Fitness Secrets of the Airshow Stars

Pilots share their diet tips (and guilty pleasures).

Patty Wagstaff, in the lotus position on her Extra’s wing. “Be kind to yourself and stay disciplined,” she says, “as that is where you will find the most freedom.” (Robert Seale)
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Flying aerobatics is hard work. If you doubt it, watch Sean D. Tucker flying his famous Centrifuge maneuver in his Pitts-based Challenger III. Diving for the ground, he pitches up hard and starts a series of gyroscopic, sustained nose-over-tail tumbles in an arc past show center. As he continues flipping his biplane past the audience, the blood in his body alternates rapidly between being sucked toward his feet and being jammed back into his brain. “It’s the toughest 20 seconds of my act,” says Tucker. “If you are not in shape, that’s when you can black out.”

Good rule of thumb for an airshow performer: Don’t lose consciousness. That’s one reason to stay fit. Here’s another: Pilots have to fit in their airplanes. “The cockpit of the L-39 is very skinny,” says Patrick Marchand, who performs with the precision-aerobatic Breitling Jet Team. The Czech-built military trainer he flies, rated for more than 8 Gs, has no hydraulic assistance on the controls. “Our muscles are directly linked to the control surfaces,” says Marchand. “The faster we go, the heavier it is.”

Still, Marchand is no gym rat. He’s careful not to overdo exercise. He also rests between performances to let his body recover. Like Tucker and other airshow pros at the top of their game, Marchand stays fit by following a few simple rules and routines. Here’s how they do it.

Patty Wagstaff

The Act: Precisely flown choreography marked by mind-jarring rolls and graceful transitions in an Extra 300S.

Pace: In between aerial firefighting and running her aerobatic school, flies about 12 shows a year. During the season, she flies a minimum of three times a week to keep her G tolerance up.

The Workout: Yoga. Hits the gym when possible, always uses the stairs.

Off Season: Rides horses, weight training to maintain upper body strength, rides bicycles, and walks her dogs.

The Diet: Breakfast! On show days, loads carbs with foods she would never, ever eat at home, like waffles with maple syrup. Keeps granola bars and bananas around. No red meat ever; instead, free-range chicken and non-farm-raised fish, especially Alaskan king salmon. Steady diet of brown rice, broccoli, and other steamed vegetables.

Must Haves: Juice from Creative Natural Juices in St. Augustine, Florida. On the road, hummus with multi-grain pita chips and Gummy vitamins.

Guilty pleasures: Cake.

Mental health: Spends time at the farm where she keeps her horse; loves a good massage. For a “total zone out,” plays online backgammon.

Getting in the zone: An hour before her show, gets away from people, except for her crew. Often sits in her car watching other performers fly, keeping an eye on the winds.

Philosophy: “Everything in moderation. It’s okay to push the edge and swing the pendulum from time to time, but make sure to always come back to the middle way.”

About Dan Pimentel

Dan Pimentel is an instrument-rated private pilot and the founder of the Airplanista aviation blog, airplanista.com.

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