Guide to the Great | Flight Today | Air & Space Magazine
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Erik Hildebrandt (Erik Hildebrandt)

Guide to the Great

A performer searches the airshow circuit for this season's top acts.

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Pull up your lawn chair for a front row seat at the airshow. Here are eight examples of top acts you’ll see this summer. (Click here to download a schedule of 2007 shows in PDF format.) Some are old favorites, some have new airplanes, some you’ve never seen, but all are outstanding entertainers.

Patty Wagstaff

Cirrus Extra 300S

Patty Wagstaff is famous for getting right down to business, so on takeoff she pops her red and white Extra off the ground into a neck-wrenching roll, then pushes it around into an inverted turn. She keeps up a steady stream of motion from start to finish.

Wagstaff is a three-time U.S. National Aerobatic Champion, a world-level competitor, and the winner of a multitude of awards. When you watch her fly, you see not only the energy that drove her to her championships, but also her sense of fun. Duane Cole, an aerobatic legend, once described her style as “out there killing snakes.”

She turns technically precise flying into art and adds complicated details to make the maneuvers more exciting, such as a perfectly level, 360-degree turn with snap rolls all the way around. Her eight-sided loop with rolls on each line looks like a braided stop sign. “It’s fun because it’s tricky,” she says.

“It’s boring to just do a half Cuban eight,” says Wagstaff, “so I like to add rolls, so I’m rolling all the time.”

Her airplane is similar to a production model Extra 300S, but with a

bigger rudder. It has a 350-horsepower Lycoming engine, a 4,000-feet-per-minute rate of climb, and a 420-degree-per-second roll rate.

Red Baron Pizza Squadron, 2007

With the Red Baron Pizza Squadron, there’s the grandeur of four red and white Stearmans looping across the airfield, and then there’s the noise — a quartet of radials, 1800-hp worth of Pratt & Whitney growls, that build to a crescendo as the airplanes loop closer and closer in their formations, then erupt into more agile pairs.

The aerobatic flow is constant. One set overlaps the other, filling the air with Cuban eights, vertical rolls, shark’s tooth turns, and opposing knife-edge passes. A few of their wonderful maneuvers are the diamond cluster hammerhead with all the airplanes climbing, floating, and pivoting together; the Staggerhead, with them pivoting in trail; and two big hearts.

One airplane climbs at a 45-degree angle, trailing smoke, for the left side of the heart, from the bottom up. The other climbs first, turns on his smoke, then loops around the right side from the top down to complete the heart.

The planes are 450-hp Stearmans, built in the early 1940s and later streamlined for airshow flying.

Kent Pietsch

Jelly Belly Jelly Beans Interstate Cadet

Watching Kent Pietsch the first time can be pretty scary. First, you think he’s going to crash into another airplane (even though the pilots have rehearsed), because he comes out of nowhere and busts into someone else’s aerobatic routine, surprising everyone. Then after the first airplane gets out of the way, you think Pietsch’s Interstate Cadet is going to crash anyway because it pulls straight up, slides back on its tail, drops an aileron (the ailerons enable an airplane to roll), and starts spinning. Even when you know it’s a comedy act, watching one thing after another fall off or out of the airplane makes you hold your breath until he’s back on the ground.

Pietsch flies a few more acts after the comedy. One is the Dead Stick routine. At 6,000 feet above the runway, he stops the engine, lights his wingtip smokers, and begins a 10-turn spin until he’s down low. All the while, he’s careful not to go too fast so the propeller won’t start turning again as he rolls, hammerheads, and split S’s with the engine off for seven minutes. The announcer joins in the act, standing out on a taxiway with his hand out in front of him. Pietsch finishes by rolling the unpowered airplane all the way up to touch the propeller spinner to the announcer’s hand.

For another trick, he lands his Jelly Belly Jelly Beans-sponsored Interstate Cadet on the top of an RV truck, with only eight inches of clearance on either side of the tires. The air currents around the RV can be a problem. If he gets too low at the back, the RV blocks his airflow and the airplane won’t fly. At the front of the RV, downdrafts will suck him toward the runway, so after he does land on the roof and rides a little way there with his wheels in a groove, he has to lift the airplane off smartly with full power and a firm pull on the stick.

Gene Soucy and Teresa Stokes

The Showcat

Only the wind holds Teresa Stokes to the airplane on takeoff. She stands on the lower right wing and waves at the crowd as Gene Soucy flies the Showcat. He climbs, turns, and even does a barrel roll with her standing out there.

When he climbs to 300 feet, she scrambles over the cockpit and onto a post at the center of the top wing where she buckles herself in for a wild ride. “That’s the fun part,” she says, “when I’m just having a ball, laughing and screaming and looking around.”

When Soucy gets down low again, Stokes unbuckles her belt and does wingwalking poses like the Head Stand and the Hand Shake. When she’s done, she has to hustle to get back in her seat before Soucy lands — he likes to see how quickly he can get back on the ground in front of the crowd.

Soucy flies two other acts in the Showcat: a classic biplane solo and a night show with fireworks. The Showcat is a Grumman Ag Cat cropduster he had converted to a wingwalker’s airplane. It was never designed for any of the wildly exotic maneuvers, but it is big, beautiful, and fun to watch.

For his night show Soucy wires the plane with so many fireworks that he can’t look out at the wings after he lights them or they’ll make him night blind. They leave a trail of fire a couple of hundred yards long.

Sean D. Tucker

Oracle Challenger

The flaming red biplane is a mile high when Sean D. Tucker kicks it into 14 dizzying snap rolls, its smoke trails carving tight spirals in a blue sky, the prop tips screaming. “I do that for the noise,” he says. “The snap is over-speeding and the tips are going ‘whop, whop,’ so people look up, and even if they’ve never seen me fly before, they say, ‘This guy means business!’ ”

Then he dives to 275 mph and goes into his Centrifuge, where he is head over heels, tail over nose on a 45-degree arc, eight, nine, 10 times. After these extreme moves, he climbs a short way and talks to the audience over the radio. Winded from the effort of the aerobatics, he also sounds exhilarated. “I want to put people in my cockpit and give them a flying lesson and technically walk them through what I experience as I tumble through the sky,” he says.

Tucker’s airplane, which began life as a Pitts Special, is a combination of old and new. Its fuselage has a traditional tubular steel frame, but its wings are state-of-the-art, squared off, and powered by a total of eight ailerons to allow it to roll 500 degrees per second. The tail surfaces are so revolutionary that the airplane can mimic a 3-D radio-controlled model that stops, hovers, spins, and twirls in place.

At some shows Tucker also leads a four-plane formation act with his son Eric, Ben Freelove, and Bill Stein.

Chuck Aaron

Red Bull Helicopter

There are other so-called aerobatic helicopter acts out there, but nothing like the Messerschmitt-Boelkow-Blohm Bo-105. In the hands of the right pilot, it loops, rolls, does vertical rolls, and flips.

Unlike other helicopters, this one is built with a rigid rotor and rigid mounted main transmission, both of which are bolted onto the airframe so that the machine handles like a sports car, without slop or slack in the controls. When Chuck Aaron moves the control stick to the left, the Red Bull Bo-105 rolls all the way around, without the rotor tilting or bending.

Aaron is fairly new to the airshow circuit. This will be the second season he flies aerobatic shows in the Red Bull Helicopter, but he has more than 17,000 hours of helicopter flight time. He has done flight testing with infrared night-vision equipment, cropdusting, flight instructing, film flying, aerial photography, heavy sling work, cattle herding, traffic reporting, banner towing — nearly any job a helicopter pilot can do.

Michael Goulian

Castrol Extra 300SHP

Over the microphone we hear Michael Goulian say, “Okay, we’re ready to start,” then there’s a countdown, Five, four, three, two, one, and he begins a diagonal line of rolls. His Castrol Extra 300SHP keeps coming down, from 3,200 feet high and 80 mph at the beginning to 260 mph, just above the runway. Then he goes vertical for a long straight, precise rolling climb.

Goulian began competition aerobatics not long after he learned to fly. Within 10 years of his first flying lesson, he competed at the national and international levels, winning many awards, including the title of U.S. National Aerobatic Champion. Now he has a full-time airshow schedule, but he says, “If you say that you’re a championship pilot, you need to fly like a championship pilot. I’ve tried to make sure that everything I do stays precise on a competition level.”

About 50 to 60 percent of his choreography is a combination of classic aerobatics with some kind of gyroscopic tumbling in the middle of it, so that it goes from a beautiful competition maneuver into something that looks out of control, but that stops precisely on some axis, whether it be inverted, upright, or vertical. “So, if I’m going to do a triple flip,” he says, “I make sure I do it three times and that when I’m done, it’s stationary, looking at the audience, every time.”

Goulian’s airplane was specially built for him, and he worked with Walter Extra to decrease its weight and increase its instability with a new tail design. Under the cowling, he has Lycoming’s first Thunderbolt IO-580, a new high-performance engine that has 347 horsepower.

Steve Oliver and Suzanne Asbury-Oliver

Oregon Aero Sky Dancer

If traffic stops so people can read the signs in the sky on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday before the airshow, it probably means Steve Oliver and Suzanne Asbury-Oliver are in town. They use their Super Chipmunk, also known as the Oregon Aero Sky Writer, Sky Dancer, and Fire Dancer to sky write, fly aerobatics, and do a pyrotechnic night show, respectively.

Skywriting, the Olivers will tell you, is a lost art, shrouded in the mystery and romance of the 1930s, when pilots would lie rather than divulge the secrets of how they made thick, lasting smoke, how they formed precise, evenly matched letters, and how they chose altitudes where the words hung in the air most legibly. Suzanne promises to pass on the secrets before she retires, the way her mentor did 30 years ago.

Steve flies the aerobatic acts in the Super Chipmunk, which was built as a basic Canadian military trainer in the 1950s. The team shortened its wings, re-skinned them with metal, enlarged the control surfaces, and super-sized the engine to 385 horsepower to get more performance out of it, but the craft still has the charm of the era in which it flew.

Steve makes the most of that look by turning his airshow into a toe-tapping 1950s Sock Hop. His pre-recorded narration begins with a guitar riff, then the voiceover says, “Come on, Steve, let’s rock and roll.” Bill Haley and the Comets respond in song with “One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rock,” and the Chipmunk pulls up into its first vertical dance move. The upbeat music includes crowd favorites like Elvis and Chubby Checker.

At night, Steve’s airplane becomes the Fire Dancer, looping and twirling thousand-foot streams of fireworks off its wingtips, while a Bob Seger soundtrack thrums in the background.

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