Craig Kelly was my co-pilot: A true life story from Chris Doyle

For one reason or another, my life took me from Burlington, Vermont to Santa Fe, New Mexico for a couple of years in the late ‘90s. I had just bought my airplane a few months prior and decided I would use it to move to Santa Fe. But before I moved I had this dream that if I was going to go all the way to Santa Fe, maybe I could fly my plane all the way across the country. For a little perspective this plane, known as a Luscombe Silvaire, was born in 1947, had 85 horsepower, two seats and no electrical system; you had to pull the prop to start it. No bathrooms, no cocktails, no movie, it was old school.

Illustration by Mark Kowalchuk

So to be able to truly claim coast to coast, I first headed east and swung the wheels out over Cape Cod Bay, which I figured counted as the Atlantic Ocean. From there it was on to Syracuse to see my parents and plan the rest of the trip. Five days and many takeoffs and landings later I made it to Santa Fe. Close to a year later, I was still living in New Mexico and not really grooving on it at all. One Sunday I was at the airport working on the plane when my phone rang, and of all people it was Terje. He was calling to tell me about The Haakonsen Faktor premiere that weekend at Volcom in Southern California, and he wanted me to come. I thought, wow, here was my chance to make a run for the far coast. So at 5 a.m. and a chilly 31 degrees (not much in the way of heat in the Luscombe) the following Friday morning I took off, with Oceanside Municipal 1,000 miles off the nose. Our first fuel/pee stop was in Holbrook, AZ, just west of the Painted Cliffs. It was still pretty chilly, but it was up to the 40s and southwest bluebird as we gassed up and took off towards the next stop at Lake Havasu City. Landing there it was 106 degrees on the tarmac, and I was still in the puffy I had started with. Crazy…

After fueling and carefully planning the final leg I took off in the suffocating, bumpy heat. Climbing out of there was the gnarliest thing. For someone who hasn’t seen California east of the San Gabriels, it’s like Mars down there. No roads… nothing. I just hoped that of all places my engine didn’t quit there, as to my rising alarm the oil temp nudged redline and oil pressure sagged. After a somewhat harrowing ride over a couple huge mountain ranges and under the smoke of a forest fire on Mount Palomar we landed at the Oceanside airport, which is right across the street from Transworld (I was still writing for them at the time for Snowboard Life). So on wobbly knees after 1,000 miles and 10 hours in the air I crossed the road, stumbled into the Transworld offices, and standing there at the front counter was Craig.

I hadn’t seen him in a couple of years and was stoked when he recognized me with, “Hey man, how’s it going?” I said, “Kind of beat up, I just flew in.” Nodding, he replied, “Yeah, me too, I just flew in from Argentina,” and I was like, “No really, I just flew in, my airplane’s across the road!” And he said, “No way, I want to see the plane.” So we dropped everything and headed back to the airport where after checking the Silvaire out and hearing a couple details of the journey he just thought it was the coolest thing. Transworld had bought him a hotel room and I didn’t have a place to stay, so I glommed onto his room and the next morning I took him flying.

“Using the controls on my side I showed him how you lead with the nose and carve off the tail, and make some turns just like carving in pow.”

It was so cool because this was Craig — he’s flown in every helicopter, every plane, all over the globe. To me this guy was Chuck Yeager and Neil Armstrong all in one person. I just assumed he had gained actual flying experience somewhere in his adventures. So we take off and we’re maybe a couple hundred feet off the ground, and I just let go of everything and say, “It’s your airplane, you can fly it.” I just figured he knew what to do! So he takes the stick (the airplane has dual controls) and I was on the rudders, just all relaxed showing him what to do when I noticed he was wide-eyed, staring at the instruments (there are only five of them) and had basically stopped breathing. I looked over and realized this was something entirely new for him, kinda laughing to myself about how apparently gripped he was right then. After a few moments I leaned over and got right next to his face and went “poof!” (blew a quick puff of air on his cheek). He shot me a look all startled like “WTF?” Laughing, I said, “Breathe, forget the instruments, look outside; this is a lot like snowboarding.” Using the controls on my side I showed him how you lead with the nose and carve off the tail, and make some turns just like carving in pow. He began to relax and started to get the feel for it, so we progressed to some tight 2g 360s, then I taught him how to pull a wingover. I said, “Think of it just as if you are going down a chute towards a nice little wind lip. You gain some speed, roll up the face of the wind lip and carve off the face with the airplane and ride down the other side, always carving off the tail.” He was smiling broadly now as he learned how to do wind lips in the airplane.

Next, I said, “The wind is coming from the southwest, so we’re going to go with the mountain range over there, get to the south face close and bounce off the wind that’s rising up the face and you’re going to feel it.” I basically taught him how to do slashes in the airplane and he was so into it. We hit that ridge probably a dozen times, each time I was egging him on. “Just pull harder, I won’t let you kill us.” For a guy that had experienced the kind of life threatening, high adrenaline situations he had, this comment got a big laugh. We were both having so much fun, finally heading back to Oceanside after about an hour and a half. Flying out of Santa Fe at 6300 ft. the air is pretty thin and I was used to approaching the airstrip with a little more speed and extra altitude for a safety margin. But down at sea level the air is thick, and I found myself on a short, final descent coming in a little high and hot. In my airplane, in order to lose altitude and control your landing you kind of kick it sideways and do this thing called a slip where you fly one wing low and somewhat sideways to spill lift and induce drag. A perfectly safe maneuver, but a little alarming for the second-seater if they didn’t know what to expect. Without a word of warning I just threw it sideways and brought it in, touching down and rolling back to the tie-down. “That was so rad,” he exclaimed, “but what was up with that little boardslide there at the end?” I got a great laugh cause I had never thought of it like that. And to this day, whenever I throw it into a slip to get into a short, tight field I think, boardslide to landing, here we go.

And that was my flight with Craig. We landed, taxied in and I pulled into my little tie-down spot and shut it off, and he looked over at me and he gave me his, I don’t know… “Craig look,” where his eyes would get narrow and his lips would kind of purse up and said, “Doyle, you’ve got the spirit.” I’ll never forget that. He was a great man and a great friend, and I’m so stoked that I got to take Craig flying.

Originally featured in Snowboard Mag Vol. 10, Issue 4 | The Olympic Issue

Read also: Weathering the Storm: A true life story from Bryan Iguchi



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