Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Life Of An Air Show Pilot

When you love what you do, is it work?

Morning starts with a too-early, but mandatory, briefing conducted by our ringmaster, the Air Boss. In attendance are stunt flyers, sky talkers, sky jumpers, wing walkers and other assorted gypsies. There are also pyro specialists, warbird types, crew, ferry pilots, military pilots and jet jocks. They all meet with the jet team reps, the organizers, the brass, in varying uniforms, cargo shorts, flight suits and FAA badges, to talk about wind patterns and weather, clouds and towers, runways, arresting cables, where to eject, emergency procedures, radio frequencies and the air show schedule.

Briefings can be fun, informative or frustratingly long. One well-known Air Boss doesn't put up with any shenanigans. If you cross the line, e.g., if your cell phone rings, you have to sit in the "dunce chair" at the front of the room for the rest of the briefing!

After the briefing, we're immediately greeted by "we're-here-to-help" FAA monitors eager to check every piece of our required paperwork and inspect our airplanes. People are always surprised when I tell them I get ramp checked every weekend.

If we pass and are given a gold star, we take our airplanes out to the staging area where the crowd can see them, while we take care of all the important details like the preflight: fueling and putting smoke oil in them.

That's when my crew and I usually drive out to the runway to find a safe place, with no obstructions, to do the ribbon cut on or off to the side of the runway, and we set out the poles and ribbons. I like this part of the day. It's good to get things done early so we can chill before it's our turn in the box.

I'm always watching my airplane. I just like to be close to it. For me, it's a way to bond with it before I fly and it's also a way to preflight because I would notice if anything was wrong or different.

I park my car near my airplane, too. Our cars are sacred territory. They're our church, our temple, our haven and harbor. They're our home, dressing room, kitchen, office and flight-planning room, and the only place we can think, read, eat, watch and just be. And speaking of eating, the smart performer brings water and snacks with them because show food can range from the sublime to the invisible.

Wind patterns, ceilings and density altitude are different every day, so flying conditions can change dramatically from one day to the next. It's generally respected that performers need quiet time to rehearse and visualize their routines before they fly.

I tell people that I start to get "nervous" an hour before show time. I have never actually gotten nervous flying a show, but they get the point. The FAA usually prohibits unnecessary crew from being in the staging area, and I'm all for that.


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