Fitness Secrets of the Airshow Stars

Pilots share their diet tips (and guilty pleasures).

Patty Wagstaff, in the lotus position on her Extra’s wing. “Be kind to yourself and stay disciplined,” she says, “as that is where you will find the most freedom.” (Robert Seale)
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Flying aerobatics is hard work. If you doubt it, watch Sean D. Tucker flying his famous Centrifuge maneuver in his Pitts-based Challenger III. Diving for the ground, he pitches up hard and starts a series of gyroscopic, sustained nose-over-tail tumbles in an arc past show center. As he continues flipping his biplane past the audience, the blood in his body alternates rapidly between being sucked toward his feet and being jammed back into his brain. “It’s the toughest 20 seconds of my act,” says Tucker. “If you are not in shape, that’s when you can black out.”

Good rule of thumb for an airshow performer: Don’t lose consciousness. That’s one reason to stay fit. Here’s another: Pilots have to fit in their airplanes. “The cockpit of the L-39 is very skinny,” says Patrick Marchand, who performs with the precision-aerobatic Breitling Jet Team. The Czech-built military trainer he flies, rated for more than 8 Gs, has no hydraulic assistance on the controls. “Our muscles are directly linked to the control surfaces,” says Marchand. “The faster we go, the heavier it is.”

Still, Marchand is no gym rat. He’s careful not to overdo exercise. He also rests between performances to let his body recover. Like Tucker and other airshow pros at the top of their game, Marchand stays fit by following a few simple rules and routines. Here’s how they do it.

Kyle Franklin

The Act: In the Waco-based Franklin Demon-1 Dracula, Franklin flies a smoke-on rip around the show box, plus a show-stealing comedy routine in the PA-18A Super Cub Franklinstein.

The Pace: 35 to 45 performances at 15 to 20 airshows, plus testing and rehearsal flights.

The Workout: Because Franklin trucks his airplanes from show to show, continual tear down and rebuilding keep him in shape during the show season. His comedy routine also includes “stealing” an airplane and an ensuing foot race, as “security” tries to chase him down.

Off Season: Rides a stationary bike and lifts weights. Plays video and arcade games to keep his motor skills, reaction time, hand-eye coordination, and reflexes sharp.

The Diet: On show days, chugs water before and after his performances, to replenish what he sweats out. Pounds carbs. Has a standing reservation every Monday at a Thai restaurant in his small town because the food is fresh and healthy, and he loves supporting a local business.

Must Haves: Nature Valley’s Oats ’n Honey Granola Bars because they remind him of his mother’s bran muffins and another family tradition: plenty of unsweetened tea.

Guilty Pleasures: Mixed Berry Skittles (always on hand), Cookies ’n Cream Hershey bars, his girlfriend’s pineapple upside-down cake.

Mental Health: When there’s nothing on the tube, he builds creations with Legos. Makes sure to get plenty of sleep the night before a performance.

Getting in the Zone: Right before launch, goes over the routine and emergency procedures in his head and takes a moment to “chat” with his father Jimmy and late wife Amanda, who both died in airshow accidents.

Philosophy: “Franklins have been entertainers for nearly 50 years now, and we’ve celebrated many successes. With success can come devastating hardships, and this too is an experience my family has endured. Continue moving forward when the headwind is unbearably strong.”

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About Dan Pimentel

Dan Pimentel is an instrument-rated private pilot and the founder of the Airplanista aviation blog, airplanista.com.

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