Patty Wagstaff with friends and crew, Denise Decker (aka Cookie Lady) and Doug Gardner at the NAS JAX Air Show in November 2014.
Excuse me while I toast myself, but it has been 30 years since I flew my first air show. At the end of every season, I take a look back. I reflect on the highs and lows, think back on the events I've flown, thank the universe for my exceptional good luck and think of how grateful I am to fly an airplane that takes care of me. I pay respects to those who have gone before me and who, for various reasons, weren't as lucky as I was to make it to the end of another year.
I take a big sigh when the season is over. It frees my mind for other things. I have a different schedule, some downtime and can work on unfinished projects. While I like the rhythm of being on the road, of paring down to essentials and keeping things light, it's a relief not having to pack and unpack every few days. And, even though I don't think about it much during the season, there's tension in knowing that my schedule, my airplane and I have to be in a constant state of readiness and in perfect working condition, ready to perform.
Flying air shows for a living is a lifestyle choice, but "choice" might be a misnomer. I'm not sure we really have one. A lot of us were brought up in peripatetic families where aviation was the lingua franca. Flying and performing satisfy a craving for excitement, challenge and adventure, and it might just be the only place we feel alive. I have such a low tolerance for boredom, it amazes me I've done anything for 30 years, but then air show flying is never boring.
No two shows are the same, and no two seasons are either; they all have a different flavor. Shows are memorable because of the people I meet, the great restaurants I find, a crystal-clear sky and a great formation photo flight, a thunderstorm blackening the sky and stopping the show. Some years, I keep running into the same group of friends or I'm flying a new airplane, the weather is magnificent or hot or just terrible. Other years are plagued with mechanical problems—exhaust cracks, broken brake rotors, low oil pressure—or getting stuck in Canada due to a bent prop.
The "flavor" of a season also depends on the schedule. Ideally, I'd have a couple of shows in a row, then a week or so at home before the next two shows. Of course, it never really works that way. It's good to be home and have a break, but if the break is too long, I lose momentum—not to mention my G tolerance. If I only have a day or two at home to do laundry, it's harder to repack and keep the mind-set of traveling. Sometimes, it's just better to keep the big top up and that circus going.
People often ask me if I like big shows like NAS Oceana or small country shows like Evansville, Ind., and I respond honestly that I like them both equally, and they both pay the same. For me, it's really all about the flying. Craig Hosking likes to kid me because he once asked what I preferred—big crowds versus small crowds—and I said something naive like, "Even if one person is watching me, I fly better." It's true though. I can be flying alone in an akro box in the desert, and if I see one car by the side of the road, its occupant watching me, I fly a little better and try a little harder. So, it really doesn't matter how big the crowds are; it only takes one person to make a show.
Big shows are complicated and logistically challenging, and have more sponsorship commitments and VIP chalets to visit, but it's pretty cool to see 100,000 of your closest friends waving and clapping for you. Social events at large air shows are good for networking, but at the smaller shows, they're more intimate, and it's easier to connect with people. Smaller shows sometimes have fewer demands than the big ones, but a performer has to pay just as much attention to sponsor chalets, "shaking hands and kissing babies." We always have to remember that even though we're there for one weekend, the air show committee has worked on the show all year, so our full participation is important to them.
I fly between 15 and 20 shows a year, and no matter how big or small, every show is memorable in some way. New Smyrna Beach Balloon and Skyfest 2014 was an impressive model for midsize shows that can be big events by combining the show with a carnival, a balloon glow and a lot of other fun stuff. My best memory at NSB 2014 was spending time with friend and mentor Clint McHenry and his wife, Marcia. Clint, now in his 80s, hasn't flown air shows in a few years, but he's still the master.
At Planes, Trains and BBQ in Tavares, Fla., it was awesome to be flying low over the lake and see Kevin Kimball and family on their boat with a big banner that read, "Go Patty!" Carl Barnes probably gave the shortest and most concise briefing at the Spirit of St. Louis Air Show, and since the airport is so large and spread out, I thought it was amusing to hover above the Boeing display in an MD 500 helicopter to say hi and wave at my good friend Ricardo Traven. At the Vero Beach Air Show, we had a fabulous photo flight using my V-tail Bonanza as the photoship to shoot a formation of yours truly, Julie Clark, Gene Soucy and Rob Holland. Enroute to Cozumel as a passenger in Sarasota Avionics' Saratoga, I peeked out a window midway across the Gulf of Mexico to see Raymond Cabanas in my Extra and Gary Ward in his MX. We were only flying at 10K, but I swear I could see midwing monoplanes hover between the curves of the Earth. At Memphis in May for the riverfront air show, from my downtown hotel, I went walking in Memphis.
The season starts with spring training in the akro box, when people start heading south, but as the weather warms up, we head north to the Midwest. I have flown the Dayton Air Show many times, and it's always one of the best air shows in the country, so shame on the Dayton Daily News for running a picture of the 2013 wing-walking crash, where two performers died, on the front page of the paper one week before the 2014 air show. Not sporting. At Liberal Air Fair in Liberal, Kan., the weather turned cold, and we had to go shopping at Walmart for long pants and jackets, and we had the best food ever at Liberal's hangar party. And, I loved ending my season close to home at Daytona Beach and Rome, Georgia, and at my hometown air show, NAS Jax—all with perfect weather and record crowds.
I'm often asked about the "state of air shows," and whether I think they'll grow or even continue into the future, and I usually answer, "Why not?" We may or may not have military participation, and when we don't, as in during the recent government sequestration, crowds were smaller, but there were still a lot of air shows and spectators to see them. The Wright Brothers and Glenn Curtis were flying public displays in 1909; one of the first big air shows was in 1910, so in the entire history of aviation, air shows have been one of America's, if not the world's, favorite events. As long as people love things that fly, we'll have air shows, and we'll have barnstormers.
Drones need not apply, even though they may be the wave of the future. Although, I've flown air shows with them, as well. I was the demo pilot for Raytheon's T-6B at the Singapore Airshow in 2006, and at the end of the show, each of the demo pilots were given a CD by one of the Israeli drone manufacturers who were "demo-ing" their drones (and whose "crews" on the ground had the most stylish flight suits). The drones were in the air at the same time we were, and the CDs showed their footage zooming in to our cockpits with extreme close-ups. It was creepy. Do we really need drones at air shows?
Like everyone else in my line of work, I complain about the crappy food and hotel rooms, the inability to keep a workout routine, the early morning briefings, the cold cross-countries and the FAA who ramp-check me every weekend. But do I still love it after 30 years? It's the end of the season, so I might say no. Ask me again in the spring when the air show season starts up again, and I'll most likely say yes. Even when I get tired of the life, I know it's my identity as air show pilot that has given me a life that most people only dream about and opportunities beyond that identity. After 30 years, I still love the adventure, the flying is still the payoff, being in the air flying across the grids of the Midwest and to places I've never been; the terrain and the people are intertwined into a love for flying and a love for airplanes.
In a recent article by The New Yorker, Billy Joel was quoted saying after finishing a concert at Madison Square Garden: "One minute I'm Mussolini, up onstage in front of 20,000 screaming people. And then, a few minutes later, I'm just another schmuck stuck in traffic on the highway." Just like air show flying—in rarefied air one minute and on the ground the next. It does help keep things in perspective.