So You Want to Be an Airshow Pilot
First, get a high-paying day job.
- By Phil Scott
- Air & Space magazine, May 2005
(Page 4 of 5)
After seeing Stewart perform twice at Janesville in June, I meet up with him again in October, at Skyfest Tennessee in Jackson, his next-to-last show of the season. He picks me up at the Memphis airport (where FedEx is based), and we drive to the McMansion he and Christina Cantrell share, in a suburban development of twisty streets filled with identical McMansions. The only thing that differentiates his from the others is the garage full of a Wittman Tailwind, which he and C.J. Kirby built in their spare time. Inside, in a kitchen as vast as a basketball court and cleaner than an operating room, sits a pool table and three shelves filled with Stewart’s aerobatic medals, certificates, and trophies.
The next morning, Saturday, we drive an hour to Jackson, another midsize, middle-American city. Since rain threatens, many of those in attendance are gathered under the VIP tent. A smaller number of visitors wander around, taking in the petting zoo, the booth selling kettle corn, the static displays of aircraft and antique automobiles. The rain clouds lighten but the ceiling remains low; to kill time, the opening act, radio-controlled aircraft models, goes long. A few people grow weary of waiting and leave.
Airshow royalty—community leaders, sponsors, performers, anyone wearing a neck chain with the proper credentials—stay beneath the VIP tent, where two guards check your pass before allowing you to enter. The food is great, and all the tables have white tablecloths. And you have a front-row seat for the show.
Stewart is up twice. For his first performance, he flies a sort of aerobatic Dueling Banjoes with a friend, Greg Bird, who’s piloting his Extra 300 monoplane. Bird credits Stewart, whom he met during aerobatic competitions, with getting him his first airshow slot, in 2001. To receive Federal Aviation Administration certification to perform aerobatics in front of an airshow audience, Bird first had to be evaluated—in the air and on the ground—by an accredited aerobatic competency evaluator. Bird’s ACE gave him a passing grade and signed him off for a 500-foot floor, which means he can’t perform any maneuvers below that altitude. (Usually the first floor is 800 feet, but Bird really impressed the ACE). After 12 performances at six shows, Bird went before the ACE for a second evaluation, and got signed off to perform down to 250 feet. This is his final performance at that altitude. Now he’s qualified to apply for a ground waiver, which would permit him to fly as low to the ground as he wants.
“Airshows are a lot of fun,” says Bird. “In competition flying, everything’s mechanical and precise. Show performance is physically demanding, and it allows me to be creative; it allows me to express my inner self.” Bird says he’ll probably fly the occasional show for fun. He’ll also keep flying aerobatic competitions, but notes that Stewart seems to have given them up. “He has a huge airshow focus,” says Bird.
All ACEs are certified by the International Council of Air Shows, which relieved the FAA of responsibility for the program in 1991, after an alarming period in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the airshow community was experiencing nearly 10 fatal accidents per year. “The difference between a mediocre and outstanding aerobatic pilot isn’t perceptible to anyone who doesn’t live and breathe this stuff,” says ICAS’s John Cudahy. “We had maybe seven fatal accidents that first year, and we’ve never had more than five deaths since.” The four fatal accidents that occurred in 2003 were the most in seven years.
The typical ACE is an airshow veteran, someone like Alan Henley, the third quarter of the AeroShell Aerobatic Team (his brother, Mark, is the fourth). Henley is 46 years old, and he figures he’ll be flying shows for maybe 20 years more. “I was one of the first [ACEs] when the system was started about 10 years ago,” he says. What qualifies a pilot to become an ACE? Among other things, you must have flown at least 50 airshow performances. Henley has. He figures he does eight evaluations a year. Once a year, every performer is required to undergo an ACE evaluation. Even an ACE. Even Sean Tucker.
Just before Stewart begins his final performance of the day, C.J. Kirby organizes six of us to hold the poles for Stewart’s ribbon cutting. We walk through a field of shorn hay out to the runway and take our places on either side of it. Stewart’s fiancée sits crosslegged on the ground, shielding her eyes from the sun, the better to watch Stewart. “Doesn’t seeing him do this make you nervous?” I ask her. She looks at me as if I’ve questioned the need to wear shoes in winter. “No,” she replies slowly. “He’s doing what he wants to do.”