Above & Beyond: Back in the Saddle
An airshow pilot describes the trials of the comeback.
- By Debbie Gary
- Air & Space magazine, March 2002
(Page 2 of 3)
Afterward I found him leaning on the flank of his airplane surrounded by frenzied island girls luring him out on boat rides and fishing trips. We talked about flying and I told him to visit my boss, John Macone, and me in Vermont at Sugarbush, our summer base.
When he came by, two years later, I was teaching glider flying in California, but he and Macone concocted a scheme and phoned me. “Hey, Jim Holland is here and he wants you to teach aerobatics for him,” Macone said. I didn’t even know how to aileron roll. Then Holland said, “I was thinking of doing a dual act and thought a woman would be a big draw. We’re doing a show here in Vermont a month from now. You interested?”
The first time I rode through aerobatics in close formation with Holland, I held my breath. The other Citabria, flown by another of Holland’s students, was so big it filled the windscreen. It was months before we had two airplanes of our own and Holland could train me in formation flying, but right away he taught me airshow aerobatics, up high for the first 30 minutes, right above the runway for the last five.
“When you are down low, you never rush,” he said. “You float the loop and round out the back, just like you do up high. If you rush, the plane stalls and hits the ground.” I wrote down everything he said and studied it at night. When we got to inverted flight I spent part of every day hanging upside down rehearsing inverted turns. “Don’t think too much,” he warned. “Practice until there is no thought. There is no time to figure things out when you are seconds from the ground.”
Thoughts can be like static on the radio. I practiced until I replaced thought with pictures, and that is how I became the airplane.
Today in Fort Worth, I am not being the airplane. Something is sitting on my right shoulder like a backseat driver and I am trying to shrug it off. Still, I go through my routine, while on the ground Bill Beardsley has the mike.
He is my link with the crowd, my DJ, the orchestra leader, directing eyes left or right, up or down. Inside the cockpit I follow the maneuvers I have drawn. On the ground he names them. Light my Fire: I angle my jet off the end of the crowd line, pull vertically, half roll, then pull, arching the nose to point my tail away from the crowd. Then I lift a rocker cover on the panel, toggle a switch, and—pop—a tiny flaming red flare shoots from a belly pod. Down, then up again level for a snap on top of a loop called the Pretzel Basket; a six-point roll, the Six Pack; a rectangular loop, the Frosty Mug; a slow pass with the gear popping in and out, the Tap Dance on the Long Bar.
In the 1970s only a few of us had sponsors. Mine were Carling Breweries, Bede Aircraft, and Bellanca Aircraft. Airshows were like folk art: simple but fun. All the action was on the runway side of the crowd line. We flew; they watched. Often I looked at the space behind the crowd and thought, They need some good food, or some rides for the kids, or something to buy. There was nothing but hot dogs and soft drinks.