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ANNA BURLESON: Channeling Maverick

The engine ceased to hum, and suddenly, we were spinning around in circles about 3,000 feet from the ground in our tiny red airplane.

The aircraft remained upright for several turns before taking a sharp dive downward straight toward the ground.

"And now, we correct," my curly-haired pilot said as the sound of the engine roared once again.

This was all supposed to be happening, so I laughed into my headset.

I've climbed the tallest peak east of the Rocky Mountains, shot high-powered rifles, ridden more roller coasters than I can count, stood atop a 300-foot-tall wind turbine and been in a multitude of cars going above and beyond the speed limit, but I might have topped everything because that morning, I flew upside down in an airplane.

Michael Lents, my pilot, leads UND's aerobatic flying team. When I spoke with his team of students later and asked what the worst part of flying was, I assumed one would point out their beloved sport can end their young lives. Instead, they all paused with their mouths open for a few seconds before one I had mentally named "Green Shirt" begrudgingly said, "I don't know, probably just scheduling."

On top of that, this fearless group of guys didn't feel lauded on campus. They pointed out that actually, there are a lot of pilots around attending the UND John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, so what they do isn't impressive to most.

I'm baffled because this is a "Top Gun" fantasy just waiting to play out. There might be a lot of future pilots walking around UND, but these guys are 300 times more badass. They fly upside down and in loops that would make most cringe and then come out saying the scheduling around other classes is the bad part of the experience.

Hashtag danger zone.

If one of them had been wearing a well-worn leather jacket and aviator sunglasses, I probably would have proposed on the spot.

Once Lents and I reached the proper altitude for the rolls and flips he was going to show me, he asked if I was ready.

Of course I was ready.

The next 30 minutes consisted of a series of drops, spins, flips and, for a prolonged moment, simply flying upside down in a straight line. I couldn't stop smiling and laughing because I was about 3,000 feet above the ground getting to experience what it's like to dance in the sky.

Lents said he encourages his students to play around and see what the plane can do. Most competitions have set "sequences" and marks the fliers have to hit, but there are also times when they can combine moves and create their own routines.

It's just like dancing, except a lot more dangerous and potentially nauseating.

On two separate instances—yes, now I'm bragging—he had me take the control in the back and pull the plane up and around backward through a loop.

"Just keep pulling back on it," he said while the g-force pressed into me. "More, more!"

I kept making this high-pitched squeal noise directly into the headset that women make when they see someone they know from across a bar and Mr. Lents, I apologize for that, but it was just so incredibly fantastic.

Toward the end, I did start to feel a little dizzy, but the adrenaline coursing through me fought hard and ultimately won. We landed. I deplaned.

Later I joked with our photo intern, who also got to take a flight, that when I tell this story years from now, the shiny red performance plane will morph into a fighter jet, and I will pilot the entire flight rather than a few seconds of it. It was an exaggeration, but the morning of Aug. 4 truly is something I'll talk about forever.

What is life if not the stories you tell about it when yours is nearly over?

Anna Burleson

Anna Burleson is the higher education reporter for The Grand Forks Herald. She is a 2013 graduate of the University of South Dakota's Mass Communication program and is originally from Watertown, S.D. Contact her with story ideas or tips by phone, email or Twitter, all of which are listed below. Examples of her work can be accessed here.

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