In 1993, I stood on the ramp at the Dayton Airshow keenly watching the jets and turboprops in the JPATS competition. The JPATS—Joint Primary Aircraft Training System—program was interesting. In a rare move, the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy decided to team up in an effort to modernize their training fleets and replace their T-37s and T-34/Cs. Bids were narrowed down to three jets—the Cessna 526, Lockheed T-Bird II and Grumman S.211A—the turbofan-powered Rockwell Ranger 2000 and two turboprops—the Embraer Super Tucano and Beech-Pilatus PC-9 MkII, which ultimately won and was produced as the T-6 Texan II. The airplanes were interesting, but the most fascinating piece of the program was the dictate of Congress that the new trainer must be anthropometrically correct, meaning that it would be able to accommodate women, as well as men. Things like height, weight and accommodation requirements such as the pilot’s reach and control authority, external vision, and due to the requirement for an ejection seat, leg and body clearance, were taken into consideration. Clearly, the winning airplane was the first airplane ever designed specifically with women in mind.
Sure, jets are cool, but watching the PC-9/Texan and the Super Tucano made me fall in love with turboprops. These powerful and relatively light airplanes were wonderfully sporty, with performance and maneuverability, and I knew I would have to fly one. Loving nothing more than a challenge and having a defined goal, I made it my mission to learn as much as I could about the PC-9/Texan II. With the help of my friend, Tim Gaffney, an aviation journalist from Dayton who had been covering the JPATS Competition and who sent me all the latest press releases, I did my research and was able to talk myself into a flight. I wasn’t disappointed and later talked myself into the cockpit once again to be their demo pilot at U.S. and international trade shows and airshows such as Paris, Singapore and Farnborough, from 1999 to 2006.
Being a demo pilot is somewhat different from being an airshow pilot. Not only do you have to make the airplane look good, but you also have to be a salesperson. A factory demo pilot has to show the airplane’s strong points according to the company’s marketing plan. Initially, Raytheon, who then owned Beechcraft, was marketing the safety and maneuverability of the Texan II in its primary training mission, so I designed the routine to be both fast and slow, showing off the slow-speed handling characteristics, which made it safe in many hands in a training environment. My routine has a double immelman and a touchdown with a dirty roll after it.
After selling almost 800 airplanes to the U.S. military, the company’s focus changed to foreign market sales, and in later airshows, we were selling the airplane’s light attack capability. They suggested my opening maneuver be a “weapons delivery dive,” and I followed that with high-speed vertical climbs and rolls, and I ended the show by extending the landing gear in the inverted position—mainly just to show how cool the airplane is. I had to be a salesperson in the air and on the ground. Customers often took me aside and asked me my honest opinion of the airplane. I also enjoyed telling them that, by the way, this was the first airplane ever designed for a woman, and then go out and fly an aggressive demo in it.
Fast-forward to 2016, and this year I had the opportunity to fly another JPATS competitor at the Dayton Airshow, the MK1 Tucano, a variant of the Super Tucano. This time, I wasn’t a demo pilot selling the airplane, but an airshow pilot sharing the beauty and excitement of aviation with the crowd. And, after first watching these airplanes in 1993, it seemed to make the circle complete.
Flying the airplane came about after I got an email from a gentleman, ex-USAF pilot Lee Leet of Louisville, Kentucky, who had seen videos of my Texan II routine and asked if I would be interested in flying his Tucano, an airplane that Lee had meticulously maintained. In addition, Lee was interested in having me coach him for his airshow routine. So it came to pass that Lee came to St. Augustine for training, and continued to do so each year before airshow season, and I’ve had the good fortune to fly the Tucano at both the Oshkosh and Dayton Airshows.
Lee’s airplane is an MK1 “Short” Tucano, built by the Short Brothers in Belfast under contract by Embraer as a primary trainer for the Royal Air Force (RAF). Several years ago, a number of these airplanes were imported by a company in the Southwest to be sold for private ownership. The MK1 Tucano is powered by an 1100 hp Garrett turboprop, unlike the Super Tucano and Texan II, both of which use Pratt & Whitney engines. Obviously, both powerplants are sturdy and reliable, but there are some fundamental differences between them. From a demo pilot’s perspective, the Garrett is a little sportier because of the instant response when pushing the throttle forward (due to a fixed shaft design), so I really enjoy flying it. While it doesn’t really affect the person in the cockpit, probably its most defining feature on the ground is its decibel level. You know you’ve arrived when you taxi in and everyone rushes to cover their ears. The Garrett is so noisy, it not only roars, it whines (though some say it shrieks).
People often ask me how I’d compare the Tucano or Texan II to the Extra, and while I usually respond with something like, “It’s apples and oranges. They’re nothing alike!” I think it’s an honest question. They were designed for completely different missions, but they both have aerobatic capability. While the Extra is certified to plus and minus 10 G’s, the Tucano (and all of this mostly applies to the Texan, as well) has plus 7, minus 3.6 available, plenty enough to fly an aggressive airshow routine. The Extra’s inverted capability is three minutes or more; the Tucano has about 30 seconds due to different oil systems. The Extra, like all good aerobatic airplanes, is inherently unstable. If you take your hand off the stick, it just keeps going down or off to the side. The Tucano has some dihedral in the wings and doesn’t diverge quite so quickly, so is a little more stable. Stick forces in the Extra are designed to be fingertip-light at all speeds. The Tucano stick forces aren’t as light and get heavier at high speeds. In the Extra, I like to grip the throttle with my left hand and keep my right hand on the stick. In the Tucano, it takes a tighter grip, and for most maneuvers, I’m using two hands. In the Tucano, I’m constantly using the electric trim to help with heavy stick forces at high speeds, and it takes some practice to feel how much you need to use. The new Extra 330LX I fly also has electric trim, but in the older Extras, I like to set the manual trim for around a zero G axis and leave it alone. The Tucano moves fast, and during a demo I’m working at speeds almost up to redline, which is 300 knots, and I also have to pull the throttle back to slow it down. The Extra’s redline is 220 knots, but I only go that fast once in my routine. The Tucano has a speed brake, which comes in handy; the Extra doesn’t, but I wish it did. I wear a helmet in the Tucano and can breathe oxygen if I want to. I don’t wear a helmet in the Extra because the extreme G forces hurt my neck. The Tucano has air-conditioning (which I like to good-naturedly tease my friends in warbirds and Extras, about to make them jealous), while sadly, the Extra only has small air vents to help keep the pilot cool. Because airshow pilots are only allowed to fly a certain distance from and parallel to the spectators, the Tucano requires a 1,000-foot showline as compared to the 500-foot showline the Extra uses. Blue Angels and other fast movers fly 1,500 feet from the crowd.
People ask how I can fly an airshow in an airplane that I don’t have thousands of hours in. The Tucano requires a type rating, so the pilot has to be very knowledgeable about all the aircraft systems, speeds, emergency procedures, etc., before passing a check ride. In any new airplane, I take it to a safe altitude, and when there’s a lot of air between me and the ground, I’ll explore its aerobatic capabilities. I’ll explore the stall regime in different configurations and take notes on each maneuver and learn how much altitude I’ll use to complete it. For example, if a loop takes 2,000 feet, I’ll give myself a lot of extra space to pull through from the top of the loop when flying at lower levels. Once I identify the aerobatic characteristics, speeds and altitudes, I can put together a routine. There are a lot of videos on the web, and it helps to watch other routines and get a sense of what maneuvers look good from the ground. The Tucano is a sweet-handling, honest and predictable airplane to fly, and I keep my airshow routine in it safe by keeping the speed up, not pushing the slower parts of the envelope when operating at airshow level, and keeping the routine relatively simple.
It can get boring or seem routine when flying the same airplane and same maneuvers all the time, so I rely on the challenge of flying a new airplane to keep me inspired. There’s a certain alchemy of putting it all together—the training, exploring the handling characteristics, and developing and flying a routine. We tell students at our aerobatic school to continue to work on new ratings, learn to fly new airplanes and continue to develop their aerobatic skills to become better pilots and to stay interested. Learning anything new is exciting and gives you a feeling of accomplishment.
Everyone wants to know how the Tucano and Texan compare, and the fact is that they’re both great airplanes and fly so similar that there’s very little difference.
The other thing I get asked all the time is, which one is more fun to fly? I’ll quote Scott Crossfield, when I asked him the same thing about a couple of supersonic jets he’d flown, and he answered in all honesty, “The one that I’m flying at the time.”