Many years ago, a T-6 instructor from Texas was watching a nationally-recognized performer flying an air show performance in his T-6. He approached a friend and occasional student of his, who was also an air show pilot, and asked why the T-6 pilot was flying “on the edge.” The friend asked what he meant by “the edge” and the T-6 instructor explained that the edge was the spot past which the performing pilot was not in complete control and not absolutely certain what the outcome of certain maneuvers would be. The friend could not answer the instructor’s question and the instructor advised the friend to tell the performer to get back off the edge. Less than a month later, that T-6 air show performer was killed in an air show accident.
To some of aviation’s most experienced pilots, the secret to safe air show flying is to find out where that edge is and then back off just a bit from it. Approach it, but never cross it. Ride the edge as long as you can. Understand where it is and how to recognize when you’re approaching the edge. Become not just familiar, but comfortable with the edge. But do that experimenting at altitude, where there is plenty of room to recover if the edge appears abruptly or unexpectedly. Once you know, with complete certainty, where that edge is, start practicing your sequence at air show altitudes with a high level of confidence that you know precisely how each maneuver will conclude.
The edge will be different, sometimes considerably different, depending on type of aircraft, weather, density altitude, physical conditioning and other issues. And, of course, it will differ somewhat from one pilot to the next. But there’s an edge for every pilot and every performance. If there’s one secret to surviving and prospering as an air show pilot, it’s knowing where that edge is and how to approach it without stepping over it. If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll recognize that edge and you’ll be aware of when you’re in danger of stepping over it. It can’t be regulated by the government or measured by your Aerobatic Competency Evaluator. You are the only one who knows where that edge is and you are the only one who can take the necessary steps to approach it without stepping over it.
Years after that T-6 instructor first discussed the concept of “the edge” with his former student, a young air show performer was killed in an accident that received national television coverage. The instructor asked, “Why was he so insistent on flying past the edge?” Do you know where your edge is?