Above & Beyond: Back in the Saddle

An airshow pilot describes the trials of the comeback

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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.

I wasn’t the only one thinking that. One day corporate America woke up, rubbed its eyes, and bought a ticket. Airshows are now where the Mall of America meets the state fair—with airplanes. There are still some Mom-and-Pop shows with local acts and little commercialism, but mostly airshows are enormous flying parties brought to you by our sponsors. Companies like Red Baron Pizza arrive with a first-rate announcer, four glittering Stearmans, and an 18-wheeler packed with food, a miniature museum, and rides for the kids. Airshows are big business now.

I’m almost finished with my practice show when the jet flames out. I had pulled up for Down the Hatch, rolled on a vertical line, held it, throttled back, steady on the stick, and waited. The jet slid backward, then suddenly, violently, it whipped forward and swapped ends. On the down line I added power, but the engine choked, barked twice, then died.

For a second my mind jumps backward 23 years to Mojave, California, the last place I flamed out during a show. I check my memory to see what I did then, and my mind is like a computer loading software. Then suddenly I am back in the present. Fuel: Right tank is off. Wings are out of balance. Fuel on, switches off, then on again, starter button pushed. The igniters tick, tick, tick like a time bomb. The starter screams like an approaching fire truck, then whoosh, boom, kerosene explodes in the burner can and the engine comes back to life.

I do a wingover back to finish with an inverted pass. On the outside, every airshow is different, but in the cockpit they are all the same. My shows will get better as I polish the rough edges, but already I am home again.

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