Supporting Cast

In which we survey the variety of objects to which a jet engine can be affixed.

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During the airshow season, Hammack and wife Linda are on the road from March or April through November. Linda handles the airshow bookings, drives the tractor trailer that holds the dragster and equipment, waves key signals to Scott, and helps pack the dragster’s parachute.

There are plenty of other husband-and-wife acts, including Neal Darnell and his wife Marilyn, who haul their Flash Fire Jet Truck to airshows in a million-dollar bus and stacker trailer, along with a convertible, a golf cart, an all-terrain vehicle, and a Chihuahua named Taco Bell. “These jet vehicles are what I call circus acts, and you need some circus acts to sell tickets at airshows,” says Darnell.

And what’s a circus without animals, even if the beast is a 40-foot-tall, 60,000-pound metal dinosaur? Mark Hays is the owner of Monster Robots, Inc., and the operator of the fly-by-wire Robosaurus, which can crunch a two-ton airplane in its cavernous maw with up to 24,000 pounds of gripping force, breathe a 20-foot tongue of fire, roar with 6,000 watts of sound, and fold itself into a licensed trailer for transportation across roadways. Robosaurus worked his first airshow in 1991, and over the years he has shaken hands with “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno, starred on a Japanese game show, and been spoofed on “The Simpsons” as Truckasaurus. A Robosaurus toy is planned for this year’s holiday season.

“I’m always inside Robosaurus when it moves,” says Hays, whose ground team members, a director and a special effects operator, transmit video to the cab. “I can operate Robo alone, but the visibility is so limited. I’m strapped into Robo’s head, and the director tells me where my back end is. My feet are on the drive pedals, my fingers are in double-sided microswitches, my shoulders roll the arms. I also have some controls for the fireworks system, the air cannon, and the smoke. It gets pretty warm in there. You eat pretty well at these airshows, and [sweating inside the cab] is my only opportunity to lose weight.”

Brutus the Skydiving Dog eats well but remains under 10 pounds. Brutus, a miniature dachshund, and his human, Ron Sirull, parachute out of an airplane circling above the airfield at an altitude of 6,000 feet. “When Brutus [who wears custom goggles] is in the jump pouch, his ear is right next to my mouth,” says Sirull. “In freefall for more than 10 seconds it’s very noisy, but in the five seconds when you first leave the airplane it’s very quiet, and I just tell him to keep calm, and he’s fine.” The current Brutus is unrelated to the first, who passed away after a career of 100 freefalls. The new Brutus has logged fewer than 10 jumps.

Though Brutus is an aerial act, airshow organizers hire him and Sirull essentially as a ground attraction. “To the crowd, we’re just a speck anyway,” says Sirull. “After we land, we go down the flightline, and I put my finger under his paw so it looks like he’s waving.” The pair have waved off controversy. “I’ve had a run-in or two with the PETA folks,” says Sirull. When Vandenberg Air Force Base in California scheduled the act, base command heard from a local chapter of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. A colonel from Vandenberg’s 30th Space Wing issued the following statement: “Brutus rides comfortably, snugly attached to Mr. Sirull’s chest beneath two independent layers of a custom-made jump pouch. In colder weather, Mr. Sirull adds astronaut-like layers to Brutus’ pouch for extra warmth. Brutus’ wind exposure is minimized by use of a ‘sit-fly’ position to shield Brutus from the wind, and an aft-facing exit to avoid the plane’s forward wind motion.”

Wayne Francis has also built an airshow act around a sidekick: Wingnut, a life-size puppet clad in goggles and leather jacket. Ventriloquist Francis and Wingnut attend up to 20 airshows a year. Their routine is built around Wingnut’s tales of travels to fictional airfields, where he meets mermaids and other creatures.

Francis and Wingnut perform at a number of ballooning meets, and Francis says that the balloon crowd can make for a tough audience. “I’ve gone on right after the first launch in the morning,” he says. “You know what’s funny at 7 a.m.? Absolutely nothing. Thanks for coming!” Still, he sees ground acts like his having a permanent tether to airshows: “When the balloons are off, everyone’s looking at the sky and wondering What’s next?”

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