Patty Wagstaff’s Second Act

An airshow superstar adds firefighting to her repertoire.

Patty Wagstaff’s latest mission: use the discipline of aerobatics to combat the chaos of California wildfires (photo-composite). (Portrait: Robert Seale; Background: Palomar Mountain Volunteer Fire Dept.)
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When they called last year and offered her the job, she was ecstatic. "It felt like winning the Nationals [aerobatic championship]," she says.

"When you specialize in airshows, where do you go? When you’re an entertainer or a stunt person, it’s not easy to know where to go next. There isn’t a clear path, so I consider myself so lucky to have found a job that can utilize those same skills, with people of the same kind of temperament and lifestyle."

On her days off she stays near the airport, close enough to hear the fire call, and often she will catch a ride in the right seat of a tanker. She dreams of the day when she has the experience, luck, and seniority to earn a slot among the tanker pilots. "Tanker flying is edgy," she says, "because you are low and in the smoke in places you’ve never been before. Everything is totally different down there: trees sticking up everywhere, small flames and no perspective. When there is a lot of wind, it can be really ugly too, but it’s cool, totally cool! I love it."

Late one afternoon Wagstaff and I sat on the porch at Grass Valley, watching the trees move in the wind and listening to the incoming phone calls over the loudspeaker, while one of the firemen grilled chicken. "Fame is a weird thing," she said. "I needed to get away from it. What is so great here, as you can see, is I just get left alone all day. Nobody expects me to do anything or to be charming. I have never been so relaxed in aviation because I don’t have to be ‘on’ here."

She still loves airshow flying. She finished her 2010 season performing at Naval Air Station Jacksonville in Florida, and last winter her busy 2011 airshow schedule began with a performance in El Salvador.

"Airshows are important," she says. "They are the only PR role that aviation plays anymore, the only place people really get exposed to aviation anymore. You can’t go to a normal airport and just go up and touch someone’s airplane, but you can at an airshow and you can meet the pilots and talk to them. I am really grateful that I have been able to make a living and be part of the airshow business for so long, and to still be a part of it."

She is also grateful to have another exciting flying job that has no retirement age, plenty of compatible fellow pilots, an element of altruism, and a schedule that suits her gypsy lifestyle. At airshows, when people see her in her flightsuit, they thank her for entertaining and inspiring them. Near the fire base, people see her in her CalFire T-shirt and say, "Do you fly one of those red-and-white airplanes? You saved my house."

Frequent contributor Debbie Gary’s last piece for the magazine was “Barnstorming in the Blood” (Aug. 2010).

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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