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Contributors: Speed as a Demon and a Desire

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While flying in the rear cockpit of the Collings Foundation’s F-4 Phantom fighter jet this spring, Patrick Smith was as anxious as he was exhilarated. He felt the sensation of the extreme g-forces and could not forget about the extreme antiquity of the aircraft. “I was thinking, ‘You’re sending me up in this 40-year-old fighter jet, it’s going to crash, and that will be the end of it,’ ” says Smith, who writes about his experience in “Spin Control”. “It wasn’t the maneuvers that I was afraid of, just this hideously old plane suffering some malfunctions.”


Ironically, the specter of potential malfunctions originated from members of the foundation’s maintenance crew, who, as Smith recalls, seemed worried before takeoff. He now understands that the crew was concerned with possible repair costs, not with the possibility of his flight culminating in a crumpled fuselage ablaze somewhere in the Texas desert.

The knowledge that, if such a scenario appeared imminent, he could activate the ejection seat and abandon the jet in mid-flight did not offer Smith a sense of security. “It’s so complicated that you can’t imagine it’s all going to work right,” he says. “The idea of ejecting out of that thing—I had it in my mind that if it came to that, it was over.”

The author of Ask the Pilot: Everything You Need to Know about Air Travel (Riverhead Books, 2004) and an erstwhile commercial pilot, Smith notes that he approached the F-4 experience with a disposition that is completely uncharacteristic of his former profession. “Before taking the flight, I was convinced I was going to be killed,” he says. “There was a part of me hoping that they [the passenger and pilot who flew the Phantom just before him] wouldn’t come back, just so I wouldn’t have to go.”

However, once he completed his flight, Smith was ready to be strapped back into the seat so that he could take another one. “People want to do it the same way they want to ride roller coasters over and over again,” he says. “It’s that masochistic tendency.”

While Smith was hoping secretly that he could avoid flying in the Phantom, Michael Verdon was eager to board BMW Oracle’s USA 87, the America’s Cup contender he writes about in “Fast Track to the Cup”. However, he and other media members were denied access during the yacht’s initial test runs off the coast of Spain earlier this year. “They don’t let you on board because they’re trying to keep it top secret,” explains Verdon in reference to the technology and design elements implemented by the same engineers who work with BMW’s Formula One racecar team.

Verdon, a veteran boating writer who has contributed to Robb Report often, believes USA 87 has a good chance of winning the preliminary challenger series and earning the opportunity to seize the America’s Cup trophy from the Swiss syndicate Alinghi. However, unseating the Swiss likely would be a difficult task, he says, because the Alinghi team has been racing very well so far this season.

If USA 87 does succeed, Verdon says, the sailors and the BMW engineers will share the credit. “The technology has to be to a certain level,” he says, “but at that point the teamwork takes over. You can have the best America’s Cup boat out there but lose the race with a poor team.”

Regardless of whether the American team is victorious, Verdon adds, he expects BMW will remain involved in America’s Cup sailing. “BMW is trying to market yachting, Formula One racing, and golf,” he says, referring to the PGA Tour partnership that the carmaker was planning to announce this summer. “They seem committed to the sport, so even if the team doesn’t win, I wouldn’t be surprised if they remain a sponsor in America’s Cup yachting.” 

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