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Airshow Operations: 'Every Day's a New Adventure'

A talk with airshow coordinator, Brian Norris

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Commercial pilot and airframe and powerplant mechanic Brian Norris manages travel, logistics, public relations, and aircraft maintenance for veteran airshow pilot Sean D. Tucker, who is sponsored by software giant Oracle. Though a college knee injury left Norris unable to fly for the military, he knew that airplanes would loom large in his career, and has worked with Tucker for 19 airshow seasons. He spoke with Air & Space Associate Editor Diane Tedeschi.

A&S: Is this a full-time job for you?

Norris: Yeah, this is all I do.

A&S: You mentioned Sean’s biplane and then the Seneca. Is that the entire fleet of Team Oracle?

Norris: Well, it was always just the Seneca. Well, actually in the good old days, it was my Honda and [Sean’s] biplane. And then it turned into a Cherokee Six and the biplane. Then we upgraded to a Seneca and the biplane. Now we’re traveling with my Seneca, the biplane, and an Extra 300, which is what [Sean’s son] Eric flies, and that’s what we use for giving rides [to the media].

A&S: You mentioned your Honda: So in the beginning, were you driving from show to show?

Norris: I was putting about 20,000 miles on my car each summer.

A&S: When you fly the Seneca support airplane from show to show, what are you carrying?

Norris: Oh, golly. Well, we’ve got all of our spare parts for Sean’s biplane. Stuff that we couldn’t get either locally or if we had to order one, it might take a week to get it. A lot of the parts we’ve actually designed and built ourselves. So I carry those. We’ve got obviously a whole bunch of tools. A lot of specialized tools and just the regular wrenches and hammers and whatnot. PR material. Hats. Autographed cards. Videotapes for TV stations. We’ve got the headsets and the harnesses that the photographers wear during our photo flights. We’ve got the poles for the ribbon cut. Luggage. Golf clubs. Sean’s ice chest that he carries. Towels. Wax. Polish. My Seneca is a six-seat airplane, and we only fly it with two seats—the two front seats. The other four seats are removed. And that airplane, no joke, is filled from front to back. You couldn’t fit a box the size of a loaf of bread—you’d have a hard time finding somewhere to put that in my airplane.

A&S: Is it your responsibility to fill Sean’s biplane with smoke oil before each performance?

Norris: Sean practices each day, even on Saturday and Sunday. He’ll actually go out and practice before the airshow starts, and he tends to not like to practice with the smoke oil because the airplane performs better the lighter it is. A full tank of smoke oil adds about 40 pounds. But we have a checklist that we carry. And the other guys, as they’re preparing the airplane for each flight, they’ll fill out one of these checklist cards. And then depending on which one of them did that particular item, they’ll check it off and put their initials next to it. And then we put the checklist card on the instrument panel. So when Sean walks to the airplane, he looks at that card to verify that everything’s been done, and he knows all he has to do is get in it and go fly. So you can imagine, it makes his life a lot easier. But the amount of responsibility that puts on us is pretty huge, because you’re always—in the back of your mind—wondering did I put the oil cap back on? Did we remember to do this or remember to do that? That’s why these checklist cards come in handy because it’s visual proof that it was done and we are pretty religious about not checking something off until you actually do it.

A&S: Is the smoke oil generally available at each airport that Sean flies at or do you carry it along in the Seneca?

Norris: We don’t carry it because of the weight. It’s readily available in each area.

A&S: Is fuel for Sean’s biplane readily available at each airport?

Norris: The military bases don’t always have avgas available. Usually they have jet fuel. But they will usually make an agreement with a local operator to bring fuel to the show. Or there’s even rare occasions when the show will not have avgas [on site], but they’ll make a deal with an [offsite] operator to at least provide the fuel, so in those instances, I will fly my Seneca to whatever local airport, fill it up with 123 gallons of fuel, fly back to the base, and then drain the gas out of my Seneca and put it in Sean’s biplane. And then when my Seneca’s got just enough gas left in it to get back to the local airport, I’ll fly back over there and do it again. We carry a little electric fuel pump, and it’s only purpose is to suck fuel out of my airplane and put it into Sean’s.

A&S: What’s the worst thing you’ve ever had to deal with during an airshow season?

Norris: A few years ago, when we were on our way to Sun n Fun [an airshow in Lakeland, Florida], Sean had a mechanical failure in his airplane and was forced to bail out. We had done this little one-day show in Riverside, California, and we were on our way to Sun n Fun for the first real show of the year. We had stopped in Louisiana, and Sean was up practicing. We were at this little airport with some friends when [the mechanical failure] happened. We had about 20 minutes to talk on the radio to try to come up with a solution as to whether or not Sean was going to be able to safely land the airplane with the loss of—the elevator is what failed. And we pretty quickly determined there was nothing he was going to be able to do to guarantee that he could land it safely. So even though it was only a $20 bearing that had failed, the only alternative was for him to jump out of the airplane. Fortunately, we were with friends, and they knew the area well enough to where they were able to get on the radio and direct him to an area that was unpopulated, where he wasn’t going to jeopardize anybody on the ground or any property. And he actually flew around until he only had about a half a gallon of fuel remaining in the airplane. And ejected the canopy, shut the engine off, and said goodbye to it, and dove over the side.

A&S: What kind of troubleshooting have you had to do?

Norris: We’re real proud of the fact that we’ve never had to cancel a performance, but there’s been a lot of long nights where something’s broken that demanded being fixed in order to make the show the next day. But usually that’s a very rare occurrence. Essentially Sean’s airplane starts out every season as a brand new airplane—all new parts on it.

A&S: You’ve probably had to pull all-nighters?

Norris: Yeah. And there’s occasions where we’ve maybe had to fly—after a show—fly to go pick up a part or something that we need that we don’t have. I mean we carry a huge amount of spare parts, but every once in a while something throws us a curve. On a biplane for example, you’ve got the wires that are between the wings, and a good example is a few years ago we were at a show in Memphis and one of those wires broke during one of our performances. Which could have been a very disastrous thing. And Sean was able to land the airplane.

A&S: I’m picturing the airshow business as requiring a lot of getting up early in the morning.

Norris: Especially with us. Sean will usually want to do at least one practice before [the show] at say like 8 o’clock or 9 o’clock. And we usually show up at least an hour before him to get everything ready. We take the airplane out, run it up, make sure everything’s working great. Check a bunch of stuff. And then either take it out on the line where it needs to be or put it back in the hangar. Then Sean will show up. We have a saying among our team that we have the best job in the world because more often than not, we only have to work half a day— with the inside joke being half a day is 12 hours.

A&S: What is one of the best things about your job?

Norris: The thing that’s great about my job is it’s never the same thing day to day. Every day’s a new adventure. One day I might get up in the morning and work on one of our airplanes, and then I might do some operational stuff, squaring away an adjustment to the show schedule. Then I narrate the airshow. Then I might fly a photo flight. I’ve been fortunate enough to lead photo flights with pretty much every civilian performer in the country. I’ve gotten to fly lead with the Thunderbirds following me. I’ve gotten to fly lead with the Blue Angels. For me, the rewarding part is to look over and see a big blue Navy jet sitting 10 feet off my wing. I used to watch the Blue Angels fly every year from the time I was five years old, and now they’re following me around the sky.

A&S: Any advice for people who’d like to have a job like yours?

Norris: Well, as corny as it might sound, follow your dream. You hear people say it, and a lot of people don’t. I am living proof: Here I was working on computers, couldn’t fly jets like I wanted to. Back then, nobody had ever heard of Sean outside of California, and even those people were mostly competition pilots. And I saw Sean fly, and I was like, that guy’s going places. So that’s why I started following him around. And fortunately I was in a position where I could work a few days a month and make enough money to get by on my computer stuff. And I had every bit of faith that sooner or later some sponsor was gonna get smart enough and give Sean what he needed to actually branch out and start traveling and growing this thing. A lot of people say it was a big gamble, but I never for a moment doubted that it was going to work out.

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