A fellow performer remembers the act that pushed too far.
- By Debbie Gary
- Air & Space magazine, January 2007
Bill Van Pelt
(Page 3 of 4)
While they did that, Kent Shockley, Les’ son, fired up Shockwave. Built on a 359 Peterbilt shell, the truck has three Pratt & Whitney J34-48 afterburning engines that produce a total of 36,000 pounds of thrust. After a 300-mph dash down the runway, the truck relies on six wheel disc brakes and two 16-foot parachutes to stop. “Nothing on it has been chopped down,” Shockley says. “It is as aerodynamic as
As it drove down the taxiway, the truck spewed a dragon’s breath of flames and clouds of smoke thick enough to hide a battleship. On the soundtrack Kid Rock sang, “I am the bullgod, I am free…,” followed by a 1950s oldie, “Beep, beep, beep, beep, his horn went beep, beep, beep…,” and back to Kid Rock: “I’m tripping, tripping…,” then a double clutch into “Whoa black betty, bam-a-lam….”
The planes popped in and out of the smoke, diving on the truck until it reached the end of the taxiway, where it turned onto the runway for the grand finale: the airplane race, with the thousand-foot wall of fire as a backdrop. Shockley describes the view from inside the truck: “They tried to time it so they were slicing by the truck at the same time. When they were getting close, I torched them. If they were coming in on the right side, they would bank left and slice right through the flame.
“You’ve seen a lot of these acts where guys fly by each other, looking like they are going to hit each other, but they leave a small margin for error. But those guys flew as close as it looked.
“Probably the most exciting thing was the head-to-head. Franklin would be coming up from behind, Bobby would be overhead, and LeRoy would come out of a hover 5,000 feet from the vehicle when he flattened out on the runway. That was my cue to launch. I would travel 2,000 feet, which is how long it takes for the truck to reach 300 mph. LeRoy would be off the edge of the runway, coming at me trimming the grass with his wheel pants. We crossed at a 500-mph closure rate.”
As a spectator, I thought the scariest part of the show was when the planes disappeared in the smoke. But in the end, when Franklin and Younkin collided, it was in clear air.
It was Sunday, July 10, 2005, at the Saskatchewan Airshow in Moose Jaw, home of the Canadian Armed Forces jet demonstration team, the Snowbirds. MOD was the last act to fly before the Snowbirds. “The first part of our demonstration had gone flawlessly,” LeRoy recalls. “We were nailing our crosses and flying a fairly tight show.
“And then they were gone. It happened just that fast.”
According to the findings of the Transportation Safety Board of Canada’s accident investigation board:
“The Dairy Turn manoeuvre had been modified such that a temporary loss of visual contact could occur immediately before the aircraft crossed flight paths. This modification made timing critical and added two potential points of collision….
“The climb initiated and maintained by the Wolf-Samson pilot was not part of the planned manoeuvre. The climb was consistent with the pilot concluding that the Waco was late, and because he did not have visual contact with the Waco, that there was an imminent risk of collision. His climb would have permitted the Waco to pass ahead and below.
“The climb of the Waco pilot was consistent with the pilot concluding that the lateness of the turn toward the Wolf-Samson had created an imminent risk of collision if the manoeuvre was continued as scripted. His turn to the left is consistent with an attempt to fly away from the potential collision. The actions of each performer negated the actions of the other.
“The Waco and the Wolf-Samson collided near show centre at about the 1500-foot show line. Both biplanes caught fire and crashed between the 1500-foot show line and the outer runway. Both pilots were killed at impact, and both aircraft were destroyed. All debris fell away from the crowd toward the outer runway.”
IN TALKING ABOUT THE ACCIDENT, the Younkin and Franklin kids are careful not to speculate about what any of the pilots did that might have led to the accident. However, Kyle does say, “Even if you had told Bobby and my dad that they were going to die doing that act… Well, everybody did…but they continued doing it anyway, because they had so much fun.”
Since the accident, Matt Younkin, Bobby’s son, has learned aerobatics. His sister Amanda, who also is a pilot, says, “My dad wanted us to learn aerobatics because it is in our blood, but he did not want us to go into airshows. Matt didn’t even consider it until the accident happened, and the main reason he is doing it is because he is having so much fun, and he wants to keep my dad’s name out there. After accidents happen to people like the French Connection [airshow pilots Daniel Heligoin and Montaine Mallet] and Charlie Hillard, you never hear about them anymore. They were legends, you know? We don’t want that to happen.”
Amanda, who married Kyle Franklin last October, books Kyle and Matt at shows under the name Sons of Legends. It is a barnstorming act, with a wing-dragging comedy routine, a motorcycle-to-airplane transfer, and good old-fashioned airshow flying, the kind their dads did at the beginning of their own airshow careers. The Sons are not trying to fly like Masters of Disaster, but they have experimented with dogfighting and formation flying. Kyle defends his father’s brand of airshowmanship: “People in the airshow industry want everything to be so safe,” he says. “Safe is fine, but you don’t tell the crowd how safe it is. They are not coming here to watch, ‘Oh, look at this guy fly safe.’ They want to be thrilled. They want the aspect of danger.”
LeRoy has created an act called Tinstix of Dynamite. The show includes pyro expert Rich Gibson and world aerobatic competition pilot Jurgis Kairys of Lithuania. For the 2007 season, LeRoy is adding another pilot: Skip Stewart (see “So You Want to Be an Airshow Pilot,” Apr./May 2005). Unlike MOD, this act is completely choreographed, but there is no lack of fire, explosions, and other theatrics. The grand finale is an “opposing double inverted ribbon cut”—two aircraft cutting two ribbons while flying inverted in opposite directions.
In 2007, the remaining MOD team mates will bring back a new version of the show, with Skip Stewart flying opposite LeRoy. “Three of the five members are still here,” says LeRoy, “and we feel that the best way to honor the memory of Jimmy and Bobby is to continue.” The Franklins and Younkins object to the group using the name of the act in which their fathers were killed. “When the time is right, we will retire the name in their honor,” says LeRoy, “but we’ve got some work to do first. I don’t want this business to ever forget that name.”
The first time I saw MOD was in 2002, and we were all flying a week-long show at a motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota. The act did not yet have its name, Younkin, or the wild soundtrack. Men and motorcycles lined the fence. When LeRoy jumped the jet truck from head-on, the crowd gasped, I laughed, and the man next to me fell off his Harley.