Something there is about a wing: So simple, so perfect. Push it along and it splits the wind. Air on the bottom shoots across a flat surface, but air on top must go further, over a curve. Nature orders the two gaseous factions to rejoin, so the air on top hurries to catch up, leaving behind a pressure vacuum the wing rises to fill. Presto: Lift! The whole, heavier-than-air contraption goes aloft.
That's the miracle of flight. Bruce Peters first addressed it as a boy when he was given a windup toy float plane for the tub. Try as he might, he couldn't get it to lift off for lack of power, which was frustrating.
He wanted to soar like his father, an Army Green Beret who leaped from planes in Korea, then Vietnam. On his 13th birthday, Peters got his wish when his dad gave him a gift certificate for a hang-gliding lesson.
Peters went airborne that day, and the 15 years since have been one liftoff after another. Now he's president of Fun Flight Inc., an Alexandria company dedicated to the idea anyone who wants to can have his own, personal airplane.
"When you amortize the costs over 60 months," said Peters, who pushes the $10,000, two-seat, 350-pound, 48-horsepower Beaver RX 550 and its more powerful, $12,000 kin, the RX 650, "the costs of ownership are negligible."
That depends where you sit financially. From one perspective, it sounds like a lot for a hobby. From another, it's the bargain of the millennium.
How many millions of years has it been, after all, since man first cast a glance skyward and yearned to share the glory every dove, eagle and starling takes for granted?
We can climb aboard a commercial airliner and blast off for Boston in pressurized comfort these days. But who among the billions of humans passing through this too-short life ever got to strap on his own wings and soar with the hawks alone, just for the fun of it?
"There's one now," said Peters as we eased along at 45 mph, 1,000 feet above Piscataway Creek last week. "Let's join him."
It was a red-tail, hunting lunch from the tangled river-bottom below. We took him by surprise when Peters banked, dropped 200 feet and pulled in alongside, flying wing-to-wing with a predator on the prowl. The hawk looked nervously at his noisy, new sidekick, flapped twice and banked off to blue oblivion.
"Wow!" said the pilot.
It was rare, exclamatory outburst from the sobersided Peters, who at age 28 has perfected the gravelly, reassuring tone of the commercial jet-jockey. "We're banking now for final approach," he ho-hummed through the earphones as our two-seat trainer dropped toward the treetops for a landing at Oxon Hill's Potomac Airfield. "Might be a little bumpy here for a second or two . . . "
But if it was, I was to goo-goo-eyed to notice. Just the idea of being aloft, a fifth of a mile up with no more constraints than a fiberglass seat, a plastic windshield and a harness gave me goose-bumps.
This theoretically being a learn-to-fly introductory lesson, Peters kept urging me to fiddle with the joy stick, which controlled the elevator in back and the ailerons out on the wings, or the pedals that moved the rudder, or the throttle bar at my left hand.
But all I wanted to do was gawk at Canada geese in the cornfield below, at cowpaths snaking through the woods, at the serpentine beauty of an Indian Head Highway cloverleaf, so ugly from the ground; at the circular patterns of tractor tracks in the fields, the geometric precision of new housing tracts and the meanders of a marsh creek; at the naked scar of a sand pit. Even that looked pretty from here.
Personal recreational aircraft like the Beaver RX 550 we flew have come a long way from humble origins in the last decade, Peters said.
"They started out as flying lawn-chairs," with no creature comforts and few safety features, he said. But these days, they are complete, tiny aircraft with all the appropriate controls and precautions, though with no actual cabin structure to keep out wind and rain.
Peters, who spent his early years hang-gliding and soaring in unpowered craft, got into flying the little motorized craft in the early 1980s when his bosses at the Flying Circus Air Show in Bealton, Va., where he worked weekends as a "prop boy," hand-starting planes for the aerobatic shows, voted to let him pilot a tiny recreational plane loaned to them for promotional purposes.
Peters, who still flies miniplanes at the Circus, found himself the object of increasing attention from show-goers asking for flying lessons and for information about buying the little planes.
Having studied marketing at George Washington University, he recognized a business opportunity and dropped a budding career as a radio announcer to devote full time to hawking flying machines and teaching people to operate them.
He picked the Canadian-made Beaver because it was popular, with over 2,000 units sold, and in his view well-built and safe. "There has never been a fatality in a Beaver," Peters said.
The little planes have a glide ratio of about 10 to 1, which means for every foot they drop in altitude they'll glide 10 feet without engine power. Thus at 1,000 feet, you have almost two miles of gliding to find a place to land.
They climb at about 1,000 feet per second and take off in as little as 100 feet of runway. So powerful are the lift forces of the rayon-covered wings, the Beaver looks almost comical taking off as it sprints briefly down the tarmac and shoots into the sky at a mere 35 mph, helicoptering almost straight up into the wild blue.
Then it's just you and the hawks and that miracle of a wing out there, climbing, climbing . . .
Fun Flight Inc. offers a 10-hour recreational flying course at Potomac Airfield whose graduates are capable of soloing in recreational aircraft, Peters said. The introductory hour costs $59.99, the rest are $69.99.
For information, phone (703) 751-5445.