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.

Lee Lauderback

The Act: Demonstrations and training flights in the +8G, dual-cockpit TF-51 Mustang.

The Pace: Before retiring last year from the U.S. Air Force Heritage Flight program, flew 16 shows a year. Now flies about five, in addition to flying twice a day as an instructor in a five-day Mustang training course.

The Workout: Very regimented routine, three times a week, always at about 5 a.m.: one hour of stretching, calisthenics, walking and running, then stretching again. And falconry, which requires strenuous hiking through brush for up to four miles and chasing the bird. “In the falconry world, the bird is the hunter, and I’m like the bird dog.”

The Diet: Fish, chicken, lots of salad and fresh fruit. Credits partner Angela with a change in lifestyle: She doesn’t eat red meat, so he quit, and for the last 20 years he’s been able to maintain his weight.

Believes hydration is important for G tolerance and depth perception. Tells his customers to eat light before flights, but eat something.

Guilty Pleasures: Klondike bars. Especially loves them with raspberries.

Mental Health: “Falconry gets me outside a lot.”

Getting in the Zone: No discussions of controversial topics for 24 hours before he flies. “Distractions are the biggest cause of accidents.” Added benefit: After 24 hours, nobody remembers what the controversy was.

Philosophy: “People would be surprised how much dedication it takes to do this kind of flying long-term. Take Sean Tucker for example. Sean trains harder than anybody I know. He’s focused. He’s intent. He’s practicing all the time. Some might say, ‘I could do that,’ Well yeah, they can—but could they do it year after year? The exercise, diet, focus, work to de-conflict: It takes a whole lot of dedication to do it long-term.”

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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