Since going for a fateful haircut in Detroit last March, I have amassed something like 112 hours in the TG-7A, about 70 hours of that in formation. I’ve flown three airshow demos as the sole pilot of one of a team of two or four aircraft. I’ve flown as observer in one show.
It’s not routine. It’s never going to be truly routine. But, having flown demos of one kind or another in practice or for airshow crowds, I have a level of comfort with a great deal of the process. I’m a little more relaxed. I can widen my focus a little because I have most of the core stuff under control. I’m one of four or five guys who do this so regularly that we’re beginning to anticipate each other’s moves.
But that’s an insular community. Very few of my other friends have any idea what goes into the planning, briefing, flying, and debriefing every flight. They’ve never been around to see it. And there’s always that sense that if I fly a demo in the forest and the wider community of my friends isn’t around to see it, it made no noise. (Horrible mixing of metaphors, I know.)
But then Lindsay Shipps showed up in town. Her parents live in Ann Arbor and it turned out that she could get to KDET early enough on Saturday to get up for an orientation flight in the mighty Terrazzo Falcon. The team was flying demos over the Detroit riverfront for the River Days celebration. I had flown 2 on Friday and was slated to fly the same position both Saturday and Sunday. I scheduled the bird so that I could fly Lindsay prior the show time to fly the demo.
Lindsay showed up and we preflighted and launched. She flew a good chunk of the ride out to Belle Isle, up the coast along the Pointes, then back down around to Belle Isle. The TG-7A doesn’t do much that’s dramatic, but it will fly a mildly satisfying parabola. Push for about 110 mph, pull up and set the nose high, then push over the top to achieve zero G for about two seconds. If you’re not used to maneuvers like that, it feels really strange. And it’s cool even if you’re an acro pilot.
I’ll hand it to Lindsay. She was not entirely comfortable with the ride, but agreed to the parabola and ended up loving it. And the next one, too.
And, perhaps more dramatic, Lindsay let me demonstrate a 180 abort back to the runway. I hadn’t performed one for a while, so I simply did it from 400 feet instead of 350, pushed for 85 mph instead of 80 mph, and did the initial climb from a touch-and-go instead of a dead stop, the better to climb higher sooner. It’s still dramatic-looking if you’ve never seen one and you don’t get extra credit for doing stuff any lower or slower with a first-timer aboard. To paraphrase Ralph Royce, they’re amazed that you can return to the runway at all. Doing it from 50 feet lower isn’t going to impress ‘em any more.
We landed, did the paperwork, gassed up the aircraft, and greeted the rest of the team as they arrived. Linsday stayed around and shot pictures of the brief.
Then it was time to step. I have to confess that I felt like I was abruptly abandoning my guest, but she’s pretty comfortable on any airport ramp and I’m sure that she understood that I had to go fly the demo. A couple of text messages later in the day confirmed that all was cool.
It wasn’t until I got some of Lindsay’s pictures this morning that the coolest part of the experience came home for me. The picture in question was this one. Click on the picture for the full-sized version. I had just lined up next to lead and 3 was rolling up behind us. The T-6 was preparing to roll into place behind 3. Four guys in four aircraft, all poised to go about the business of flying in front of thousands of people. And I was one of them.
I remember flying my favorite C-152, N94891, to Hillsdale (KJYM) from Willow Run (KYIP) in 2001 on my first solo cross-country. I met my college buddy Jim Angus there for some coffee. Jim helped me park the aircraft when I arrived and he got to see me climb into it and take off when we returned to the airport from breakfast. My flying became more real at that point because one of my friends from outside the aviation community had seen me do it. Before, aviation had been something that I practiced in isolation with acquaintances whom I only knew through aviation. Now that Jim had actually seen me fly an airplane by myself, by flying somehow had an anchor point in my “real” life.
I know Linsday from the aviation world. But it’s mostly as fellow media people and more as enthusiasts than operators. We’ve flown together on Fat Albert Airlines. We’ve crewed for an A-4. But neither she nor any of my non-airshow acquaintances had seen me fly in airshow mode.
That picture made it apparent that someone outside the circle of performers had seen me launch with my airshow team as the sole occupant of an aircraft that was expected to fly in close formation both precisely and safely. Just as Jim seeing me fly 891 had done for my initial flight experience, that photographic evidence of a friend’s view makes my airshow ops “real.”
I’m continuing to write whenever I can. I have three episodes all coming along in parallel to try to tell you this story in more detail. From standing around on the ramp to pyro guy to narrator to performer. I still sometimes have a hard time believing it myself, so I have to get the words just right to show you how magical this whole thing has been. It’ll be worth the wait. That much I know.