LEFT TO RIGHT: Tom Combs, Patty (Combs) Wagstaff, Chris Combs and John Combs
For years, people suggested I start an aerobatic school, but I hemmed and hawed about it. It seemed like a lot of work for little money. I asked friends who had flight schools what they thought, and they weren't overly enthusiastic. I got my CFII in 1984, and my first job in aviation was as a flight instructor. Since then, I've collected syllabuses and articles on safety and accident statistics, and a school was always in the back of my mind. I'm proud to be a CFII, but over the years other things have kept me busy, so I've taught only occasionally for fun or to help someone out, and since 2001, I've used my instructor skills working with the pilots of the Kenya Wildlife Service.
I'm not the kind of person who's satisfied with the status quo. I'm always looking for the next challenge, a new adventure. Plus, sleeping in hotels 150 nights a year was getting old, and since I was looking for something that kept me home a little more, cutting my air show schedule from 20 to maybe 10 air shows a season and opening an aerobatic school seemed like a good idea.
I talked to my friend "Lites," John Leenhouts, now president of Sun 'n Fun, and he suggested I come to Lakeland and start a flight school here. We had a Super Decathlon available, and I decided to teach a few clinics to explore the idea and what curriculum I'd teach. My students came from the Central Florida Aerospace Academy (CFAA). Located on the Sun 'n Fun campus, CFAA is a high school with an impressive program that promotes STEM and aviation, in particular, as a means to challenge and motivate, and instill discipline and confidence. (Check this remarkable program out at: www.polkacademies.com/cfaa/.)
My students were those who had applied for aviation scholarships through the school and were learning to fly, and they were amazing. Highly motivated and hardworking, the young people I flew with had to maintain a high GPA and work on their private pilot certificate at the same time. As part of the program, they were entitled to one hour of upset training, and that's where I came in. The experience was invaluable to me for a number of reasons. I learned as much as they did, hopefully, and not only did I feel rewarded by the experience, it gave me a lot of ideas on how I'd tailor a syllabus for upset training.
Around the same time, I was at Southeast Aero (SEA), the U.S. dealer for the Extra series of aircraft (in case you've been living in a cave, it's the best airplane in the world) and maintenance facility, located at my home field in St. Augustine (KSGJ), Fla., and checked out some empty offices I hadn't paid much attention to before. Coincidentally, an old friend had just offered me a great deal on a two-seat Extra 300L. That's when the light came on—empty offices, the airplane, the need for a good aerobatic school on the field—so I spoke with the powers that be at SEA, and with their blessing, jumped right in to start Patty Wagstaff Aviation Synergy—the Synergy means we combine a school, air shows, consulting, ACE evaluations and everything else I do to keep out of trouble.
Now, I'm a big-picture person. I don't fret too much about details when I decide to do something. I figure having a broad vision is more important, and once you get the ball rolling, the details will follow. Sometimes this actually works out! Still, there was a lot to consider. Did I want to have the same school that other people had? There wasn't really a template for what I wanted to do and, like everything else I had ever done in my life, I wanted to do it my way. This had to be fun for all involved. No epaulets and no flight suits. Our instructors had to make a decent living, and the students had to get more than aerobatic training, which is why our courses have the word "airmanship" in their titles.
The challenge of setting up a new business is always exciting. Learning the business of operating an aerobatic school has been a fun and challenging experience. For years, I've kept notes and articles about aerobatics, stick and rudder, and safety and instruction in a file, so putting those ideas into designing courses, our syllabuses and a flight training manual that has my signature on it, while sometimes overwhelming, is really rewarding. Through the process of asking for advice on different aspects of the business, I've made new friends who are guiding me and giving me fresh ideas.
By far, though, the best part of the experience has been the quality of the students we've attracted. Interesting, motivated and impressive, our students have come from India, Italy, Austria, Australia and all over the U.S. Their backgrounds range from being techno millionaires to yacht designers, business owners and airline pilots. Their aviation experience ranges from being student pilots (which we love because good airmanship skills start from the beginning), airline pilots and even some ag pilots. Of course, as the old motto says, "Everyone who walks through these doors is special," or something like that; all of our students are special and receive VIP treatment, but I have to admit the most enjoyable week I've had so far in our relatively brief history is when my three cousins, Chris, John and Tom Combs, came to fly with us.
The Combs brothers (my maiden name is Combs), all pilots, each live in different parts of the country. Being close all their lives, they get together once a year for a brothers' week. This year, they chose to come to St. Augustine for some aerobatic flying. Tom drove up from Tampa where he lives, John came from El Paso, and Chris from Northern California.
All three boys grew up on Shady Cove Airpark (OG31) in Oregon's Southern Rogue Valley. Their dad, Mike Combs, and his dad, George Combs, were Super Cub pilots, and the backcountry of Oregon and the West Coast was their playground. When the boys were growing up, they flew with their dad in the backcountry, to air shows and just to visit friends at other airports in the area. What a great way to grow up!
Over the past several years, Chris and I have gotten close because of our shared interest (let's say obsession) of competition aerobatics. Chris learned to fly as a junior in high school (in the Super Cub, of course), took a hiatus and went to college, and then picked up flying again by building an RV-8 with the help of his dad and his wife, Cindy. All along, Chris realized the only thing he really wanted to do was to be a competitive aerobatic pilot, and in 2009, he bought an Edge 540T, started to compete and never looked back. (This must run in the family!) Chris came to fly with me, working on the fine points of competition in the Extra 300L.
Tom Combs is a helicopter pilot in the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) and flies the MH-60 Jayhawk. But before joining the USCG, Tom flew in the army. His career took him from initial training at Fort Rucker to ending his Army career in the 4th Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, Republic of Korea, and as Company Commander B Company, 1st Battalion, 82nd Aviation Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, N.C. He earned his fixed-wing private pilot certificate in 2001 and has a civilian ATP in helicopters. Overachievers do run in our family! Tom took our five-hour Airmanship and Basic Aerobatics course to learn more about fixed-wing flying and brush up on his Super Cub skills; his dream is to own a bush airplane and fly the backcountry of the west, sharing it with his family.
John Combs also has had an interesting aviation career. John is a full-bird Colonel in the U.S. Army, and a physician, practicing at Fort Bliss, Texas. He started flying after graduation from West Point, became an Army helicopter aviator with postings in Germany and Southwest Asia, and participated in Desert Storm, meanwhile getting more than 1,500 hours behind the collective of a helicopter, most of it at or below 50 feet AGL. John took some time off from flying to go to medical school, and after his father passed away in 2007, bought the family Super Cub and has taken over family stewardship of it for generations to come. Interestingly, when he got his fixed-wing license around that time, one of his instructors was famous air show pilot Bill Warren, who was a neighbor in Oregon. John took our five-hour Airmanship and Basic Aerobatics course. He flies for the fun and challenge of it, and as he said, "Partly to honor the memory of my father and grandfather before him."
We had a great week of flying, and I know the guys got less sleep than I did, smoking cigars at night while hanging out by the campfire. I think it's awesome that they've maintained a close relationship since childhood and continue to spend time together, sharing aviation. And, it's pretty cool that they all started out in the Super Cub—what I see as the "pilot's airplane." I know it's what makes each of them such fine aviators today.
Chris and I are a lot alike, and I think it's interesting that he feels like I do, that if we hadn't gotten into competition aerobatics, we wouldn't find aviation as fulfilling. If one of us ever gets to the point where we can't fly akro anymore (when that would be, I don't know—our good friend Chuck Alley competed into his 80s, as did Harold Newman), there's always the backcountry and a Super Cub waiting.
The aerobatic school continues to grow and be a great challenge, and every day is a new adventure. Not only do I get to fly with the most interesting people in the world, some of them just happen to be relatives. To share flying with my family is just icing on the cake. Getting rich in aerobatics? Nope. Getting rewarded? Yes. It just doesn't get any better than this.