Veteran Pilot Shares Flying Passion With Staff Writer; Klatt Among Weekend Performers

Veteran Pilot Shares Flying Passion With Staff Writer; Klatt Among Weekend Performers

BERLIN – I’ve done a lot of neat things as a reporter. I’ve interviewed movie directors, spoken to some of the state’s most powerful politicians and chatted with star athletes. I’ve visited sewage treatment plants, toured local swamps and learned how to shear a sheep.

On Wednesday, I took things to a whole new level — literally — as I accompanied Lt. Col. John Klatt on a flight over Ocean City in advance of this weekend’s air show. Sitting down at my computer an hour later, my stomach is still churning.

When I arrived at the designated hangar at Ocean City Airport Wednesday morning, days of nervous anticipation culminated with a round of introductions and some brief instructions. I wasn’t surprised to see Klatt — who flies for the Air National Guard — holding a parachute for me to strap on, but I did get a little nervous when his assistant started firing ejection instructions at me.

“First remove your headset,” he said. “You don’t want your head to stay in the plane. Unbuckle your seatbelt. Pull this pin to open the parachute. But don’t touch it while you’re in the plane. That would be bad.”

He helped me climb onto the wing of the Air National Guard Extra 300L and step down into the seat. I settled in as best as I could and waited for takeoff.

It was easy to see that Klatt, who’d climbed into the plane’s rear seat, was no stranger to dealing with nervous passengers. It took just seconds of small talk for him to discover my favorite diversion — horses — and he quickly peppered me with questions as we headed down the runway. While I was telling him about what horses ate and describing how they all have different personalities, we were leaving the ground.

I fell silent as I watched the familiar landscape come into focus beneath us. I was immediately reminded of why I love it here — as the greens and browns of trees and postage-stamp-shaped farm fields were visible to my right, the broad Atlantic Ocean came into view on the left.

As we turned toward downtown Ocean City, cliché or not, my first thought was how small everything was. Having spent plenty of time cruising the bayside of Ocean City by boat, I quickly picked out the commercial harbor, the end of Assateague and the Inlet.

“See the Ferris wheel?” Klatt asked, making sure I was able to orient myself.

I did, and it was the last piece of scenery I saw as we got down to the part of the ride Klatt was interested in — the aerobatics. The 25-year veteran of the Air National Guard is known for his skill maneuvering the Air National Guard MX-S. Klatt, who makes a living as an airline pilot, credits air shows like the one in Ocean City this weekend with getting him interested in becoming a pilot. As a child, he was one of many spectators awed by the skill of pilots like Sean Tucker as they soared through the sky above Oshkosh, Wisc.

“Air shows inspired me,” Klatt said.

Through his membership in the Air National Guard, a federal military reserve force, Klatt has flown combat, air support and humanitarian missions throughout the world in F-16 and C-130 aircraft.

“It’s a really neat organization that a lot of people don’t know about,” he said.

Klatt appreciates the fact that he’s able to serve and at the same time maintain a fulltime job. Because the

Klatt’s MX-S airplane can reach 300 mph and can experience nine positive G-forces during his presentation.

Klatt’s MX-S airplane can reach 300 mph and can experience nine positive G-forces during his presentation.

same is true for the rest of the 105,000 members of the Air National Guard, Klatt has served with people from every walk of life.

“I’ve flown with doctors,” he said.

For the past decade, however, he’s turned to representing the Air National Guard in air shows. This year, he’ll fly in 15 shows throughout the country.

“There are not a lot of jobs that afford you the opportunity to see the nation through that lens,” he said.

Klatt hesitated when I asked him where he’d enjoyed flying the most. He mentioned the sights he’d seen from the MX-S flying over New York City and Seattle but couldn’t decide on a favorite.

“The variety,” he said. “We get to see the whole nation with a bird’s eye view.”

And having flown all over the country, Klatt still appreciates the chance to take to the skies in Ocean City.

“It’s a pretty special area geographically,” he said.

With the hazy expanse of the ocean below us, we caught up with the plane carrying photographer Chris Parypa. I felt the first twinge of nausea as Klatt tilted the angle of the plane so Parypa, whose plane was slightly above and in front of ours, could get some photos.

“Still doing okay my friend?” Klatt asked as we dipped away from the other plane.

I responded that I was, but with a little less conviction than I’d had before. I tried to steel myself for the move that was coming next, when Klatt would turn the plane upside down. With nothing but the control stick in front of me and the seat below me, I asked Klatt what I could hold onto.

“You don’t have to hold onto anything,” he replied, somewhat taken aback.

While the rational part of my mind knew that, part of me still wanted to hold on for dear life. Klatt directed me to some metal rods along the inner wall of the cockpit. I grabbed one on each side and around we went. The maneuver itself was too quick to concern me. What I could not get my mind around was the plane hovering, upside down, for minutes — not just a few seconds. With my eyes squeezed shut, I felt the weight of my body pressing against the belts holding me to my seat. I felt sure something was going to snap and I was going to hit the roof of the cockpit at any moment.

I was able to open my eyes eventually, but when Klatt’s voice came over the headset I had to consciously direct my hand to ease its grip on the metal bar so I could turn on the mike to respond.

The relief I felt when Klatt righted the plane was short-lived. We picked up speed and quickly went into the loop my stomach still hasn’t recovered from. This time, I made an effort to keep my eyes open — not that I could see much at 200 mph — and found it wasn’t the idea of the aerobatics that upset me so much as the motion itself. Comparing it to a roller coaster ride couldn’t begin to do it justice.

Needless to say, I welcomed the news that we were heading in. While Klatt would have been eager to show me more, he wanted to make sure the experience stayed a good one for me. After all, his goal as an air show pilot is to share his love of flying with everyone.

“I want to be able to show the next generation,” he said.

He’ll show them plenty this weekend. Klatt, who’s quick to point out that it’s not about speed, will reach 300 mph and experience nine positive G-forces as he performs the loops, stalls, dives and spins he sums up as “12 minutes of hardcore aerobatics.”

Klatt will perform following the Breitling Jet Team on Saturday and after the demo of the Cold War era jets on Sunday. For more information visit