Why I Do What I Do

Why do I do this? There is nothing that feels more exhilarating or freer to me than the wind and sky rushing by me as the earth rolls around my head. My soul is fed by the air and I get a complete sense of fulfillment by not only the experience, but by challenging myself and doing something so uniquely different. I’m alive up there. To soar like a bird and touch the sky puts me in a place where I feel I totally belong. It’s the only thing I’ve done that I’ve never questioned, never hesitated about and always felt was my destiny. I’m not the type of person that is satisfied by just sitting still and watching Monday night football. I need to be active and see and do new things.

What about risk? Everything we do has an element of risk. The media asks this all the time and my answer is always the same. I feel safer on the wing of my airplane than I do driving to the airport. Why? Because I’m in control of those risks and not at the mercy of those other drivers. I think about this all the time when I’m driving down a two lane highway at 55 mph just inches away from cars heading towards me at the same if not higher speed. All it takes is one moment of distraction from the other driver and we will hit at a collision speed of 110 mph or more. Whether they are drunk, texting, or falling asleep it is out of my control and that is what scares me. When I’m in and on my plane I have the ultimate control of my risk factors and am not at the mercy of someone else’s mistakes. A few years ago I was proceeding through an intersection at a green light. My peripheral vision caught something and I slammed on the brakes only to have an 18 wheeler whiz past my front bumper just inches away as he ran the red light. Had I not quickly stopped I would not be here today. But do I stop driving? No. I just know that my risks are greater out there on the roads than up in the air. It’s not just driving either; there are so many facets of my life here on earth that I have little control over. If I were to eliminate the risks that would really take me out, I wouldn’t even walk out my front door. But then again there is a lot of danger at home as well and “freak accidents” can happen there too. To quote Amanda Franklin “If you live your life in fear that something could go wrong, you are not living your life”.

Why airshows? I’ve seen the faces on the kids. I’ve heard the excitement in their voices. I’ve had young girls tell me that after watching me they see opportunities they didn’t before. Not necessarily with the wing walking, but knowing that I fly too they have found that their opportunities are unlimited. The wing walking grabs their attention, but the flying and the fact that I’m a highly rated pilot feeds their appetite for excelling themselves. After 21 years in airshows, I’ve had grown young adults come to me and say that they became a pilot after coming to an airshow as a kid. It is the only place where kids and their families can fully experience aviation and its potential and spark the innovation of our future. You can’t get that at a museum full of static displays. That next child you meet at an airshow could be the next Burt Rutan or Neil Armstrong. We need that spark and innovation or we won’t excel to new things. That is what makes us human. People like to see others “push the limits”. It’s not the fact that they are watching others risk their lives, but the fact that it allows them to see what we are all capable of and it encourages them to push themselves. That is why there is and will always be a need for airshows and other spectator events such as this. We are the seeds of the future.

An Amazing Season Continues

I’ve been so busy this season it’s been hard to find time to update the blog. Well, here we are at the beginning of September and the Airshow season is far from over.

In June, we performed at the New Garden Airshow. It was a great small show, which I always enjoy. The weather was a little iffy both days but turned out flyable for our full show the entire weekend. The weather turned a bit sour after the show on Sunday, so we left Aurora at the airport and I sent Rock back the next day to pick her up.

On Thursday, August 18th we were finally able to do the air to air photo shoot for AOPA. I of course wanted to get all the pictures for them I could, but my main goal was to capture the inverted shot from above. Chris Rose was not only able to do that, but he was able to capture the most amazing shot. To say it’s breath taking would be an understatement! The feature article, complete with Chris’ pictures, is scheduled to be in the November issue of AOPA Pilot magazine.

On the weekend of August 20th, we performed at the Westmoreland County Airshow in Latrobe, PA. This was their first show in 10 years. They wanted to start small, but I have to say for starting small they did a fantastic job and exceeded all my expectations. It was a show packed with a lot of talent and the organizers did a great job putting it all together. We experienced some rain during the day on Sunday and I was concerned about getting in the wing walking as precipitation can be extremely painful. But shortly before my performance it stopped and we again were able to get in a full weekend performance and the crowd loved it. When I got off the airplane on Saturday the line for autographs was amazing. I know their show next year will be even bigger and more spectacular.

Last weekend was a challenge to say the least. The week leading up to Greenwood Lake we were not only keeping our eyes on hurricane Irene but on Tuesday experienced our first ever earthquake of a 5.8 magnitude. I work in DC and my building shook heavily underneath my feet. It was a surreal experience and one I wish not to repeat. Irene continued to threaten the East Coast and it didn’t look good for the show. I sent Aurora up on Wednesday with Brian ahead of any weather to ensure she’d be there to perform. Rock and I flew up on Thursday in the Cessna 310 with the boys and Friday turned out to be a spectacular day! AOPA arrived to not only take pictures of the actual performance, but filmed it as well, along with an interview that will all be posted on the AOPA website at
www.aopa.org. If you are a pilot and not a member I definitely recommend you join. It’s a great organization.

Unfortunately, Irene had other plans for the remainder of the weekend and was heading towards us with a vengeance. Due to the state of emergency the organizers made the tough decision to cancel both Saturday and Sundays shows. We loaded up the planes and headed back home on Friday to get back home before Irene hit us. It was a little hectic and stressful, but we all made it back safely and were fortunately not impacted too much here at home. I can’t say the same for the rest of the North East as many people lost their property and a few even lost their lives. I pray for all those impacted and devastated by this natural disaster. The good news is that Greenwood Lake has rescheduled a rain date and we will be returning on October 22-23 for a make up performance. We are all looking forward to it and hope the weather will be much better this time.

Now it’s off to Louisa County for their show on Saturday September 3. Louisa is just a few miles from the epicenter of last weeks earthquake and they are still suffering after shocks. One as recently as yesterday morning at a magnitude of 3.4. It could be interesting, but I’m hoping that our show can be an entertaining escape for the folks down there.

It’s been a strange week between the earthquake and hurricane and one of our bigger challenges during this season, but it was also painted with some great moments of airshow performances.

2011 Is Underway

Well, here we are mid June and our season has begun to rock and roll. We had a couple fly in events, including “Women Fly it Forward” in March. But what I really love is to get the chance to showcase the wing walking. We were fortunate enough to do a couple fly-by’s at the Wings, Wheels and Warriors in Manassas, VA last month. But, without a waiver we were a bit limited with what we could do.

At the last minute we were invited to fill in for a couple weeks at
pastedGraphic the Flying Circus in Bealeton, VA. Their 450 was down for an annual and I came out and did my thing. It was great to be on my home turf once again. The Circus was were I started it all and I had not wing walked there since 2002. It was also a chance to have a dry run with our new pilot Charlie Schwenker. Charlie has been flying wing walkers for a quite while, but needed to learn my act due to it’s increased difficulty and demand from the other wing walking acts. He picked it up like he already knew the routine and very quickly we were up and running and ready for the next show.

This past weekend we performed at the New Garden Airshow in PA. It was a great show! The layout was a bit different as the airshow box was perpendicular to the runway, but the different layout actually added to the small home town atmosphere. Because of the layout, the aircraft were able to taxi closer to the crowd line then normal and it was wonderful to see the crowd so excited to get that close to these airplanes, including the impressive B25. I’d like to say I was the highlight of the show, but I think what stole the show on Saturday was the B2 Fly.

We are now entering the busier part of the season and soon will be hitting a series of shows in a row. We have a little bit of down time to take care of a few things before we get really busy again. But we will be on the road again sooner than later. It the recent events are any indication of the remainder of the year, we are in for quite an adventure.

The Air Show Season Is Just Around The Corner

pastedGraphicIt’s been an unusually cold and rough winter this year, not conducive to even hanging out in the hanger, let along pulling Aurora out to fly. But, we somehow managed to find a couple of days to take to the skies and warm her up. She fired up like a champ and flew like an angel. It was as if she was tired of sitting alone in her stall and just aching to take to the air.

Now that March is upon us and our first event is just a few days away, we are gearing up for what is to be a big season full of adventure and new stories.

This Saturday, March 12, we will be appearing at the “Women Fly It Forward” event in Frederick, MD. Although the forecast is predicted to eventually reach 60 degrees, our flight up is during the chilly morning at 9 am. We will bundle up, make the trip and look forward to meeting all the hopeful female aviators that will turn out for this event. Currently there are 200 women signed up to take a free flight and get inaugurated into this incredible world. I’m excited to be able to share my story and inspire more women to explore this field. It was one ride from a friend in 1989 that started it all for me and hopefully I can pay it forward and pass on the excitement to more young women.

We will have Aurora on the field for a rare opportunity to see her up close. Unlike an airshow in which we are located away from the crowd, this is a chance to walk up to her and look inside. We’ll have some panels open so everyone can see what makes her tick and the unique things that make her so special. I will be on hand to answer any and all questions not only about the wing walking, but about my flying as well. It’s promising to be a great day, with wonderful weather and a perfect start to our 2011 airshow season.

Aurora and I Finally Fly On Our Own

Just when I thought the most amazing year had come to a close, to my shock it just continued to get better. There are those few moments in your life that will be forever etched in your memory. Yesterday was one of those moments.

When Aurora arrived in June, my first goal was to get the airshow work going and focus on the wing walking. I had an instructor lined up to get me checked out in the Stearman, but unfortunately he had an incident on his motorcycle and was out of commission for a while. Kirk was willing to fly with me and did once, but wanted to wait until the season was over before focusing on that. I then met, Rock, who was not only an 18,000 hour airline pilot, but just happened to be a tail wheel instructor as well. Although I have a bunch of tail wheel hours, even some in the Stearman, it had been over 7 years since I had flown and was not going to be an overnight transition. After my last show in Leesburg, we focused on my flying and yesterday during my 5
th flight in Aurora I was shocked when I heard those words “just let me out here and take it around”.

The excitement and nerves were overwhelming. He kept saying that he had not been touching the controls, but there was something comforting in the fact that someone was always up front to keep me out of trouble. Rolling out to the end of 15 at Warrenton, I took a deep breath and eased the throttle forward. This was it. I was alone in my baby. The power came up and I was airborne before I knew it. With a fuel injected R-985 she puts out about 500 HP on take off and rolls just a few feet before she’s clawing for the sky. The rush of that take off still gets to me.

There I was climbing into the pattern all on my own for the first time in years. The cold November wind was stinging my face as I leveled off and prepared to land. Unfortunately, a student pilot who insisted on flying a 2 mile pattern was ahead of me and caused a 360 on downwind for spacing. But with sheer determination and focus I concentrated on bringing her back to earth unscathed.

Turning on final I check my airspeed and descent rate. All was good. I had learned through my experience on the last few flights that my speed at the moment of touchdown was one of the keys to an uneventful landing in Aurora. Crossing the numbers I eased in just enough power to cushion the descent and level her off, holding her off and holding her off until the familiar squeak of the mains made contact with the runway below me. Pulling off the power I held up the tail wheel and concentrated during the most perilous moment in landing a Stearman. That transition in which the tail stops flying and settles to the ground is the moment that can bite the most experienced of Stearman aviators. The tail came down and to my amazement I was still lined up with the runway. I had done it! I taxied her off and was ready to put her away when a voice on the radio said “do it again”.

I thought it had been Rock who made that call, but as it turns out Kirk was behind me in the pattern and wanted to see another one. I taxied around and repeated the entire process making another successful and uneventful Stearman landing.

I was literally shaking from all the adrenalin and a flood of relief and excitement washed over me. It was a huge confidence builder to know that I still had it and now with time and practice I will fine tune my tail wheel skills and return to the point I was 7 years ago. Aurora and I are now completely one. Alone in the skies with my dream machine is a fantasy come true and one that I will cherish for the rest of my life.

Next on my plate is refreshing my aerobatic skills and really learning the envelope of this amazing bird. This story is still unfolding every day.

This was captured on video that you can watch below.