Professionalism: The DNA of Top Air Show Performers


I asked Bob Hoover, “What’s professionalism?” He paused a second, and said, “Well, to me, it just means you do the best you can, every day.”

Eloquently simple words from one of the most professional aviators in the history of the air show business; and the flight-test business, air racing, etc. In fact, one of the greatest pilots of all time. Bob has seen his share of performers come and go, sometimes not pleasantly. And he knows what it takes to entertain a crowd, stay alive, and make a living at it.

“In my career,” he said, “there’s been good opportunity for an accident to happen. I made it through all those years by giving myself breathing room. I always left enough altitude to recover in case the engine quit at the most inopportune time. Remember, no matter how good you are, your flying won’t be as smooth when that happens. You need to build in those margins. It breaks my heart to have lost some of the good people we have, because they didn’t follow that one rule.”

Lee Lauderback, air show pilot and founder of P-51 training specialist Stallion 51 in Kissimmee, Florida, puts it another way. He said, “In a crisis, you won’t rise to the occasion. You’ll sink to the level of your training.”

And the blunt truth is that, when it comes to keeping your tail number out of the NTSB files, there’s a lot more than just each individual performer’s skin on the line. The business aspect of the air show industry in post-sequester 2013 is challenged by this hat trick: a still-struggling worldwide financial crisis; cuts in military participation (and the resulting cancelation of some shows altogether); and a public that recalls the horror of the crash at the 2011 Reno Air Races, in which ten spectators were killed. Even though that wasn’t technically an air show, the effect is the same as if it were.

Here’s a further complication of the business end of the business: performers who make their sole living by flying air shows – either on show fees, corporate sponsorships, or both — also share space in the program with those who may not have the same economic pressure. This can be confusing to inexperienced show organizers when it comes to negotiating finances. The business model for succeeding as an air show performer is evolving. While many agree that there is room for performers representing a wide range of business models, most also recognize that there are “too many performers, and not enough shows” to go around.

Sean Tucker, with two decades of making a living as a sponsored performer, sees the overall picture this way: “We are at a precipice. Before the Reno crash, at least we could always say there hadn’t been a spectator injury in decades. I know that wasn’t an air show. But even so, we can’t say that anymore. Still, I firmly believe, even with the challenge of a post-sequester world, we can come back, better and stronger. Professionals find a way. Professionalism is an attitude…a way of life.”

Even the word “professionalism” is difficult to define across the board. The mere fact that someone accepts a fee – or does not accept a fee – to fly at an air show, does not dictate whether that person flies with a professional attitude. What is crystal clear, however, is that the cream of the air show crop understands that professionalism from all facets of the industry is essential to everyone’s continued success. That includes not only performers and their crews, but also event organizers, sponsors, volunteers, and government regulators.

Tucker said, “The bottom line is we’re now operating at zero tolerance.” And he’s not talking about just the FAA. Equally as important as the regulatory environment, said Tucker, is the financial side. Maybe more so. He warned, “Insurance losses from the Reno accident are in the hundreds of millions. And beyond that, decision makers within Corporate America will not risk their careers sponsoring an air show or a performer if they believe that Mom and Pop will be afraid to bring their children or grandchildren to their event.”

The attraction of the air show

Dating back to the days of the barnstormers, there have always been conflicting reasons why spectators come to air shows. On the one hand, they crave the vicarious miracle of soaring in flight. “Everyone flies in their dreams,” said Tucker, and they’re awed at what an expert pilot can do. But he also realizes, “My business is a life-or-death profession,” and danger is part of the allure. The performer’s responsibility is to simultaneously thrill the crowd while sustaining that fascination with the miracle of flight. Tucker appreciates the responsibility. He said, “I fly in front of six million people every year, and if I kill myself in front of them someday, I’ve turned their ‘dream of flight’ into a nightmare.”

Addressing that balance of the beauty of flight with the beast of catastrophe, some performers focus on the quintessential aerial ballet in all its grace and beauty. Skip Stewart isn’t one of them. He said, “This is an entertainment industry. We have to compete head to head with X-Box [interactive video games] and CGI [computer-generated imaging] in the movies. At an air show, people also want to see the ‘out of control’ barnstormer type of performance.”

And Stewart works hard to give them what they crave. “I practice – a lot – to appear dangerous and reckless. But it really isn’t.” He cites his low-level, knife-edge pass as an example of a maneuver that even some pilots call irresponsible. Stewart explains, “They tell me, ‘If the engine quits, you’re dead,’ but that’s not so.” He said he has worked hard in practice to incorporate enough speed and altitude margin, “but some can’t see through the smoke and mirrors.” Ensuring safety is the main focus is all in a day’s work.

Safety: priority number one 

In fact, the way Sean Tucker expresses his commitment to excellence is a mantra shared by all top performers, including Stewart, and each in his or her own way. It starts with a commitment to safety – making every possible effort to minimize the risk of what is, by its nature, a hazardous profession. Each routine may last only ten to twelve minutes, but it’s backed by hours – years, really — of preparation to ensure no unnecessary risk can creep into the formula.

Asked to describe professionalism in a nutshell, Michael Goulian said, “It’s competence, currency and execution. No one wants a boring performer. And no one wants an accident on television.” That goes for the entire air show cast. He continued, “In the post-sequestration era, all performers – whether they’re driving jet trucks, flying airplanes or jumping out of them – have to be as good as they can be.” Goulian did say, “There will be some who won’t want to hear this, but there are pilots [flying shows] who are less than competent. And that’s unprofessional.”

Practice and preparation 

For Goulian, part of the requirement to retain that all-important competence is practice; and he’s particular about what constitutes “real” practice. “Flying a routine at 4,000 feet over the woods to prepare for a surface-waivered air show isn’t good enough. Flying in a box, with a trained observer to critique the routine and then conducting a de-brief with a video review; that’s practice.”

Dave Monroe flies with two other pilots in Yak 52s as the “Aerostars.” A check airman for a major airline, Dave and his team take professionalism very seriously. “I bring the same level of discipline to my air show flying as I do to my duties as a check airman,” Monroe said. Based near Chicago, the Aerostars have a “no-excuses” practice requirement in advance of a show. Monroe said, “At the start of the season, we’ll spend at least a week working out together. We don’t make big changes to our routine – this is our 12th season – and we’ll always practice a day before the show here in Chicago, then again at the show site.”

Robert “Scratch” Mitchell of the Patriots Jet Team is former lead for the Canadian Snowbirds. He brings his military background to his show preparation, approaching an air show performance with some of the same preparation as he would have on a low-level combat attack mission. “For example,” he said, “We might say in the briefing, ‘Here are our threats. We have a low sun, with buildings, and high terrain to the west.’”

For Mitchell, the briefing and debriefing process is the life’s breath of a safe flight, whether it’s a practice session or an air show performance in front of thousands. “There should be a structured briefing, with objectives of the mission included. Overall objectives for a particular flight might be ‘clear and concise communications.’ Specific objectives could be, say, at Reno we’ll be flying with a high density altitude, so ‘energy management’ will be a specific objective that day.”

The post-flight debrief includes a video replay of the performance – played in real and stop time, just like a sports team’s video reviews of a game — and a detailed discussion. Mitchell said, “In military flying, it’s understood that every flight has good points, bad points, and ways to improve. And that’s also true for each pilot’s individual performance.”

Greg McWherter, a naval aviator who recently finished four years with the Blue Angels, echoes much of what Mitchell said. He adds that the brief and debrief process in the military is, by design, blind to rank and experience, and elements of that can translate to civilian show flying. “You check your ego at the door,” he said. And anyone feels free to speak out if he perceives that another pilot could use some advice. He said, “Rank, experience, even time in type don’t get in the way of what someone might need to improve. In naval aviation, safety knows no rank. That’s because the ground, water or the back of a ship know no rank.”

McWherter also discussed consistency and discipline. “With the Blue Angels, we did it the same way every day, and there were still times when something came along that’ll make your hair stand up on end.” He said the consistency over what you can control makes deviating easier when faced with the elements of a flight that you cannot control, such as sun glare, buildings along the show line, wind conditions or high density altitudes. “When you minimize the variables, you focus your bandwidth.”

Getting back in the saddle 

Sean Tucker took a break from the hazardous world of air show flying to do something tame this winter: he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. But before launching his air show season, he has a practice syllabus for getting back in his flying groove. It involves no fewer than 90 flights. “The first 30 are to build up my G tolerance, check out the overhauled airplane, and ease myself back into shape. I fly those sessions at high altitudes to allow time for mistakes.” On the next 30 flights, he works his way lower to the ground. Tucker will fly three times a day, about 22 to 25 minutes each. “The last 30 sessions are finishing touches, and to work on my ‘low’ shows [for venues with low cloud ceilings]. I have routines for 1,000 feet; 1,200 feet; 1,500 feet, 1,800 feet, on up to 4,000 foot ceilings.”

He adds this pearl of wisdom to his practice philosophy: “No matter how good you are, everyone has a bad day. Practice for your bad day.”

Maintenance and innovation 

Maybe it ought to go without saying that zero-tolerance maintenance is vital with air show flying. Sean Tucker takes that a step further and disassembles his airplane every winter, down to removing and replacing the fabric as well as overhauling the engine. The off season is also a time to come up with a new paint scheme, incorporate innovations and add new safety features…or to come up with a completely new design. For example, Skip Stewart will start out this year’s schedule flying an all-new carbon-fiber biplane.

Kyle Franklin’s all-new air show airplane “Dracula” represents more than just an outrageous paint scheme. He said, “My dad and I started this project about nine years ago, and the work has been underway on and off ever since.” Though mostly conventional tube-and-fabric construction, the radial-engine biplane incorporates lots of carbon fiber for lighter weight. But that’s just the start of the 21st century technology disguised in a 1930s-vintage costume. Kyle said, “It’s got a semi-symmetrical airfoil for more performance in negative maneuvers. And it has almost-full-span ailerons, giving me a roll rate of 300 degrees per second. The Waco [his previous air show airplane] rolls at 120 degrees per second. ‘Dracula’ is kind of a cross between the Waco and a Pitts,” he said, “with a little bit of GeeBee racer thrown in.”

One element added to “Dracula” has a sad story behind it. The “Amanda switch” is a simple $60 component that NASCAR has used for years, said Franklin. It’s a 10-G inertia switch that shuts off the engine boost pump in the event of a sudden stop. (It’s designed so it will not activate under a more gradual increase in Gs, as in an aerobatic maneuver.) The idea is to prevent fuel from continuing to flow in a post-crash fire. It’s named for Franklin’s late wife and wing-walking partner, Amanda, who died in 2011 from burns suffered in a forced landing. Franklin said this simple piece of equipment weighs “next to nothing” and is transparent to the pilot. “I’m not one for adding rules,” he said, “but this one ought to be a no-brainer.”

The business side of the business 

When it comes to attention-getting, Kyle Franklin – like his father before him – doesn’t take part-way measures, and the Dracula theme takes that to a whole new level. For the discerning fan, his airplane has lots to offer – a blend of old barnstorming look with high-tech modern features.

But there’s more to it. He said, “I’ve always tried to do something different from everyone else, to appeal not just to the regular air show crowd, but to spectators who might not come out to the airport otherwise…teenagers, for example.” Franklin noted the popularity of vampires in current pop culture and said the backdrops and costumes that go along with “Dracula” are all part of the package. “I don’t do anything half-assed,” he laughed.

With his family history, there’s no doubt that Franklin is deeply committed to the air show culture. To him, it’s everything.

But what about pilots who perform at air shows without the commitment of devoting their full careers as show pilots? Is there room for both in the air show world? What must a career professional performer do to maximize chances of business success, when sharing performance time with pilots willing to fly for little or no compensation from the show? And what are the responsibilities of the air show organizers to the industry? And sponsors?

The business model for full time air show pilots has changed over the years. The first performers to try to make their financial fortunes as performers were the barnstormers, about whom it was said that the most profound hazard was starving to death. That era was short-lived, and most of the survivors either settled down to establish a “fixed base” (to become “fixed base operators,” the first FBOs) or they found another line of work.

Today, there are basically three types of air show business plans –unsponsored, sponsored and self-sponsored, and there is plenty of overlap. For the sake of this discussion, an “unsponsored” performer may, indeed, have sponsors who provide equipment or services, but lacks a corporate entity to underwrite the primary expenses of the operation.

A corporate sponsor, such as Oracle for Sean Tucker, underwrites the cost of buying and maintaining an air show airplane, practice costs, travel and other expenses, all the while affording viable income for the pilot and crew. Sean Tucker says, do the math: “Top performers get, at the most, $7,500 to $10,000 in show fees. They have the debt service on an airplane that costs, in my case, $400,000. My flying expenses come in at around $350 per hour and I fly about 350 hours every year. And I’m on the road for 100 days.” Tucker is entering his 13th year of sponsorship with Oracle, and he believes that is the only way to survive as a full-time air show performer.

For someone who’s trying to establish themselves, it might not be easy. As a kid, Rob Holland says, he envisioned Career Plan A as being an air show pilot. “There was no Plan B,” he said. He’s frustrated by the challenges he sees in the air show industry today. “If we’re expected to act like professionals, we have to be treated as professionals.” He is particularly miffed at show organizers who ask him to perform for free, because they are operating a non-profit show. His response? “I admire you for raising funds for charity with your air show. However, you may be non-profit, but I’m not.” Another analogy: the New York Philharmonic is non-profit, and certainly a noble cause, but it pays its musicians, who are among the best in the world and are paid accordingly.

This is where many feel that the show organizers need to step up to their professional standards for the long-term good of the air show industry. If they resort to shopping for bargains among wealthy, “self-sponsored” performers, they will starve the true professionals out of the…well, the profession. And that will turn it into something much less.

Does that mean it’s wrong to have someone who owns a unique airplane perform a fly-over at an air show? Mike Goulian believes there is no harm in that, but he also describes the slippery slope that can trap someone who is not experienced with the subtle dangers of air show flying. He said, “Maybe a pilot is flying his cool airplane in front of a crowd, and he thinks, ‘I’ve done one victory roll before, maybe I’ll do two today, because ‘it feels good.’ That sort of improvising is very dangerous, because the adrenalin is flowing and it’s easy to be tempted to overextend.” That’s where it is vital to have experienced performers around, and a competent air boss running the show…someone who knows the limitations of the performers on the agenda.

Lee Lauderback said, “Air show flying is not a right, it’s a privilege. And in this environment, I say it’s too easy to become an ‘air show pilot.’ A doctor, lawyer or Indian chief can buy a P-51 Mustang, get his formation card, and be flying at Oshkosh the same year. We need to ramp the qualification process up a notch.”

Sean Tucker has little sympathy for performers who complain about pilots who will fly for little or no compensation. He said, “Don’t blame the pilot; and don’t blame the show organizer. Find a way to think out of the box and make your act worth what you need to charge to perform.”

But when it comes to any performer improvising during a show, Sean Tucker, who currently serves as co-chairman of the Aerobatic Competency Evaluation Committee, sheds his usual light demeanor and pulls no punches, “You’re going to die someday. You may get away with it today, so you’ll try it again tomorrow, but eventually…”  His voice trails off, and then he says darkly, “Look in the mirror, and what you’ll see is a dead man walking.”

As Tucker said, the air show industry is facing a pivotal time, and it’s up to all members – sponsors, show organizers, air bosses, professional performers, part-timers and even the “two or three appearances a year” participants — to take a realistic look at what the industry needs to do to not just survive, but grow. Americans have a love affair with the miracle of flight, and most choose to express that love by enjoying air shows. It’s up to the industry to keep the love alive.

Previous articleOn the Pedestal: Women in the Air Show Community
Next articleEmergencies: The Voices of Experience
Mark Phelps
Mark Phelps is an active general aviation pilot and longtime freelance writer who has spent his career researching and retelling stories about aviation heroes.