Inside Airshows – Part 3: Tuskegee 3 – 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:  Better yet, subscribe to Airspeed through iTunes or your other favorite podcatcher. It’s all free!

If you want to understand a subculture or an experience, a great way to do that is to take an outsider and plunge him into the place you want to know about, wait awhile, then drag him back to the surface and wring him out to see how it changed him.  It’s even better if you can get the guy to wring himself out.  You begin to realize that not everybody who writes about the majesty of flight does it because he’s a fighter pilot.  Some of us write because we’re not fighter pilots.

You also need to talk about the world in its own terms, using the lexicon of the world, sometimes without explaining the vocabulary to the uninitiated, except maybe through context.  If you’re a pilot, you’ll understand most of this.  If you’re not a pilot, that’s okay, because you’ll feel a little of the strangeness of this world and you’ll put it together in context and in realtime.  Just like I did.  In some ways, you’re in for a better ride than the pilots.

There are three things you need to know about me.

First, I’m a pretty average Joe.  I’m 46.  By any reasonable estimation, my life is more than half over.  I live in the suburbs.  I have a wife and two kids.  I run the rat race every day about as well as the next guy.  You wouldn’t recognize me if you ran into me in the grocery store.

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Second, I always wanted to be an astronaut.

Third, I realized a few years ago that it was entirely up to me where between that baseline and that dream I would live each day of the rest of my life.


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Listen to this.

[ICAS hall noise.]

This is the sound of a magical zone in spacetime.  It’s a room with about 60,000 square feet of floor space.  It’s at the Paris Las Vegas Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada.  I don’t know what happens in that room for the other 361 days each year.  I’m not even sure that this room  exists for the other 361 days of the year.  But, for four days each December, it’s filled wall to wall with just about every airshow performer who’s active anywhere in the us and Canada.  This is the exhibit hall at the International Council of Air Shows annual convention.

Standing at the back of the hall facing the doors way across the room, the Thunderbirds and the other Air Force TAC DEMO and static display pilots and leadership are off to the left against the far wall.  The Blue Angels and the rest of the Navy and Marine Corps contingent are on the opposite wall.  The Snowbirds are in the middle on this side.  Sean Tucker, Mike Goulian, Skip Stewart, Patty Wagstaff, Bill Stein, Rob Holland, Billy Werth, Greg Koontz, Kent Pietsch, Andy Anderson, Bob Carlton, Gene Soucy, Scooter Yoak, Team Aerodynamix, John Klatt . . . every one of them is in this room right now.  Hanging out.  Booking next year’s appearances. Swapping stories.  Doing whatever superheroes do when they get together each year between seasons. [Read more...]

Gathering of Eagles – Willoughby – Arrival

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I spent the afternoon and part of the early evening packing and then heading to Lost Nation Airport at Willoughby, Ohio for the Gathering of Eagles airshow.  Team Tuskegee is flying the show with its three-ship TG-7A demo.  No T-6G this time.  It’s just the longwings.

I remain without a FAST card and the team’s airshow routine is now all formation all of the time, so I’m here as a ferry pilot and as team narrator.  I flew here, adding another couple of hours, more or less, of stationkeeping and keeping the formation skillset current.  And I’ll fly media or liaison flights as needed.

We’re quickly approaching the point where I think there’ll be a checkride opportunity so that I and the team’s long-suffering FNG (whom I don’t pre-date by much) can get our wingman cards and expand the number of show-capable personnel (and – for that matter – the number of FAST-card-holding glider drivers in the world) to five.

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The demo is really shaping up.  I handed over the controls to John over the Pointes for a run-through before heading to Willoughby and got to see the demo again from the No. 3 ship.  I’ve also flown 2 in three separate demos at higher altitudes for River Days.  So I’m doing everything I can to be show ready.  Probably just in time for the show season to end, but you never know.  And next year isn’t that far off.

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And it’s worth getting the formal formation qualification.  We do so much more in the box in formation and it looks so much more compelling that the old demo.  And the leapfrog landing (in which lead lands first, followed by 2 and 3, each landing over the preceding aircraft) is really compelling.  It looks like snakes mating.  But it’s utterly structured and we’ve gone to great lengths in the briefs and in practice to make it safe.

If you’ll be near Willoughby this weekend, get out to the airshow.  I’ll be wantering the grounds and getting on the mic and I’ll hope to see you there!


Return from Rogers City (as an Airshow Pilot!)

It’s been a big, big weekend in Airspeed’s world.  It’s going to take a while to write and record the episode that covers it, but that’s because I need to take some time to make the episode as epic as the weekend was.

Long story short, I took things to a new level this weekend.  On Friday, I climbed into a TG-7A motorglider, flew to Rogers City, Michigan (KPZQ) in a two-ship formation, flew in my very first airshow as a performer, and came back in a three-ship formation.

I first started covering airshows from the fence along the crowd line seven years ago.  Over time, I’ve worked my way onto the performer area, then inside the box on the hot ramp, then out to show center with the pyro guys.  The only place that I had not been was up in the actual box in front of the crowd.

I had no idea in March of this year that I’d be flying motorgliders.  Or that I’d become reasonably good at it.  Or that I’d upgrade my certificate to commercial pilot in the process.  Or that I’d find myself spending time in formation with up to two other aircraft.  Or that, on Saturday, I’d be in that last frontier of the airshow fan: Actually in the box in an aircraft flying a demo for the crowd down below.

It’s been an epic weekend by any standard.  This is way, way beyond any expectation that I might have harbored just a few months ago.

I still have a lot of work to do.  I need to get a lot tighter and a lot more precise in my formation flying.  I need to develop even better situational awareness for those shows where the box isn’t over water with a definite shoreline to use as a reference.  But I’m part of a great team with really cool aircraft and – even if only in a very minor way – I’m now a part of that rarified community that flies aircraft in the box in front of airshow crowds.

My weekend.  Your weekend.  And a lot of my other weekends.  You know the drill.


FAST Formation Ground School

You’d have to have worked pretty hard this Sunday to beat my Sunday.  I kicked it off with the FAST formation ground school at Detroit City Airport (KDET).

The Formation and Safety Team (FAST) is a worldwide educational organization dedicated to teaching safe formation flying.  FAST is made up of 16 signatory organizations whose mission is to support education in the restoration, maintenance and flight of their members’ aircraft.  FAST does not itself promulgate standards that reach into the cockpits of the individual formation ships.  Signatory organizations take the core FAST materials and customize them to their aircraft-specific missions.

This specific session was hosted by the Tuskegee Airmen Glider Club, a club that operates three of the remaining nine Schweizer SGM 2-37 motorgliders, all surplus from the USAF Academy since 2003.  The club wants to be able to fly the gliders in formation in waivered airspace at airshows, which requires that the pilots have the appropriate FAST cards.  The ground school is the beginning of the process, so they hosted one. [Read more...]