|Dale Snodgrass’ career began at the Naval ROTC program at the University of Minnesota. Eventually, he became the Navy’s top Tomcat pilot. After leading his squadron in Desert Storm, he rose to be in command of every F-14 in the nation’s active inventory.|
The roots of his success in the air show world go back to his stint as an F-14 demonstrator. “The military made that transition for me,” Snodgrass says of his air show career. “They said, ‘Dale Snodgrass, you’re going to be an F-14 demo pilot.’ I flew F-14 demos on and off for 12 years. I started developing the skill sets and the qualifications to continue in [the civilian] arena in the mid-1980s. I knew the place I wanted to go was flying the high-priced warbirds on the air show circuit.”
As a military demo pilot, Snodgrass was known for his flashy performances. An iconic picture of the F-14 shows one roaring past an aircraft carrier, knife-edged, looking like it’s 10 feet from the side of the ship. That’s Snort in the front seat, performing a demo for the fleet.
It’s probably natural to assume a hotshot fighter pilot like Snodgrass can just hop into a warbird and become a civilian air show star. But it takes more than flying skills to get into the right position for that.
“You can’t just walk up to somebody and say, ‘Hey, I’m Charlie Dickens, world-famous F-16 pilot. I should be able to fly airplanes,’” says Snodgrass. “I know a lot of the Air Force demo guys would love to be able to shift over and fly the civilian side of the house when they get out. Most of the guys have the skill sets. [But] you have to develop a relationship and rapport with someone who has the airplanes and is willing to allow you to fly them. You have to make that connection however you can—there’s no set formula.” And Snodgrass concedes that it’s getting harder all the time.
“The increased cost of the airplanes, the exponential rise in the cost of insurance and the high operating costs [mean] that nobody’s just going to give you the keys unless they really love you for some reason,” he comments.
Early on, Snodgrass realized part of the key to becoming PIC of a vintage warbird was having significant tailwheel time.
“So I bought a Super Decathlon, and I had great success with that airplane,” Snodgrass says.
Meanwhile, on the air show circuit, Snodgrass became friends with pilots from the Kalamazoo Aviation Historical Museum (now renamed the Air Zoo, www.airzoo.org
), which owned several warbirds flown in air shows. Snodgrass began flying with them when he was off duty, working his way up from the North American T-6 Texan trainer to the Chance Vought Corsair and then to the North American P-51 Mustang.
“That’s how I got into the big piston world,” he says, summing up his lateral career move.
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