Selfridge 2011

This is a regular blog post that updates listeners and viewers on events in the Airspeed world. Airspeed is an audio and video Internet media source that brings the best in aviation and aerospace to media devices and desktops everywhere. If you’re looking for the audio and video content, please check the other entries on the site. It’s all here! In the meantime, enjoy this update about what’s going on in Airspeed’s world.

I got to put on my Nomex and hit the Selfridge ANGB Airshow all day on Sunday to help run the CAP static display. I hit the gate at around 0540 and was out on the flight line by about 0730. We put about 130 Boy Scouts through the hands-on portion of their aviation merit badges in addition to putting several hundred other people in one of the wing’s glass C-182Ts.

Temperatures never got much past 80 and there was a good breeze. Good weather for being in Nomex all day. Not so much for photography. I headed out to the show line to shoot the Rhino demo and the heritage flight, but gray airplanes against a dark gray sky don’t work that well. Still, the F/A-18F is a beautiful airframe and it makes great noise.

For those who have asked, I was on the base when Todd Green fell. I was down near Base Ops the CAP display. I probably saw the pass on which Todd fell, but show center, where the fall occurred, was obscured by the roof of the structure under which I was standing. I found out about the fall about 15 minutes later from a friend who was returning from seeing Brett Hunter fly. My thoughts are with Todd’s family and friends. I met Todd briefly at the ICAS convention in Vegas in December.

I also briefly met Bryan Jensen at the same convention. Bryan died on Saturday at the Kansas City Aviation Expo Airshow when he failed to recover his Pitts Model 12 from a maneuver.

It’s been a rough weekend for the airshow community. We lost Todd and Bryan, as well as Flight Lieutenant Jon Egging at the Bournemouth Air Festival in Dorset, England. That makes four fatals this year.

Aerobatics and airshow performance are risky. The performers understand the risks better than anyone else. Safety in operations is a passion for these people. They manage risk in every way they can. I know. I’ve spent time in the box and on the flight line with performers, especially this season. I also attended Airshows 101 at ICAS in December and had other opportunities to see and hear safety discussed in a frank and open way.

Even random data is necessarily clumpy. I’m hoping that the mainstream media realizes that there were no airshow fatalities in 2009 or 2010 and there was only one in 2008. And there hasn’t been a spectator fatality in North America since 1952.

Any accident or incident is one too many. Perfect is the goal. Nobody understands this better than those who participate in the airshow industry. And, as a guy who has flown with airshow performers in an Extra, several Pitts, an F-16D, and two L-39s, I’ve seen the safety culture and commitment firsthand.

What’ll happen going forward? The same thing that happens in with every airshow accident or incident. Performers and others in the industry will scour the circumstances for details and then will debrief it thoroughly, openly, and with brutal honesty.

I remember the debrief scenes from Blue Angels: A Year in the Life. Each pilot ended each critique session, no matter how good or brutal, by saying, “I’ll fix my safeties and I’m glad to be here.” It’s not just rhetoric. And that attitude is not confined to the Blues. It pervades this very special industry.

Futher affiant sayeth not.

The crew for the Acro Camp 2 movie shoot begins arriving later today. Jack Hodgson, the writer, arrives this afternoon. Will, Tori, Shawn, David, and Ruby arrive in the wee hours of tomorrow morning. And the campers arrive Thursday with ground school beginning at 1700. I’ve been up since 0300. I can’t sleep. There’s unbelievable energy surrounding this shoot and it’s not hard to get caught up in it, even when I should be stockpiling sleep.

Watch this space and for more information!

Selfridge ANGB Airshow and Open House 2009 – Day 1

This is a regular blog post. Show notes and links to show audio appear in the other posts.

I considered just posting this picture and leaving it at that. Seriously. The major and the kid sitting there in the cockpit of an F-16 and talking about whatever. This Viper was there on the ramp and they were sending little kids up the ladder (yeah, the ladder and not the air stairs) for a moment or two in the cockpit with the driver. Pretty darned cool.

Day 1 of the Selfridge Airshow and Open House is done and it went over pretty well. Overcast skies most of the day and some of the performers had to flatten out their shows, but everyone seemed to enjoy it. If traffic was any indication, attendance is up at least 30-30% this year, similar to attendance figures for other airshows all over the country.

Having gotten most of my coverage done in the days leading up to the show, I left the house around 10:30. I hit the traffic backup at M-59 and I-94 and it was two and a half hours before I got to the ramp. Holy crap! Biggest objection is that the sergeant at the single-file choke point at the entrance to parking on the ramp was letting every other car or so stop and ask questions. I think that particular practice cost about 10,000 people an hour each of their lives. A butterfly flaps its wings on the ramp and traffic crawls five miles back down the line.

Not complaining. Just an observation. If you’re going tomorrow, get there early. If you’re not at M-59 and I-94 by 12:30, you’re not going to be to the flight line in time to see the Thunderbirds. I’m more delighted than most about the attendance. But, if I go back tomorrow, I’m hitting the media window at oh-dark-thirty and then taking a nap on the ramp under an F-16 until a more civilized hour.

The Thunderbirds demo was great at usual. I think they flattened the show, but I can’t be sure. The converging maneuvers, especially by the diamond, are really breathtaking. And they’re flying in tighter formation. This is the latest in the season that I’ve seen them and they’re tight and close and spectacular.

Kind of weird hearing Maj Mulhare on the PA. I still think of his voice as issuing only from inside my helmet with a refrigerator sitting on my chest, watching the horizon appear from the top of the canopy of an F-16D. Not from PA speakers out on the ramp with all of these other people around. He’s the voice of my childhood dream fulfilled. Mine! Yeah, I know that sounds a little like something you’d see scrawled in Cheez Whiz (or worse) on the wall of the trashed hotel room after they finally apprehend the crazed stalker. It’s not that way, really. Just a little weird to hear that voice out on the ramp. Probably because I spent so much time editing that episode and, for all practical purposes, flying that flight. Thanks again, Maj Mulhare! That was a really special 1.0 ASEL, sir! It’s okay that you flew Colbert. His audience might be slightly larger than mine.

More pyro this year than I’ve seen in past seasons. Here’s a shot of the ramp with the flight line in the background.
This is a really deep show from the parking lot. It’s something like a mile (at least) from parking the car on the ramp to the show line. The parking lot is about a quarter of a mile behind me as I shoot this picture and you can see that the show line is most of a mile away. The first year I volunteered at the show (2005), I was driving a golf cart picking up mobility-impaired people at the gate and driving them to the crowd line. I was relieved in the afternoon and went on to do something else. I don’t remember seeing convoys of golf carts driving them back at the end of the show. I half expected to see their skeletons still out there in folding chairs on the crowd line when I went back to volunteer again in 2007. But all apparently ended well.

Here’s N976CP (CAPFLIGHT 2027), the Michigan Wing C-182T Nav III that I flew from Pontiac (KPTK) to Newberry (KERY), Traverse City (KTVC), and back to Pontiac this week. 6.3 hours of time toward the commercial, as well as three instrument approaches and a hold, making me instrument-current for a little longer.

That’s Capt Shawn Wyant, the commander of the Oakland Composite Squadron of Civil Air Patrol (my home squadron) in front of the aircraft at the CAP display. Capt Wyant was also the long-suffering flight release officer (FRO) for both the flight this week and a half dozen or so training flights that led to my successful Form 5 in the aircraft last month. In addition to that aircraft, we had the Gippsland, the glider, the ES trailer, and lots of other hardware on the field. A spectacular showing by CAP! Really prod to be a part of that organization.

A semi-inspiring shot of the Michigan Army National Guard CH-47 Chinook in which I flew yesterday. Shot this from the McDonald’s just before the traffic goat dip this morning. Dave Higdon is right about trying to blur the prop whenever possible. He tries to shoot around 1/100th at the fastest to be sure that he gets a nice translucent prop disc in pictures. I shot this on auto into a bright sly and the camera probably set itself to about 1/100th. And I froze the rotors.

The CH-47, beautiful in its own way, is ugly to many even when the rotors are properly blurred. It’s ugly even to those who love it when you freeze the rotors like this. I need to learn my still camera a little better to say the least.

I have a pile of work to get done and will probably miss the show tomorrow. Some of that work includes finishing Goat Groove, the music to accompany the T-6A episode. I have great new studio monitors (Polk Audios) that are clean and deliver that canoe-paddle-to-the-face effect that I love so much when doing audio. Scott Cannizzaro would disown me if he know how loud I usually like it, but my ears don’t have to be the finely-tuned instruments that his are.

Get out to the show tomorrow. And get out there early! Gates open at 8:00 a.m. and there’s plenty to see and do on the field between then and flight time. Admission and parking are free!

Kicking Gas in Greg Poe’s Ethanol-Powered MX-2

This is a regular blog post. Please check our the other posts if you’re looking for show notes or links to show audio.

The airshow season continues in spectacular form! I rolled out of bed (off of couch) this morning at 0930Z, ran through the shower, and headed out to Ray Community Airport (57D) in Macomb County. A very nearly perfect morning, cold and clear. And a beautiful airport to boot.

An airport made even more beautiful shortly after 1200Z by the red-and-checkerboard flashes of the A36 Bonanza and the ethanol-powered MX-2 of the Fagan-sponsored Greg Poe Airshows team.

I was on site this morning in connection of the Selfridge Airshow and Open House, which kicks off this Saturday and runs through Sunday. The base puts on a great airshow every other year and this is a show year. In addition to converting a lot of 100LL, and JP-8 (and ethanol this year!), the Selfridge show is an opportunity for the base to let the broad community around it inside the gates and show the folks what the armed forces stationed there do.

Greg Poe is performing at the show and he and his team were kind enough to fly media rides. It was a primo opportunity. Greg’s team brings both the MX-2 show aircraft and an A36 Bonanza. The doors come off the Bonanza shortly after arrival and the photographers and videographers climb in, harness up, and shoot their respective riders getting a snootfull of precision aerobatics.

The MX-2 is amazing. Shortly after I started tweeting about it, a couple of followers tweeted back about the aircraft, and rightly so.

It’s an all-carbon airframe built to withstand +16G/-16G. A Lycoming IO-540 modified by Lycon Performance Engines hangs in the front, putting out 385 hp to pull the 1,350-pound airframe. It’ll roll 420 degrees/sec and has a Vne of 275 mph.

And Greg is no wallflower either. He learned to fly in taildraggers in the Idaho back country at a young age and then became an instructor, primarily in tailwheel aircraft and specializing in aerobatics. He started performing in airshows in 1992 and was performing full time after that, hitting 15 to 25 airshows and events each year. And, talk about dream jobs, he was the production test pilot for Aviat Aircraft in Wyoming, test flying each Pitts and Husky as it came off the line.

He has time in the MiG-15, the B-17, and the F-15, F-16, and F-18 fighters. He’s also one of the very few civilians ever to ride with the USAF Thunderbirds during a full demo. He rode with Thunderbird 4 in an F-16D in the slot position.

He’s sponsored by Fagen, Inc., a green energy designer and builder in Granite Falls, Minnesota specializing in ethanol and wind power. The MX-2’s engine is modified to burn ethanol and it’s the only aerobatic aircraft on the airshow circuit that burns ethanol in its performances.

We showed at 8:00 and stepped around 1:00. Selfridge had a great turnout of media for the flights and I went up on the fifth ride. Really nice to see a good media turnout for this event so Selfridge gets good press. It’s also spectacular that Greg did the rides on a Wednesday, allowing lots of time for the deadline-driven media to get material in print or on the air well prior to the show to maximize the buzz.

I was lucky enough to have two CAP squadron mates along to shoot stills and video. In their non-CAP capacities, of course, but it’s still all about being a part of the aviation tribe. Jason Schroeder shot the stills and Mike Murphy shot video for my ride and also took stills from the front seat of the Bonanza for the Free Press rider. This post features Jason’s images and the video episode will feature Mike’s video.

We took off in trail (Ray is 2,500 x 60, so a formation launch wasn’t really an option) and formed up to the north of the airport. A really good set of air-to-air passes, including knife-edge, inverted, rolls, and a high-speed pass directly below the Bonanza. Then the loop and some vertical rolls to a reversal.

The vertical rolls were spectacular. It’s the most hang time I’ve ever experienced in an aircraft. I know that the airplane probably didn’t truly helicopter in the vertical with my 210 pounds in the front seat, even with minimum fuel. But it sure felt like it. I didn’t have the presence of mind to look over at the horizon (not that I could have guessed from the horizon when we started to peak), but the sight of the prop up there in front of my nose was awe-inspiring. This massive barn-door-bladed Hartzell prop up there just clawing at the air, refusing to accept a receding VSI for an answer.

Every ride (or other flight for that matter) has a moment for me when the noise and the stress and the workload just recedes and I get a moment to just think about one thing. That was my quiet little moment up there. Looking up at the blue sky through the violence of that monster bird shredder and experiencing in the air that phase of flight that I love so much from the ground.

The pulls were a lot of fun. The pull at the beginning and end of the loop and the pull to vertical for the vertical rolls in particular. We peaked at +6.5G/-1.6G. (Yeah, they mount a G meter in the front cockpit so you can see it!) I had my AGSM down pat and am proud to say that I had no problem with that dose of Vitamin G. I have pitiful upper-body strength, but monster thigh and calf muscles that are apparently pretty good at resisting the blood that wants to escape from my melon at high G loads.

This was my second time on a formation shoot. No flies at all on Billy Werth and his Pitts S-2C, but the visibility was much better in the MX-2. I love acro, but it’s even more fun to do it near, and around, a photo ship. It’s mush more three-dimensional visually and you have a better sense of your speed and maneuverability. Nothing wrong with the sky and ground swapping positions rapidly in the window, but a barrel roll over another airplane is just more of a barrel roll. Does that make sense?

Approaching the photo ship from behind, from above, from abeam. Doing it with a 60+ -knot closure rate and watching the photo ship go from gunwale to gunwale in the canopy in seconds. That’s just amazing.

And listening to Greg and DO/photo-ship-pilot Dax Wanless coordinate the flight on the radio was cool, too. Counting down to the maneuvers. Exchanging lead responsibilities as effortlessly as I might exchange the controls of a C-172 with Jason. Real professionalism and real safety culture, that.

After the shoot, the Bonanza headed back and Greg and I broke off for a bit of free acro. I got a demonstration of the roll rate of the aircraft, which was amazing. Pull up a little and then just crank the stick over and watch it get darker and lighter in rapid succession. No, you don’t have the presence of mind to think of the horizon turning. It’s dark-light-dark-light-dark-light and then it’s 2.6 seconds later. And your head is trying to figure out where your torso went. (And Greg is sitting back there smiling with a coordinated head and torso, even though this is sortie no. 5 for him for the day and he just had lunch.)

I was pretty happy about the way I handled the inverted flight. I had more the sense of handing from my chest than from the tops of my shoulders and the inverted phase (which sometimes does my stomach in) was to problem at all.

The rolls, on the other hand, were really disorienting. That’s good, mind you! This is one of the reasons that I explore the envelope.

I had been up in the Super-D four days before flying acro with Barry for the first time since the T-6A ride in May and I lasted a pitiful 20 minutes. Acro tolerance is a genuine use-it-or-lose-it proposition. I did great with the other maneuvers, but the high-roll-rate stuff set off an insurrection in my vestibular system.

So Greg called Dax and told him we were coming back in. I took a little bit of ribbing from Mike and Jason about coming back in so quickly after we broke off for the free acro, but that’s okay. Time is the Kryptonite. For acro tolerance, for flight proficiency, and for lots of other stuff. A worthy reminder and worth the figurative elbow in the ribs.

Get out to the Selfridge show this weekend! The Selfridge Air Show & Open House will be Saturday-Sunday, Aug. 22-23. The gates will open both days at 8 a.m., with the flying starting both days around 10 a.m. Among the highlights of the show will be a aerial demonstration by the US Air Force Thunderbirds. I’m planning to be there volunteering and I hope to see you there!

The 127th Wing at Selfridge is home to two flying missions of the Michigan Air National Guard, serving Air Combat Command and Air Mobility Command. The 127th Wing is also the home unit of the 107th Weather Flight, Air Force Special Operations Command. In all, Selfridge is home to more than 20 tenant units from all branches of the military, the Coast Guard and Border Patrol.

More about Greg Poe Airshows:
More about Fagen, Inc.:
More about the Selfridge Airshow and Open House:
More about Selfridge ANGB:

Revised 2009 Airshow Season Coverage

This is a regular blog post. You can fild show mores and links to show audio in the other posts.

Airspeed has revised its airshow coverage schedule for 2009. Look for Stephen Force strolling the grounds, MP3 recorder and camera in hand and wild look in his eyes at these premier US airshows.

Indianapolis Air Show – 4-7 June (with CAP squadron event appearance Thursday 4 June at Jonathon Byrd’s – 100 Byrd Way, Exit 99 off I-65, Greenwood, Indiana 46142 6:00 to 9:00 p.m.)

Battle Creek Field of Flight Airshow and Balloon Festival – 2-5 July

Thunder Over Michigan 18-19 July 2009 (with Cole and Ella Force)

AirVenture Oshkosh – 30 July – 1 August (with Cole Force, including Podapalooza)

Selfridge ANGB Air Show – 22-23 August 2009 (Volunteering with CAP)

Note that dates are those that Airspeed plans to cover the shows and not necessarily the dates of the shows. Check the show websites for more information.

As ever, with a day job, clients depending on me, and two kids to wrangle, everything’s naturally subject to change, but this is a big part of Airspeed’s gathering of material for the show and a big part of the inspiration that drives both the show and the producer.

Get to your local airshow and take your kids! There’s no better way to ignite imaginations and stoke the fires of science, aviation, poetry, and song that to get your offspring a good snootfull of recently-combusted 100LL and JP-8.

If you make it to one of the above airshows, please keep your eyes out for Stephen Force and introduce yourself! We love meeting listeners!

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: