A fellow performer remembers the act that pushed too far.
- By Debbie Gary
- Air & Space magazine, January 2007
Bill Van Pelt
(Page 2 of 4)
Above the Oshkosh runway, after dazzling solo maneuvers, Younkin and LeRoy chased each other to 500 feet, where they drew a smoky circle. Franklin lit the fire in his big black 2,000-horsepower Waco. With a 50-foot, 1.5-second ground roll, the plane leaped into the air and rocketed through the circle like a bullet through a bull’s eye. As the team’s pyro experts set off the first charge of dynamite on the far side of the runway, guitars and drums exploded into a heavy metal frenzy.
When I first flew at shows Franklin performed in, back in the early 1970s, he was notorious for consistent but daring low-level flying. Someone asked him, “Why do you fly so low? Half the people can’t see you.” He answered, “Yeah, but they’re trying.”
Most pilots have to work their way down to extremely low altitudes, but Franklin grew up in a flying family in New Mexico, where he and his brother Steve would fly between the family’s two ranches. “We never got above power-line height,” Steve says, “and sometimes we would go under them.” They routinely rolled their Super Cub tires along the ground for entertainment, and once, when they were out without a shotgun, they tried to bop a coyote on the head with the tail wheel.
The low-level flying could backfire. Once, in the 1980s, Franklin made a low turn during a solo routine in an Aerostar and sliced off a bit of wingtip on a fence he had not seen (he landed without a problem, and parked his aircraft so the wingtip wasn’t visible). But anyone who saw his inverted pickup of a ribbon suspended between two Coke bottles would probably agree that the low flying paid off.
Franklin’s plane was as wild as his imagination. He got the idea of adding a jet engine to the Waco when he saw Star Wars, but he couldn’t find a builder willing to figure out how to do it. Then, in the 1990s, he met Les Shockley, who made a business out of putting jet engines on trucks. Shockley figured out how to put one safely on the modified Waco. At Oshkosh, after Franklin torque-rolled above the airfield, he yanked the jet around to join the other airplanes, already fighting like yard dogs with their teeth bared. On the ground, the pyrotechnics team, headed by Rich and Dee Gibson, watched for opportunities. Any time the airplanes flew low over the pyro field, the team exploded dynamite in cardboard boxes filled with plastic bags of gasoline. “Everyone expects the fire, smoke, and noise,” Rich Gibson says, “but they’re all surprised by the heat.” At the end of the show, when they lit a thousand-foot wall of fire, we could feel it on the other side of the runway.
Gibson was an explosives expert in Vietnam, where he disarmed booby traps for the Army. In 1981 he helped the (then-named) Confederate Air Force simulate bombs and strafing runs at an airshow in Rockford, Illinois, and warbird pilots have been demanding the talents of Rich’s Incredible Pyro ever since. “MOD was the first time that we used pyro strictly to add to the entertainment value,” he says. It may not have made technical sense in the dogfight, but the Masters of Disasters was not about logic.
“I’ve never been a fan of the typical airshow dogfight,” LeRoy says. “The pilots might be having fun as they try to get each other in their gunsights, but it can lack entertainment value. With the MOD dogfight, we took the most crowd-pleasing aspects—near-misses and close chases—and did them over and over, while never getting too far from show center.”
Like the other two pilots, LeRoy grew up in a flying family: His father, uncle, and grandfather were airline pilots. He took his first aerobatic lesson at Art Scholl Aviation in 1984 while serving in the Marine Corps at Camp Pendleton in California. By 1992 LeRoy had saved enough money to buy his first aircraft, a 1979 Super Decathlon. He performed in his first airshow in 1995.
LeRoy and Franklin first flew together in 2001 at the Elkhart, Indiana airshow; the organizers put them in the air at the same time for a competitive flyoff. They liked each other’s style, so three months later they began practicing aggressive dogfighting. In 2002 they flew shows together as an act, adding pyro and the two-airplane jet truck attack. The following year, Younkin, who had flown many airshow dogfights with Franklin, joined up (officially, the members of the act were the X Team, and the act itself was the Masters of Disaster).
MOD did not emphasize aerobatic maneuvers, says LeRoy, but rather near-misses and lots of things happening simultaneously, like explosions and flying though the flames produced by the jet truck. MOD was fluid. LeRoy compares it to the Jimi Hendrix song “Little Wing”: “There was a beginning, middle, and end, with lyrics that were sung basically the same every time,” he says, “but in between this structure were wonderful variations, and every live performance was different.”
To transition from the dogfight to the jet truck attack, the pilots did a maneuver with turns, splits, and close crosses that they called the Dairy Turn. At the end of it, the three would be coming at the truck from different directions.