Airshow pilots have always been a motley and colorful crew of interesting characters. As a rule, they’re resourceful, multitalented and inventive. The people I’ve performed with are from all walks of life. Extroverts and introverts, they range from being airline pilots (lots of them), to dentists, actors and singers, to wealthy land owners and a few who fly for the paycheck from show to show. Aviation brings us together, and a devotion to aerobatics brings us even closer into a rare community I think of as a big dysfunctional family, but a family nonetheless.
Still, as comfortable as we are with one another, knowing we have a common bond, there are people I’ve flown with for 20 years and I don’t have a clue what they do during the week. It’s really not that important to me. Whether we fly airshows for a living or as a hobby, our lives intersect at the airport, so our relationships are intertwined and devoted to airplanes, aerobatics and performing. But as easy as it is to think we know someone well, no one is one-dimensional. There are a lot of pieces to everybody’s pie, and sometimes you don’t learn things about people until later, or never at all.
We honor present performers with awards and honors, and get to know the past performers from personal stories, articles and videos. There’s a lot of research and mythology about famous demo, race and airshow pilots like Jackie Cochran, Lincoln Beachey, Bessie Coleman and Roscoe Turner. We might have a general sense of who they are through their National Aviation Hall of Fame plaques, pictures and books, but what were they like to be in the same room with? And what about performers whose pasts aren’t as well documented? How do we give depth and dimension to the pictures and plaques that celebrate their lives and contributions? I believe a lot is left to the imagination and sometimes you just have to close your eyes and try to picture them walking across a field, pulling a prop through and getting in their airplane.
I’ve always had a major crush on a one-of-a-kind, muscular orange airplane, the 600 hp Curtiss 1A “Gulfhawk.” Built by Curtiss as a Hawk 1, the airplane was modified to be an airshow airplane by Major Alford “Al” Williams. It hangs in the National Air and Space Museum, and I think it’s one of the coolest airplanes in the collection. The airplane makes a statement just by being there, but I’ve always felt that the man who flew it was standing quietly in its shadow, just off to the side, perhaps watching us. Al Williams’ persona was “the fabulous airshow pilot,” but he was so much more complex and interesting. A complete aviator and one of the most intriguing men in aviation, he was an engineer, an innovator, a prolific writer devoted to promoting aviation and unusual attitude upset training, a record-setting air racer, a decorated military veteran, and—a man among men!—he conceived and developed the technique of dive-bombing and is known in some circles as the “father” of that technique.
A high achiever, for certain, and I wish I had known him, but what kind of person was Al Williams? Did he walk into a room hoping to be noticed, to make a statement? Or was he an introvert, like a lot of airshow pilots, preferring to low-key it and blend in with the crowd organically? Did he have an easy sense of humor, a big laugh, a funny wit? Al Williams’ grandson wrote, “Few men walk this earth with such power of character, strength of conviction, and hard determination.” These are the kinds of words that give a person dimension and help us know who they are, but sometimes you just have to close your eyes and imagine.
Another performer who has always intrigued me is the great airshow pilot, Prince Constantin Cantacuzino. While Al Williams had an elegant, dignified presence, Count C. was one of the more flamboyant characters on the barnstorming circuit. Hardly the introvert, Count C. had an intriguing and glamorous history. With 60 victories, he was the highest-ranking Romanian ace in WWII. After the war, when the USSR occupied Romania, confiscating land and titles, he escaped to Italy in an ME109. After he moved to Spain, the Romanian community helped buy him an airplane so he could make a living flying airshows. There’s much speculation when it comes to the Count’s history, which makes him even more interesting. It’s said that when he traveled the continent before moving to the U.S., he had five wives in five different countries, but it seems there are conflicting accounts of Count C’s history. I’ve read that he died in both 1955 and 1958 (the same year as Al Williams), but there are, of course, two versions of how he died: one after an operation and another in an airplane crash. No one seems to know. What we do know from the few sources available is that he was a fantastic and daring airshow pilot who did an inverted handkerchief pickup! What I would give to fly an airshow with him. I’d also love to know if he flew airshows with Al Williams—they seemed to have such different personalities and auras, but like the rest of my dysfunctional family, could have been buddies and could have tipped a cool one together. If so, that’s one wall I’d like to be a fly on.
“Airshows have made enormous contributions to aviation, from the development and technology of airplane design and construction to the amazing public relations and awareness they have provided by inspiring the next generation of aviators and scientists.”
It’s important to honor and remember the performers who have come before us because it not only preserves their memory, it helps the rest of us get to know them. The ICAS Foundation’s Air Show Hall of Fame (icasfoundation.org/hof) honors those who have made a significant contribution to the airshow industry by recognizing its most outstanding professionals. Honoring one or more people each year, the Foundation seeks to educate people about the airshow industry, about their past and about the illustrious history of airshows. This year’s inductees are the awesome Larry Strain, Greg Poe, and Rich and Dee Gibson.
I was inducted into the Air Show Hall of Fame in 2006, along with Marion Cole, Paul Mantz and Eddie “The Grip” Green. Paul Mantz was before my time, Marion Cole was a friend, but had retired from airshows after I got started, and Eddie Green was an airshow friend. Standing at the podium after my name was called was an awesome and surreal feeling, not so much because it fed my ego, but because of the place in history that I now occupied alongside pilots like Bob Hoover, Butch Voris, Curtis Pitts, Bevo Howard and Bobby Younkin. A couple of years later, when Bessie Coleman was inducted, I was thrilled to meet her grandniece. I try to be at the ICAS banquet every year to see the new inductees and meet their families, and it always gives me a closer perspective on the history of airshows.
History opens the doors of perception and is so vital to understanding our place in any sport or avocation. It gives us perspective on how the technology of our sport has evolved and helps us understand how we are what we are today. Understanding history, too, is important so we can learn from the mistakes others have made, and this counts for a lot in the airshow business when it comes to safety and accident prevention. Why re-create old mistakes or reinvent the stick when we have such a wealth of information from the past?
Think about it—history began one second ago. We are all part of its constant creation, and in a large sense, history creates us. We all have a place in history and it’s important to understand it. I can’t get enough of airshow history. Airshows have made enormous contributions to aviation, both from the development and technology of airplane design and construction to the amazing public relations and awareness they have provided by inspiring the next generation of aviators and scientists. The history of airshows is fascinating, important and sometimes tragic, and knowing who the players were in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, and every other era, has given me a greater appreciation and understanding of my own place in history.
Don’t discount the history of your avocation because, after all, you’re a part of it, no matter what role you play. Learning about history and how it has changed us and our sport and/or avocation over time makes our appreciation for it so much greater.