So You Want to Be an Airshow Pilot

First, get a high-paying day job.

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Tucker’s crew consists of two fulltime mechanics, one full-time public relations manager, a hospitality manager to handle Oracle clients, and a business partner who doubles as a quality-assurance guy, coming to every third show to check on the mechanics’ work and to grade Tucker’s flying. “I have a fairly big infrastructure,” says Tucker. “They’re very talented. And when you have the best talent, you have to pay them well—they make more than 99 percent of the airshow pilots in this industry, unfortunately.”

Fortunately, Oracle covers everyone’s salaries (including Tucker’s), plus all travel and operating expenses. In return, Tucker flies 20 high-visibility airshows a year, gives motivational speeches, signs autographs for select groups—whatever the company asks him to do. “They own me lock, stock, and barrel,” he says, laughing. “It is my day job.” The financial comfort Tucker now enjoys has allowed him to pursue another interest: mentoring novice pilots at an aerobatics flight school he runs in King City, California. “My flight school is my passion, but it doesn’t make any money,” says Tucker, who is just shy of breaking even on the costly venture. To help underwrite his school, Tucker also flies at non-Oracle-sponsored airshows, for which he charges a fee of $8,500.

Making it pay. There’s the rub. Jacquie B Warda (the “B” is for “Baby,” as in “Jacquie Baby,” a nickname bestowed by Tucker) has a résumé much like Stewart’s. She flew in aerobatic competitions before getting bitten by the showbiz bug. She’s a brunette, not hard to look at, and rides a Harley-Davidson when at home in Danville, California. She also flies a Pitts. For the 2004 season, her second, she flew eight shows; in 2003, she flew four. She did not get paid for the shows she flew her first season because she didn’t have a commercial pilot’s license, and only commercial-rated pilots can charge for their services. (A private pilot who receives any form of compensation, be it a tank of fuel or even a sandwich, is violating federal aviation regulations.) Last year, she earned $2,000 for most of the shows, and the organizers of one show even paid a whopping $2,500.

Warda, 51, is doing better at this point in her career than Tucker and Stewart did early on, but she’s not exactly swimming in sponsorship money. She is backed by AeroShell, Goodyear Tires, Hooker Harness, and a sportparachute manufacturer, Para-Phernalia, all of whom she won over by the force of her personality. Says Warda: “You’ve heard that fairly big, old adage: ‘It’s who you know, not what you know.’ ” At Reno, Nevada, where she races her Pitts, she got to talking with Gene McNeely, the second quarter of the AeroShell team, and he offered to introduce her to potential sponsors. She met a few big names and they liked her, but they offered only products—no money. “It’s going to be several years before I can make a profit,” she says. “In essence you can’t be in this business if you can’t afford the airplane.” Right now, Warda’s husband, who is the crew chief for her Pitts, is supporting them both by working as a computer programmer. Her day job is to fly the airplane and improve her skill and showmanship in the air.

After seeing Stewart perform twice at Janesville in June, I meet up with him again in October, at Skyfest Tennessee in Jackson, his next-to-last show of the season. He picks me up at the Memphis airport (where FedEx is based), and we drive to the McMansion he and Christina Cantrell share, in a suburban development of twisty streets filled with identical McMansions. The only thing that differentiates his from the others is the garage full of a Wittman Tailwind, which he and C.J. Kirby built in their spare time. Inside, in a kitchen as vast as a basketball court and cleaner than an operating room, sits a pool table and three shelves filled with Stewart’s aerobatic medals, certificates, and trophies.

The next morning, Saturday, we drive an hour to Jackson, another midsize, middle-American city. Since rain threatens, many of those in attendance are gathered under the VIP tent. A smaller number of visitors wander around, taking in the petting zoo, the booth selling kettle corn, the static displays of aircraft and antique automobiles. The rain clouds lighten but the ceiling remains low; to kill time, the opening act, radio-controlled aircraft models, goes long. A few people grow weary of waiting and leave.

Airshow royalty—community leaders, sponsors, performers, anyone wearing a neck chain with the proper credentials—stay beneath the VIP tent, where two guards check your pass before allowing you to enter. The food is great, and all the tables have white tablecloths. And you have a front-row seat for the show.

Stewart is up twice. For his first performance, he flies a sort of aerobatic Dueling Banjoes with a friend, Greg Bird, who’s piloting his Extra 300 monoplane. Bird credits Stewart, whom he met during aerobatic competitions, with getting him his first airshow slot, in 2001. To receive Federal Aviation Administration certification to perform aerobatics in front of an airshow audience, Bird first had to be evaluated—in the air and on the ground—by an accredited aerobatic competency evaluator. Bird’s ACE gave him a passing grade and signed him off for a 500-foot floor, which means he can’t perform any maneuvers below that altitude. (Usually the first floor is 800 feet, but Bird really impressed the ACE). After 12 performances at six shows, Bird went before the ACE for a second evaluation, and got signed off to perform down to 250 feet. This is his final performance at that altitude. Now he’s qualified to apply for a ground waiver, which would permit him to fly as low to the ground as he wants.

“Airshows are a lot of fun,” says Bird. “In competition flying, everything’s mechanical and precise. Show performance is physically demanding, and it allows me to be creative; it allows me to express my inner self.” Bird says he’ll probably fly the occasional show for fun. He’ll also keep flying aerobatic competitions, but notes that Stewart seems to have given them up. “He has a huge airshow focus,” says Bird.

All ACEs are certified by the International Council of Air Shows, which relieved the FAA of responsibility for the program in 1991, after an alarming period in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the airshow community was experiencing nearly 10 fatal accidents per year. “The difference between a mediocre and outstanding aerobatic pilot isn’t perceptible to anyone who doesn’t live and breathe this stuff,” says ICAS’s John Cudahy. “We had maybe seven fatal accidents that first year, and we’ve never had more than five deaths since.” The four fatal accidents that occurred in 2003 were the most in seven years.

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