Above & Beyond: Back in the Saddle

An airshow pilot describes the trials of the comeback

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ZIPPED INTO MY NOMEX FLIGHTSUIT and squeezed into the narrow cockpit of the Bud Light BD-5J Microjet, I taxi past the custom-built Oreck Cyclone, the Fuji Film Sukhoi Su-31, and the Toyota Special Extra 300. It is Friday, a practice day for tomorrow’s airshow at Carswell Air Force Base at Fort Worth, but the flightline fence is a wall of spectators. The crests of tents and trucks, displays and concession stands float above them.

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Some faces peer upward at the Fina Extra 300L hanging over the runway on the edge of a stall. Others stare at me, sitting on the taxiway. This funny little jet looks like a 12-foot shotgun shell with straight wings and a sloping canopy, balanced on wheels the size of teacup saucers and legs the length of a heron’s shins. Inside I slouch like I’m in a lawn chair, feet on the rudder pedals, elbows on the armrests, left hand on the throttle and right one on the control stick.

While Jan Collmer flies the Fina Extra, a nimble monoplane, I run through my checklist and check my wing tanks. Fuel has already shifted from the right tank to the left while the airplane sat on the ramp, so I turn the right one off to get the tanks back in balance. A lot has changed since I first flew this jet in 1975 on the Bede Jet Team: the fuel system, the engine, the wings, and me.

Back then I was a young hotshot, a full-time airshow pilot, fresh from the Carling Aerobatic Team in Canada. Even though I had stumbled into the airshow world in 1971 like Alice falling down the rabbit hole into Wonderland, I was totally at home in it. I loved everything about airshows: the travel, the airplanes, the smoke oil, the crowds, the press, and the pilots. Most of all, I loved the feeling of maneuvering so low over the runway with such focus that I became the airplane. I was fearless, I was home, and I radiated such joy that everyone on the ground seemed to feel it with me.

I thought I could never lose that feeling, but I did. Marriage, motherhood, and life on the ground splintered my focus, and airshows stopped being fun. But the memories of them lingered. And after 16 years, I am back.

Collmer finishes his last pass and I latch my canopy. I am uneasy and a little distracted. Practice day used to belong to the pilots. It was our time to get the lay of the land—turnaround points, obstructions on the airfield, the line of the runways. It was time to get your rhythm, to make mistakes, to knock the rust off. But there are a zillion people on the ramp, and I feel like I’ve slept through the day.

I ignore the static in my brain, add full throttle, and trundle down the runway. Nose up; lift off. Nose level; gear up; smoke on. Accelerate; nose up; a flick of the wrist and roll. Smoke off; turn and climb. I ignore the crowd and look at the airport as if it were a diagram.

My first airshow was in Saint Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, in 1969. I was a glider instructor, soaring, banking, and landing, balancing on a single wheel, and coasting back to the crowd. All the aerobatic performers flew Citabrias, most of them in the one that towed our gliders. Even Mac McGregor, the Federal Aviation Administration monitor and inspector for the whole Caribbean, flew a Citabria in the show. But the luminary, the star who island-hopped from Florida, was Jim Holland. He flew his Citabria like a rodeo cowboy on a bucking bronco, with snap rolls, an inverted ribbon cut, and outside loops that made dust fly off the runway.

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?”

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