So You Want to Be an Airshow Pilot

First, get a high-paying day job.

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The typical ACE is an airshow veteran, someone like Alan Henley, the third quarter of the AeroShell Aerobatic Team (his brother, Mark, is the fourth). Henley is 46 years old, and he figures he’ll be flying shows for maybe 20 years more. “I was one of the first [ACEs] when the system was started about 10 years ago,” he says. What qualifies a pilot to become an ACE? Among other things, you must have flown at least 50 airshow performances. Henley has. He figures he does eight evaluations a year. Once a year, every performer is required to undergo an ACE evaluation. Even an ACE. Even Sean Tucker.

Just before Stewart begins his final performance of the day, C.J. Kirby organizes six of us to hold the poles for Stewart’s ribbon cutting. We walk through a field of shorn hay out to the runway and take our places on either side of it. Stewart’s fiancée sits crosslegged on the ground, shielding her eyes from the sun, the better to watch Stewart. “Doesn’t seeing him do this make you nervous?” I ask her. She looks at me as if I’ve questioned the need to wear shoes in winter. “No,” she replies slowly. “He’s doing what he wants to do.”

Standing there, gripping the pole with an older man and an 11-year-old boy, I watch Stewart’s act and think that it doesn’t seem as dangerous as the first time I saw it three months earlier at Janesville. Maybe it’s my proximity to Prometheus, or maybe my perception has changed because of the number of times I’ve seen Stewart perform. This is the first time I’ve held the pole, though, and when Prometheus’ propeller cuts through the ribbon, the pole pulls hard. A few seconds later, we’re all gagged by smoke oil.

Second- and third-tier airshow performers sometimes suffer indignities and slights that first-tier performers aren’t as likely to be subjected to. Before his act just now, the show’s air traffic controller held Stewart on the ground while the transport for the U.S. Army Black Daggers Parachute Team rolled out to the runway. To keep Prometheus’ engine from overheating, Stewart shut it down. After he performs and lands, the tower orders him to stop again, this time on the taxiway, to allow the Black Daggers to jump out and slowly float to the ground. Stewart shuts off the engine again, but when he tries to start it, the tiny battery gives out. The tower dispatches a truck to jump-start the engine while the afternoon heat slow-cooks Stewart inside the cockpit. Meanwhile, the fans who have dashed to the performers’ parking area, expecting to meet Stewart, walk away looking dejected. A few stand by until Prometheus wheels up and whips around and Stewart bounces out of the cockpit all smiles, ready to sign autographs and answer questions as if he’s never heard anyone ask them before. While digging around for more photos in a cloth bag, he mutters to no one in particular, “They’d never do that to Sean Tucker.”

Before leaving the airshow, I ask Stewart what he’s learned since Janesville. If he’s improved his act in some way, my eye is not discerning enough to detect it.

“Honestly, I don’t think Jackson was that much, if any, better than Janesville from a spectator point of view,” he says. “I did learn from Janesville to Jackson how important it is to be around the plane when the show is over. This seems to be when the real fans come around and want to talk and interact. Sponsors are becoming easier to get. I got an engine sponsor, which is worth ten to fifteen thousand to me. I have a company after me to sign a contract allowing them exclusive rights to seek sponsorships in the $300,000-plus range.”

Then Stewart shakes my hand. When I’m back in Memphis or if FedEx business brings him through my town, New York City, we’ll get together, he promises. You have to believe someone with that much charm.

Kirby walks me to my rental car. “He has a natural talent for it,” he says along the way. “He’s going to be Number One here before too long.”

A few months later, I e-mail Stewart to catch up. He e-mails back and tells me that a couple of guys want to do a 13-episode reality TV show around him. He also mentions that he met up with Sean Tucker at last December’s ICAS convention, and that the two had a friendly conversation. “[Tucker] said he looked forward to actually seeing me fly, and I told him he was my inspiration and I had thought of him as my hero,” says Stewart. He also adds that he might be one of the many performers at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual airshow in Oshkosh this summer. The EAA doesn’t pay its performers, but the Oshkosh airshow would be phenomenal exposure and a sure sign that Stewart has made it. “Keep your fingers crossed!” he says. “Dream-come-true territory here.” They’re crossed, Skip.

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