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 climb initiated and maintained by the Wolf-Samson pilot was not part of the planned manoeuvre. The climb was consistent with the pilot concluding that the Waco was late, and because he did not have visual contact with the Waco, that there was an imminent risk of collision. His climb would have permitted the Waco to pass ahead and below.

“The climb of the Waco pilot was consistent with the pilot concluding that the lateness of the turn toward the Wolf-Samson had created an imminent risk of collision if the manoeuvre was continued as scripted. His turn to the left is consistent with an attempt to fly away from the potential collision. The actions of each performer negated the actions of the other.

“The Waco and the Wolf-Samson collided near show centre at about the 1500-foot show line. Both biplanes caught fire and crashed between the 1500-foot show line and the outer runway. Both pilots were killed at impact, and both aircraft were destroyed. All debris fell away from the crowd toward the outer runway.”

IN TALKING ABOUT THE ACCIDENT, the Younkin and Franklin kids are careful not to speculate about what any of the pilots did that might have led to the accident. However, Kyle does say, “Even if you had told Bobby and my dad that they were going to die doing that act… Well, everybody did…but they continued doing it anyway, because they had so much fun.”
Since the accident, Matt Younkin, Bobby’s son, has learned aerobatics. His sister Amanda, who also is a pilot, says, “My dad wanted us to learn aerobatics because it is in our blood, but he did not want us to go into airshows. Matt didn’t even consider it until the accident happened, and the main reason he is doing it is because he is having so much fun, and he wants to keep my dad’s name out there. After accidents happen to people like the French Connection [airshow pilots Daniel Heligoin and Montaine Mallet] and Charlie Hillard, you never hear about them anymore. They were legends, you know? We don’t want that to happen.”
Amanda, who married Kyle Franklin last October, books Kyle and Matt at shows under the name Sons of Legends. It is a barnstorming act, with a wing-dragging comedy routine, a motorcycle-to-airplane transfer, and good old-fashioned airshow flying, the kind their dads did at the beginning of their own airshow careers. The Sons are not trying to fly like Masters of Disaster, but they have experimented with dogfighting and formation flying. Kyle defends his father’s brand of airshowmanship: “People in the airshow industry want everything to be so safe,” he says. “Safe is fine, but you don’t tell the crowd how safe it is. They are not coming here to watch, ‘Oh, look at this guy fly safe.’ They want to be thrilled. They want the aspect of danger.”
LeRoy has created an act called Tinstix of Dynamite. The show includes pyro expert Rich Gibson and world aerobatic competition pilot Jurgis Kairys of Lithuania. For the 2007 season, LeRoy is adding another pilot: Skip Stewart (see “So You Want to Be an Airshow Pilot,” Apr./May 2005). Unlike MOD, this act is completely choreographed, but there is no lack of fire, explosions, and other theatrics. The grand finale is an “opposing double inverted ribbon cut”—two aircraft cutting two ribbons while flying inverted in opposite directions.
In 2007, the remaining MOD team mates will bring back a new version of the show, with Skip Stewart flying opposite LeRoy. “Three of the five members are still here,” says LeRoy, “and we feel that the best way to honor the memory of Jimmy and Bobby is to continue.” The Franklins and Younkins object to the group using the name of the act in which their fathers were killed. “When the time is right, we will retire the name in their honor,” says LeRoy, “but we’ve got some work to do first. I don’t want this business to ever forget that name.”
The first time I saw MOD was in 2002, and we were all flying a week-long show at a motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota. The act did not yet have its name, Younkin, or the wild soundtrack. Men and motorcycles lined the fence. When LeRoy jumped the jet truck from head-on, the crowd gasped, I laughed, and the man next to me fell off his Harley.

The last time I saw them, in Oshkosh, I stood next to Joe Schumacher, the airshow’s director of aircraft operations, who was grinning broadly at their antics. While the biplanes chased each other like ravenous wolves and the pyro field erupted like a chain of volcanoes, I turned to Schumacher and said, “Every time I watch them I have the same reaction. I pray that they will be safe and I wish I were in my airplane with them.”

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