The worst day of flying still beats the best day of real work,” is the perfect saying for the air show pilot. If you love what you do, you’re not really working, but being an air show pilot is a mixture of hard work and hardly working.
The performer’s goal is to entertain, often using illusion to create the spectacle. As a kid, I was enchanted by the circus—the color, stunts, beauty, the family of gypsies—and I longed to be a part of it. After gaining some life experience, I found my way into the flying circus instead, among pilots who entertain by flying their airplanes on the high wire of aerial precision.
Flying exotic machines, we dance across the sky in front of thousands, hoping the spectators are dazzled, awed and wanting to come back for more. But, behind every big top is a parallel universe where a million mundane things happen. Air show pilots appear to lead exciting and possibly desirable lives, but is it really so glamorous? What goes on behind the scenes and what’s the day-in-the-life really like?
First, we have to book the show, and that involves paperwork and advertising, phone calls and emails. Before we’re even ready to take off for an air show, you can you can safely assume that we had started six months to a year prior, working on contracts, insurance certificates and military base facilities permits. If the show is overseas, then triple the paperwork fun.
After the show is booked, we then have to find it. As most of our airplanes are VFR only, flying cross-country gives meaning to the other famous aviation saying, “Flying is hours of boredom filled with moments of terror.” Ask any show pilot what the scariest part of their job is, and they’ll tell you it’s getting there. No matter how careful the pilot is, there will be a time when the weather poses a challenge.
Some shows are close to home while others are 2,000 miles away, crossing multiple time zones. However far, from the time we arrive we’re in for an adventure because every show site is different. We have to find the hangar, the air show office, the rental car and maps to the hotel and social events.
The small airports are easy, but it’s not difficult to get lost at the big ones. Have you ever been lost on a large military installation late at night, in danger of being arrested for entering a secure area? Or tried to explain to a wary armed guard why you need to get on to his base at 1 a.m., even though you have all the required documentation? Didn’t they get the memo? I was at one air show where my rental car had a sun roof. I went inside to a function in sunny weather, but came out two hours later to pouring rain and a car with two feet of water in it.
Things just happen when you’re in new territory. Have you woken up in a hotel room and not remembered where you were? Drudgery may be too strong a term, but life on the road can be taxing. As any rock star will tell you, there’s boredom in repetition, unpacking bags and figuring out what room number matches the key in your hand after a long day.
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.
A few years ago, just as I was getting into my airplane, a random person stopped by to chat and asked what I thought about a horrible accident that had recently taken place. I happened to know the pilot involved, and I had a hard time focusing on my flight that day. This is a scenario we try to avoid.
As it gets closer to show time, my energy comes into focus, and by the time I taxi out, nothing comes between me and my cockpit, except for my flight suit. My hyper focus blocks out unnecessary distractions while I keep both a million details and the big picture in sight. The situational awareness an air show pilot develops is where years of training pay off.
You aren’t thinking, rather, it’s that the airplane becomes a part of you and you’re in a state of “flow”—that wonderful transcendent state of mind where a person is fully immersed in the activity at hand. On the radio, the Air Boss clears us into the box, but I know that once I peg the throttle for a snap roll on takeoff, I’m ultimately my own boss.
After I land and clear the runway, I quickly undo my seat belts and take off my gloves so I can wave to the crowd while taxiing in. A car will meet me to take a ride up and down the flightline, so I can be the performer and wave some more.
Next, it’s autograph time. Personally, I love signing autographs and talking to people. I like to walk the flightline, sometimes a mile long, signing pictures and talking to fans. I always think how much better it is to be an air show pilot than to be a dentist, for example, because everyone I meet is happy and giving their best. This is what the spectator gives back to the performer, and it’s energizing.
After putting our airplanes away, we know the day is only half over. There’s almost always an evening function where we’re to meet the sponsors and organizers, so it’s a must-attend. We also realize that while we may do this every weekend, for the air show, it’s a once-a-year event, and the social functions are very important.
I once saw a stage show involving tigers. The stage was lit so the magnificence of the animals was highlighted, but there was an entire crew of trainers dressed in black in the background. That’s the illusion of showmanship.
We want you to attend these air shows and keep coming back for more, enjoying our aerial showmanship. And behind the scenes, it’s not just the organizers’ attention to detail that makes the air show, it’s the legions of volunteers that every air show relies on and without who would never happen.
For me, being an air show pilot is the perfect fusion of my love of flying with bringing awareness of aviation to the public. After all, air shows are the only place someone can see airplanes up close, touch them, and feel their power and beauty.
Life as an air show performer is fun, glamorous, exciting, rewarding and exhausting. Flying is only a small part of the job, but to be honest, that 15 minutes of fame when we’re dancing across the sky is the payoff. On Monday morning, I’ll fly to the next show and do it all again. I’m working hard, but I’m hardly working.