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.

RiverDays Lineup 01

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.

 

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!

*****

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.

 

 

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.