Guide to the Great

A performer searches the airshow circuit for this season’s top acts.

Erik Hildebrandt (Erik Hildebrandt)
Air & Space Magazine

(Continued from page 1)

The aerobatic flow is constant. One set overlaps the other, filling the air with Cuban eights, vertical rolls, shark’s tooth turns, and opposing knife-edge passes. A few of their wonderful maneuvers are the diamond cluster hammerhead with all the airplanes climbing, floating, and pivoting together; the Staggerhead, with them pivoting in trail; and two big hearts.

One airplane climbs at a 45-degree angle, trailing smoke, for the left side of the heart, from the bottom up. The other climbs first, turns on his smoke, then loops around the right side from the top down to complete the heart.

The planes are 450-hp Stearmans, built in the early 1940s and later streamlined for airshow flying.

Kent Pietsch

Jelly Belly Jelly Beans Interstate Cadet

Watching Kent Pietsch the first time can be pretty scary. First, you think he’s going to crash into another airplane (even though the pilots have rehearsed), because he comes out of nowhere and busts into someone else’s aerobatic routine, surprising everyone. Then after the first airplane gets out of the way, you think Pietsch’s Interstate Cadet is going to crash anyway because it pulls straight up, slides back on its tail, drops an aileron (the ailerons enable an airplane to roll), and starts spinning. Even when you know it’s a comedy act, watching one thing after another fall off or out of the airplane makes you hold your breath until he’s back on the ground.

Pietsch flies a few more acts after the comedy. One is the Dead Stick routine. At 6,000 feet above the runway, he stops the engine, lights his wingtip smokers, and begins a 10-turn spin until he’s down low. All the while, he’s careful not to go too fast so the propeller won’t start turning again as he rolls, hammerheads, and split S’s with the engine off for seven minutes. The announcer joins in the act, standing out on a taxiway with his hand out in front of him. Pietsch finishes by rolling the unpowered airplane all the way up to touch the propeller spinner to the announcer’s hand.

For another trick, he lands his Jelly Belly Jelly Beans-sponsored Interstate Cadet on the top of an RV truck, with only eight inches of clearance on either side of the tires. The air currents around the RV can be a problem. If he gets too low at the back, the RV blocks his airflow and the airplane won’t fly. At the front of the RV, downdrafts will suck him toward the runway, so after he does land on the roof and rides a little way there with his wheels in a groove, he has to lift the airplane off smartly with full power and a firm pull on the stick.

Gene Soucy and Teresa Stokes

The Showcat

Only the wind holds Teresa Stokes to the airplane on takeoff. She stands on the lower right wing and waves at the crowd as Gene Soucy flies the Showcat. He climbs, turns, and even does a barrel roll with her standing out there.

When he climbs to 300 feet, she scrambles over the cockpit and onto a post at the center of the top wing where she buckles herself in for a wild ride. “That’s the fun part,” she says, “when I’m just having a ball, laughing and screaming and looking around.”

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