In which we survey the variety of objects to which a jet engine can be affixed.
- By Roger A. Mola
- Air & Space magazine, May 2004
MANFRED RADIUS PERFORMS AT MOST AIRSHOWS without an engine—and at some shows without an aircraft.
Performing beautifully controlled, low-level aerobatics set to classical music, Radius flies a ballet of a routine in his model H101 Salto sailplane. An airshow role he began five years ago, though, is a little less graceful.
As Fan Man, Radius dons a clown suit and rides around on a bicycle propelled by an 18-horsepower paraglider engine. Fan Man chases objects, such as a prop rabbit, up and down a ramp past spectators. “I have the throttle in my left hand,” says Radius. “I don’t even have to start pedaling. Just throttle, make sure the bicycle is balanced, straighten out, and it goes up to 30 mph. I spend most of my time braking.” Describing the act as “nutty,” Radius performs it during down times, such as in the morning before flight demonstrations begin and any time aircraft are grounded due to low cloud ceilings. “When the kids wave back it’s a positive response, and you know you’re entertaining the people,” says Radius. “I’m not doing it for my own pleasure.”
Another non-aerial act with kid appeal is Paul Stender’s Port-O-Jet, an outhouse fitted with a 1,000-horsepower jet engine. “We do a back-and-forth with the [airshow] announcer,” says Stender, the founder of Speed For Hire, Inc., a motorsport entertainment company based in Big Bend, Wisconsin. The announcer will say, “Clear the way—this guy’s really gotta go! He needs to find an outhouse quick!” Stender then runs for the john and slams the door. Fire blasts from the outhouse’s chimney, and when Stender ignites the jet engine, the outhouse sprints down the runway at 40 mph. Cool!
Besides the outhouse act, Stender performs at airshows with his “School Time” Jet Bus, a hotrod made to look like a schoolbus with flashing lights, a fold-out stop sign, and, naturally, a Westinghouse J-34 jet engine.
Les Shockley prefers Pratt & Whitney J34-48 jet engines. Three of them to be exact. That’s what Shockley uses to shoot the ShockWave Jet Truck, a 7,000-pound Peterbilt semi, down the runway at more than 300 mph. The ShockWave’s engines generate an eye-catching plume of flame and gulp 120 gallons of diesel fuel per run. After the Peterbilt accelerates for 11 seconds, two parachutes pop out to slow it; if the main chutes fail to deploy, reserves are at the ready.
Unlike some airshow performers, Shockley has no need for a day job during the off-season. He started out racing stock cars in 1960 at age 16 at a drag strip in San Gabriel, California, and had a successful career in funny cars before he switched to jet-powered vehicles, winning the National Jet Car Championship in 1979. With solid airshow bookings, Shockley’s business earns enough from the Peterbilt and a second truck, a 1957 twin-jet-engine Chevrolet pickup, to support his wife, two sons and daughters-in-law, and four grandchildren. Shockley, 60, has now turned over the driving of the two trucks to his sons, Kent and Scott, while he tinkers with new ways to put jet engines where they weren’t intended. (He helped airshow pilot Jimmy Franklin add 3,000 pounds of thrust to a 1940 Waco biplane.)
Shockley has been a pilot for more than three decades, and after admiring the aerobatics of airshow pilots for years, he bought an aerobatic airplane at age 57 and learned how to do all the standard maneuvers. He’s now in the process of building the ShockWave Firebird, a scratch-built, twin-engine afterburning jet airplane that he hopes to exhibit at the Oshkosh, Wisconsin fly-in this summer.
Another veteran airshow performer with auto racing roots, Scott Hammack drives a jet-powered dragster that for 3,000 performances was known as Smoke-N-Thunder. Last year, when the U.S. Air Force Reserve became Hammack’s exclusive sponsor, the dragster’s name was changed to the Air Force Above & Beyond Jet Car. “We still have the Smoke-N-Thunder name, but the new paint is definitely dominated by red, white, and blue,” says Hammack. Master Sergeant Bill Braack, a flight engineer with the 730th Airlift Squadron, is the team’s marketer and backup dragster driver.
The Above & Beyond Jet Car is powered by a Westinghouse J-34 engine that was taken from a North American Buckeye T-2A; the car’s aluminum and magnesium body weighs 2,300 pounds and is 26 feet long. The dragster thunders through two performances each airshow day, the first with 20-foot blasts of fire and a runway dash approaching 400 mph. In the act’s finale, Hammack, from a standing start, races his jet car against anything from a biplane to an F-86 Sabre.
During the airshow season, Hammack and wife Linda are on the road from March or April through November. Linda handles the airshow bookings, drives the tractor trailer that holds the dragster and equipment, waves key signals to Scott, and helps pack the dragster’s parachute.
There are plenty of other husband-and-wife acts, including Neal Darnell and his wife Marilyn, who haul their Flash Fire Jet Truck to airshows in a million-dollar bus and stacker trailer, along with a convertible, a golf cart, an all-terrain vehicle, and a Chihuahua named Taco Bell. “These jet vehicles are what I call circus acts, and you need some circus acts to sell tickets at airshows,” says Darnell.
And what’s a circus without animals, even if the beast is a 40-foot-tall, 60,000-pound metal dinosaur? Mark Hays is the owner of Monster Robots, Inc., and the operator of the fly-by-wire Robosaurus, which can crunch a two-ton airplane in its cavernous maw with up to 24,000 pounds of gripping force, breathe a 20-foot tongue of fire, roar with 6,000 watts of sound, and fold itself into a licensed trailer for transportation across roadways. Robosaurus worked his first airshow in 1991, and over the years he has shaken hands with “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno, starred on a Japanese game show, and been spoofed on “The Simpsons” as Truckasaurus. A Robosaurus toy is planned for this year’s holiday season.
“I’m always inside Robosaurus when it moves,” says Hays, whose ground team members, a director and a special effects operator, transmit video to the cab. “I can operate Robo alone, but the visibility is so limited. I’m strapped into Robo’s head, and the director tells me where my back end is. My feet are on the drive pedals, my fingers are in double-sided microswitches, my shoulders roll the arms. I also have some controls for the fireworks system, the air cannon, and the smoke. It gets pretty warm in there. You eat pretty well at these airshows, and [sweating inside the cab] is my only opportunity to lose weight.”
Brutus the Skydiving Dog eats well but remains under 10 pounds. Brutus, a miniature dachshund, and his human, Ron Sirull, parachute out of an airplane circling above the airfield at an altitude of 6,000 feet. “When Brutus [who wears custom goggles] is in the jump pouch, his ear is right next to my mouth,” says Sirull. “In freefall for more than 10 seconds it’s very noisy, but in the five seconds when you first leave the airplane it’s very quiet, and I just tell him to keep calm, and he’s fine.” The current Brutus is unrelated to the first, who passed away after a career of 100 freefalls. The new Brutus has logged fewer than 10 jumps.
Though Brutus is an aerial act, airshow organizers hire him and Sirull essentially as a ground attraction. “To the crowd, we’re just a speck anyway,” says Sirull. “After we land, we go down the flightline, and I put my finger under his paw so it looks like he’s waving.” The pair have waved off controversy. “I’ve had a run-in or two with the PETA folks,” says Sirull. When Vandenberg Air Force Base in California scheduled the act, base command heard from a local chapter of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. A colonel from Vandenberg’s 30th Space Wing issued the following statement: “Brutus rides comfortably, snugly attached to Mr. Sirull’s chest beneath two independent layers of a custom-made jump pouch. In colder weather, Mr. Sirull adds astronaut-like layers to Brutus’ pouch for extra warmth. Brutus’ wind exposure is minimized by use of a ‘sit-fly’ position to shield Brutus from the wind, and an aft-facing exit to avoid the plane’s forward wind motion.”
Wayne Francis has also built an airshow act around a sidekick: Wingnut, a life-size puppet clad in goggles and leather jacket. Ventriloquist Francis and Wingnut attend up to 20 airshows a year. Their routine is built around Wingnut’s tales of travels to fictional airfields, where he meets mermaids and other creatures.
Francis and Wingnut perform at a number of ballooning meets, and Francis says that the balloon crowd can make for a tough audience. “I’ve gone on right after the first launch in the morning,” he says. “You know what’s funny at 7 a.m.? Absolutely nothing. Thanks for coming!” Still, he sees ground acts like his having a permanent tether to airshows: “When the balloons are off, everyone’s looking at the sky and wondering What’s next?”