Stupid Plane Tricks

Breathes there the pilot with soul so dead who never to himself hath said, “I bet I can fly under that bridge”?

Michael Zang is the kind of guy people call crazy. One reporter called him “the nuttiest guy this side of the stratosphere.” Leaping out of an airplane for 24 hours straight last May, Zang shattered the old world record of 476 skydives in 24 hours, set by one Jay Stokes in 1999. Zang jumped 500 times from an altitude of 2,100 feet, once every 2 minutes and 40 seconds—despite banging up his knee on jump 438. His pilot, Tom Bishop, kept the single-engine Pilatus Porter going and going and going. And in the end, what did this Continental Airlines first officer accomplish? Zang laughs, then searches for a reasonable way to explain why someone would keep leaping out of a small airplane for 24 hours. “We raised $15,000 for Special Olympics,” he says.

Ever since the airplane was invented, pilots have been thinking up something that no one’s done in an airplane, then doing it—or dying in the attempt. Though it’s hard to say who did the first stupid airplane trick, Lincoln Beachey gets my vote. In 1911, Beachey flew over Niagara Falls and under the nearby International Bridge before a crowd of 150,000. He had been taught to fly by Glenn Curtiss just six months earlier. Beachey drowned in San Francisco Bay in 1915 after a wing snapped off his monoplane, Little Looper, while he was performing its namesake maneuver.

In 1942, future World War II American ace Richard Bong looped San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge in his Lockheed P-38 Lightning. “It’s not very congested and has a clean approach from both sides,” says Mike Pablo of the National Aeronautic Association’s contest and records department. “The Golden Gate Bridge would be an enticing thing to fly underneath.”

In May 1942, a flock of employees of the Dutch airline KLM flew under Australia’s Sydney Harbour Bridge—twice. Nicholas Dijkstra, a KLM navigator, reports that people from KLM were stranded in Australia with five transports—DC-3s, -5s, Lockheed Electras—which they decided to hand over to U.S. forces based in Wagga Wagga. Two Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawks had recently flown under the bridge, to the extreme excitement of Sydneysiders, and the Dutch fliers figured they could create an even bigger stir by flying under the bridge in formation. Nearly 50 people volunteered for the mission and appointed radio operator Joe Muller to get permission from the tower at Kingsford Smith Airport. He came back down and gave a big thumbs up, and the flight launched. The pilots flew under the bridge in formation, made a wide turn, and flew under it again in single file. Then they returned to the airport. All hell broke loose—it turned out that Muller hadn’t asked permission at all, and the ramp fairly erupted with authority figures. The nation had no flying regulations in place at that time, but the authorities instantly declared that future bridge transgressors would be fined $200—for each person on board.

Even the normally cautious Jimmy Doolittle got into flying stunts. In 1927, U.S. Army Air Corps pilot Doolittle pioneered a maneuver he called the “outside loop” at Ohio’s Wright Field, “on the spur of the moment,” he told reporters, though in reality he spent a lot of time planning the maneuver. Doolittle dove a Curtiss P-1B Hawk from an altitude of 10,000 feet until he reached  nearly 300 mph. He bottomed out upside down, pushed the stick forward, and climbed to finish the loop.

Everyone’s heard the tale about test pilot “Tex” Johnston, who, flying Dash 80, the Boeing 707 prototype, before an audience of 200,000 at Seattle’s annual Seafair festival on August 7, 1955, rolled the big beast. Twice. Johnston test-rolled the airplane on the way to the flyover, and he determined that the maneuver, properly executed, exerted a mere one G on the airframe, the same as level flight. The next day he got a strong talking-to from Boeing president William Allen, but he also learned that Larry Bell, the chief of Bell Aircraft, who watched the whole thing with Allen, told the president: “Tex just sold your airplane.”

Ever since the Gateway Arch went up in St. Louis in 1965, pilots have eyed it longingly. Balloonist Nikki Caplan’s 1973 flight was the first time an aircraft breached the sanctity of the arch with permission, but in fact five airplanes are known to have flown through it, though none of them was ever identified—or prosecuted by the Federal Aviation Administration, which forbids flying less than 2,000 feet above such a structure, and also forbids flying in a “careless or reckless manner,” lest the offender’s pilot’s license be revoked. “We haven’t had a fixed-wing aircraft do it since the ’70s,” says National Park Service historian Bob Moore. “It’s kind of a sensitive subject—the less we publicize it, the less people will do it.”

French officials feel the same way. Consider the stunt Robert Moriarty pulled off in 1984 in a Beechcraft V-tail Bonanza. On the morning of Saturday, March 31, he filed a plan to fly to Shannon, Ireland, took off from Paris’ Le Bourget airport, and headed for the north of Paris, where local air traffic control released him. Then he headed straight for the Eiffel Tower. Flying low and slow, he lined up to the south of the tower along a two-mile-long garden, aimed for the arch, then flew through with plenty of room to spare. Moriarty had a cameraman along, who got the whole thing on videotape (see United States.

Moriarty says the French were eminently reasonable about the whole thing. “If I had landed in Paris and said ‘Hey, look at me—aren’t I cool?’ I would have had some difficulty departing the country. As it was, we reached an agreement that as long as I stayed out of France for a few years no one would give me grief.

“Somebody did it again about three years ago,” he adds. “The French contacted me and said, ‘Was it you?’ I told them, ‘Why would I do it twice?’ ”

Why indeed? Ask airshow pilot Wayne Handley. Back in 1989 at an airshow at Salinas, California, Handley strapped on a Pitts Special, climbed to 12,000 feet, flipped it over, and kicked it into a flat spin. Sixty-seven turns later he got right side up and claimed the world record for consecutive inverted flat spins. “I did it for two very good reasons,” Handley says. “First, as an airshow performer, it was good publicity. And the second, which kind of also had an advertising side of it: It was my trademark.” Not long after, the NAA decided stunts like that were too dangerous and stopped handing out records for such feats. “I don’t disagree,” Handley says. “An inverted flat spin is kind of raising the bar on craziness.” But in April 1999, Guinness World Records asked him to do it again for its TV show. “They [Guinness] will accept anything for a record: How many elephants can you pull with your earlobe—you know.” This time, for the cameras, he climbed to 16,000 feet and flew 78 turns, pulling out after two minutes at 2,000 feet. Seven months later, after a crash landing broke his back, he retired from the airshow circuit and left aerobatics to the young Turks.

Others in the airshow world have made names for themselves not by the maneuvers they perform but by the stunts they pull. Take Jon Falkner and Bob Essel, who do a wingwalking routine on a Quicksilver ultralight—with no restraints. “I never said I was smart,” says Falkner. They got started 11 years ago after watching a wingwalker at the annual Experimental Aircraft Association fly-in at Oshkosh, Wisconsin. “We became the only professional ultralight wingwalkers in the world,” he says. “It’s a lot of fun when things are going well.” And if they’re not? “We don’t go there,” he says. So far, he and “Always Steady Bob’’ have an accident-free record. “I can stand on the front with no belts, no harnesses, no goggles, and fly with my body,” Falkner says. “It’s a real hoot.” Why no restraints? “I used them for a while but I got tired of getting caught and tangled up in these things early on, getting them wrapped around my neck and legs, and when you unhook them and hook them again you have to take your hands off the airplane and they give you the chance to be not quite so cautious.” A few of the other dozen or so wingwalking acts have also shed their restraints.

The apocryphal story about low-flying jet jocks trying to set off a record number of car alarms in the parking lot “is a common one at any Air Force or Navy base where pilots fly high-performance aircraft, and it circulates around here as well,” says Edwards Air Force Base spokesman Alan Brown. But, he adds, “If any of our pilots intentionally tried to do that, and it could be substantiated, they would be looking for a new job immediately.

“What does happen is that every time we have a sonic boom occur out here—usually from an Air Force jet jock way up high—a bunch of car alarms will go off as the shock wave passes. Also—very rarely—if a loud aircraft makes a low pass near a parking area, some car alarms may sound off due to noise-related vibration.” Well, I’m glad we cleared that up.

But Dick Knapinski, public relations director for the EAA, thinks the glory days of stupid plane tricks are history. “I get a feeling the populace doesn’t look as kindly on stunt flying as they did 70 years ago, when it was new and wonderful,” he says. “Today with the general citizenry they call to say ‘There’s a noisy airplane over my house—make it stop!’ You get that kind of thing spraying for gypsy moths.”

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