Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Balancing Skill, Entertainment And Safety

When it comes to air show safety, the U.S. has it nailed

I’m an air show pilot who’s known for making my performances look dangerous. I fly through fire that shoots from the back of a jet truck, I pass under jumping motorcycles, I maneuver close to exploding bags of gasoline. I perform some of the lowest-level aerobatics that you’ll see anywhere. So it may come as a surprise for some to hear me talking about safety. But just like with every other aspect of aviation, safety is always a primary concern—whether I’m making a knife-edge pass in my highly modified Pitts S-2S, Prometheus, or transporting cargo in a Boeing 727 for my “day job” at FedEx.

We all strive for perfection in aviation—whether shooting the perfect ILS approach or executing a seamless aerobatic loop. For me, the key is being comfortable. The first time I shot an approach under the hood was much like the time I flew my first loop. It’s new, exciting and evokes the “fight or flight” response with which we’re all born. That usually means tunnel vision and time compression: a feeling of time passing by more quickly. With practice, a complete vision returns, time seems to slow down, and learning the nuances of the maneuver can be realized.

The maneuver I’m probably known best for is a high-alpha, knife-edge takeoff, where I keep my Pitts’ wingtip a few feet from the ground while flying down the runway at minimal speed. At first glance, one would think that an engine failure would result in the airplane falling out of the sky. It actually takes about 15 mph more airspeed to fly the fuselage than it does the wings. If an engine failure does occur, simply rolling the wings slowly toward level has the same effect as flaring for landing.

Air show flying helps me become more comfortable with other types of flying. Unlike most airline pilots I’ve flown with, having an engine failure in a large multi-engine airplane isn’t the most dynamic thing I’ve experienced. When I’m flying my Pitts, I’m flying a single-engine airplane, with one alternator, basic instrumentation and the glide ratio of a frying pan at less-than-ideal altitudes. When I compare that to flying a large transport category airplane that has three engines and double or triple redundancy on just about everything else, it’s hard to be worried too much about something failing. Expanding my envelope of comfort through flying aerobatics helps me remain calm when dealing with what may otherwise be stressful situations in other types of aircraft.

Air shows are essential to the future of general aviation. More than 10 million spectators attend air shows each year, according to the International Council of Air Shows. As a teenager, I was inspired watching air show pilot Leo Loudenslager—it was the moment when I realized that “good enough” wasn’t going to be good enough. If I wanted to be in a position to inspire others in the way that I had been inspired, it meant I had to apply myself in school and make good decisions. It’s important that we expose aviation to as many young people as possible.

Usually, when we talk about air show safety, we’re talking about the safety of the spectator. But at a recent show outside of the U.S., it was the pilot’s safety that I found myself concerned about. The rules adopted for the show were from the UK, and included a stipulation that pilots can’t fly below 50 feet AGL. That posed two major problems for me. It’s a cardinal rule that you not change your practiced routine while at a show. Even the smallest changes can have a great and sometimes unexpected result. I fly below one-half of my airplane’s wingspan, which increases performance due to ground effect. That means more airspeed gains in a shorter distance. Losing the additional performance is cumulative, as each pass will have less and less energy. Timing, altitude cues and target airspeeds can all change. How much? I’m not sure, but I didn’t want to find out in front of my fans halfway around the world, so I chose not to fly my routine with the imposed changes.


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