On the runway of Stafford Regional Airport rests a beautiful, open cockpit biplane. This Boeing Stearman PT-17 biplane was built in 1942, and was utilized to train Naval aviation cadets during World War II. The Stearman was passed through multiple hands since World War II, and is now owned and operated by Lee Fox, owner of Helmet & Goggles Biplane Adventures.
“It is actual living history,” Fox said.
Fox’s love of aviation began during his college years, when his father, a retired pilot, took him gliding. According to Fox, “The hook was set.” He was hired by American Airlines in 1969, and worked for them for 37 years. Fox’s retirement from aviation lasted about five years; he missed it too much. When he purchased the Stearman, he began offering rides to the public. A native of Fredericksburg, he now runs Helmet & Goggles biplane rides out of Shannon Airport.
Last month on a beautiful, blue sky day, I made the trip to Shannon Airport (the former location of Helmet & Goggles) to take a flight in the Stearman. Fox emphasized to me just how rigorous the inspections of the Stearman are, undergone by the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA carefully reviews both the plane and the pilots, including Fox.
“Our operation is built on safety,” Fox said, detailing the measures they take to ensure safety, while also having fun with each flight.
As someone who is afraid of heights, I must say that my nerves were on fire when Fox explained to me the flight precautions and safety measures before we took off. When we prepared for takeoff, I was petrified. Once we were up in the air, I was scared for about 30 seconds. Due to Fox’s precision as a pilot, as well as the gorgeous views of Fredericksburg, I can confidently say that my flight with Helmet & Goggles was genuinely the coolest experience of my life.
We spent our time in the Stearman flying over downtown Fredericksburg and Central Park. Through an intercom, Fox detailed the locations that we flew by, from Ferry Farm to the Fredericksburg Nationals park. The ride was completely smooth, with virtually no turbulence. With the open cockpit, I was able to look down and experience the gorgeous views of Fredericksburg from the air. It was beautiful, thrilling, and incredibly enjoyable.
After a few impressive tricks with his Stearman, Fox flew us back to Shannon Airport. As we touched down, I knew that my flight with Helmet & Goggles was a moment that will live in my memory forever. I have never felt safer in a method of transportation than I did in the Stearman, which I believe is a testament to the capabilities of Fox. My adrenaline was racing through my body in the best way possible, and I cannot wait to go back to Shannon Airport for another flight.
According to Fox, I was not alone with how I felt after my flight. Fox said that after every flight, riders walk away with what he calls “The Stearman Smile.” He detailed the story of an F18 pilot who took a ride in the Stearman, who later said it was the best airplane ride that he had ever taken. Fox also told me the story of a teenager whose father, a pilot in the Marines, brought him to fly with Helmet & Goggles for his 16th birthday. The teenager did not seem interested in the flight before; once they touched down, he ran to his Dad and said “Dad, I think I want to be a pilot.” For Fox, that experience is why he flies the Stearman.
Helmet & Goggles operates biplane rides on Saturdays during the spring and summer. They accept walk-ups, as well as online reservations. One of their options is the entry-level flight, where riders will spend seven minutes in the air over Fredericksburg. Their most popular ride is “The Recon Mission,” where riders will fly for 30 minutes over Fawn Lake, the solar farm, and Lake of the Woods. They also have the “Battlefield Tour” over the Fredericksburg region battlefields, as well as “The Dogfight,” which samples basic aerobatic maneuvers that Naval Cadets would learn in Basic Flight Training.
Whether you are interested in a quick flight or an aerobatic adventure, I cannot recommend Helmet & Goggles enough. Under the true professionalism and experience of Fox, my flight was nothing but enjoyable and thrilling. I had an absolute blast flying with Fox, and I hope that you will enjoy it as well.