Sun – October 17, 2004
I used to like them, really did.
But not anymore. This is why.
In some ways I guess it’s sort of like NASCAR – some folks go to see the racing. Others go to see the crashes.
There has always been a distinction in my mind between air show maneuvers and professional excellence – the airshow stunts are things we do to impress civilians which have little, if any, tactical relevance. Professional excellence in a single-seat fighter is something that happens not just during the flight: A perfectly executed bombing run to a shack hit, a masterfully flown intercept with great SA and pre-merge morts, an expeditious guns kill in a basic fighter maneuver hop. All of these airborne execution milestones are the product of nearly monastic dedication to the art and science of the business. Time in the books, in briefings and lectures, and in long, sometimes painful debriefs. None of that translates to the airshow routine very well.
As a lieutenant I used to travel to airshows in whatever fighter I was flying at the time. Not to fly in the show itself, but to take part in a “static display,” one of the aircraft you’ll see parked on the line, with a guy standing next to it answering questions. You could meet some really neat people doing that, and there were always great parties. Especially if the Blue Angels or the USAF Thunderbirds were in town. It was possible for an instructor at the training squadrons to get a dynamic air show qualification – I just never chose to go that route personally.
Speaking of the Thunderbirds, they do put on a great show – you’ll see some things that the Blues would never show you, for example. They are true professionals, but the problem is that their flight suits look pretty darn (searches for politically correct word…) alternative lifestyle . Not that there’s anything wrong with that. In the Air Force.
But while I’m never concerned for the safety of the Blues or the Thunderbirds (or their audiences), I do worry a bit about the folks who come out in their own plane to join the circuit. I know exactly how hard it is to 1) make a professional military flying team, and 2) difficult the flying syllabus is once there. I’ve got no idea what qualifies a civilian, aside from money and desire.
When I was a flight student, one of our advanced jet instructors flew Citabria’s on the side. (Citabria, by the way, is “airbatic” spelled backwards). We had a picnic out in the countryside with the whole squadron there. The IP showed up overhead and did some stunts in his Citabria, then landed at the civilian field down south, and drove up to the picnic, meeting his wife and kids there. Some of the other IP’s congratulated him on putting together a neat show. I guess he got enough of a swell out of that, that he drove back down and set up an encore. Put a young kid, maybe 19 or so and thinking about becoming a pilot, in the back seat. Flew back overhead the picnic and did another routine, right there in front of us.
The first trick was to throw a roll of toilet paper out of the plane, and cut the streaming ribbon with his wings. Pretty cool. Then some low loops and hammer-head stalls. We were all captivated – I remarked to my neighbor, “this is like being in a movie set, just before something bad happens.”
And then the IP put her into a spin, recovered too late and crashed, right there in front of us. Both killed.
Took the fun out of airshows, for me.