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So You Want to Be an Airshow Pilot

First, get a high-paying day job.

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JANESVILLE, WISCONSIN. POPULATION 60,483. It’s a medium-size, middle-class city in middle America, 105 miles northwest of Chicago. This bright, sunny June weekend it’s also the site of Southern Wisconsin’s AirFEST 2004. If this were baseball, Janesville’s AirFEST would be AAA league, a farm team for the majors. Since AirFEST can’t pay the hefty fees charged by the industry’s big-name pilots, the show gives lesser-known performers a chance to shine.

Skip Stewart is getting ready for his act by performing a ritual called the Aresti Dance: In a world all his own, he steps back and forth, “flying” his show routine with spread arms, sometimes using his left hand to slice or pour on the power or his right to jockey a phantom control stick. He wears a black flightsuit with red stripes, and on his feet, black Converse All-Stars. A little on the short side, Stewart, 37, has a broad back, brown eyes, and curly brown hair. If I weren’t so macho, I’d say he’s good-looking. He’s charismatic too: Instantly, you just want him to like you. He has a touch of a Southern accent, that down-home first name (Skip’s real name is William Lewis Stewart), and a proclivity for fast driving and getting pulled over by the law (six times in the last five years).

Sitting in the sun and paying no attention to the dance routine is Stewart’s fiancée, Christina Cantrell. She is blonde, looks like a model, and wears a red flightsuit with black stripes (the opposite of Skip’s). Filling Stewart’s Pitts biplane, Prometheus, with smoke oil is Stewart’s friend C.J. Kirby, a cop in real life who just got his pilot’s license a few months ago. Kirby flew Cantrell to the show in a silver two-seat Grumman Yankee that a friend lent Stewart for the summer.

This is Stewart’s second show in Janesville. He flew the 2002 show, and now he’s back in 2004. For 2003, Janesville’s AirFEST organizers hired Jim Leroy instead. That happens. Stewart’s not a big name—not yet, anyway.

In the world of airshow pilots, the biggest name is Sean D. Tucker, who flew his first airshow in 1976. His main sponsor is software giant Oracle, which sets up a hospitality tent at each airshow so that corporate guests can socialize in private with a star of Tucker’s wattage.

At the AirFEST performers’ “comfort tent,” the comforts seem kind of thin. There are faux-wooden banquet tables and metal chairs lined up in rows. The food isn’t all that exciting: soda, coffee, chicken, slabs of beef, raw vegetables, trail mix, and deep-fried cheese curd. Stewart, Cantrell, and Kirby fill small paper plates but end up picking at the food.

Then the performances begin. Fledgling airshow pilot Jacquie Warda stops by the comfort tent to beg off her scheduled flying routine with Stewart. “I hadn’t done a dual before, and
we kind of came up with it at the last minute, and I was a little uncomfortable with it,” she says. So the now-solo Stewart takes to the sky at 1:30 p.m. His routine, from the first vertical nosedive, through several gyrating tumbles, and on to the low, low knife-edge ribbon cut, lasts but 15 minutes. It’s a heart-in-your-throat quarter-hour during which you’re praying that this maniac doesn’t die.

Of course one of the primeval desires of the crowds at an aerobatic performance is to witness a spectacular crash—to see an airplane just plow right into the ground. “Dangerous, that’s the name of the game,” says John Cudahy, president of the International Council of Air Shows. “It’s not really dangerous, but the pilot’s showmanship is to make it look as thrilling as possible without it being dangerous. The most dangerous maneuvers are the ones people don’t think are dangerous and vice-versa. It’s a matter of perception.”

After his performance, Stewart lands and taxis before the crowd line, smiling and waving. He’s eating up the applause. He parks, shuts down the engine, and leaps out to meet his fans. He loves giving his autograph and handing out pictures of himself with his airplane. And he loves talking, especially about his act, his airplane, and himself. Ego? “Yes,” he says without thinking about it. Then he tries to explain: “There are no selfless acts, except maybe throwing yourself on a grenade. If you didn’t like the attention, just fly solo in your practice box.”

Even aside from the gut-wrenching aerobatics, being an airshow performer isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s a long, hard slog to the top.

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