Although they look wild, tumbles are not necessarily violent. “They have grown more aggressive and the perception is that they are out of control,” Tucker says. “Planes aren’t falling out of the sky and wings aren’t breaking off anymore, so they can’t be more violent. They are more dynamic, and that leads to the perception that they are more extreme. A nose-over-tail tumble is a zero-G maneuver. It is not violent. A centrifuge at high speeds will hurt you, though. It is 7 to 8 negative Gs. And a Bill Stein knife-edge spin is a lot of Gs.”
The best tumbling pilots practice relentlessly. “If you don’t practice them hundreds and hundreds of times,” Tucker says, “they will kill you at airshow altitudes. It all depends on what your altitude is. You always have to have your margins.”
It is not just the tumble a pilot has to prepare for, but also the spin that naturally follows a tumble. Japanese airshow pilot Rock Iwasaki was killed during a practice in 2005 while spinning out of a low-altitude tumble.
Tucker says, “I know that at 1,000 feet I can get out of an inverted flat spin, pull down and miss the ground, and still have energy. So any gyroscopic maneuver that I do, that I know has the potential to go into an inverted flat spin, always tops out at 1,000 feet above the ground, never at 800, even though you can do it all the time.”
At any altitude, performers flying tumbles thrill airshow crowds. Whenever I watch their routines, I remember a sticker Patty Wagstaff once had on the back of her Extra. “We’re professionals,” it said. “Don’t try this at home.”