Carnegie Mellon graduate tracing historic 1911 cross-country flight of Pittsburgh’s Calbraith Perry Rodgers for documentary | Last Word | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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Carnegie Mellon graduate tracing historic 1911 cross-country flight of Pittsburgh’s Calbraith Perry Rodgers for documentary

“I’m just sort of trying to allow the trip to unfold the way it will.”

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When he’s flying, David Grabowski has time to think. There are some technical details to tend to — temperature gauges to check, a flight course to maintain, traffic to avoid — but between takeoff and landing, there’s time to think. 

The thoughts are hard to describe. He’s traveling at 50 mph, 3,000 feet above the ground in a one-person, open-cockpit aircraft. He’s exposed to the elements. He’s alone. There are the panoramic views of the landscape that even most commercial airline pilots will never experience. 

Then there are more concrete thoughts. His girlfriend’s having a baby in March. He’s running a marathon in November. He’s writing the score for a documentary about a guy flying across the country. He’s also the documentary’s subject; he’s the “guy.” 

Grabowski is in the midst of a 4,000-mile journey across the United States in a single-pilot trike — essentially a hang-glider attached to a motorized go-kart, steered by weight-shift. He’s flying from Sacramento to Brooklyn over 40ish days, across 70ish cities and 13ish states. 

That’s a lot of approximation there, and that’s because a trip like this is built on a cascade of plans and backup plans, contingencies and last resorts. There are weather concerns, mechanical issues to upkeep, and airport schedules to maintain. But when CP spoke to Grabowski two weeks into his trip, everything seemed peachy. Aside from a mechanical problem a week prior to takeoff and some unseasonal weather early on, the trip is on track.

“I have days where I’m like, ‘This is going a little too smooth, when am I gonna have a serious mechanical issue?’” Grabowski, a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, told CP from Tuscon on Sept. 30. “There’s no point in thinking like that. If it happens, it happens, but until then you just do your very best and that’s all you can do. I don’t really have any room for worry. I only have room for doing the best job that I could possibly do to ensure that I have a safe flight. And also finish it.”

Grabowski’s trike, a borrowed North Wing Scout X2 called Eddy (“Steady Eddy”), is equipped with a Ballistic Recovery System, which deploys a large parachute in case of an emergency. Eddy weighs 750 pounds with Grabowski and a 16.25-gallon fuel tank on board. Leaving extra fuel in case of in-air emergencies, 15 gallons allows for around four hours of flying a day. The rest of time, Grabowski and his ground crew, Stephen Tonti and Arina Bléiman, spend their days planning, blogging and shooting footage for their documentary about the trip, called Tilt Shift. Tonti, one of Grabowski’s best friends and a fellow CMU grad, is directing; Bléiman is the director of photography.

The roots of Tilt Shift date back, as ideas like this often do, to a period of post-college malaise. Looking for a little direction, Grabowski discovered the story of Calbraith Perry Rodgers. In 1911, Rodgers, a Shadyside native, took off from Brooklyn and endured more than 15 crashes before arriving on the West Coast three months later. Less than a decade after the invention of the airplane, Rodgers became the first man to fly across the country. Grabowski, who had never piloted an aircraft in his life, was inspired. 

He moved to California and began training to get his pilot’s license. He spent the following years fundraising, gathering a team and coordinating his plan: to re-trace Rodgers’ flight 105 years to the day after it occurred and make a film about it. If it were somebody else, the story might feel a little contrived: the anniversary, the election-year cross-country “road” trip, the Pittsburgh connection, the impending fatherhood. It’s almost too good of a story. But you don’t quit your job, go through arduous, costly, time-consuming training and risk your life on a lark. 

“The first time I told [my sister] I was going to do this,” says Grabowski, 27, “her first words were, ‘David, you can’t do that.’”

Rodgers faced similar skepticism. 

“There’s not a machine in the world that wouldn’t vibrate itself to death in 1,000 miles,” said Orville Wright of Rodgers’ flight in 1911, according to an article in Air and Space Magazine. It’s easy to see why Grabowski was taken with the dude. 

The epitaph on Rodgers’ tombstone in Allegheny Cemetery reads “I ENDURE / I CONQUER.” After Grabowski and crew land at a small airport north of Pittsburgh on Oct. 25(ish), they plan to visit it, as well as other landmarks of Rodgers’ life. After that, it’s a stop in his hometown of Lancaster, Pa., and then on to Brooklyn, where the trip ends. 

“I’m just sort of trying to allow the trip to unfold the way it will, and it wants to,” says Grabowski, “and not be disappointed that it’s not the way I’d imagine it to be.”

Tilt Shift is due out in fall 2017.


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