight was nearly the same as for the first, except everything was upgraded to suit the upgraded cost.  Fewer tickets were sold so you had more “airspace” on the plane, the food was better, and the souvenirs costlier.  I drove myself to the company hotel the morning of the flight, and took a couple of Gravol when I arrived … no way I wanted to waste a minute of weightlessness, and I intended to be a lot more active this time.  My stomach would just have to to tough it out.  Again I worked my way through the crowd putting Canadian Air Force tattoos on all the hands I could get hold of, except for one daring Japanese lady who wanted hers on her chest.  My section’s coach was another good-looking guy (I think that’s a condition of employment with them) who hugged a lot.  I got silver this time, so I was in the back of the plane where there were windows … did I mention that they kept people in their section by making us wear socks that matched our section color?  I was popular with the photographer since everyone was in plain blue flight suits and mine was blinged up with flashy patches … one of his shots is my Facebook picture, shown below.  I let the coach guide me through all the recommended activities, and had a fabulous time doing somersaults in midair, curling up to get thrown back and forth across the plane like a dodgeball, then standing on the side to throw a fellow flier, and doing handstands.  The best one was the “worm” maneuver, where you launched yourself toward a wall with considerable speed and then paddled your hands so you crawled up the wall, across the ceiling and down the other wall, around and around.  Tons of fun!  Sadly, almost everyone in my section was stricken with airsickness, and the final third of the flight was spacious indeed with only me and one other flier occupying our section, having a total blast.

Darlene weightless
Darlene weightless

In all fairness, I ought to mention that there were downsides to this adventuring.  One was that my first flight was too crowded, and when I ventured away from the safety lines I got a little banged up by people flailing about.  That’s why my second try was a premium flight — fewer passengers, and more parabolas — but that didn’t entirely work out.  I had lots of room and lots of attention from the coach, but the two extra parabolas never happened and the maneuvers I had dreamed up (twirling like Julie Payette and a dance) never got done … if I ever go again, I’ll do them first.  Another unexpected downside was that the pilot and caller weren’t well co-ordinated on the second flight … when we heard “feet down” we expected a couple of seconds to actually get our feet down, but the dive reversed simultaneously with the call.  On one of the parabolas I was upside down when I heard the call, and  crashed to the floor on my neck.  Fortunately, it only hurt for a couple of minutes.  Scared the crap out of the coach, though.

Lunch was good, and the certificates were individually presented by the coaches so you got a still photo of the presentation.  Since I already had a flight suit, my souvenir backpack contained a book about the company and a baseball cap with the logo on it.  As I drove back to Titusville I saw a war plane museum and pulled in to explore.  One of the senior volunteers took me for a terrific tour, and eventually we wound up on the tarmac out behind the museum, which just happened to adjoin the runway used by G-Force One.  We heard jet engines firing up, and sure enough, here came G-Force One down the runway, and turned to take off in the other direction … I was lucky enough to get video of the whole thing!

Among the souvenirs in my den are the two diplomas certifying that I flew weightless.   Considering everything, these flights were my most exciting adventure to date but even now that they’re in the blog, I still don’t think I’ll discard my certificates, just the big folders they’re in. Nor will I discard the flash drive that has all the photos and videos.  And I think I will part with the two backpacks, and a couple of pairs of coloured socks.  Okay, not the baseball cap, and I’m keeping the t-shirt, too.  And the flight suit.  That’s all.  Really.