Flying is the least of what air show pilots do. For our 10 minutes in the air, we pay the price of executing the logistics that gets us there. This summer I had a complicated, sort of three-in-one trip: an air show in St. Louis; a visit to Alaska for the annual Salmon Bake at the Alaska Aviation Museum and a flight to Louisville, Ky., to finish up a type rating in the Short Tucano T MK1 that I'd be flying at Oshkosh. As we all know, women can't take just one pair of shoes, so I had to pack carefully. I needed air show shoes, warbird boots, hiking shoes, evening shoes, workout shoes and day clothes, night clothes and assorted flight suits, and my helmet and gloves. I guess the only thing I didn't bring was my parrot, Buddha.
Organizing everything into several suitcases, and along with air show supplies, I loaded the Bonanza where it all neatly waited to wing our way to our first stop—the Fair Saint Louis Air Show. Thanks to ferry pilot Chris my Extra was already there.
For several days I had been looking at weather-prog charts, fronts, and since I live in Florida, possible tropical storm development. Forecasters are getting better, but to know what's really around the corner takes a crystal ball. Weather is weird. Tropical storms develop into hurricanes quickly, and just when you think you know where they're heading, they can do a 270-degree turn. A cold front might look like it's marching steadily along, only to turn a corner and head north. Cold fronts meet warm fronts and occlude, and sometimes they just stall out, like the cold front I had been watching. I kept waiting for something behind it to poke its nose in and push it through, but no, instead it stopped on my flight path and stubbornly refused to move.
Drats! I live close to the airport, but whether you're sitting in an FBO or your living room, waiting for weather to change is like being in limbo. Checking weather at the top of every hour keeps you in a constant state of readiness in case the weather picks up, but there comes a time when you realize you have a no-go situation. By 6 p.m. with the front stationary, I realized my plan of flying the Bo to St. Louis wasn't going to happen. The standard answer an air show pilot gives when asked if they've ever scared themselves is to say, "Yes, scud running trying to get to the show!" I've pushed weather enough times to know what my limitations are.
I booked a commercial flight for zero- dark-30 the next morning and unloaded the Bo. The hangar floor looked like the aftermath of a tornado! One minute I was smugly organized, the next it was disaster—piles of "stuff" were strewn everywhere. Lucky for me, because my life is an ongoing travelogue, I have a plethora of packing options (POPO?). Would you like to go rafting in Costa Rica? I have a bag for it. How about a safari? No problem! A horseriding holiday? I have just the bag with a place for your helmet and riding boots. I have bags for an overnight, a week and a convention. So, feeling resourceful and out of any better ideas, I grabbed two giant wheeled duffle bags, put everything I needed into them, and went home and set my alarm for a 4 a.m. wake-up call. So much for avoiding the TSA. Blah!
St. Louis is one of my favorite places because I was born there when my dad was a pilot based at Scott Air Force Base. We left for California in a big Buick without seatbelts when I was six weeks old, but that doesn't make me any less fond of my birthplace. Flying the Fair Saint Louis is sort of a love-or-hate situation for air show pilots. Love it because of the magnificence of the Arch shimmering in the afternoon sun, the literal and symbolic gateway to the West. Hate it because the box is over the big Muddy—the fast and furious Mississippi River, where our little airplanes twist and turn over the water in between bridges and wires, with no option for a emergency landing.
After the air show, Bryan Regan of the Aeroshell Team and I flew west in formation to Creve Coeur, 1H0, to drop off our airplanes until the next show. "One-H-Zero" is a terrific airport, GA at its finest! It's all about EAA, vintage, akro and home of the Historic Aircraft Restoration Museum. Hangar doors are always open with beautiful restorations—fun little Pitts and one-of-a-kind biplanes—and BBQ grills pulled out ready for a hangar party.
I hated to leave and wanted to stay and visit with old friends, but I had to go to the hotel to face my next dreaded mission—repacking. Again with "stuff" strewn about, I started organizing for a new direction—a trip to Alaska. It's usually chilly in July, so I had plenty of warm stuff, fleeces and a jacket, jeans and boots. Taking the red eye, I landed in the bustle of Anchorage International Airport at 2 a.m. It could have been 2 p.m. for all the activity, but the snow on the Chugach Mountains highlighted the Maxfield Parrish-kind-of-blue sky you only see on an Arctic-summer night. It was good to be home again. Every place has its own personality, but Alaska is the most unique. Where I live in St. Augustine, the highest compliment you can pay a person is to call them an artist. In Alaska, where individuality is prized above all else, the highest compliment is to call someone an iconoclast, a free spirit, a perimeter man.
Debbie Gary, friend, air show pilot and writer, and I had been invited to the Anchorage Aviation Museum's annual Salmon Bake. Debbie and I have both flown extensively in Alaska and arrived early enough to spend time with old friends, have an evening with the Alaska Chapter of the 99s, visit friends at Talkeetna Air Taxi and, of course, to seek out the best fresh salmon in town. The hospitality of the Alaska Aviation Museum staff was wonderful! I lived in Anchorage when the Museum started with a couple of restoration projects and a cold and drafty hangar. I couldn't have predicted what a first-class facility it has become with excellent exhibits and several one-of-a-kind airplanes, including a 1931 Fairchild Pilgrim recently refurbished and flying after a 10-year restoration program. This airplane is so rare that it's only one of four aircraft that are listed in the National Historic Register.
So much for my well-thought-out packing. The weather was unusually warm and sunny, and we wore shorts and sandals! The Museum sits right on Lake Hood, the world's busiest seaplane base, and the annual fundraiser Salmon Bake was fun, warm, well-attended and laid-back. We sat under the wing of the PBY of Dago Lake and watched airplanes of each of the commercial operators of Lake Hood fly by to everyone cheering and clapping. Why not think about a visit to Anchorage for this event next year? Alaska is the premier aviation nation!
As the saying goes, all good things come to an end, but I had been studying the manuals, and was ready for and excited about the next adventure, the Tucano checkride. After an all-night flight to St. Louis, I picked up my Extra, and since it has very limited baggage space, I had to travel light. What a relief, life was simple again! It was just me, my airplane, a flight suit, some Tucano manuals, and a pair of jeans and a pair of shorts, just the way I like it. I landed at LOU, Bowman Field, just before dark. I slept like a rock and spent the next day getting ready for my checkride.
The Short Tucano T MK1 is an airplane I've always wanted to fly. Sleek and sexy, it's a pilot's airplane, with great handling characteristics, good akro capabilities, nice cockpit layout and Garrett Turboprop performance. The owner of this Tucano asked me to coach him for his air show routine and in exchange offered to help me get my type rating and to fly it in a couple of air shows. Mission accomplished!
With a new ticket in my pocket, I jumped back in the Extra, and a few hours, and one fuel stop later, I landed home at SGJ in St. Augustine. I called the FBO and asked them to bring my car—only to be told my car wasn't there. For all the planning, packing and organizing, moi, the master of logistics, had forgotten her car and house keys were at JAX, the international airport 40 miles away.
Most of my trips are logistically crazy and difficult, but I like to view them as a challenge to be resourceful. I also know that nothing ever goes as planned, and that's part of the adventure! When things do go as planned, it's sort of an amazing miracle.
I don't know if there's a moral to this story, but I know that whatever surprises are around the corner will continue to amaze and astonish me. When opportunity comes along, it's important to grab it. I suppose it would be easier to turn things down and make life easier. But when opportunity knocks, who knows when and if it'll come again?
We all have regrets, and my biggest regrets are the things I didn't do and the opportunities I didn't take, like the time I was offered a job as a bareback rider in the circus when I was 19. I've been trying not to make that mistake ever since.