Knowing When

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Pilot Michael Kennedy performs during Aviation Day at the Columbus Municipal Airport, Saturday, June 11, 2016. Mike Wolanin | The Republic

I have retired from air show performing after 40 years. I thoroughly enjoyed the adventure of air shows, but — in the words of a Kenny Rogers song – “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em.” 

There is no formula or magic in this; it is making a personal decision after deep personal scrutiny. This is the third time I have retired from an exciting career: Air Force fighter pilot, corporate president and air show performer. Each time my inner voice said, “It’s time.”

I served three tours with a total of 460 missions, flying the F-4D/E during the Vietnam War. It was an exciting time. On the ground, the adrenalin rush of hearing sniper bullets missing inches from your head or, in the air, the excitement of weaving through hundreds of anti-aircraft artillery rounds or dodging missiles streaking at you at Mach 5 kept me coming back for more. But, at the end of my third tour, something happened on the ground that made me hear the voice saying, it was, “Time to go home.” 

A fighter pilot lives by his skill and wits; every mission is a crap shoot, but you make the odds more in your favor with your battle savvy. New guys die at a much higher rate than old heads. When you start taking it for granted or stop caring, you will die. God got me home and I knew it was time. No PTSD, just hearing my inner voice tell me that it was time to get away from war.

What does this have to do with air show performing? I was drawn to it by the thrill of doing aerobatics close to the ground where you could experience the rush of your speed and performance. For me, this was the adrenalin pumping time that took firm hold. There was also the memory of surviving a mid-air collision during a formation aerobatic practice flight or having a propeller break, tearing the engine out of the aircraft and blinding the canopy with black engine oil. (Stories that I will save for another time.)  Having guarding angels save you is an exceptional thrill. It made me want to continue the adventure.

So what changed? After the 2016 ICAS Convention, I did all the routine things getting ready for the flying season, but something was missing. What? Nothing I could put my finger on directly, but that thrill was not there. I prayed about it and realized the voice was saying, “It’s time.” 

I have watched many friends leave the business. Happily, many retired, but far too many left the hard way. This is not a forgiving business and when you lose the “savvy” it will quickly lead to hurt. Savvy, I define as a focus on what you are doing, just like combat. Relying on muscle memory — “I’ve done that maneuver a thousand times” — or worrying about the next show will distract from the very real dangers in performing. We have christened it complacency, over-confidence, distraction; whatever the term, it has ended badly for many.

So, listen for that inner voice and stay focused. It is a fun, exciting adventure, but, ultimately, you will decide when and how it ends. Life is a journey everyone takes. It is important to remember it is not the journey that counts, but only the final destination.

Am I done? No; just waiting to see what the next adventure will be. I feel truly blessed to have so many great memories and thank all of my air show family for their friendship, support and love…especially my beautiful wife of 50 years, Mary.

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