Stupid Plane Tricks

Breathes there the pilot with soul so dead who never to himself hath said, “I bet I can fly under that bridge”?

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Why indeed? Ask airshow pilot Wayne Handley. Back in 1989 at an airshow at Salinas, California, Handley strapped on a Pitts Special, climbed to 12,000 feet, flipped it over, and kicked it into a flat spin. Sixty-seven turns later he got right side up and claimed the world record for consecutive inverted flat spins. “I did it for two very good reasons,” Handley says. “First, as an airshow performer, it was good publicity. And the second, which kind of also had an advertising side of it: It was my trademark.” Not long after, the NAA decided stunts like that were too dangerous and stopped handing out records for such feats. “I don’t disagree,” Handley says. “An inverted flat spin is kind of raising the bar on craziness.” But in April 1999, Guinness World Records asked him to do it again for its TV show. “They [Guinness] will accept anything for a record: How many elephants can you pull with your earlobe—you know.” This time, for the cameras, he climbed to 16,000 feet and flew 78 turns, pulling out after two minutes at 2,000 feet. Seven months later, after a crash landing broke his back, he retired from the airshow circuit and left aerobatics to the young Turks.

Others in the airshow world have made names for themselves not by the maneuvers they perform but by the stunts they pull. Take Jon Falkner and Bob Essel, who do a wingwalking routine on a Quicksilver ultralight—with no restraints. “I never said I was smart,” says Falkner. They got started 11 years ago after watching a wingwalker at the annual Experimental Aircraft Association fly-in at Oshkosh, Wisconsin. “We became the only professional ultralight wingwalkers in the world,” he says. “It’s a lot of fun when things are going well.” And if they’re not? “We don’t go there,” he says. So far, he and “Always Steady Bob’’ have an accident-free record. “I can stand on the front with no belts, no harnesses, no goggles, and fly with my body,” Falkner says. “It’s a real hoot.” Why no restraints? “I used them for a while but I got tired of getting caught and tangled up in these things early on, getting them wrapped around my neck and legs, and when you unhook them and hook them again you have to take your hands off the airplane and they give you the chance to be not quite so cautious.” A few of the other dozen or so wingwalking acts have also shed their restraints.

The apocryphal story about low-flying jet jocks trying to set off a record number of car alarms in the parking lot “is a common one at any Air Force or Navy base where pilots fly high-performance aircraft, and it circulates around here as well,” says Edwards Air Force Base spokesman Alan Brown. But, he adds, “If any of our pilots intentionally tried to do that, and it could be substantiated, they would be looking for a new job immediately.

“What does happen is that every time we have a sonic boom occur out here—usually from an Air Force jet jock way up high—a bunch of car alarms will go off as the shock wave passes. Also—very rarely—if a loud aircraft makes a low pass near a parking area, some car alarms may sound off due to noise-related vibration.” Well, I’m glad we cleared that up.

But Dick Knapinski, public relations director for the EAA, thinks the glory days of stupid plane tricks are history. “I get a feeling the populace doesn’t look as kindly on stunt flying as they did 70 years ago, when it was new and wonderful,” he says. “Today with the general citizenry they call to say ‘There’s a noisy airplane over my house—make it stop!’ You get that kind of thing spraying for gypsy moths.”

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