Barnstorming in the Blood

One of the world’s most inventive pilots makes everything old look new again.

John Mohr shows what sets him apart from the rest. (Max Haynes)
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While he developed his Stearman routine, Mohr worked with a friend, Dave Simonson, to invent another startling act. Airshow performers were doing only car- or motorcycle-to-airplane transfers. When Mohr and Simonson tried an aerial transfer they saw why. Even in still air, a stuntman dangling on a rope ladder from a J-3 Cub swung dangerously close to the high arc of the Stearman’s propeller. Then one day in 1993, while flying his Enstrom helicopter beside the Stearman, he wondered how close he could get to the airplane without causing a midair collision. “I started messing around with my approach angle until I finally found the sweet spot where I could approach the airplane and actually put a skid on the top wing. Suddenly I thought, Wow, this is the transfer act! ” After some experimenting, they became comfortable enough with the flying to ask another friend, Royce Baar, to join them as the stuntman who grabs the helicopter skid and is lifted from the airplane.

Mohr didn’t know, and neither did Simonson, that eight or 10 years earlier, Hollywood pilot Craig Hosking had landed a helicopter on a DC-3 wing for the TV show “Incredible Sunday.” When the pair started performing the transfer, they became the first to turn an airplane-helicopter transfer into an airshow act.

Mohr pitched the routine at the International Council of Air Shows annual convention, where airshow promoters shop for new acts. Most people looked at the video, shook their heads and said, “If you’re still around in two years, maybe we’ll consider you.” But they got several bookings for the 1994 season, and gradually they became the rage. In 2000, Mohr Barnstorming won two national prizes: the Bill Barber Award for Showmanship and the Art Scholl Showmanship Award. By then Mohr had gained international attention for his solo Stearman act, which he says is the more challenging to fly.

All but a small portion of Mohr’s performance is flown close to the ground, the tops of his looping-type maneuvers reaching no more than 400 or 500 feet. His flying margins are narrow; he relies on his skill, experience, and something called ground effect. During flight, wingtip vortices and the resulting downwash produce drag; when an airplane is no more than a wingspan away from the surface, the ground partially dissipates the vortices, reducing drag and boosting airspeed.

Probably no one is more impressed by Mohr’s flying than other Stearman owners, and sometimes they refuse to believe that his airplane is a 100 percent stock machine. Recently at the Sun ’n Fun fly-in at Lakeland, Flo-rida, a new Stearman owner questioned him over and over. “I watched you fly in this and you didn’t climb for altitude,” the man said. “You did a slow roll and a snap roll right on takeoff, then a hammerhead. My plane won’t do that. What have you done to get that kind of performance?”

“Nothing,” Mohr said. “I have 10,000 hours in the airplane. It’s skill and experience. It’s not the airplane.”

This is Mohr’s trademark. What started as necessity—he couldn’t afford more power to begin with—became virtuosity. He had to learn, he says, to fly the wing, not the engine. “Nobody else gets as much out of a 220-hp Stearman as I do,” he says. “Even guys with 450s are flying higher and don’t do as many maneuvers or put their shows together the way I do.”

It is easy to see why fans expect a showplane to be modified. Many show pilots spend huge amounts of money to get more performance. In the past, prominent Stearman show pilots, such as Joe Hughes and the Red Baron Squadron, doubled and tripled their engines’ output for wingwalking and formation acts. They added streamlined cowlings, nose cones to cover the propeller hubs, fairings on wheels, and ailerons to their top wings to boost roll rate. The stock Stearman has none of this. With all its wires, struts, knobby tires, prominent exhaust pipe, and seven cylinders sticking out in the wind, it is as streamlined as a pine cone.

Mohr stopped flying the airplane-to-helicopter transfer act after about eight years because crew, maintenance, and insurance became prohibitively expensive. A few years ago, he revived it, partnering with Roger Buis, who flies the “OTTO The Helicopter” comedy act, and longtime stuntman Todd Green. The three of them ham it up, dance around, fly side-by-side hammerheads with Green hanging by his elbow from Otto’s landing skid until Buis lowers him into a cloud of smoke on the ground.

A barnstormer’s grandson, Mohr grew up thinking of new ways to fly old airplanes. He’s still thinking, and developing the next act, which for now he is keeping behind his own smoke screen.

About Debbie Gary

Freelance writer Debbie Gary is a former Bede Jet Team pilot who still gets a thrill out of airshows.

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