In 37 years of flying aerobatics, I have come to think of airshows as a great place to hang out with my friends. Much of the flying has been a backdrop for parties and picnics, but every once in a while, I have been grabbed and held in a time-stopping moment as I watched someone fly. When it has happened, I recall the color of the air, the shirt on the back of the man in front of me, the gasps and sighs of the audience, and the airplane filling the sky: A Vulcan bomber with its wing nearly scraping the ground in a turn. Bob Hoover’s Aero Commander looping and rolling with both engines off. Jim Holland’s green and white Citabria doing a low-level outside loop. A Red Baron Stearman flying a simple early morning show in air so thick and still that the plane’s smoke trailed behind it like white crepe paper in a blue room.
From This Story
But the greatest time-stopper was the Masters of Disaster, an act with three pilots—Jimmy Franklin, Bobby Younkin, and Jim LeRoy—who tore up the sky, chased each other, raced jet trucks, dodged fire and smoke, and changed what we expected from airshows forever. It was an act that scared us silly, made us wish they would never stop, then broke our hearts when two of them, Franklin and Younkin, were killed flying at an airshow in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, on July 10, 2005.
The last time I saw them was the year before, at the Experimental Aircraft Association fly-in at Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Before they flew, Kyle Franklin, Jimmy’s son, warned the audience: “This is dangerous. This is a high-risk act.” Then, instead of announcing the act and reciting the usual statistics and how-great-I-am bios, he turned on the soundtrack and narrative tape.
It began with epic science fiction movie music, and a robotic voice that said: “Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, allow me to take you back—far, far back to the gloomy dark ages of the early 15th century, a time when jet-powered vehicles roamed the face of the earth, unregulated, unmerciful, and undeterred, opposed only by the Fully Automated Annihilators, known to all as the FAA.” Here hyenas laughed like maniacs.
Before any airplane took off, a wall of people, a mile long, was up against the crowd line; they were all holding their breath. I was in the performers’ pit, and every pilot was standing as close as he or she could get to the flightline. At one end of the runway, LeRoy was in the black and yellow Pitts with a modified 400-horsepower Lycoming engine (his “Bulldog Pitts,” he called it), and at the opposite end, Younkin was in Samson, a 450-hp black and red replica, built by Steve and Liz Wolf, of a 1940s racing biplane. At crowd center, on a parallel taxiway, Franklin’s massive black Waco grumbled and hissed smoke, its uncowled General Electric J85 jet engine clamped to its belly like a demon hitching a ride.
While the pilots worked the crowd, revving their engines and blasting smoke behind their planes, the music and narration weaved a tongue-in-cheek spell, recalling an over-the-top B-movie: King Kong Meets Godzilla With Howling Biplanes, Jet Trucks, and a Wall of Flame. This was going to be an in-your-face show, one that defied convention and mocked what the pilots would call “the misplaced desire to dumb down a genuinely dangerous profession.”
The soundtrack shifted from science fiction to a horror movie funeral march. Then a wolf howled, dogs barked, and an air raid siren wailed above the airfield. From opposite ends of the runway, two biplanes raced toward each other. LeRoy yanked his Pitts off the runway and straight into a vertical climb, stopped it mid-air, then hovered just above the runway. Younkin, meanwhile, aimed for the Pitts, snap-rolling Samson just above it.
Younkin, who always made crowds gasp with his low-level snap-rolls on takeoff, had taught himself aerobatics when he was 16. He was in the back seat of his father’s new Decathlon while Jim, his father, practiced slow rolls. Like all beginners, Jim was having a hard time with them. Every time the plane rolled to the left, its nose dropped sharply and veered to the right at the end. When Bobby pointed that out, Jim said: “Well you try it!” Bobby did, and just from analyzing his father’s attempts he did it exactly right. Today, Jim recalls thinking, Maybe aerobatics is like music; those who are going to excel have this special gift. “Gifted people are very intense and they are the ones who want to practice all the time,” he says. “Bobby had to be flying all the time.”
Younkin flew his first airshow when he was 18, but made his living hauling freight in a Twin Beech and a Learjet. Later, he performed at airshows in both aircraft. Neither had been designed for aerobatic flying, but he flew them within their allowable G-load limits, with precision and grace.
The Masters of Disaster fed another side of Younkin’s personality. “On one hand, Bobby was this kind, gentle, polite Southern gentleman,” LeRoy says, “but when he strapped into Samson the horns came out—the devil horns!” The act brought out the horns in all of them.
Above the Oshkosh runway, after dazzling solo maneuvers, Younkin and LeRoy chased each other to 500 feet, where they drew a smoky circle. Franklin lit the fire in his big black 2,000-horsepower Waco. With a 50-foot, 1.5-second ground roll, the plane leaped into the air and rocketed through the circle like a bullet through a bull’s eye. As the team’s pyro experts set off the first charge of dynamite on the far side of the runway, guitars and drums exploded into a heavy metal frenzy.
When I first flew at shows Franklin performed in, back in the early 1970s, he was notorious for consistent but daring low-level flying. Someone asked him, “Why do you fly so low? Half the people can’t see you.” He answered, “Yeah, but they’re trying.”
Most pilots have to work their way down to extremely low altitudes, but Franklin grew up in a flying family in New Mexico, where he and his brother Steve would fly between the family’s two ranches. “We never got above power-line height,” Steve says, “and sometimes we would go under them.” They routinely rolled their Super Cub tires along the ground for entertainment, and once, when they were out without a shotgun, they tried to bop a coyote on the head with the tail wheel.