Soaring high

Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) has a selective fear of heights.

The congressman says he “can’t climb a pole or climb a tower — that scares me to death.”

But get him in the pilot’s seat of a two-person plane, and before long he’ll be 4,000 feet above ground, throwing the aircraft into spins, loops and so-called “tummy drops.”

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“It’s just a blast,” he says of the aerobatics he has learned in his long tenure as a pilot and flying enthusiast.

Graves explains the seemingly incongruous feelings this way: In a plane, “you’ve got mass around you,” whereas a mountain climber, for instance, has nothing between him and the ground except air.

“Now that’s crazy,” he says.

The 45-year-old lawmaker is one of a handful of pilots in Congress, and by his own account, he’s likely the only one who rebuilds planes. He buys “piles of junk,” as he explains it, and puts them together to make a working plane.

His hangar is in his hometown of Tarkio, Mo. His wife calls it the land of unfinished projects.

He flies other people’s planes when they need them transported from one place to another and can’t do it themselves.

Model airplanes sit on a coffee table in his Longworth office. Photos of him flying hang from the walls. Aviation magazines lie on his desk.

He is on the Aviation subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

There isn’t much about flying that Graves doesn’t like.

“I don’t know what the mystique is, I guess,” the congressman says in an interview in his office. “First of all, I like anything mechanical, and I grew up taking stuff apart to see what made it work, whether it was engines or cars or tractors.

“And I guess planes are the ultimate in mechanical engineering,” he says. “In fact, I see them as art, if you want to put it that way.”

Perhaps the ultimate sign of reverence to the planes Graves has flown over the years is that he names them. Female names. Female names that, apparently, are embarrassing, as Graves gets flush when asked to reveal them. He declines by way of evasion, except in telling the name that a Piper Cherokee plane came with: Juliet.

Graves grew up in Tarkio across the street from an airport. He remembers as a young boy, even before his parents would let him cross the street, he would stand in front of his house “and watch planes come and go, come and go.”

When he got a little bit older, he and his brother would go to the airport to finagle rides.

“My brother and I used to … pump gas or wash airplanes or shine windshields — anything we could to do mooch a ride,” he says.

Graves’s plan worked. He recalls his first plane ride coming at age 7 or 8. His first time piloting a plane — with an instructor next to him — came shortly thereafter.

“There were times I flew [that] I couldn’t even reach the rudder pedals,” he says. “I couldn’t see over the dash, so I looked out the side window to fly. You put cushions on [the seat], too, to raise you up, but then you can’t reach the rudder pedal.”

Graves continued to take flying lessons as a teenager, at one point driving 40 miles to the next town over after the Tarkio instructor stopped teaching.

“Basically, I was flying as much as I possibly could as often as I possibly could and taking lessons when I would get enough money to take lessons,” he says.

He got his flying license in his late 20s — “I was probably 27, something like that” — and is now an aficionado of “warbirds,” the insider term for vintage military planes.

And then there’s the aerobatics.

“I love doing spins,” he says. “I love doing stalls, when the airplane basically falls out of the air, then you pick it back up again. It’s better than a roller coaster.”

{mospagebreak}In fact, he describes the “tummy drop” — a favorite stunt of his three children, all pilots themselves — as a roller coaster-like move.

He dismisses the idea these tricks and twirls contain an element of risk.

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“It’s not risky at all, believe it or not,” he says.

“I always have a parachute on when I’m flying a warbird,” he says. “You never know when something is going to go wrong and you have to get out of it. If you get into a situation that you can’t get out of, then you’re going to have to jump.”

Graves has never been in such a situation.

“With anything, you ease your way into it,” he says.

“The first time you fall out of a loop is a scary thing,” Graves says, explaining that it’s common for a plane to stall at the top of a loop.

The congressman now has approximately 1,600 hours of flying time, so stalling while upside down in a plane doesn’t daunt him.

“The first thing you always do is just roll the plane right side up,” he says calmly, “and then you just recover out of it.”

Graves’s love of flying also has practical benefits. In one day he can fly to six events in his district, an expansive stretch of farmland in the northwest quadrant of Missouri, whereas by car, it might take him all day to get to just three. He has also become a community flight ambassador; Graves has a standing, open invitation for anyone who wants to meet him on a Saturday or Sunday at the airport for a plane ride. He takes his aides up in his plane, too, during their annual in-district retreat.

He’s even struck up a friendship with one of his colleagues on account of a mutual love for flying. Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa) was a military pilot in the Vietnam War. Their districts are nearby, and Boswell is also on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Aviation subcommittee.

“I still have that passion, so I enjoy seeing that enthusiasm for flying,” the 75-year-old lawmaker said. Boswell hasn’t flown with Graves but has visited his district for flying events.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people who have [flown with him], and they say he’s an excellent pilot, very meticulous, very professional,” Boswell said.

One day it just might be Graves’s one and only profession.

“Some day, if getting paid to fly — maybe if I’m ever out of Congress, that’s something I’ll do,” he says.