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260 Miles with His Feet in the Clouds

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Nobody, it seems, ever told 22-year-old John Leggatt of Woodland Hills, Calif. to straighten up and fly right. Consequently, Leggatt’s idea of a good time is flying upside down, which he did recently on a 260-mile, two-hour four-minute run from Palm Springs, Calif. to Deer Valley, Ariz., thereby setting a record—he hopes.

Leggatt, a junior at UCLA majoring in linguistics, outfitted his tiny Champion Decathlon plane with a kind of hammock. As soon as he had climbed to 5,000 feet, he stretched out flat on his back, buckled the hammock straps across his stomach and rolled his airplane over. This left him face down, flying backward, feet first, and steering with an extension rod attached to the plane’s control wheel. In this odd but practical position, Leggatt was spared the discomfort of having the blood rush to his head. He could also chart his course by looking down at the interstate highway through a window in the top of the cabin. Two chase planes followed him, both to record his feat and to warn away other aircraft.

Leggatt’s flight was uneventful, although his feet, which were slightly elevated, went to sleep. “When I finally rolled right side up, they fell to the floor like two lead weights. It took five minutes to get the feeling back.”

Leggatt’s unorthodox flight does not violate any existing rules of aviation—nor, sadly, does it qualify him for any special recognition. The International Aeronautical Federation, which keeps track of all major flying records, has no category for inverted flight, although Leggatt hopes to establish one.

Or maybe two. It turned out that in 1933 an aviation school executive named Milo Burcham had flown upside down for four hours and five minutes—twice as long as Leggatt. Leggatt wants both records to stand, since Burcham, flying a slower plane, did not cover as much distance.

Burcham’s technique was not nearly so refined as Leggatt’s either. According to Burcham’s son, his father practiced for the flight 40 years ago by hanging upside down in a kitchen chair fastened to the garage ceiling.