Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Life Of An Air Show Pilot

When you love what you do, is it work?

The worst day of flying still beats the best day of real work," is the perfect saying for the air show pilot. If you love what you do, you're not really working, but being an air show pilot is a mixture of hard work and hardly working.

The performer's goal is to entertain, often using illusion to create the spectacle. As a kid, I was enchanted by the circus—the color, stunts, beauty, the family of gypsies—and I longed to be a part of it. After gaining some life experience, I found my way into the flying circus instead, among pilots who entertain by flying their airplanes on the high wire of aerial precision.

Flying exotic machines, we dance across the sky in front of thousands, hoping the spectators are dazzled, awed and wanting to come back for more. But, behind every big top is a parallel universe where a million mundane things happen. Air show pilots appear to lead exciting and possibly desirable lives, but is it really so glamorous? What goes on behind the scenes and what's the day-in-the-life really like?

First, we have to book the show, and that involves paperwork and advertising, phone calls and emails. Before we're even ready to take off for an air show, you can you can safely assume that we had started six months to a year prior, working on contracts, insurance certificates and military base facilities permits. If the show is overseas, then triple the paperwork fun.

After the show is booked, we then have to find it. As most of our airplanes are VFR only, flying cross-country gives meaning to the other famous aviation saying, "Flying is hours of boredom filled with moments of terror." Ask any show pilot what the scariest part of their job is, and they'll tell you it's getting there. No matter how careful the pilot is, there will be a time when the weather poses a challenge.

Some shows are close to home while others are 2,000 miles away, crossing multiple time zones. However far, from the time we arrive we're in for an adventure because every show site is different. We have to find the hangar, the air show office, the rental car and maps to the hotel and social events.

The small airports are easy, but it's not difficult to get lost at the big ones. Have you ever been lost on a large military installation late at night, in danger of being arrested for entering a secure area? Or tried to explain to a wary armed guard why you need to get on to his base at 1 a.m., even though you have all the required documentation? Didn't they get the memo? I was at one air show where my rental car had a sun roof. I went inside to a function in sunny weather, but came out two hours later to pouring rain and a car with two feet of water in it.

Things just happen when you're in new territory. Have you woken up in a hotel room and not remembered where you were? Drudgery may be too strong a term, but life on the road can be taxing. As any rock star will tell you, there's boredom in repetition, unpacking bags and figuring out what room number matches the key in your hand after a long day.


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