Airplanes of the Stars

Show performers talk about their favorite rides.

Art Scholl's Chipmunk (center, with the red and white stripes and the leading edges of the wings painted blue) hangs in the Boeing Aviation Hangar at the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F.Udvar-Hazy Center. (Dane Penland)

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The airplane is one of the originals that wrote "Pepsi" in the sky in the 1930s. "So it was a working airplane for seven decades," aerobatic pilot Steve Oliver, Suzanne's husband, told the audience. Today the couple writes and performs aerobatics in a modified deHavilland Chipmunk, the Oregon Aero SkyDancer.

A skywriter's contract includes a provision, according to the Olivers, not to reveal the secrets of their profession. But Steve, who learned from Suzanne, who learned from Strayer, explained a few of the tricks. "It's all counting," he says. The pilots count as they fly—one one-thousand, two one-thousand, along the upright of a T, say—so the letters, which are flat, not vertical, will all be the same size. The rate of turn and the altitude must be held precisely or the letters, which are about 3/4 of a mile tall, will look sloppy or be unreadable. (The word "Pepsi" stretches six or seven miles from the "P" to the "i.") "If you're two degrees off on a heading," said Steve, the pilot can't join the vertical and horizontal parts of a letter correctly.

A bigger hazard for Suzanne, she said, is forgetting the letter she has just written. She once wrote "P-p-e-p-s-i" at a show in Chicago. "I told them it was so cold that I was stuttering," she said.

Steve Oliver, who flies the Chipmunk in a night-time "pyrobatic" act, follows in the footsteps of one of the pilots who originated that kind of flying, Art Scholl. Scholl was represented by his wife Judy, who, while showing video clips Art had created of his performances, commented that he chose and modified the San Bernardino Valley College for 18 years, was killed in a Pitts Special camera aircraft during the 1985 filming of Top Gun. One of his two showplanes, donated to the Museum in 1987, also hangs at the Udvar-Hazy Center.

Scholl, famous for his showmanship, pioneered many of the features still seen in airshow routines. Besides the night pyrotechnics act, he performed a special type of ribbon cut. "Actually, it wasn't a ribbon cut," said Judy, "if he cut the ribbon, he considered the stunt a failure." Scholl flew inverted over a ribbon, and so controlled was his touch that he lifted it into the air instead of severing it in two.

With his little dog Aileron in the cockpit with him, Scholl spread the word that flying was fun. Seeing him in a 1950s film, speaking matter-of-factly to the viewer while he cruises into the frame—upside down—you definitely get that message.

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