First Post-Thunderbirds GA Aerobatic Flight

This is a regular blog post. Looking for show notes or links to audio? Please check out the other posts. AND CHECK OUT THE THUNDERBIRDS POSTS FROM A FEW DAYS AGO! (Scroll down.)

Spending a lot of time with the audio from the Thunderbirds ride getting it edited down for another epic summary episode a la the DC-3 summary episode. Thinking 90-minute-plus extravaganza. Might even go into the studio to record original music for it. Will have more vide to post soon, too. Will Hawkins is helping with the initial production. Watch this space!

Got up on Tuesday for 1.5 in the Citabria with Barry Sutton. I should note that, since Tradewinds closed in February, I haven’t had any home FBO at which I am checked out to rent airplanes all by myself. And I’m finding that, for the time being, I don’t care! I am a growing Citabria addict.

I did about 1.5 in the 172RG over at Flight 101 and had a good experience, then there was the DC-3 training. Just before doing the DC-3 training, I went up with Barry in the Citabria because I had no tailwheel time and wanted to do a few wheel landings before flying the ‘three. I loved that flight and went back to do more tailwheel training with Barry so that I could say with a straighter face that I have a tailwheel endorsement (the ‘three is wildly tailwheely in the taxi, but behaves like a big tricycle-great airplane otherwise). I really need to master a smaller taildragger before I can feel good about claiming to be a taildragger pilot.

Barry allowed early on as how he does aerobatic training in the Citabria, which piqued my curiosity. We did two flights after I got back from Griffin and before the Thunderbirds ride. The first was about aircraft stability and the second was about unusual attitudes and energy management. In each case, my stomach had had enough by about the 20-minute mark and we did the rest of those 1.3 or 1.4-hour flights in the pattern working on landings.

I got pretty green toward the end of the Thunderbirds flight. Not dwelling on it and not saying that I didn’t have an outstanding experience. (Can I say it again? The Thunderbirds rocked and Maj Mulhare worked really hard to make it a solid experience! I will never, ever forget that flight!) But I was a little disappointed in myself about getting that green that quickly.

So I had low expectations going out again in the Citabria on Tuesday. We strapped on the chutes and headed to the practice area and I expected to get maybe 20 minutes of cranking and banking before having to come back to the pattern.

Surprise! Yours truly got a full hour of loops, rolls, and hammerheads (I love hammerheads!) and no tummy issues at all. In fact, it was Barry’s idea to head back to the airport. (Not that Barry had issues – He just wanted to get some landings in.)

I think that it might have something to do with being on the controls a little more. I flew most of the maneuvers instead of watching or just following along on the controls. I think that made a big difference.

And there’s some element of exposure that helps. Most aerobatic guys who take time off in the winter will tell you that it takes them about five flights to get back into the swing. There’s an extent to which you have to just keep at it and push through whatever barrier you’re experiencing.

I was really stoked after the flight. This is what I’d hoped aerobatics would be like! Not having to be limited by the stomach and just enjoying the outer reaches of the flight envelope. And getting familiar enough with the maneuver to be able to just watch yourself do it.

You know the aerobatic sequences from One Six Right? I used to just hang my head and cry (yeah, cry) when I saw those because, although I’ve had more flight experiences than most people will ever have, I feared that that real skydancing would just plain elude me. Can it be that I can reach it and that it’s just on the other side of a little push through that 20-minute barrier? Can it be that I just need to have my hands on the controls?

What is a barrier, really? The problem is that the most important barriers are unique to each of us and there is no way to see anything but this side of the barrier until you put your head down and make a run at it. Maybe many runs. Maybe even fighting your own physiological and mental limits each time.

But the happiest times of life are when you realize that the barrier is surmountable. That you can do it. Or at least peek over the other side.

Hey, I’m no steely-eyed missile man yet. In fact, in many ways, I’m just a poser. I have a lot to learn. I’ll always have a lot to learn. But, on Tuesday, I transcended what I though was going to be an ongoing personal limitation. Or at least made a big-ass dent in it.

Car-dancing on the way home. Liquid Tension Experiment blaring. Windows down. Yeah!

Flight will transform you. Flight finally let me give my undivided attention to a burning blue-green horizon as the brilliant yellow nose of the Citabria fell through it and then the wings were like they were on straight vertical detents for a moment before pulling out.

Poser though I may be most of the time, for a little while this Tuesday, I was Superman, Harry Potter, and Fletcher Seagull. I am Stephen Force and I love this stuff.


Contact information for Barry Sutton:

Sutton Aviation, Inc.
Oakland County International Airport
6230 North Service Drive
Waterford, Michigan 48327

Unusual Attitude and Upset Training in the Citabria with Barry Sutton

This is a regular blog post. Looking for show notes or show audio? Please check out the other entries.

Try this at home! It could save your life. (Just make sure that you do it in a properly certified airplane with a qualified instructor.)

1.3 hours and five three-point landings yesterday in an American Champion 7ECA Citabria. I got a little time in this aircraft with Barry Sutton in May prior to going for the DC-3 type rating – the idea being that I didn’t want to show up in Georgia with zero tailwheel time. What I learned was that the dynamics of the two aircraft are almost completely unrelated. Not that there’s nothing to be learned from one taildragger to the next, but the skillsets are really different. Not unexpected, I guess.

But the experience with the Citabria really made me want to get more time in it. Two objectives here. (1) become proficient enough in the Citabria that Barry says he’d sign me off if I had come to him ab initio for a tailwheel endorsement and (2) cooler still, use this opportunity to explore the flight envelope in terms of aerodynamics, upset recovery, and aerobatics.

So I scheduled some time yesterday to go up with Barry and do just that (er, those).

Weather was cool with good visibility, smooth, and broken ceiling at 3,500 to 4,000. Not so good for serious aerobatics (in my conservative view of things until I gain some more experience), but just fine for basic VFR unusual attitudes.

We started out with demonstrations of stability. Trim the airplane out for straight and level, give the nose a good push, and let her porpoise through four or five oscillations to demonstrate that the aircraft tend toward return to level flight if left alone. Okay, I read about that. I understood it all, too. No problem.

Then Barry pitched us way the hell up. Cranked us over to 50 or 60 degrees of bank and said, “let go.” (Let go?). (Yeah, let go.)

I wish I could say for sure what the airplane did. I think that she yawed gradually around her wingtip with a bit more increase in bank and gradually went nose-down. The cool thing is that the yaw and bank basically damped down and, within about six seconds, we were stable, even if we were looking at a lot of planet out the front window. Throttle back and pull out of the dive and return to straight and level flight.

Guess what? The stability thing works in all three axes. For some reason, they don’t tell you much about that in the primary training literature. But we had the airplane all cranked over and scrambled in all three axes and it returned relatively stable flight all by itself.

Next, we did a spin to the left. The wing dropped off to the left and the autorotation started. Barry pulled the throttle and, after a turn or a turn and a half, Barry said “Let go.” With both of us hands-off, the Airplane broke the stall, stopped rotation within a quarter turn, and became merely a diving airplane instead of a spinning airplane.

I recovered from the dive and took her back to straight and level at 3,000 (about 2,000 AGL). After some more maneuvering, Barry asked me what’s required for a spin to occur. I gave the textbook answer: “The airplane must be stalled and it must be uncoordinated.” But Barry illustrated the truth of yet another precondition. We stalled the airplane and kept it coordinated and the nose came straight back down. Then we stalled it with the ball way outside the middle and let the airplane do what it did. Which is to say that the reaction was very incipient for a long time (more than five or six seconds, which is a long time if you have even moderate reaction time) and, absent keeping the stick all the way back and the rudder floored, so spin ensued.

The take-away is that there’s a practical third element, that being that that condition has to last a long(er)(ish) and/or the stall condition needs to be pretty deep. Modern aircraft don’t really want to stall or spin. If you’re in a stall of the inadvertent VFR kind that doesn’t find you suddenly and extremely cockeyed, you’re probably going to have time to recover. Just don’t do anything stupid, like letting your lizard brain pull back on the controls to accelerate the stall.

There is an extent to which the airplane will take care of itself. Although we were in very unusual attitudes, the aircraft recovered in every instance hands-off with only a power reduction required and then a pull out of the dive (which is easy to do because you’re wings level and have a good look at the ground and/or the horizon and they’re not rotating anymore).

The key is having enough altitude. This stuff takes several hundred feet, if not more than 1,000 feet, to happen. None of this knowledge would be very helpful on the turn from base to final. But I think I’ve seen enough to consider adding “hands off” to my SOP in this type of aircraft if I’m VFR and have altitude to spare. Not sure about other aircraft (e.g. C-172s, etc.), but it sure works in the Citabria.

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. Barry’s a really good instructor. And I know from good instructors. He takes the time to understand what you want out of the flight and presents the material in an ordered, sequential, and helpful way. If you’re looking for tailwheel, high-performance, multi, or similar training, Barry’s your guy. I’m not sure how much primary or instrument instruction he does, but I think that any primary or instrument student would be licky to train with Barry, too.

Obviously, this account is unique to this airplane, this instructor, and this author. Do try this at home because it’ll give you confidence, a better understanding of the flight envelope, and additional tools in your flight bag. It might even save your life. But do it in an aircraft certified for the maneuvers, observe placarded and other limitations, wear a parachute if required, and get a well-qualified instructor who knows you, the aircraft, and the airspace.

Contact information for Barry Sutton:

Sutton Aviation, Inc.
Oakland County International Airport
6230 North Service Drive, Waterford, MI, 48327

Aerobatic Ride with Michael Mancuso in the Extra 300L

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The second of my 2007 aerobatic rides!

The show starts out with an update on my instrument training, including cockpit audio. Then we get into the ride, complete with audio from the MicroTrack 96/24 plugged into the Extra’s intercom.

Michael Mancuso is in his 10th year doing shows. He has 7,000 hours total time and commercial and instructor certificates. He started flying gliders at age 11 and soloed for the first time when he was 13. He and his family own Mid Island Air Service on Long Island in New York and Michael started Gyroscopic Obsessions in 1995 to teach aerobatics. He competed in IAC aerobatics from 1992 to 1997 and then spent from 1998 to 2000 with the Northern Lights.

Michael flies the Extra 300L. The 300L is about 23 feet long and nine feet tall at the tail, and has a wingspan of about 25 feet. It’s powered by a Textron Lycoming AEIO 540-L1B5 300 horsepower engine connected to an MT three-blade prop that pulls the aircraft through the air at 170 knots when cruising at 75% power. It’ll get off the pavement in 315 feet, climb at more than 3,000 feet per minute, pull plus and minus 10 g’s, and do all kinds of crowd-pleasing gyrations between its 55-knot stall speed and Vne of 220 knots. The aircraft is built in Germany and certified in the United States.

The Extra on the ramp when I arrived. Taking on fuel and getting ready for a morning of flying media riders. How nice is Mike? And I’ll bet you that going that Extra mile (pun intended) gets really valuable exposure for his sponsors that they wouldn’t otherwise receive. All this and flying two demos a day at the actual show? That’s hard work.

The guy scheduled to go after me cancelled when he got his signals uncrossed and figured out that this was an aerobatic flight and not a balloon ride. Gotta pay attention to who’s in town, my friend! This is Michael Mancuso we’re talking about! Anyway, since when does a balloon ride start at 9:00 a.m.? Not with any balloon pilot with whom I’d ride.

This is throw-the-airplane-ass-over-tea-kettle-high-over-Gull-Lake time!

Arriving back after the ride. My glasses came off as I took off the headset and – “sproing!” went flying into Michael’s lap. That’s alright. A ride like that and I’m set for the week.

Last shot on the ramp for the day. Then it’s time to go sit in the Meijer parking lot and let my vestibular system reset while awaiting the Blue Angels’ arrival a few hours later and the rendezvous with photographer par excellence Dan McNew for the interview with Craig Olson.

Great interview with a great naval aviator, but the ride makes Michael the Airspeed MVP for this trip to BTL!

Here’s the maneuver I discuss in the audio. Michael performs barrel rolls around an inverted Matt Chapman’s track on Sunday. You need to be on the ground and at the fence to really appreciate this. Precision in all three axes and power management to boot. Unreal. I hope the non-pilots in the audience recognize the difficulty of this thing that Michael makes look so easy.

Contact Information for Michael:

Michael Mancuso Airshows
Brookhaven Airport
139 Dawn Drive
Shirley, New York 11967
Phone: 516-359-9948
e-mail: or

Listening to the Aeroshell Aerobatic Team

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We all know that the best formation aerobatics teams fly great formations and match each other with great precision. But have you listened to a really good team? The formation maneuvers match pitch beautifully and the series maneuvers not only look the same but sound the same.
Here’s some audio from the Aeroshell Aerobatic Team’s performance today.
Aeroshell Aerobatic Team website:

Airspeed – Upside Down and Hair on Fire with Brett Hunter

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It’s humid and still at Sandusky County Regional Airport, about two hours’ drive from Detroit. The kind of weather that makes for smooth air and good flying, but limits visibility to about six miles and washes out the features of the farms in the distance. Not unlike a dreamscape where the world fades into obscurity at the horizon.

I’m playing hooky. I’ve spent the last few days making sure that my clients are taken care of. My voice mail is telling callers that I’ll take care of any emergent matters in the afternoon. Same with my e-mail. Right now, I am focused on other things. Right now, I am standing on the ramp on the broad plain of northern Ohio watching an airplane taxi in. It’s a red biplane and it’s gorgeous.

It’s a muscular-looking aircraft. It’s 20 feet wide and about that long with reinforcement everywhere. An improbably-sized engine compartment and large three-bladed propeller complete the effect. It turns back and forth as it taxis because the pilot can’t see over the cowling while the airplane is on the ground.

In just a few weeks, this aircraft will dance through the skies above tens of thousands of upturned faces at the Selfridge ANGB Air Show. But, for now, it’s just me, the red biplane, and a few other transient aircraft out there on the ramp. I’ve arranged to meet pilot Brett Hunter here to interview him and to see the plane up close.

Brett is an experienced commercial and aerobatic pilot who lives on a grass strip in Waynesville, Ohio. His wife, Debbie, has come along in the plane for this appearance at the Sandusky County Regional Airport. She occupies the open-air forward cockpit while Brett flies the airplane from the rear cockpit.

The aircraft is singular of purpose. No mere pleasure aircraft this. It started out as a Pitts S-2C aerobatic biplane manufactured by Aviat Aircraft Co. in Afton, Wyoming. It’s still mostly a Pitts S-2C, but Brett has modified it so thoroughly that it no longer conforms to its manufacturer’s type certificate and is now registered as an “experimental” aircraft.

Aviat’s website says that a production Pitts S-2C will get off the runway in less than 900 feet, climb at about 3,000 feet per minute, go straight and level at 194 miles per hour, and withstand speeds of 212 miles per hour. But this plane betters these numbers in every respect.

It has none of the gyroscopic instruments that you’d expect to see in regular aircraft. The aerobatic maneuvers that it performs are enough to cause nervous breakdowns in any but the most hardened military instruments.

I’ve seen the videos from Brett’s website. With the right weather conditions, Brett can hang the airplane on its propeller and sit there suspended in space before air show crowds. Or literally hurl the airplane around the gyroscopic center provided by the prop and tumble in seemingly impossible attitudes before recovering as though it’s the easiest thing in the world.

After Brett secures the aircraft from the flight over to Sandusky, we do a walk-around and talk a little bit.

[Interview audio.]

Man, it’s a beautiful aircraft and you heard Brett. He’s a consummate pro. He really knows his aircraft and his industry and in as eloquent an interview subject as I’ve ever heard.

Now you could once again be forgiven for thinking that this is a pure interview episode. And that was a great interview. But this is not the only communication I’ve had with Brett. We’ve arranged a few things by e-mail prior to this meeting. And now I get to say the thing that I can hardly believe I’m saying . . .

[Audio: “Let’s take her up!”]

That’s right. An ultra-hot modified Pitts S-2C aerobatic aircraft. And it’s red. And I’m about to strap in and we’re going up.

Yeah, baby!

Brett helps me into the parachute harness. I cinch it down around my thighs and wiggle into the shoulder straps. The parachute itself is packed in a container about the size of a stadium cushion that hangs down behind your backside and you sit on it when you get into the plane. It’s good to sit on the parachute because I’ll be strapped into in an open cockpit and it would be very bad if the parachute somehow escaped its container in flight.

Then I climb carefully into the front seat. It’s a tight squeeze, but that’s to be expected. After all, the airplane is not primarily designed to carry passengers. Once in, Brett walks me through the restraint systems. One system of belts that goes over the tops of my thighs and up between my legs and another system that is like a regular airliner lap belt.

At the same time, Brett gives me the safety briefing. It’s thorough. Brett has done this before. Most interesting is the bail-out procedure. In the unlikely event that I have to bail out, I have to pull two buckles, kick free of the cockpit, count off enough time to be sure that I’m away from the aircraft, and then insert both thumbs in the D-ring of the parachute ripcord and yank on it.

I rehearse mentally. Pull, pull, kick, count, yank. Pull, pull, kick, count, yank. Okay, I can do that. Wait. I have a camera, some audio equipment, and lots of cables in my lap for recording the experience. So that’s going to be throw, throw, pull, pull, untangle, kick, untangle, wiggle, untangle, pull, kick, count yank. Add curse as needed. Okay, got it.

Brett tells me that the command to bail out is simple enough. If it becomes necessary to part company with the aircraft other than back here on the ramp, he’ll shout, “Bail out! Bail out! Bail out!” He also tells me that, once I hear that command, further conversation will be pointless because I’ll be alone. He’s only half joking. Actually, he’s not joking at all.

Brett pulls out a two-quart Zip-Loc bag and explains its purpose. Its purpose is not to carry my lunch. At least not before I’ve eaten it. Brett offers to carry the bag and hand it forward to me if I need it. I both decide not to tell Brett that I already have a pilfered Northwest airsick bag in my pocket against just such an eventuality and decide to carry the offered Zip-Loc bag up front tucked under my harness. I know a thing or two about airsickness and I know that it actually helps to have the bag handy. It tends to be needed less if it’s right there and available.

Frankly, I’m a lot more concerned about the airsickness issue than anything else. I have a parachute and I’m actually safer in some respects than I am in my regular flying back at Pontiac. It’s hurling all over Brett’s shiny red airplane that has me a little worried.

I’m a 150-hour private pilot and nearly instrument-rated. But most of my flying has been a lot like driving a car. I did two spins (relatively benign maneuvers where the airplane rotates lazily while in a nose-down attitude) during my private pilot training, so that I would be able to recognize them and recover if necessary, but that’s about it. Brett, on the other hand, has been flying for more than 16 years, performing in air shows for three years, and flying this airplane since 2000. He has more time upside down than some fighter pilots have right side up.

I’ve read the operations manuals of the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds. They state diplomatically that they would rather that journalists who go up on media rides with the teams not dwell on airsickness or how funny (or unfunny) it is to hurl in a supersonic military fighter and whether one is able to get the boom microphone out of the way in time.

Okay. I see their point and I won’t dwell on it, either now or if I ever get a ride with a jet team. But anyone who goes up on an aerobatic ride is foolish not to wonder how they’ll react. Even mighty NASA has a hard time predicting how astronauts will react to zero-g and other odd inertial environments. Medical doctor, Michigan native, and Space Shuttle and Mir astronaut Jerry Linenger remarks in his books that it’s impossible to tell who will succumb to space sickness. I’ve interviewed NASA Ames motion sickness expert and scientist-astronaut Dr. Patricia Cowings and she says much the same thing.

As an air show performer and consummate promoter, Brett’s aerobatic experience has included many opportunities to take up a lot of non-aerobatic pilots and non-acrobatically-inclined members of the media. Brett doesn’t want to hose down the front seat of the aircraft any more than I want him to have to. We’re going to be frank with each other up there. And I’m going to be frank with myself.

And, in any case, I’m not going to dwell on it. Especially not here on the threshold of my first aerobatic experience. I’m strapped into a hot red biplane about five minutes from launch and I’m absolutely giddy.

I’m situated. The audio cables are situated. The camera is ready to go. Brett climbs in and fires up the Magnum-converted engine. We taxi to the end of the runway while doing radio checks and other preflight prep. For Brett, that means checking out the engine, the magnetos, and the flight controls. For me, that means checking that nothing will fall out of the airplane when we go inverted. Including me.

A quick note about the audio here. I performed no processing on the audio other than setting the mix and splicing the content. I was amazed when I got on the ground at how quiet the whole thing was. Brett makes a few remarks about PS Engineering ( and a couple of other sponsors and I’m always up for that on the podcast. But his comment about PS Engineering is no idle praise. Bear in mind that this is a screamingly, howlingly loud engine attached to what amounts to an aluminum resonating chamber on wings and I’m in an open cockpit with a 200-knot-plus prop blast surrounding me. And yet the audio is better in many ways than what you hear when I record from the cockpit of Cessna 172s. This is a quality system.

Then we’re taking the runway. It’s all business. The engine roars. I can feel the 200+ knot prop blast flowing just over my head. The tail comes up almost immediately and I can see over the nose down the runway. We’re galloping headlong and flat out down the ribbon of pavement. Brett rotates off the runway and we’re in a maximum performance climb and gaining altitude at 3,000 feet per minute. Think of it as riding on an elevator that’s rising at 35 miles per hour (not to mention doing 100 miles per hour toward Cedar Point).

In less than two minutes, we’re at altitude and heading back west to find some airspace to carve up. This is cool. This rocks! The wind sings in the wires and the scenery below whips by.

Time for some aerobatics. Brett starts with the aileron roll. Nose up a little, then the world rotates around us until we’re back level. No real sense of maneuvering. Just the world rotating. Brett’s good.

We set up for the next maneuver: The loop.

A word about g-forces. Pilots measure the forces that they experience in aircraft in terms of the number of times the normal force of gravity at Earth’s surface. They call each multiple of earth’s gravity a “g” – short for a “gravity.” I weigh about 210 pounds standing there on the ramp. At three g’s, I would be pressed down into the seat as though I weighed 630 pounds. No big deal if you’re used to flying with a refrigerator in your lap.

The US Navy Blue Angels, who will perform at Thunder Over Michigan at Willow Run a few weeks before the Selfridge show, regularly pull six g’s. At that acceleration, I’d effectively weigh more than the two-seat Cessna 152 aircraft in which I have trained. Brett regularly pulls eight g’s during a show routine.

Brett warms up with a steep turn to see if I’m okay with the g’s. When I do steep turns in training, I normally do them at 45 degrees of bank; with the wings halfway between level and perpendicular to the horizon. Brett does them at 70 degrees of bank and pulls hard through them. We’re around at three g’s and I’m fine. I tell Brett that I’m good to go for the loop.

The nose comes down a little to pick up airspeed. The engine howls. We’re doing about 180 miles per hour when Brett pulls up and the horizon disappears. We’re vertical and then we’re inverted. The g’s let off through the top of the loop and then we load up again as we’re vertical again and then pulling out of the dive on the back side of the loop. My cheeks feel like they weigh 20 pounds and my head wants to tip forward, but I hold it up.

I check in with my stomach. No problem. We maneuver around some more. I’m really liking the feel of this airplane. Gorgeous red wings slash through the pale haze over the land that gave birth to powered flight. We dance over the factories and farms, a gossamer scarlet apparition over the sleepy early spring landscape.

Time for the hammerhead turn. The entry is a lot like the loop. We drop the nose a little and pick up airspeed. We’re going more than 200 miles per hour when Brett pulls the nose straight up and hangs the airplane on the prop. The weight of a refrigerator is once again briefly in my lap. Then it’s on my back. Up and up we climb.

Shortly, the g’s let up and we approach weightlessness. The plane rages against the planet’s gravity and claws for purchase in the warm spring air, demanding and earning each additional foot of altitude. We’re practically a helicopter now; hovering somewhere between Ohio and outer space. It is ethereal. It is transcendent. Behind me, Brett dances with aileron, elevator, and rudder in perfect balance. He can ignore the throttle for the moment. The airplane knows what to do with that. It just howls.

Just as I begin to float off my seat against the restraints and the audio cables in my lap begin to behave as though they’re in a scene from Apollo 13, Brett eases the rudder over. The airplane pivots slowly and gracefully on its left wingtip. The nose falls through the horizon, first slowly and then at a faster rate. I can turn my head to the left and see the earth 3,000 feet straight down.

Then we’re heading back down and picking up speed at an amazing rate. Is that corn? Soybeans? Whatever it is is getting closer rapidly. Brett pulls on the stick and we get heavy again as he pulls out of the dive and then we’re bleeding off speed and flying straight and level in the opposite direction from when we started.

A little straight-and-level flight now to collect my wits. Brett chats the entire time, explaining each maneuver and where it fits into the aerobatic repertoire.

Time to go inverted. We check our harnesses (especially me, as the guy with no canopy between him and the wild blue yonder). Brett pops the nose up a little and then rolls the plane inverted. Sky and earth exchange places over the nose and I’m hanging from my restraints in the open air, flying upside down and most of a mile up. I think my hair may be on fire, too.

We roll back upright. My stomach and my vestibular system stay inverted. Hmmm. I verify that the Zip-Loc (and, for that matter, the Northwest bag) is still there. No immediate issue, but I am definitely a little green around the gills.

Have I mentioned that Brett is a consummate pro? I allow as how my stomach has finally objected to this admittedly unjust treatment and that a little straight-and-level flight might be appropriate. We cruise along and chat about my instrument rating and the aircraft I’ve flown and Brett even diplomatically calls my attention to a land feature on the horizon. I know that the land feature doesn’t matter as much as getting me to focus on the horizon. Focusing on the horizon is one of the most basic techniques of combating motion sickness. Brett’s being helpful while allowing me to save face.

Rats! There’s more to see and do up here, but we conclude that discretion is the better part of valor and head back to the airport. On the base leg of the pattern as we’re coming in, Brett keeps up the demonstration by reducing the throttle to idle with a half mile to go and gliding it in for a beautiful landing. I’m not sure of the exact moment that the main landing gear touch down, which is the measure of a perfect landing. Brett doesn’t gloat, but I’ll bet that he’s happy with the landing just the same.

We taxi back to the ramp disengage me and my rat’s nest of audio cables from the aircraft. I stagger around the ramp for awhile and shoot pictures as Brett pulls off the front windscreen and screws down a piece of custom sheet metal over the cockpit where I had been sitting. He is scheduled to have the airport to himself in about 30 minutes to practice and he’s reconfiguring the aircraft to get it ready for the show.

I thank Brett and then stagger back to my car. I have a conference call in an hour that I’ll take in the car as I dodge orange barrels and other traffic the way back to metro Detroit. The real world closes in all too quickly.

But in quiet moments since that morning, I have found myself in a red biplane, weightless and precessing gracefully around a wingtip as the horizon rotates obediently to the command of Brett Hunter. I hope that there are lots of other hammerhead turns in my flying experience. But I will always remember that one.

I’ll be at Selfridge on July 21 and 22. Like the tens of thousands of others, I will turn my face up to the sky and see the performers and demonstration teams wheel back and forth across show center. And, when Brett takes the field, I’ll remember with satisfaction that I had the chance to experience some small piece of the flight envelope that Brett stretches so well.

When we gather at places like Selfridge – and Willow Run and Battle Creek and Oshkosh and Sandusky and wherever else daring men and women hurl their aircraft through the skies – we celebrate aviation as the singular human endeavor that it is. We celebrate confidence, skill, endurance, and every other quality to which we aspire and we do our best to take some of it home in our hearts.

Even when there’s no air show, we stand with out fingers entwined in the fences of any of 2,000 general aviation airports in America and watch the airplanes depart and arrive to and from destinations unknown.

We see it in F-16 Fighting Falcons and the C-130s of the 127th Air Wing, in the KC-135 Stratotankers of the 927th Air Refueling Wing, in the HH 65C Dolphin Helicopters of Coast Guard Air Station Detroit, in the Space Shuttle, and in the Cessna 172s and the Cherokee Archers that are ubiquitous in our summer skies, and in all other manner of flying machines.

But most of all, we see it in hot red biplanes.

Yeah, baby! Yeah!


Brett Hunter:

Pitts (Aviat Aircraft):

Pitts S-2C:

Selfridge Air Show:

Gulf Coast Avionics:

Autolite Fine Wire Spark Plugs:


Aircraft Sprice and Specialty:

B&C Specialty Products:

Stewarts Aircraft Service:

PS Engineering:

Softie Emergency Parachutes/Para-Phernalia, Inc.:

Hooker Harnesses:

Goodyear Aviation:

Concorde Batteries:


Sky-Tec Flyweight Starters:

Electronics International:

Challenger Aviation Products:

Aero Technologies:

Oregon Aero:

Aloft Technologies:

SQ Systems:

Impressions Photography: