Indy 2011: Day 2

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The Airspeed crew vehicle likes to think of itself as Blue Angel Zero. There she is, parked next to CDR David Koss’s No. 1 ship. Waiting for the crew to top up her smoke oil for tomorrow’s demo.

Day 2 (Saturday) at Indy is complete. Worries about the weather were worth having, but – at the end of the day – not worth getting bunched up over. Ceilings started out high and gradually came down. The Blues flew a low or flat show, which was fine with me because I was on my way out to Indianapolis International to catch a photo op with CDR Koss and the pilots of two WWII-era predecessors of the F/A-18C. I opened up the sun roof so I could hear the jet noise better.

The shoot went well and I got a three-minute piece that I might release as an ultra-short video episode.

I love Dave Dacy’s big, honking 500-hp Super Stearman. It’s clean, it’s white, and it’s round. It makes the right noices. You can attach a human speed brake to the top wing. What more do you really need?

I hooked up with the Heavy Metal Jet Team in the late morning and got interviews with Snort and Slick for Acro Camp. The interviews look very crisp in HD. And they should. As long as the light doesn’t completely stink. you have an airplae that the team has gone to the trouble to paint with large areas of the three most useful background colors. Don’t like how the frame looks? Not popping? Take two steps to the left and you have a completely different contrast proposition. Three to choose from. No waiting.

Both Slick and Snort are very, very well-spoken. Great answers to the questions and a sincerity that you can’t fake. Having interviewed about a dozen airshow performers for the movie, I have begun hearing substantially the same answer from multiple performers to the same question. It’s to be expected. There’s probably a limited universe of answers to the same core four or five questions. But both Snort and Slick had new, different, and dead-nuts-on things to say. I had to remember that I was asking questions and not just sitting in my living room watching the movie.

I’m writing this at a Steak n Shake a couple of miles from Indianapolis International. I just offloaded the day’s still pictures from the camera and sent a couple off to the media folks at the airshow. Now it’s back on the road for Michigan. There’s an SR22 at Pontiac that needs to get to the Carolinas and Don Weaver and I are just the guys to take it there!

Indy 2011: Friday – Part 1

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Yeah, it’s my favorite time of year again. I’m a little blue as I find myself in mid-May and not out at the Aviation Station shooting a movie. I miss my Acro Camp crew more than I thought I might. But there’s nothing like an airshow to take the edge off of that particular blueness.
Indy is one of my favorite shows. This is my third year covering it. It’s at Indiana Regional Airport (formerly Mount Comfort) (KMQJ), which has excellent surroundings that offer performance lines that can accommodate almost anything you’d want to fly in the airspace. It’s reasonably accessible. Firebase Airspeed this year is at the Super 8 in Greefield, which is only a few miles to the east. But for the construction on the main highway that has things down to one lane for much of the going, it’s easy access. And I’m getting to the show around 0700 each morning, so it’s no big deal for me.
I spent most of the day shooting cameo interviews for Acro Camp. I re-shot the Billy Werth interview that I did last year (the audio was unusable) and added fellow Red Eagle Dan McClung, hang glider pilot Dan Buchanan, Super Stearman pilot Dave Dacy, and wingwalker Tony Kazian.
And I shot as much of the practice flying as I could. Most notable was Billy and Dave Werth’s Sibling Rivalry demo. Billy flies a Pitts S-2C (in which I’ve flown with him) and Dave rides a ridiculously powerful motorcycle. The act initially involved racing down the runway. But it has evolved since then.
Billy and Dave are now doing a lot of formation performing. In the lead shot to this entry, Billy heads down the runway and Dave reaches up and grabs the wing. And today, for the first time that anyone can think of, Billy flew inverted ahead of Dave and Dave was able to grab the tail of the Pitts. Pretty precise stuff on the part of both pilot and rider!

The Viper West F-16 Demo Team tore it up very nicely. Although ti wasn’t terribly hot, it was pretty humid. And that meant huge blankets of moisture cascading over the wings of the Viper at almost any positive angle of attack. The sky was pretty gray and the circumstances weren’t great for shooting either video or stills. And, let’s face it, I mostly do audio or close-up video. But the 200mm Nikon rig yields up competent images from time to time. The above wasn’t the best representation of the Viper that I’ve ever captured, but you can see the burner and there are huge clouds on the wings. Good enough for me!
Capt Garrett Dover cranked the aircraft around very convincingly. The tight-turning capability of the aircraft continues to amaze me. It just rolls over and cranks around at +9G for a full circle. You’re always sure that the Viper is going to bust the 1,500-foot line coming back around, but it never does. That’s just unbelievable pull!

I’m still chasing the Heavy Metal Jet Team for a couple of planeside interviews for Acro Camp and the podcast. I was close to Jive and Rook during the briefing in the morning, but had to leave early to interview Billy, then lost them. Heavy Metal does a lot for the Make-a-Wish Foundation and I understand that the team was engaged in taking care of some commitments along those lines. That’s fine. I still have tomorrow before heading back to Michigan.
I’m planning to ferry a Cirrus SR-22 from Pontiac down to the Carolinas for maintenance on Sunday and then drive back to Michigan on Monday. Then back to the office and my mild-mannered lawyer alter-ego until the next show. But, until then, it’s freshly-mown grass and the smell of 100LL and JP-8!

Valiant Air Command TICO Airshow 2011

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I spent Friday at the Valiant Air Command TICO airshow at the Space Coast Regional Airport in Titusville, Florida. I went primarily to meet and hang out with the Starfighters, who operate the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. My primary objective was to shoot the F-104 and get a couple of interviews to use on Airspeed and for Acro Camp.

That meant being there most of the day with the team there on the ramp, which is actually in the aerobatic box for the show. Oh, no! Please don’t throw me in that briar patch! How ever will I cope!

So, whenever nothing was happening with the blue-and-white Century Series jet, David Allen and I shot the rest of the show in both stills and video. The only downside of shooting from the ramp was the fact that the showline is positioned so that you have to shoot up-sun. I can’t really complain about that, but it did result in most of the usable shots being of those performers with more to-and-fro (as opposed to back-and-forth) elements to their demos.

Take, for instance, this one of the Maj Mike “Cash” Maeder and Capt Steven “Buda” Bofferding tearing it up in the F-15E. Great noise and great three-dimensionality to the demo. And, although I could be mistaken, it looked to me as though there’s a lot more inversion and a lot more high-G maneuvering in this year’s routine.

Because of the aforementioned geometry of the show, the remainder of the shots are heavily weighted in favor of the Heavy Metal Jet Team, which flew its inaugural demos this weekend.

This one probably benefited from the geometry. It’s still pretty up-sun, but I don’t think that one could shoot down the length of the solo’s barrel roll from any other angle.

Among my new favorites is Mark Sorenson, who flies a Yak-55 named Titus that’s painted in tiger livery. Mark embraces the playful presentation of the airplane and he loves to show off the airplane to kids.

Dave and I helped Mark wipe down the aircraft after he returned from flying and I had a chance to talk to him at length. We met initially at ICAS in December, but the proper place to hang out with a pilot is on the ramp or in the hangar while scraping bugs off the leading edges of a pretty airplane. I’ve maintained a loose correspondence with Mark’s brother, who’s an F-15E driver at Nellis AFB. I frequently wish that my family was a little more aviation-intensive like the Sorensons.

Mark operates ground-based smoke-ring generators that put huge black smoke rings up into the box that he then flies through. I didn’t get to see the smoke rings on this occasion, but I’ve seen the video and I’ll bet that it adds a more three-dimensional feeling to his presentation. Mark doesn’t fly many shows to the north, where I am, so I doubt that I’ll get to see him fly at another show. But you never know.

More information about the Valiant Air Command TICO Airshow is available at

Heavy Metal – First Impressions

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I’m spending a couple of days here on the Space Coast, mostly in and around Titusville, Florida. I arrived Wednesday night to assist David Allen with an unfortunate infestation of Leinenkugel Berry Weiss. I’m pleased to report that the fridge is now nearly Leinie’s-free. And we took care of some pesky ribeyes while we were at it.

I’m writing this at the Starbucks at Target in Titusville which, although possessed of the usual high-quality caffeinated beverages, has no WiFi. Thus, please pretend that this was posted Thursday afternoon instead of late Thursday night or early Friday morning. Not that timing is all that important usually, but I’m heading out to the Cape this evening to see them roll out Endeavour for STS-134 and I’m bound to have pictures and other assorted media to post right after this goes up.

On the way back from getting my NASA badge (let me say that again . . . On the way back from getting my NASA badge), I decided to take a swing by the Space Coast Executive Airport, the site of the Valiant Air Command TICO Airshow, which will be my first of the season. This is the first year that I’ve started the airshow season this early, but an amazingly kind offer by the Starfighters was too good to pass up. Thus, I’ll be spending the day Friday on the ramp with the performers and drooling (respectfully, mind you) on some F-104s.

I found my way to the ramp area just as the Heavy Metal Jet Team took the box for a practice flight. Heavy Metal has captured the imaginations of many, and for good reason. It’s a five-ship demo team that’s both entirely civilian and entirely sponsored. That means that the shows that don’t get a big military jet team (Thunderbirds, Blue Angels, Snowbirds, etc.) can still have a jet team as a headliner without the expense that would normally be associated with a civilian team.

Heavy Metal is a five-ship team. A lead T-33 Shooting Star/Silver Star flown by Dale “Snort” Snodgrass (but an L-39 substituted this weekend) and four L-39s flown by 1/Team Lead Jerry “Jive” Kerby, 2/Right Wing Jared “Rook” Isaacman, 3/Left wing Doug “H-Dog” Demko, and 4/Slot Sean “Stroker” Gustafson.

I shot a lot of pictures and watched the practice pretty closely. It was a rotten day to shoot airplanes. Gray overcast all around with jets pained in arctic camouflage. So these shots aren’t going to grace any posters or magazine covers (not that any of my stuff ever will – my shtick is strapping into the aircraft and emoting for the cameras and on audio).

But I think that I saw enough to make some worthwhile observations.

There’s a lot more interesting geometry to what I saw than you usually see from a civilian jet act. Most civilian jet teams usually just swing back and forth along the 1,500-foot line with formation passes. The most interesting stuff in those cases are the breaks where each of the jets in the formation takes a bit of a solo in its break before landing. Otherwise, it’s echelon passes, finger-four, line-abreast, etc. Not that I don’t love that. (I do!) But it’s kind of flat.

Heavy metal gets a lot more three-dimensional in its performances. It’s tough to do that for a number of reasons, probably the biggest of which is the fact that you’re not supposed to direct aerobatic energy at the crowd. If the aircraft goes to flinders at any given point in the show, the momentum has to be in a direction that will cause the the debris to land outside the crowd area. Think about it. Even the big sweeping dedication passes or photo passes are usually from way out behind the crowd’s flank and around in front so that the outside of the turn is toward the safe area out on the field or on the other side of the field.

But it makes a big difference if you can get some elements going toward, or away from, the crowd to beak up the monotony of the back-and forth. I’ve seen Gene Soucy, Greg Koontz, and other piston-drivers do this because they have smaller, slower aircraft. Gene can point the Show Cat right at the crowd for a few seconds and do it safely because he’s going slow enough that he can turn well before any aerobatic energy could reach the crowd if something goes amiss. It makes for dramatic shows.

Maybe it was just a practice and maybe I didn’t see the actual routine that Heavy Metal is going to fly for the crowd. And maybe it’s because I saw it from over at the terminal side of the field, which is in the box. Whatever the case, it seemed that the solo gets a lot of to-and-fro (as opposed to back-and-forth) in the performance. Much more than simple passes. And he’s working pretty hard and putting as much of that as possible into the show.

The four-ship formation element is just plain stinkin’ tight. Oh, holy crap are they tight, especially for one of the very first shows of the season. Lots of overlap. Really close formation. Well-coordinated. On at least one case I got that “hey-it’s-one-big-airplane” sensation, as illustrated in this shot as the team does an excellent imitation of Virgin Galactic’s EVE (fka WhiteKnightTwo). Hard to tell in the picture, but the four-ship hung exactly for the whole turn.

Makes me want to just give up and never look at a Pitts again, much less a Citabria. But you know that I’ll swallow my pride and try again to approximate that kind of precision. Soon.

Lastly, and probably most impressive for the crowds, the four-ship actually does formation acro in the style of the military jet teams. I’m not aware of anyone else who does that.

They’re not the Thunderbirds or the Blues. They really can’t be because they’re flying jets with a 0.37 thrust-to-weight ratio. So at least half of the usual military maneuvers are off the table. But the team does an excellent job of managing the energy that they develop and they keep it pretty close to the crowd for more of the fight time than the other teams do.

Bottom line? The airshow faithful and those who understand aerobatics and energy management are going to love watching this team. I did, even on a crappy-weather day watching a practice.

The rest of the crowd? Really, the only thing lacking is the big noise. These jets are pleasantly noisy and they smell right from just downwind, but they don’t grab you by the scruff of the neck and beat you in the chest with sound pressure.

I think that Heavy Metal has a great back story, a talented group of pilots, and great poster-appeal. They’ve also apparently been training hard and are really tight, especially this early in the season. Hey, nobody can anchor an airshow like the Thunderbirds or the Blues. But, with both of those teams stretched pretty thin over a long season, the airshow industry has long needed an impressive act to anchor those shows that don’t get the big jet teams. I think that Heavy Metal is going to very competently anchor a long list of shows and give good account of itself. I enjoyed the heck out of watching them. They’re three-dimensional, they’re pretty, and they’re tight. They can come to my town any day and I’ll go home from that airshow with the same stab-marks on my shirt from leaning into the snow fence at the crowd line.

The skies are supposed to be a lot more clear tomorrow and I’m looking forward to seeing the team tear it up again.