Extreme Airshow

A fellow performer remembers the act that pushed too far.

The Masters of Disaster ratcheted up the drama with a jet-powered Waco UPF-7 biplane and a Chevy truck. (Bill Van Pelt)
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The low-level flying could backfire. Once, in the 1980s, Franklin made a low turn during a solo routine in an Aerostar and sliced off a bit of wingtip on a fence he had not seen (he landed without a problem, and parked his aircraft so the wingtip wasn’t visible). But anyone who saw his inverted pickup of a ribbon suspended between two Coke bottles would probably agree that the low flying paid off.

Franklin’s plane was as wild as his imagination. He got the idea of adding a jet engine to the Waco when he saw Star Wars, but he couldn’t find a builder willing to figure out how to do it. Then, in the 1990s, he met Les Shockley, who made a business out of putting jet engines on trucks. Shockley figured out how to put one safely on the modified Waco. At Oshkosh, after Franklin torque-rolled above the airfield, he yanked the jet around to join the other airplanes, already fighting like yard dogs with their teeth bared. On the ground, the pyrotechnics team, headed by Rich and Dee Gibson, watched for opportunities. Any time the airplanes flew low over the pyro field, the team exploded dynamite in cardboard boxes filled with plastic bags of gasoline. “Everyone expects the fire, smoke, and noise,” Rich Gibson says, “but they’re all surprised by the heat.” At the end of the show, when they lit a thousand-foot wall of fire, we could feel it on the other side of the runway.

Gibson was an explosives expert in Vietnam, where he disarmed booby traps for the Army. In 1981 he helped the (then-named) Confederate Air Force simulate bombs and strafing runs at an airshow in Rockford, Illinois, and warbird pilots have been demanding the talents of Rich’s Incredible Pyro ever since. “MOD was the first time that we used pyro strictly to add to the entertainment value,” he says. It may not have made technical sense in the dogfight, but the Masters of Disasters was not about logic.

“I’ve never been a fan of the typical airshow dogfight,” LeRoy says. “The pilots might be having fun as they try to get each other in their gunsights, but it can lack entertainment value. With the MOD dogfight, we took the most crowd-pleasing aspects—near-misses and close chases—and did them over and over, while never getting too far from show center.”
Like the other two pilots, LeRoy grew up in a flying family: His father, uncle, and grandfather were airline pilots. He took his first aerobatic lesson at Art Scholl Aviation in 1984 while serving in the Marine Corps at Camp Pendleton in California. By 1992 LeRoy had saved enough money to buy his first aircraft, a 1979 Super Decathlon. He performed in his first airshow in 1995.

LeRoy and Franklin first flew together in 2001 at the Elkhart, Indiana airshow; the organizers put them in the air at the same time for a competitive flyoff. They liked each other’s style, so three months later they began practicing aggressive dogfighting. In 2002 they flew shows together as an act, adding pyro and the two-airplane jet truck attack. The following year, Younkin, who had flown many airshow dogfights with Franklin, joined up (officially, the members of the act were the X Team, and the act itself was the Masters of Disaster).

MOD did not emphasize aerobatic maneuvers, says LeRoy, but rather near-misses and lots of things happening simultaneously, like explosions and flying though the flames produced by the jet truck. MOD was fluid. LeRoy compares it to the Jimi Hendrix song “Little Wing”: “There was a beginning, middle, and end, with lyrics that were sung basically the same every time,” he says, “but in between this structure were wonderful variations, and every live performance was different.”
To transition from the dogfight to the jet truck attack, the pilots did a maneuver with turns, splits, and close crosses that they called the Dairy Turn. At the end of it, the three would be coming at the truck from different directions.

While they did that, Kent Shockley, Les’ son, fired up Shockwave. Built on a 359 Peterbilt shell, the truck has three Pratt & Whitney J34-48 afterburning engines that produce a total of 36,000 pounds of thrust. After a 300-mph dash down the runway, the truck relies on six wheel disc brakes and two 16-foot parachutes to stop. “Nothing on it has been chopped down,” Shockley says. “It is as aerodynamic as
a barn.”
As it drove down the taxiway, the truck spewed a dragon’s breath of flames and clouds of smoke thick enough to hide a battleship. On the soundtrack Kid Rock sang, “I am the bullgod, I am free…,” followed by a 1950s oldie, “Beep, beep, beep, beep, his horn went beep, beep, beep…,” and back to Kid Rock: “I’m tripping, tripping…,” then a double clutch into “Whoa black betty, bam-a-lam….”
The planes popped in and out of the smoke, diving on the truck until it reached the end of the taxiway, where it turned onto the runway for the grand finale: the airplane race, with the thousand-foot wall of fire as a backdrop. Shockley describes the view from inside the truck: “They tried to time it so they were slicing by the truck at the same time. When they were getting close, I torched them. If they were coming in on the right side, they would bank left and slice right through the flame.

“You’ve seen a lot of these acts where guys fly by each other, looking like they are going to hit each other, but they leave a small margin for error. But those guys flew as close as it looked.

“Probably the most exciting thing was the head-to-head. Franklin would be coming up from behind, Bobby would be overhead, and LeRoy would come out of a hover 5,000 feet from the vehicle when he flattened out on the runway. That was my cue to launch. I would travel 2,000 feet, which is how long it takes for the truck to reach 300 mph. LeRoy would be off the edge of the runway, coming at me trimming the grass with his wheel pants. We crossed at a 500-mph closure rate.”
As a spectator, I thought the scariest part of the show was when the planes disappeared in the smoke. But in the end, when Franklin and Younkin collided, it was in clear air.
It was Sunday, July 10, 2005, at the Saskatchewan Airshow in Moose Jaw, home of the Canadian Armed Forces jet demonstration team, the Snowbirds. MOD was the last act to fly before the Snowbirds. “The first part of our demonstration had gone flawlessly,” LeRoy recalls. “We were nailing our crosses and flying a fairly tight show.

“And then they were gone. It happened just that fast.”
According to the findings of the Transportation Safety Board of Canada’s accident investigation board:
“The Dairy Turn manoeuvre had been modified such that a temporary loss of visual contact could occur immediately before the aircraft crossed flight paths. This modification made timing critical and added two potential points of collision….

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