Above & Beyond: Back in the Saddle

An airshow pilot describes the trials of the comeback

ZIPPED INTO MY NOMEX FLIGHTSUIT and squeezed into the narrow cockpit of the Bud Light BD-5J Microjet, I taxi past the custom-built Oreck Cyclone, the Fuji Film Sukhoi Su-31, and the Toyota Special Extra 300. It is Friday, a practice day for tomorrow’s airshow at Carswell Air Force Base at Fort Worth, but the flightline fence is a wall of spectators. The crests of tents and trucks, displays and concession stands float above them.

Some faces peer upward at the Fina Extra 300L hanging over the runway on the edge of a stall. Others stare at me, sitting on the taxiway. This funny little jet looks like a 12-foot shotgun shell with straight wings and a sloping canopy, balanced on wheels the size of teacup saucers and legs the length of a heron’s shins. Inside I slouch like I’m in a lawn chair, feet on the rudder pedals, elbows on the armrests, left hand on the throttle and right one on the control stick.

While Jan Collmer flies the Fina Extra, a nimble monoplane, I run through my checklist and check my wing tanks. Fuel has already shifted from the right tank to the left while the airplane sat on the ramp, so I turn the right one off to get the tanks back in balance. A lot has changed since I first flew this jet in 1975 on the Bede Jet Team: the fuel system, the engine, the wings, and me.

Back then I was a young hotshot, a full-time airshow pilot, fresh from the Carling Aerobatic Team in Canada. Even though I had stumbled into the airshow world in 1971 like Alice falling down the rabbit hole into Wonderland, I was totally at home in it. I loved everything about airshows: the travel, the airplanes, the smoke oil, the crowds, the press, and the pilots. Most of all, I loved the feeling of maneuvering so low over the runway with such focus that I became the airplane. I was fearless, I was home, and I radiated such joy that everyone on the ground seemed to feel it with me.

I thought I could never lose that feeling, but I did. Marriage, motherhood, and life on the ground splintered my focus, and airshows stopped being fun. But the memories of them lingered. And after 16 years, I am back.

Collmer finishes his last pass and I latch my canopy. I am uneasy and a little distracted. Practice day used to belong to the pilots. It was our time to get the lay of the land—turnaround points, obstructions on the airfield, the line of the runways. It was time to get your rhythm, to make mistakes, to knock the rust off. But there are a zillion people on the ramp, and I feel like I’ve slept through the day.

I ignore the static in my brain, add full throttle, and trundle down the runway. Nose up; lift off. Nose level; gear up; smoke on. Accelerate; nose up; a flick of the wrist and roll. Smoke off; turn and climb. I ignore the crowd and look at the airport as if it were a diagram.

My first airshow was in Saint Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, in 1969. I was a glider instructor, soaring, banking, and landing, balancing on a single wheel, and coasting back to the crowd. All the aerobatic performers flew Citabrias, most of them in the one that towed our gliders. Even Mac McGregor, the Federal Aviation Administration monitor and inspector for the whole Caribbean, flew a Citabria in the show. But the luminary, the star who island-hopped from Florida, was Jim Holland. He flew his Citabria like a rodeo cowboy on a bucking bronco, with snap rolls, an inverted ribbon cut, and outside loops that made dust fly off the runway.

Afterward I found him leaning on the flank of his airplane surrounded by frenzied island girls luring him out on boat rides and fishing trips. We talked about flying and I told him to visit my boss, John Macone, and me in Vermont at Sugarbush, our summer base.

When he came by, two years later, I was teaching glider flying in California, but he and Macone concocted a scheme and phoned me. “Hey, Jim Holland is here and he wants you to teach aerobatics for him,” Macone said. I didn’t even know how to aileron roll. Then Holland said, “I was thinking of doing a dual act and thought a woman would be a big draw. We’re doing a show here in Vermont a month from now. You interested?”

The first time I rode through aerobatics in close formation with Holland, I held my breath. The other Citabria, flown by another of Holland’s students, was so big it filled the windscreen. It was months before we had two airplanes of our own and Holland could train me in formation flying, but right away he taught me airshow aerobatics, up high for the first 30 minutes, right above the runway for the last five.

“When you are down low, you never rush,” he said. “You float the loop and round out the back, just like you do up high. If you rush, the plane stalls and hits the ground.” I wrote down everything he said and studied it at night. When we got to inverted flight I spent part of every day hanging upside down rehearsing inverted turns. “Don’t think too much,” he warned. “Practice until there is no thought. There is no time to figure things out when you are seconds from the ground.”

Thoughts can be like static on the radio. I practiced until I replaced thought with pictures, and that is how I became the airplane.

Today in Fort Worth, I am not being the airplane. Something is sitting on my right shoulder like a backseat driver and I am trying to shrug it off. Still, I go through my routine, while on the ground Bill Beardsley has the mike.

He is my link with the crowd, my DJ, the orchestra leader, directing eyes left or right, up or down. Inside the cockpit I follow the maneuvers I have drawn. On the ground he names them. Light my Fire: I angle my jet off the end of the crowd line, pull vertically, half roll, then pull, arching the nose to point my tail away from the crowd. Then I lift a rocker cover on the panel, toggle a switch, and—pop—a tiny flaming red flare shoots from a belly pod. Down, then up again level for a snap on top of a loop called the Pretzel Basket; a six-point roll, the Six Pack; a rectangular loop, the Frosty Mug; a slow pass with the gear popping in and out, the Tap Dance on the Long Bar.

In the 1970s only a few of us had sponsors. Mine were Carling Breweries, Bede Aircraft, and Bellanca Aircraft. Airshows were like folk art: simple but fun. All the action was on the runway side of the crowd line. We flew; they watched. Often I looked at the space behind the crowd and thought, They need some good food, or some rides for the kids, or something to buy. There was nothing but hot dogs and soft drinks.

I wasn’t the only one thinking that. One day corporate America woke up, rubbed its eyes, and bought a ticket. Airshows are now where the Mall of America meets the state fair—with airplanes. There are still some Mom-and-Pop shows with local acts and little commercialism, but mostly airshows are enormous flying parties brought to you by our sponsors. Companies like Red Baron Pizza arrive with a first-rate announcer, four glittering Stearmans, and an 18-wheeler packed with food, a miniature museum, and rides for the kids. Airshows are big business now.

I’m almost finished with my practice show when the jet flames out. I had pulled up for Down the Hatch, rolled on a vertical line, held it, throttled back, steady on the stick, and waited. The jet slid backward, then suddenly, violently, it whipped forward and swapped ends. On the down line I added power, but the engine choked, barked twice, then died.

For a second my mind jumps backward 23 years to Mojave, California, the last place I flamed out during a show. I check my memory to see what I did then, and my mind is like a computer loading software. Then suddenly I am back in the present. Fuel: Right tank is off. Wings are out of balance. Fuel on, switches off, then on again, starter button pushed. The igniters tick, tick, tick like a time bomb. The starter screams like an approaching fire truck, then whoosh, boom, kerosene explodes in the burner can and the engine comes back to life.

I do a wingover back to finish with an inverted pass. On the outside, every airshow is different, but in the cockpit they are all the same. My shows will get better as I polish the rough edges, but already I am home again.

—Debbie Gary


Her Super Cub provides Debbie Gary a leisurely break from airshow flying. Caroline Sheen

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