Inside Airshows – Part 1: Running Away to Join the Circus – Audio Episode Show Notes

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These are the show notes to an audio episode. You can listen to the show audio by clicking here:  http://traffic.libsyn.com/airspeed/AirspeedCircusWithPreRoll.mp3.  Better yet, subscribe to Airspeed through iTunes or your other favorite podcatcher. It’s all free!

There are three things you need to know about yourself.  Who you are, what you want to be, and, if there’s a difference between the two, what you’re going to do about that difference every day for the rest of your life.

Sometimes, the act of answering those questions creates a change that alters who you are in profound ways.  I answered those questions in 1998 after I watched the Tom-Hanks-produced HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon.  Being honest, the answers were (1) law student and soon-to-be-lawyer, (2) astronaut, and (3) – well, what?

Shortly after passing the bar and beginning law practice, I decided to look into flight training.  Even knowing that becoming an astronaut was a non-starter, being the pilot in command of an aircraft was a pretty good step in that direction and it gave me most of what I needed in the way of inspiration.

It wasn’t long after becoming a pilot and beginning to add additional ratings and endorsements that I began to regularly go to airshows.  The desire to get close to airshows largely spawned the podcast to which you’re now listening, still active more than seven years and 200 episodes later.

I’ve been in the photo pit and on the ramp and actually inside the airshow box during shows for years.  I remain thankful to Roger Bishop, Patti Mitchell, Brett Bailey, and others at airshows from Battle Creek to Indy and otherwise for truly wonderful access.

But the perspective that I had, and that I conveyed, was that of a fan.  There’s nothing wrong with being a fan.  But I wanted to go deeper.  I wanted to know what it was like to be a part of the show.  To get so close to the performers, the crews, the air boss, the announcer, and the others who actually put on a show that I could tell a real story from that perspective. [Read more...]

Making it Real

River Days Break

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.

Shipps Laugh

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.

Shipps 180 front

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.

River Days Brief 01

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.

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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.”

River Head-On 01

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.

 

Team Tuskegee Ramps Up Training

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Team Tuskegee has begun to ramp up its training. Element takeoffs and landings yesterday deep in the Bravo. Echelon. Tail chase. Overhead break back at Detroit City (KDET). It’s still less than a year since I first flew a TG-7A. Last march, it was all about giggles and having fun. It’s still a lot of fun.

But the standard is different this time. This is the first pre-season when I’m actively working with an airshow standard in mind. There’s nothing whatsoever wring with with working to PTS or working up to competent $100 hamburger flying. Train for your mission and for safe outcomes and I’m with you.

As for me, though, every time I take off, land or maneuver, I see a crowd line and 10,000-plus people out of the corner of my eye and I hear Ralph Royce in my headset. It’s not long now before I won’t just be imagining that crowd (or Ralph). It’ll be real. And, providing that we nail down out FAST cards and get some additional training done in time, the Tuskegee demo will be even more complex.

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Think landing at OSH is intimidating? It is. Or so I’ve heard. But what if everyone near the flightline at OSH was actually watching you instead of buying stuff and talking and not paying attention to arrivals? And what if they had all had cameras? And what if there was a guy on the PA system telling them who you are and where you live? Suddenly, even the simple act of landing an aircraft ought to become pucker-palooza.  That’s what it is to fly an air show.

But with enough of the right kind of training, it’s no more than you should reasonably expect of yourself. The airshow guys are fond of saying: “Perfection is expected. Excellence will be accepted.” They mean it. So you go out on cold February mornings, brief the flight exhaustively, fly it with everything you have, then pick it apart back at the hangar. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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We’re working hard, bundled up with extra socks and thermal undies under our flight suits. Because each of us imagines that crowd line in the snowy fields near the flight line. And we imagine you in that crowd.

Soon, the fields will be green, the barrels and stakes will go up, and you’ll actually be in that field. We’re training hard now because we know what it is to be in that crowd and we’re very conscious of that part of your dreams that you vest in us by coming to see us fly.

And every single one of us can barely believe that we get to do this.

 

 

Writing Progresses on Airspeed’s Behind-the-Scenes Series about Airshows

I’m bouncing back from a laptop problem that caused be to lose the in-process scripts for four Airspeed episodes.  I’m aggressively trying to re-write them so that I can get a few of these episodes out by the end of the year.  In the meantime, this little chunk of prose struck me as a tasty vignette to whet your appetite for the upcoming episodes.  Enjoy!

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Mike “Kahuna” Stewart of Team RV (now known as Team Aerodynamix) once told me that you train so that you can safely fly your airshow demo while performing at 80% of your physical and mental capacity.

Airshows can be rough environments.  Sometimes you fly a long way to get there.  It’s strange airspace.  It can be different airspace every weekend.  You sleep in a strange bed in a strange hotel room.  Even when you do get to sleep, you usually have to be up and to a briefing between 8:30 and 10:00 a.m. the next day.  And, if you don’t brief, you don’t fly.

Getting places takes twice as long as it would if you knew the territory, so you’re always rushing around to get someplace and, if you’re not late, you’re way early and you sit around waiting.  Getting resources is the same way.  The gas jockey is probably working his butt off to be helpful, but he’s never around when you’re ready to gas up the aircraft.  If you’re like many airshow performers, you’re flying with minimal gas to allow maximum performance or to make the weight and balance work with your load of smoke oil.  So you have to do that lonely wait for the gas truck after every flight.

If there’s any trouble with the aircraft at a show site a long way from home, you have to figure out how to get it maintained and there might not be an easy way to do that.  Especially on a military base where the military maintainers understandably won’t touch your aircraft and where it can be difficult to get a civilian A&P onto a secure ramp – and that’s if you can get him or her through the crowd and the logistical hell of airshow ingress and egress.  Contrary to popular belief, there’s usually no magic performer-only ingress and egress to the show site so the performers can go lounge around in the air conditioning at the hotel or to get stuff to the performers if they need it.  Performers simply tend to get there earlier than you do and leave later than you do.

It’s usually hot.  Sometimes, it’s 95F or hotter with the haze of saturated, humid air.  And you’re usually wearing Nomex pajamas for at least part of the show.  You’ll probably have a hangar to stand around in, but it probably won’t be air conditioned and you’ll be exposed to a higher-than-optimal heat index the whole time you’re on or near the ramp.  You can get exhausted just standing around.  There’s usually plenty of water and other fluids on the flight line, but they sometimes run out.

And that’s to say nothing of the heat in the cockpit when you close the canopy and get ready to fly.  If it’s 95F and the sun is out, sure enough it’s going to be 120F or better the moment you close the canopy.  Have you ever sweat so much that you’ve ended up with salt stains on your flight suit?  It can happen at an airshow.

Taking a leak isn’t just taking a leak.  It’s checking the color of your urine to be sure that you’re drinking enough water.  If it’s not pretty close to clear, or if it’s been more than about an hour since the last time you went, you’re not drinking enough.

If you have time to lay down and try to get some rest, there’s usually no place to do it other than on a hangar floor with people tripping over you.  And, with a demo coming up in less than a few hours, I don’t know how anyone could actually sleep.

And you have to be looking out for your teammates, too.  Eyeballing their aircraft when you walk by to make sure that somebody with a golf cart hasn’t bent the tail.  Watching your teammates themselves for signs of dehydration, heat exhaustion, or heatstroke.

These are not optimum conditions in which to do things that require peak human performance.  Kahuna says that you should expect to be at no more than 80% of your physical and mental abilities when you fly a demo at an airshow.  Your job is to make your physical and mental abilities so that 80% is more than enough to fly the demo safely.  That’s a tall order.  But airshow pilots have to do it.

 

 

Who We Are and What We Do: A Journeyman’s Letter Back to the Tribe

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I’m going to approach turning this weekend’s first airshow performance experience (and, frankly, this whole season) into Airspeed episode content.  This is big, huge, life-event stuff for me.  I’m still pretty tingly about having done it, even as I write this on the Thursday after returning.  I really want to get writing, but I need to let it simmer for awhile before really writing the episodes.

So you knew that it was going to start squirting out.  This afternoon, I undertook an intermediate measure.  I wrote an e-mail to the cast, crew, and friends of the Acro Camp movies.  Although I’m the putative mastermind and the guy behind the camera, I am very much a camper myself at heart.  I only made the movies because there were no casting calls by anybody else making them that I could answer.  So I made those movies myself with my friends.

I really needed to tell a core group of people what was on my mind.  I needed to tell people who really get it deep in their bones.  I needed to tell my tribe.  So the e-mail turned into a message that one who has gone far afield to seek his fortune might write back to the tribe.  To tell his fellow tribe members how different it is out in far-away lands.  And how he has carried the tribe with him.

Smarmy BS?  Maybe.  But it’s my smarmy BS.  And I’m pretty proud of it.  And it’s probably not smarmy BS, either.

You’re going to get the full energy of this experience in an Airspeed episode or two soon.  But, until then, I couldn’t think of a good reason not to share this with the broader Airspeed community.  You guys are, after all, a part of the tribe.

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Ladies and gents of the Acro Camp community:

I discovered something this weekend.  A TFR is perfectly fine as long as they put it there for you and you’re in it, wings-up and burning free gas.

Long story short, I flew my first airshow this weekend in a hot box and a TFR over the waterfront at Rogers City (KPZQ) as Tuskegee 2 in a two-ship demo of TG-7A motorgliders.

I was supposed to be 3, but our No. 2 ship developed a bad mag on the way up and had to divert for MX.  3 did make it up, but the Sunday demo was cancelled for wind (bumpy as HELL for practice that morning and the gust ground-looped lead on the taxi for the second takeoff, so we knocked it off).  We returned to KDET as a three-ship, but got some passes in over town before departing.

For those not in the know, the TG-7A is a motorglider with a 59.5-foot wingspan initially flown by the USAF Academy.  Piper Tomahawk firewall-forward and Franken-glider behind.  The academy surplused out three of them in 2003 and the Tuskegee Airmen National Historical Museum in Detroit got them to use in training kids to fly and to raise awareness about the museum and its programs.  Out fleet represents fully half of the remaining flying fleet of TG-7As.

They’re yellow, they look great with big bank angles, they fly great in formation, and we can fill the sky in front of the crowd line with swooping longwings to great effect.  At the conclusion of the initial part of the demo, the solo ship (that’s me) does 180-aborts back and forth in front of the crowd between 0 and 300 AGL and then recovers.  The two other ships gaggle-climb to 1,000 AGL and go engine-out and glide back to recover, preferably on a taxiway right in front of the crowd.

We’re not technically aerobatic, but we bank big enough that you actually have to take the low wing’s dihedral into account to avoid the stinkeye from the FAA.

Anyway.  I know that you campers came to Michigan and experienced some really new sensations in a very public way and at a rapid-fire pace.  It changed every one of you in some way.  It might be hard to believe, but it changed the crew who watched and filmed you, too.  And the director/editor who re-lives it in his basement late at night as he watches from his perch out on the wing.

I told you during the camp that I’d never ask you to fly a camera rig that I hadn’t already flown myself.  I made good on that part.  But I did ask you to undergo that trial by fire of learning acro in the camp format when I hadn’t really ever had that experience and didn’t have a genuine sense for what that was like.  I’m not sorry that I did that to you.  In fact, I’m still kind of jealous of you.  But I still threw you into a deep end in which I had little or no experience.

But you need to know that I do put my stick and rudder skills where my mouth is, even if it is a little time-delayed.  I’ve only been flying these aircraft since March.  I got sucked in when I realized in the middle of my second flight that I was training for the rating (these things are in the glider category, so it’s new-rating time if you want to fly them PIC).  I picked up a commercial certificate with the glider rating on July 12 and got asked a couple of days later to join the team.  I went from 0.2 formation (in an L-39) and no real glider time to airshow demo team member in just a few months.

When you commit to fly a show, you’re committed.  The team can’t very well get a sub at the last minute.  You commit or you don’t.  And, if you commit, you suck it up and go fly to a high standard that involves being very close to other aircraft and constantly earning the trust of the other two guys.  Even when it’s bumpy as hell.  Even when you’re forced to land downwind because there’s a KC-135R blocking some other important part of the airport.  Perform.  Period.

I got an education.  I was reactive a lot more than I was proactive.  I have a lot to learn.  But airmanship like the kind that Don and Barry teach translates.  The pace, order, and mutual support of an IAC contest translates.  The camaraderie of an Acro Camp translates.  It’s all right there waiting for you when you need it.

I just wanted to let you know that you guys helped make this weekend possible.  If you think that I considered not flying the show, you’re right.  It would have been easy to bow out.  I was a brand-new glider driver whose media reputation probably gets him more credibility that his flying skills really deserve.  I was pretty goddamned scared and saw a lot of stuff that I’ve never seen before and was expected to figure out quickly.  But I’ve got a little piece of each of you in my hands, feet, eyeballs, and heart.  That – and lots of other stuff – made it happen.

We are a rare collection of people.  We demand of ourselves the willingness and capability to do things that aren’t easy.  We do them because they’re hard.  And because, if there’s fear in doing a thing, we also know the fear of not doing the thing and regretting that we didn’t take on the challenge.  This is who we are.  This is what we do.  And we will forever be different from the others among whom we move from day to day.  We are amazing people, every one.  And I’m insufferably proud to be a part of an intrepid band of humans who take on challenges like this.

The team is still working out some last-minute details, but, if things go as we expect and you’re in the neighborhood, stop by [airshow event and location withheld from blog post until confirmed].   I’ll be there.  Flying Tuskegee 3.  In the box.  Wings-up.  Being like you.

Invertor et vomens!  Smoke on!

- Dogbag

Tuskegee 3