Barnstorming in the Blood
One of the world's most inventive pilots makes everything old look new again.
- By Debbie Gary
- Air & Space magazine, August 2010
(Page 2 of 3)
A close friend scoped out fairs, festivals, and farmers’ pastures in northeastern Minnesota where Mohr could sell rides on the weekends. “He’d get the people in and I’d climb up to a couple thousand feet,” Mohr says. “I would do a loop, barrel roll, hammerhead, and snap roll, then would spin back down on a ride that lasted all of three minutes or so. Everybody would get out smiling, cheering, and laughing, and the next one would be ready to jump in. Nobody wanted a straight-and-level ride once the fun started. That is how I got good at acro.” He was having fun, and making more money than he earned in the flight operation he had back in Orr, Minnesota, where he also had a wife and a new baby. “During the week I was starving,” Mohr recalls, “doing flight instruction, generating charter business, and trying to get hired by the airlines.” By the time he landed a job at North Central Airlines, he had gained local fame and teamed up with nearby pilots to fly airshows. Today he is a captain for a major airline, but ever since those days of selling hops in his Stearman, Mohr has been a steady airshow performer.
“Once, at a show up in Longville,” recalls Jerry Van Kempen, “the clouds were so low the ducks were walking and people were ready to leave, but after a while we heard the blub, blub, blub of John’s 220 [horsepower engine] headed our way. He has never missed an airshow.”
While he developed his Stearman routine, Mohr worked with a friend, Dave Simonson, to invent another startling act. Airshow performers were doing only car- or motorcycle-to-airplane transfers. When Mohr and Simonson tried an aerial transfer they saw why. Even in still air, a stuntman dangling on a rope ladder from a J-3 Cub swung dangerously close to the high arc of the Stearman’s propeller. Then one day in 1993, while flying his Enstrom helicopter beside the Stearman, he wondered how close he could get to the airplane without causing a midair collision. “I started messing around with my approach angle until I finally found the sweet spot where I could approach the airplane and actually put a skid on the top wing. Suddenly I thought, Wow, this is the transfer act! ” After some experimenting, they became comfortable enough with the flying to ask another friend, Royce Baar, to join them as the stuntman who grabs the helicopter skid and is lifted from the airplane.
Mohr didn’t know, and neither did Simonson, that eight or 10 years earlier, Hollywood pilot Craig Hosking had landed a helicopter on a DC-3 wing for the TV show “Incredible Sunday.” When the pair started performing the transfer, they became the first to turn an airplane-helicopter transfer into an airshow act.
Mohr pitched the routine at the International Council of Air Shows annual convention, where airshow promoters shop for new acts. Most people looked at the video, shook their heads and said, “If you’re still around in two years, maybe we’ll consider you.” But they got several bookings for the 1994 season, and gradually they became the rage. In 2000, Mohr Barnstorming won two national prizes: the Bill Barber Award for Showmanship and the Art Scholl Showmanship Award. By then Mohr had gained international attention for his solo Stearman act, which he says is the more challenging to fly.
All but a small portion of Mohr’s performance is flown close to the ground, the tops of his looping-type maneuvers reaching no more than 400 or 500 feet. His flying margins are narrow; he relies on his skill, experience, and something called ground effect. During flight, wingtip vortices and the resulting downwash produce drag; when an airplane is no more than a wingspan away from the surface, the ground partially dissipates the vortices, reducing drag and boosting airspeed.
Probably no one is more impressed by Mohr’s flying than other Stearman owners, and sometimes they refuse to believe that his airplane is a 100 percent stock machine. Recently at the Sun ’n Fun fly-in at Lakeland, Flo-rida, a new Stearman owner questioned him over and over. “I watched you fly in this and you didn’t climb for altitude,” the man said. “You did a slow roll and a snap roll right on takeoff, then a hammerhead. My plane won’t do that. What have you done to get that kind of performance?”
“Nothing,” Mohr said. “I have 10,000 hours in the airplane. It’s skill and experience. It’s not the airplane.”