Web Exclusives:Features

April 10, 2002:

Alumni Spotlight:
The wind in his hair
Alan Lopez '65 pilots vintage biplane to out of the way places

Over the past 12 years, Alan Lopez '65 has flown his vintage open-cockpit biplane to every state in the continental U.S. and every Canadian province — guided only by a compass and aeronautical chart.

"The adventure and romance of the early days of aviation always appealed to me," he says. Lopez navigates by visible landmarks, such as rivers, railroads, highways, and mountain ridges, eschewing ground-based electronic aids. "This way, you see so much more, because you are paying attention to the details of the country below," says Lopez. "Plus, you always know exactly where you are. You just have to make sure the chart doesn't blow out of the cockpit."

A former retailer in Princeton, where he still lives, Lopez was a "recreational flyer" until a visit in 1984 to Van Sant Airport, in Erwinna, Pennsylvania, a grass field that is home to many vintage aircraft. "Just one flight in an open-cockpit plane, with a spectacular view of the countryside from a thousand feet up," he says, "and anybody would be hooked."

So Lopez learned to pilot one of the legendary Stearman biplanes, most of which, like Lopez's own 1940 Stearman, were used as training planes by the U.S. military during World War II. His plane boasts a steel fuselage, a wooden propeller and two sets of wooden wings, a 225-horsepower engine, and a cruising speed of 100 m.p.h., which is comparable to a modern-day small plane.

Aboard what he calls "my magic carpet," Lopez has "visited places you'd never get to see otherwise" — small towns like Chillicothe, Missouri; Watertown, Wisconsin; and Stephenville, Newfoundland. He has experienced some vicious winds, heavy fogs, and "a few exciting storms." But he has also had the exhilaration of viewing the Rockies "the way the birds do." Lopez details his adventures in Biplane Odyssey (Mountain Press, 1999) and maintains a Web site at biplaneodyssey.com.

By Caroline Moseley

Princeton writer Caroline Moseley is a frequent contributor to PAW.