Ribbon Cuts: The Voices of Experience

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Inverted ribbon cuts are thrilling to watch and even more thrilling to fly. They should be performed only by pilots who have extensive, successful experience flying upside down, low to the ground. Two things are essential. One is a level inverted flight path leading up to the ribbon. A descending arc is sometimes impossible to stop, so you could sink into the ground from your momentum or from unexpected descending air. The other essential is maintaining an airspeed that is high enough so you won’t hit your tail as you push your nose up to climb away from the ribbon and high enough so you could roll right side up if your engine quit. 

Sean Tucker with the Oracle biplane

When I first started out I thought you had to be real low because I thought that was the way the old barnstormers did it. My poles were ten feet off the ground. Then one day Charlie Hillard said, “Why are you being so stupid? You don’t need to be that low. Put them up.” So now my ribbons are at 23 feet.

I certainly did not do a ribbon cut when I first got to the surface. I had a couple years under my belt. You need to have a low level box and you need to get used to it, to be down there hundreds and hundreds of times. And you need a guy on the radio to critique your altitude, to help you practice that stuff.

Ribbon cuts are not easy and they are dangerous. Wind is an issue. Density altitude is an issue. Is the wind too strong? Is it so gusty and bumpy that you need to knock it off? Sometimes people get bore-sighted, thinking it has to be completed. They get laser-focused and they start chasing it. You’ve got to realize that this is just a show. It is just entertainment. You don’t have to do it. If the winds are too strong and you’re not lined up, back off. You don’t have to do the ribbon cut. Over the course of 23 or 24 years, I’ve knocked off ribbon cuts four or five times. 

Skip Stewart with the Prometheus biplane

It is important to keep scanning and not to fixate on the target. Pay attention to the entire environment. Pick something to look at on the other side of the target. If you fixate on the target you could follow it into the ground.

I like to see the ribbon before I roll in on it. I roll, then I take a picture of it with my brain and make sure that doesn’t change.

A lot of people use a length of string that is greater than half the wingspan on each ribbon pole and put the ribbon in between. That way, they know that if they touch the ribbon, there is no way that their wing is going to touch a pole. I don’t do that. I put a target in the middle and I aim for the target. I like to be precise. If I hit the target, I am far enough away from each ribbon pole.

When I first started, I was just going to do some low passes at 20 feet. I rolled inverted and came down to what I thought was 20 feet and asked my buddies how it looked. They said, “Man you are like 75 feet in the air.” It is pretty amazing how low 20 feet is! Before you do ribbon cuts, you have to be really comfortable inverted.

Eddie Andreni with a 450hp Stearman 

The width of the ribbon depends on the size of the airplane. My poles are 16 feet high and 70 feet apart. I go underneath the ribbon first, do a loop around it, then I come back and cut the ribbon. So the most intense thing is when you do a loop underneath it and around it. Even at 70 feet apart, when you start diving down, you always look at the guys standing there holding the poles. You can’t see the poles, but you can see the people. You come down and you think, “I wonder if they’ve got those things pulled apart all the way.” They never look wide enough until you get close.

You need 180 mph when you go under it because you want to make sure that you have enough energy going uphill to make this loop bigger than your normal loop. As you are coming down, you pick up the people.  As you get a little bit closer, you will see the poles, then you either see the wire, where I have sparkly aluminum ribbon hanging down, or the target in the center. The target is 18 inches wide, with ribbon woven together so it stands out like a dark spot. Sometimes the poles are not in the center of the runway, or sometimes they are out in a field or something, so you’ve got to make sure you are centered, so you aim for that target.

Cutting into the wind is good, but what happens when you’ve got a pretty good breeze is you don’t see the target, because the target will be flying. But when the target is flying it is not sagging. It is flat. Sometimes you don’t see the target until you get really close. So, in no wind conditions, the target ends up hanging and you can see it real well. But, when it is blowing hard, it becomes parallel with your eyes and it is hard to pick up.

On the ribbon cutting pass, you have to have everything just right, the right speed, and you have to be stable and set up. You come right down to your altitude. You don’t want to roll too high up in the air, because then you’ve got to settle down quite a bit to get to the ribbon. After a while, you know how far back you have to be. I found that, sometimes, the further back you get the worse it is. If you come down and stabilize your basic height and start the roll all in one motion, then you stabilize inverted right away. And if you’ve got a little bit of adjusting [to do], you [can] do that with your rudder.

When you are inverted, you’ve got to be able to know where your level plane is all the time. In other words, you can’t be inverted and not know that you are climbing a little bit or you are coming down. What is good is for somebody to watch you at first, to sit back with a radio and say, “Push up a little bit; you are getting low. Go down or up,” or whatever. You are not looking at your instruments. You’ve got to be looking outside. You’ve got to look ahead of you. You don’t look at your gauges and you don’t look at the ground. You have to look way out there. That keeps you more stable.

You’ve got to watch the turbulence and you have to carry enough speed so that, if the engine coughed just once, you would have enough energy to push the airplane up and be able to roll. You might come back and touch, hit the ground hard or something, but you will be right side up.

If you have to do a ribbon cut off the runway, that is the toughest. One time I had to do that and there was a big tree. It was a ways away, but it was big enough so that, when I went through there, I had to push up and roll out. There are things like that that are not a problem as long as you have it all planned out in your own mind. 

Greg Koontz flies a Decathlon

Because the Decathlon has dihedral in its wings, when it is inverted, it has an issue that Pitts-style biplanes and the modern mid-wing monoplanes do not have. Koontz has had several tense moments as he dealt with this during the inverted ribbon cut.

When the Decathlon is upside down, it has negative dihedral. That doesn’t sound like a big deal, but — if you skid the plane fairly hard upside down — it can keep you from being able to roll out. It can pull a wing down more forcefully than your ailerons can pick it up. If you are slow and sluggish, your plane can get trapped there. You are sinking toward the ground. You can’t roll out and you are trapped. It has happened to me twice, but — of course — I knew what I had to do.

You have to release the rudder, but when you release the rudder the nose is going to drop toward the ground, so that is the last thing that you want to do, but it is the only way out. You’ve got to release the rudder and let the nose swing over like it wants to, then you can push the nose back up and roll the wings level. So you kind of have to have the guts to go for the ground a little bit. The times it happened to me, I was at tree top level. It was a scary situation, but it would have been worse if I had been lower or slower.

You have to be slow and sluggish for that to happen, so fly fast for that reason and to give yourself enough energy to push up, roll over and land if the engine quits.

You’ve got to be real careful where you set your ribbon up. Some shows put it out on the grass and that becomes two poles sticking up in the middle of a sea of green. And a sea of green is like glassy water. That is a problem. When you are upside down, your depth perception is not as good as right side up. Your brain is working harder to interpret the world. What I’ve done in those situations is to take a piece of my caution tape and make me a long straight line across the grass leading up to the center of the ribbon. That gives me something for depth and alignment.

There is one big air show that makes you put it on the parallel taxiway in a place where, before you get there, you have to cross a bunch of grass. There are rises and falls, ditches and obstruction. It’s hard to gauge my altitude as I cross those obstructions.

Jim Holland always said, “Get level and stable before you cut the ribbon. Don’t go after it.” That sounds like obvious advice, but when you are crossing obstructions on your run-in you feel like you need to keep yourself high until the last minute. Then, it doesn’t take much of a downward angle that you can’t stop before you hit the ribbon. Then you can get suckered into making more corrections than you should. It’s just right there under you. You just want to push down and grab it real quick. But when you get something like that started, you might not be able to stop it.

Then, plan where you are going to go if the engine quits during that pass. Keep up your speed, but be careful where you put the ribbon. If it is too far down the runway, that may hamper your chances of getting back down safely without going into the woods. Some places you might need to cut it from the other direction to give yourself more landing options. Spec it out.

Wind will always make the ribbon bow out some, but if it is out a lot it could break. And wind can catch the ribbon and drive it downward. I tell my ground crew that if my ribbon has a big U shape because of the wind and it keeps gusting it downward toward the ground, that is not acceptable. If it is being blown downward, it may not be high enough. When I roll upside down, I’ve got about three good seconds of really seeing that ribbon and knowing where it is and I’m going to go for it. So, if you give me a ribbon that is only halfway up, I’m going to be halfway down trying to get it. So, if it is not flying high up there at the top of the poles the way it is supposed to be, then just drop the whole thing and don’t give me anything to go for and it will be an abort. 

Jim Peitz in the Aerobatic Bonanza

For many years, Jim Peitz successfully did inverted ribbon cuts in his Eagle and in his Extra. Then he experimented with doing one in the Aerobatic Bonanza and that turned out to be a terrible and treacherous idea. It does not have enough forward elevator travel. So his advice is, Do not do it in the Aerobatic Bonanza, not even if it has an inverted system in it. You will run out of forward elevator. 

Skip Stewart discusses ribbon cut pole holders

I like to have three people on each pole. Most of them will never have done it before. You see pictures of people holding the pole and almost inevitably one or more of them will have one hand on the pole and the other on a camera, even though you tell them not to. So, if I have one person who is taking a picture and one person who is scared, maybe the third person will do their job and keep from dropping the pole in front of me, because that is the most important thing.

The other thing I am pretty adamant about them being briefed on is: it doesn’t have to happen. Don’t be in a hurry. If you pick up the poles and the ribbon breaks, no big deal. Just lay them down again. Nothing says that it has to happen quickly. I want everybody to be calm. Don’t run. Listen to the instructions and, if the ribbon breaks at any time, that is fine. It doesn’t have to happen. It is very important that they don’t get excited and run around out there.

Twice, I have had problems with pole holders who were actually my own crew. One guy had worked for me a few times and, since he had done fine, I did not walk him through the process again. And we did not do the ribbon cut on the practice day. We should have, but it’s a fair amount of trouble.

But, both times, the 500 foot line was in the grass, not on the runway. This guy had probably done three or four shows with me and I trusted him and thought he was smart enough to know better.  At the other shows, the 500 foot line was on the runway, so he would go on the grass with all the people and sit down and wait for my cue to bring the poles on the runway. This time, he walked out and sat all his people on the 500 foot line. Here I come screaming down for the first maneuver and see seven people sitting in my way.

He had a radio and I said, “Hey, get out of my way! What are you doing?” That happened to me with two different guys. So it is important to have little pow-wow before the show. And practice day is important, too. We would have caught the problem on a practice day. 

Eddie Andreini discusses ribbon cut pole holders

When I do ribbon cuts, I have the same people who do it for me. One guy leads what we do. He has to talk to and see the other pole holders to make sure that they are not impaired in any way, to make sure that they can move out of the way if they need to. And they have to understand the language and stuff.

We have a briefing of an hour, minimum, before the show. He shows them how to hold the poles, and goes through the commands with them. He makes sure they are all in tune with what you want them to do. He shows them where to put their feet, what to watch, when to look. They are supposed to watch him and he tells them “Poles up now,” and tells them to pull.

Greg Koontz discusses ribbon cut pole holders

You really have to walk through the whole process with them and have them hold the poles, pick them up, set them back down, get the feel of what they are doing so they don’t get out there and make some obvious mistakes. There is no time to figure it out while they are out there.

The poles can bend a lot in the wind. You put outriggers on them, strings from the top. Make sure they understand where to pull on them to make the pole stand up straight. I show them exactly how I want the poles to be stable, how I want the outriggers to correct for the wind, how to keep from breaking it, the mechanics of it.  Then, also, I explain to them where I am going to come from. The last thing I want is someone to get scared and drop the pole and try to run because they could bump into me as I’m coming by. I want to explain to them what it is going to look like so they will know what normal is.

I don’t allow them to have cameras or radios. You are either going to hold the pole for me, or you are going to be a photographer.

I used to have telescoping poles that expanded in three places. Then one time the crew that had gone out beforehand had collapsed one section and then set them down. Later, they went out and didn’t realize that there were three sections and they said, “Well, it’s already been pulled out. It’s ready.” And they picked it up. So instead of cutting a ribbon 18 feet high, that day I cut one that was 12 feet high.

I try never to have a totally green crew. I always have a minimum of one person out there that I can put in charge, usually more than that.

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Deb Gary is a former air show performer, member of the ICAS Foundation Air Show Hall of Fame and freelance writer whose work has been published in Air Shows Magazine and Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine.