By Julianne Mattera

Carnegie Mellon University alumnus David Grabowski took his flight of fancy to reality when he flew coast-to-coast this year on a trike, which is a hang glider that is like a flying motorcycle.

His journey retraced the path of Cal Rodgers, who was the first pilot to fly across the United States.

Grabowski and fellow alumnus Stephen Tonti are developing a documentary recounting the trip, allowing the duo to put their education to use. Grabowski who graduated in 2011 with a degree in music composition, is composing the score and Tonti, who graduated in 2013 with a degree in theater directing, will direct the film.

They plan to submit the completed documentary, Tilt Shift, to film festivals by 2018.

Why Cal Rodgers?

The first of Rodgers’ 68 separate flights in his biplane began on Sept. 17, 1911, from New York. Along the cross-country trek, he was a celebrity — newspapers followed his progress and crowds gathered at cities where he landed. The odyssey, which included some major and near fatal crashes, ended in California on Dec. 10.

“It’s an incredible story of perseverance and grit and stubbornness and just absolutely refusing to quit in the face of huge adversities,” Grabowski said. “And that’s what I’ve tried to emulate.”

Kamron Blevins, president of North Wing, which sponsored Grabowski’s aircraft, said Rodgers is “one of those heroes who should not be forgotten.”

Learning To Fly
Before Grabowski knew anything about Rodgers, he was working as a grant writer at a nonprofit for musicians. But he was frustrated, spending more time supporting other artists rather than focusing on his own music composition.

After serendipitously learning about trike aircraft, Grabowski envisioned flying across the country in one and filming a documentary. He could compose the music and Tonti, a friend and former classmate, could direct.

In the process of putting their plan into action, they came across Rodgers’ story and saw it as a perfect fit.

There was only problem: Grabowski didn’t know how to fly.

When Doug Donaldson, owner of Golden State Trikes, began giving Grabowski pilot lessons in spring 2014, he was impressed by his goal-oriented pupil who convinced North Wing to sponsor his trike. He has since watched Grabowski grow from a fast-learning flyer without much knowledge of basic mechanics — like replacing oil in a motor or changing a tire — to a self-reliant aviator who could recognize and compensate for problems before they arise.

Grabowski says it’s the work ethic he honed as a CMU student that helped him keep the project moving forward.

Making the Trip
His trip started near Sacramento, Calif., on Sept. 16. The route skirted the Mexican border through New Mexico and Texas before heading north through Oklahoma, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and even a quick stop in Pittsburgh. Tonti flew with Grabowski for a couple large legs but followed on the ground in a camper much of the way. Grabowski landed near Ashbury Park, N.J., on Nov. 10 to wrap up the experience.

During the trip, Grabowski ran into multiple obstacles — including the engine nearly overheating, the muffler breaking loose and coming perilously close to his propeller, and encountering screaming winds that kept him grounded for more than a week, threatening the timeline of the project.

There were also moments of exhilaration. When he flew over CMU’s campus, he said he cried.

“Doing something like this is equivalent to writing a novel or composing a soundtrack to a major motion picture, and those are two big goals, life goals of mine, that I want to tackle,” he said. “Understanding the time it takes and what it means to endure and conquer through trial and tribulation and all the different walls that get put up in your face — I think having done that in a very physical way is now going to give me a good arsenal of tools to tackle the sort of less defined areas of creative publishing.”

For Tonti and Grabowski, the creative process is ongoing. They have more than a dozen terabytes of film from the trip and the three years of preparation to review.

“We’re on that path toward achieving that goal that we set out three years ago, which was to have a feature-length film in festivals screening on the big screen and showing people what we’re capable of,” Tonti said.


Photo caption: Taking a breather at the Austin Executive Airport are Grabowski and the Tilt Shift trike, Eddy. Photo credit: Arina Bleiman Tilt Shift’s Director of Photography