What was I thinking?
I was at Lake Norman Airpark recently, strapped into a two-seat aerobatics plane, a parachute pack fastened to my chest and back.
Pilot Mike Matthews was about to climb 3,000 feet over the lake to perform basic aerobatic maneuvers, such as a two-turn spin to the left and a "hammerhead," in which, in seconds, you're staring straight up at the sky and then straight down at the ground before the plane levels off.
What was I thinking?
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I knew that Matthews flies full time for NASCAR legend Richard Petty and Petty's son Kyle, and that he ran an aerobatics program in Las Vegas, training people from around the world. He now instructs pilots and offers aerobatic rides to the public at his Acro Dynamics company based at Lake Norman Airpark.
But what really put me at ease at the flying strip off Perth Road was Matthews' immediate discussion of how to be safe in an aerobatics plane.
No boasting about all the fancy maneuvers he could perform. What he wanted me to know was how and when to pull the parachute cord. Pull it immediately once you're off the plane, he said, because you'll instantly have fallen well below the craft.
It will save my life, he told me, not that anything was likely to go wrong on this sunny Tuesday morning.
Was I claustrophobic? he asked, knowing how cramped the two-seater can be. Nope, I replied.
Matthews performed a safety check of his 1978 Bellanca Decathlon CS, and we were off on our 30-minute flight.
It was a beautiful day to check out the homes along the fingers of the lake in Iredell and Catawba counties, and I knew I was in good hands.
A native of Boonville in Yadkin County, Matthews, 30, has piloted planes since he was 7. His family had a grass airplane strip. His dad, Rick Matthews, 60, flew Huey helicopters in Vietnam and later AH-1 Cobras.
"I couldn't reach the rudder pedals, but I was flying the airplane," Mike Matthews said. "I was 12 or 13 before I got to land an airplane."
Matthews said he's proud to follow in his dad's aeronautical footsteps. He's taught aerobatics now for four years.
Trying a new maneuver "still gives me the butterflies," Matthews said. "It's what keeps me coming back. It's that 'what if' that keeps me coming back."
But his passion has always been teaching aerobatics, he said, and to give novices such as myself at a least a taste of the thrill.
When we reached the Catawba County community of Long Island, Matthews checked in with me over our headsets. Was I still OK for him to begin his maneuvers?
All set, I replied, and then felt the plane begin to point straight up into the sky then roll on its side.
"Is this real?" I thought as I looked out the window and suddenly saw only ground and water, then felt the plane gently level off.
The maneuvers lasted mere seconds and were surprisingly smooth, but they'll remain with me forever. As a recoverer from acrophobia (fear of heights), I did something I never thought I'd have the courage to do at all.
I credit Matthews, who made me feel like I was a part of his team. He even came up with a nickname for me, based on the name of his company.
To Matthews, I'm now "Acro Joe."