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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.

Six seasons ago, after a few years in aerobatic competitions, Stewart started flying his show routine. He flew one airshow that year. His second year he flew nine shows, charging $500 a show if he could get it. Each performer sets his own fee (there is no airshow performers union). Sometimes Stewart would just show up at an airshow, and if the weather turned crummy, maybe a performer or two might drop out or not make it and organizers would let him go on. In 2002, Stewart flew seven shows, asking $1,500 a pop. The next year, he flew 10 shows for $2,000 each, then last year he received $2,950 per show for 10 shows. For this season, he’s hiking his price to $4,900. Not that he’s carved that fee in stone; it’s just what he thinks someone at his level should make.

Even if Stewart succeeds in flying eight or so shows this season at $4,900 apiece, his earnings won’t cover his expenses. He easily spends his whole take on maintaining and rebuilding Prometheus: It costs him $40,000 a year to fly a single airshow season and $3,600 to insure the Pitts.

Stewart can save some money with his volunteer crew—his fiancée and Kirby. Kirby fuels and polishes Prometheus, and makes sure the airplane has enough smoke oil for the act. As for maintaining the Pitts, Stewart does most of the work himself.

Besides the fees airshow pilots charge to perform, they earn money through sponsorship—how performers like Tucker make the real bucks. Instead of cash, most of Stewart’s sponsors contribute replacement parts for his airplane or give him deep discounts in exchange for getting their logos painted on Prometheus. Scheunemann Aviation Products donated the wings, Whirlwind gave Stewart a discount on the propeller, and Avworks is building a new, nearly 400-horsepower engine. Another sponsor, Airshow Models, sells 1/32-scale plastic models of Prometheus for $85 at Airshowmodels.com. (The author has not been compensated for this announcement.)

“He needs more sponsors,” says Cantrell.

“Raven [Aircraft] has gotten a great deal from me just because I like their logo,” says Stewart. But this may be the end of such bargains for sponsors. “I am breaking into a different level now, and I feel I can bring better deals,” he says. Don’t cry for Skip, Argentina: He flies jet transports for Federal Express. If you want to make it in the airshow business, for the first few years, you’ve got to have a great day job. Sean Tucker, for instance, dusted crops.

Tucker has been a big influence on Stewart, as was the late Leo Loudenslager. When he was just a kid, Stewart—who’d been introduced to flying by his grandfather, and had spent his teen years building and flying radio-controlled models—witnessed Loudenslager perform. “It was my first airshow, and the first time I had seen anyone fly a real airplane the way I flew a model airplane,” Stewart recalls. “When I saw Leo fly, I knew I wanted to put myself in a position to someday be able to at least try to fly like that and hopefully give others the feeling he gave me.”

At age 23, Stewart saw Tucker flying at the 1991 Oshkosh, Wisconsin flyin. “He took the out-of-control tumbling maneuvers others would do and turned them into perfectly choreographed maneuvers and did them low,” Stewart says. “He redefined what hardcore airshow aerobatics was about.”

Tucker’s climb to the top wasn’t without a few detours. From his home in the hills between Salinas and Monterey, California, Tucker, 52, tells me by telephone how he began in the business. “When I started I was a total failure,” he says. “I had a lot of passion and not a lot of skill.” He pauses for a beat. “I didn’t have any death perception,” he explains, laughing. (Like Stewart, Tucker has the charm market corralled.) In 1979, Tucker was practicing for his first big show when he got into an unrecoverable inverted flat spin. He bailed out, but his Pitts pancaked into the ground. Tucker refers to the event as “the crash of ’79” and says, “I knew I had to get my act together because I was married, broke, and had no options.” Soon after, he started dusting crops by helicopter; it wasn’t the kind of flying he dreamed of, but it helped pay the bills.

Tucker didn’t return to airshow flying until 1988, and four years later he landed his first monetary sponsor, Randolph Sunglasses. Financially, Tucker is the envy of many in the industry. The sponsorships he has from companies who supply airplane parts and aviation products save him $80,000 a year, and on top of that, he has the (undisclosed) monetary backing of Oracle.

Tucker’s crew consists of two fulltime mechanics, one full-time public relations manager, a hospitality manager to handle Oracle clients, and a business partner who doubles as a quality-assurance guy, coming to every third show to check on the mechanics’ work and to grade Tucker’s flying. “I have a fairly big infrastructure,” says Tucker. “They’re very talented. And when you have the best talent, you have to pay them well—they make more than 99 percent of the airshow pilots in this industry, unfortunately.”

Fortunately, Oracle covers everyone’s salaries (including Tucker’s), plus all travel and operating expenses. In return, Tucker flies 20 high-visibility airshows a year, gives motivational speeches, signs autographs for select groups—whatever the company asks him to do. “They own me lock, stock, and barrel,” he says, laughing. “It is my day job.” The financial comfort Tucker now enjoys has allowed him to pursue another interest: mentoring novice pilots at an aerobatics flight school he runs in King City, California. “My flight school is my passion, but it doesn’t make any money,” says Tucker, who is just shy of breaking even on the costly venture. To help underwrite his school, Tucker also flies at non-Oracle-sponsored airshows, for which he charges a fee of $8,500.

Making it pay. There’s the rub. Jacquie B Warda (the “B” is for “Baby,” as in “Jacquie Baby,” a nickname bestowed by Tucker) has a résumé much like Stewart’s. She flew in aerobatic competitions before getting bitten by the showbiz bug. She’s a brunette, not hard to look at, and rides a Harley-Davidson when at home in Danville, California. She also flies a Pitts. For the 2004 season, her second, she flew eight shows; in 2003, she flew four. She did not get paid for the shows she flew her first season because she didn’t have a commercial pilot’s license, and only commercial-rated pilots can charge for their services. (A private pilot who receives any form of compensation, be it a tank of fuel or even a sandwich, is violating federal aviation regulations.) Last year, she earned $2,000 for most of the shows, and the organizers of one show even paid a whopping $2,500.

Warda, 51, is doing better at this point in her career than Tucker and Stewart did early on, but she’s not exactly swimming in sponsorship money. She is backed by AeroShell, Goodyear Tires, Hooker Harness, and a sportparachute manufacturer, Para-Phernalia, all of whom she won over by the force of her personality. Says Warda: “You’ve heard that fairly big, old adage: ‘It’s who you know, not what you know.’ ” At Reno, Nevada, where she races her Pitts, she got to talking with Gene McNeely, the second quarter of the AeroShell team, and he offered to introduce her to potential sponsors. She met a few big names and they liked her, but they offered only products—no money. “It’s going to be several years before I can make a profit,” she says. “In essence you can’t be in this business if you can’t afford the airplane.” Right now, Warda’s husband, who is the crew chief for her Pitts, is supporting them both by working as a computer programmer. Her day job is to fly the airplane and improve her skill and showmanship in the air.

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.”

Standing there, gripping the pole with an older man and an 11-year-old boy, I watch Stewart’s act and think that it doesn’t seem as dangerous as the first time I saw it three months earlier at Janesville. Maybe it’s my proximity to Prometheus, or maybe my perception has changed because of the number of times I’ve seen Stewart perform. This is the first time I’ve held the pole, though, and when Prometheus’ propeller cuts through the ribbon, the pole pulls hard. A few seconds later, we’re all gagged by smoke oil.

Second- and third-tier airshow performers sometimes suffer indignities and slights that first-tier performers aren’t as likely to be subjected to. Before his act just now, the show’s air traffic controller held Stewart on the ground while the transport for the U.S. Army Black Daggers Parachute Team rolled out to the runway. To keep Prometheus’ engine from overheating, Stewart shut it down. After he performs and lands, the tower orders him to stop again, this time on the taxiway, to allow the Black Daggers to jump out and slowly float to the ground. Stewart shuts off the engine again, but when he tries to start it, the tiny battery gives out. The tower dispatches a truck to jump-start the engine while the afternoon heat slow-cooks Stewart inside the cockpit. Meanwhile, the fans who have dashed to the performers’ parking area, expecting to meet Stewart, walk away looking dejected. A few stand by until Prometheus wheels up and whips around and Stewart bounces out of the cockpit all smiles, ready to sign autographs and answer questions as if he’s never heard anyone ask them before. While digging around for more photos in a cloth bag, he mutters to no one in particular, “They’d never do that to Sean Tucker.”

Before leaving the airshow, I ask Stewart what he’s learned since Janesville. If he’s improved his act in some way, my eye is not discerning enough to detect it.

“Honestly, I don’t think Jackson was that much, if any, better than Janesville from a spectator point of view,” he says. “I did learn from Janesville to Jackson how important it is to be around the plane when the show is over. This seems to be when the real fans come around and want to talk and interact. Sponsors are becoming easier to get. I got an engine sponsor, which is worth ten to fifteen thousand to me. I have a company after me to sign a contract allowing them exclusive rights to seek sponsorships in the $300,000-plus range.”

Then Stewart shakes my hand. When I’m back in Memphis or if FedEx business brings him through my town, New York City, we’ll get together, he promises. You have to believe someone with that much charm.

Kirby walks me to my rental car. “He has a natural talent for it,” he says along the way. “He’s going to be Number One here before too long.”

A few months later, I e-mail Stewart to catch up. He e-mails back and tells me that a couple of guys want to do a 13-episode reality TV show around him. He also mentions that he met up with Sean Tucker at last December’s ICAS convention, and that the two had a friendly conversation. “[Tucker] said he looked forward to actually seeing me fly, and I told him he was my inspiration and I had thought of him as my hero,” says Stewart. He also adds that he might be one of the many performers at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual airshow in Oshkosh this summer. The EAA doesn’t pay its performers, but the Oshkosh airshow would be phenomenal exposure and a sure sign that Stewart has made it. “Keep your fingers crossed!” he says. “Dream-come-true territory here.” They’re crossed, Skip.

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