The Jumbo Flies an Airshow

The Boeing 747, like you’ve never seen it fly.

Low down and dirty: A United 747-400 flies a "dirty" pass (with flaps and gear down) by the Golden Gate Bridge during the 2010 Fleet Week Air Show. (IFLYFSX)
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The Boeing 747 was flying at 145 knots, 300 feet above the San Francisco Bay, and just beginning to climb when the left outboard engine suddenly failed with a startling loud bang. As the airplane yawed from side to side, the pilots—George Silverman in the left seat, Don Wolfe in the right, and Joe Sobczak in the observer’s seat behind—were held in place by their shoulder restraints.

Applying right rudder to level the wings, Silverman pushed forward on the yoke, lowering the nose and increasing airspeed to get the airplane above 160 knots.

“What happened?” he asked over a chorus of alarms going off in the cockpit. “Engine failure,” Wolfe replied, adding, “Severe engine damage checklist.”

“Correct,” Silverman said, and started planning to take the airliner to 1,500 feet, turning southeast to an emergency landing at San Francisco airport’s Runway 28 Right.

“Okay guys, good job” came a voice from behind Silverman in the darkened simulator; Federal Aviation Administration safety inspector Rick Mayfield was satisfied. Before the men would be permitted to fly a real 747 in San Francisco’s three-day Fleet Week Air Show, Mayfield would create more emergency scenarios for each to practice in United’s simulator in Denver.

Talking about his rationale for the engine-out episode he’d used on Silverman, Mayfield said, “The main concern for us is when the 747 is flying at high alpha or, you know, a high angle of attack and slow speed, that’s critical for that airplane. And one of the big threats we have at Fleet Week is bird ingestion.” As the safety representative responsible for certifying United’s airshow performance, he has to be satisfied that the pilots can handle any number of problems.

Last summer, I watched the show from San Francisco’s Marina Green Park, along with United employees and customers. As George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” began to play over the loudspeakers, the 747 entered from the west just above a fog layer at 1,500 feet. At the controls, Don Wolfe started a fast descent with the right wing lowered, to display the 747’s distinctive dome. Passing show center at 300 feet, Wolfe rolled the jumbo back toward the left, putting out the speed brakes and spoilers in order to make a tight turn and ascent to 2,000 feet.

“The show is about 11 minutes long soup to nuts, and we probably spend close to 20 hours in the sim practicing,” says Silverman. United is the only airline whose pilots perform such a practiced and well-orchestrated flight.

Still, pilots worry that each year’s performance will be the last. “There’s a discussion every year as we start to prepare about whether or not we want to participate,” says United’s chief of operations, Bryan Quigley. “My feeling is that unless something changes drastically we’ll continue to do it.”

At dozens of airshows each year, acrobatic aircraft of all sorts perform—but not airliners. It is an opportunity lost, says Frank Wellborn, a former Blue Angels C-130 performer and now a retired FedEx MD-11 captain. “Most people see planes at a gate or see them take off. They cannot see them flying around up close,” he says, recalling how he spent evenings in college watching airplanes land and take off. Watching an airliner flying low and slow in an airshow can remind several generations of people of the pleasures of that long-ago pastime.

For the past 21 years, American Airlines has been treating audiences at Chicago’s Air & Water show to the graceful sight of an airliner cruising at 1,000 feet. In 2014, American flew two airplanes: a Boeing 737 in the airline’s new livery and Flagship Detroit, a DC-3 that entered the American fleet in 1937. The old and the new airliners were the opening act last summer, flying along the shore of Lake Michigan, but spokeswoman Leslie Scott says there was no sophisticated choreography involved. “There’s always an awe associated with seeing an airliner flying that low and to see the capabilities,” says American’s Judi Gorman. “We are hoping that by seeing our brand and being associated with the Air & Water Show, when someone thinks of travel, they’ll think of American.” United has taken a different tack. From the airline’s first appearance in Fleet Week, in 2008, its performance has been constantly refined, says Steve Henderson, a former Thunderbird pilot and head of United’s air demonstration program. Along with Silverman, Henderson choreographs the act.

“The workload is much greater in an airshow demonstration,” the FAA’s Mayfield explains. “They’re flying the airplane in non-standard configurations. They’re flying at non-standard altitudes, and they’re changing these altitudes and configurations constantly.” Silverman says: “It all comes down to pitch and bank and altitude changes, but they’re happening very rapidly. You come by the crowd at 300 knots, you’re very aggressively slowing the airplane down, pulling the throttles to idle, dropping the gear, dropping the flaps. You slow from 300 knots to 140 in a landing configuration, over the centerline again, then raising the gear so the crowd can see this massive gear assembly.”

The airspace also presents challenges for a jumbo jet. “The airliner is not made to slow down quickly and turn tightly on a downwind,” Wolfe says. When he is flying passengers, he has 10 miles for a maneuver; flying the same maneuver in the airshow, he performs in a box 3,000 feet wide and two miles long. The routine is designed to position the big airplane so that the crowd can see it from every possible angle, including a gasp-inspiring run directly toward the spectators. Nose down, the jumbo zooms toward the ground for 10 seconds before pulling up sharply. Wolfe says the idea is to make the massive airplane look even bigger—and it does—but more importantly, it fills United employees with pride and gives the rest of us goosebumps. 

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About Christine Negroni

Christine Negroni is a freelance aviation and travel writer whose work appears in The New York Times, on ABC News and in other publications. She writes the popular blog, Flying Lessons. Her book latest book,The Crash Detectives, published by Penguin, is about Malaysia 370 and other aviation mysteries.

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