Full Throttle
Finding peace in the clouds
By Jayne Jacova Feld

From 2,600 feet above the South Jersey shoreline, the clouds cast a huge shadow on the marshland below. Above us, they appear closer than they actually are – like a gentle buffer protecting me and my travel companion, and his 2-seater stunt plane, from the unknowable. Meanwhile, the 3 planes keeping pace with ours look small, insignificant. In this moment I let go of my fear of not being in control, because clearly, I am not in control. There is nothing to do but be in the moment.

It is the day before the Atlantic City Airshow and I am taking up an incredible opportunity to fly with the Full Throttle Formation Team. They’re one of the many military and civilian aircraft and helicopter groups from across the country gathered at the Atlantic City Airport, which is abuzz with activity.

During a long wait, I have too much time to obsess over what was a snap decision to do something outside my comfort zone. While not terribly afraid of heights or flights, I have been known to throw up on charter fishing boats. It’s motion sickness that wrecks me. And although my mind wants to do this – to see South Jersey from such a unique vantage point, to do scary things – I worry that my legs will not budge. What if they simply clamp to the ground and prevent me from climbing into the tiny cockpit of this seriously small aircraft that looks like a child’s toy? When the actual moment arrives to walk the tarmac, adrenaline thankfully overpowers fear.

My pilot, Brian “Sarge” Eberle, puts me at ease while guiding me to his 360-horsepower propeller aircraft. He has an easy smile and a pilot’s sense of narration. The take-off is incredibly smooth, chewing up very little runway before we’re airborne. It feels like only seconds pass before we are high up above South Jersey, and he’s interpreting for me the chatter we’re hearing on the aviation headset and responding to hand signals from his fellow pilots. During a 45-minute ride free roaming the coastline, there are serene moments, others that churn my stomach and times when companion planes feel impossibly close considering the vastness of space around us.

But then I’d remember my training for this ride and channel it. Just weeks earlier I watched the original “Top Gun” with my family during our Ocean City vacation. I was pleasantly surprised by how well it aged, and how much we enjoyed it. Back home we saw “Maverick,” the “Top Gun” sequel, in the theater. So when I felt like I could possibly throw up, I focused on the horizon, like Sarge had suggested, and mouthed the mantra I hoped would trick my brain: “I feel the need…the need for speed!”

We were clearly not breaking the sound barrier on this flight, and this was definitely not a full-throttle run. It was just a jaunt for Sarge, who flew up here from Peachtree, Georgia and explained that 12 Full Throttle pilots would be doing a well-practiced 14-minute precision performance for the actual show the next day. The sequence they followed was taped to the cockpit next to a toggle switch labeled “Oh Shit.” That’s the switch that kicks the plane into autopilot in case of emergency, he explains, adding that no one who has ever sat in my seat on his watch has had to use it.

Sarge was a good guide to the skies. It was his first time in Atlantic City, which I found surprising. He flies private planes for a living, has been part of Full Throttle’s team for over a decade, and was a retired US Air Force engineer. That’s how he became known as Sarge, his flyboy call sign, just like Iceman and Goose. He’s been mostly everywhere, not here – until now.

Our excursion covers a lot of air above Ocean City and some of the mainland in Ocean and Atlantic Counties. Atlantic City was off limits due to all the airshow activity. And although I knew that our coast is largely composed of marshlands, it takes an aerial view to really appreciate how swampy it is – and just how beautiful and lush green swampland can be. Another observation from above: The actual coastline looks really skinny – which is not how it feels when you’re lugging a cart and other beach necessities across the hot, steamy sand with children in tow.

Sarge dipped the plane lower when we flew over Ocean City. He explained that, per FAA rules, we had to be 500 feet above people and buildings. I could just about make out clusters of beachgoers, the tops of colorful umbrellas and tents from our vantage point. We were too far up to tell if anyone was looking at our 4-plane formation or if it was late enough in the day that beach goers had had enough of looking up at the skies every time a plane was overhead.

Ravi, center, with his brothers on the beach during the airshow in 2016

That’s how it usually went for my family. Every year since my kids were little, we’ve made it a point to be on the beach either on the day of the airshow or for the practice-run. I have clear, sweet memories of looking up from constructing sandcastles when we’d hear the roar of engines, followed by the delayed thrill of seeing the planes zooming above us.

The kids’ favorite was always the Thunderbirds, the Air Force’s elite fighter jets, which I could only identify for the longest time because my husband Craig would always excitedly announce it. We would pause until they disappeared into the horizon and then we’d go back to our beach activities. In 2020, Covid canceled the airshow for the first time. We were in our beach rental the day it would have happened, and I remember missing it – like so much that was lost during that period.

I had brief flashbacks of my family’s airshow activities as I looked down from Sarge’s plane at the shoreline below. My oldest son Ravi, who died last year in a car crash, loved those beach days. He was always the first to get his phone ready to take video of the aerial show above us.

In those moments of flying, when I let go of control, I felt closer to Ravi, imagining that it was only the clouds that separated us. Maybe this flight would be the closest I could get to him for now. It was a comforting thought.

The next day, true to family tradition, we were camped out in Margate for our airshow/beach day. When I mentioned to the kids how I felt Ravi with me in the air, my middle son Lee, 17, quickly pointed out that Ravi was the last person who would have ever gotten into that tiny cockpit. He was scared of heights and, while always stretching himself, not at all interested in conquering that particular fear. That was true, but so was my feeling of connection during the flight that felt both so short and long. I smiled and shrugged. It gave me a sense of perspective I was looking for in the moment. I’m so grateful for the feeling and memory.

October 2022
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