Building an Air Show Maneuver Sequence: An Introduction

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“Air show fans, please direct your attention high and to your right and give a big (insert name of air show) welcome to (insert the name of your favorite performer).”

With the excitement of the narrator’s voice, the audience is primed for another stunning, thrilling, entertaining, graceful (pick your adjective) routine as the performer dives in from the right, pulls hard at show center and goes to the vertical, then — through a series of cross controls and energy management — sends the airplane into a snapping, spiraling, tumbling maneuver until the plane is lost in its own smoke. Or just as likely, said performer may do a right-to-left point roll, or a loop, or any of dozens of other maneuvers predicated on the skill of the pilot and the airplane being flown.

Such is the start of many an air show routine — practiced, rehearsed, tweaked and performed to perfection, time after time after time — the art of air speed management and energy management coming together to dazzle audiences wherever performers fly.

Routines, by definition, are doing the same thing the same way every time. By sheer repetition, a performer knows exactly what he or she is doing at every moment of his or her act, in every given situation, taking into account the normal variables of wind, overcast and density altitude.

One maneuver follows another. High turnarounds show off the lines of the airplane while diving descents build up smash for the next maneuver at show center. “There is nothing more important than knowing your numbers when you enter a maneuver,” says air show veteran and aerobatic coach Wayne Handley. “Entry speed and altitude requirements are sacred. Many of us have backed out of maneuvers for lack of one or the other,” he said.  

Handley’s advice to a new performer is to fly for yourself. That doesn’t mean a performer should ignore the audience or the need to be entertaining. It’s his way of saying a performer should stay within his or her comfort zone and not try to do something that is unpracticed or unsafe. “If you are comfortable in the air and are having fun, the routine will flow. If you are fighting the airplane, the audience can see it,” he said.

Like any seasoned performer, Handley did all his gyroscopic and tumbling maneuvers at about 1,200 feet above the ground, giving him plenty of altitude to recover if something went wrong. “I was never afraid of getting into a situation I couldn’t get out of, because I gave myself a wide safety margin.”

Performer Kirby Chambliss is a five-time U.S. National Aerobatic champion who has successfully made the leap to flying as an entertainer. He is also a top competitor in the Red Bull Air Races. His secret to being successful, whether in air shows or in competition, is practice. “My goal is always to practice more than the other guy so that I’m on top of my game each time I fly,” he said.

As he has learned the capabilities of his airplane and his ability to match his skills to his machine, his routine has evolved into a high energy performance that is almost unmatched. “Everyone starts out learning to do a Lomcevak and goes from there,” he said. “I’m able to do a lot of things in my airplane, including flipping end over end three times and ending up on a 45 down line or up line. I don’t like to just flop around. I want to flip and flop like a fish out of water.”

Chambliss stacks his maneuvers one on top of the other. “I’m always trading speed for energy to make the airplane paint the perfect picture in the sky,” he said.

Even in the turnarounds, Chambliss is working. “I don’t do a lot of hammerheads. I’d rather do tail slide turnarounds. And I try hard to stay at show center as much as possible.”

He has also discovered that the same maneuver can look totally different, depending on the direction of flight. “I will pull up on the 45 and do a full roll followed by a gyroscopic maneuver, and then flips, coming out the opposite direction, once with smoke on and the other with smoke off. It’s the same sequence, but it looks totally different each way,” he said.

From his signature “Cobra” maneuver on takeoff to the tumbles and snaps of his routine, Chambliss knows he is putting on a show. “The canvas is the sky and the airplane is my paintbrush. When the show is over, I want to hear people say they didn’t know an airplane could do that,” he said.

Performer Bill Stein has been flying air shows since 2000 and has used a wide variety of airplanes. He started in a Pitts and now flies the Edge 540. His years of experience have taught him one thing for certain: “An air show sequence can only be so long. After eight or nine minutes spectators are ready for the next act, and most performers have more material than time,” he says.

Stein believes a short routine makes a pilot fly better because he or she has to use their best stuff. “Just because my mom might like to see me fly longer doesn’t mean the average air show fan likes it,” he said.

Stein, like other performers, experiments a lot with new maneuvers, but he no longer believes in a 14 minute solo routine. “If I add a new maneuver, I have to eliminate one to prevent the act from becoming too long.”

Another high energy performer is Patty Wagstaff, a three-time national aerobatic champion. For many years, she flew competition as well as air shows. “I believe competition flying made me a better pilot because it is all about precise lines and angles. The audience notices the crispness of sharp snaps and point rolls. Over time, I’ve gotten better and changed airplanes, and I’m still constantly developing. I keep the airplane moving, keep it in front of the crowd,” she said.

Wagstaff is keenly aware that changing maneuvers in a routine changes the flow of the routine. “I have to keep this in mind because a routine is all about air speed management. If I lose altitude or bleed off too much air speed, I can’t set up for the next maneuver and I always try to fly my routine so that I’m setting up three maneuvers ahead,” she said.

Critical to her planning is altitude. “Whenever I pull a loop, I have to set a lower limit never to bust. I never pull over the top of a loop without at least a thousand feet below me. If something happens at the top and I can’t complete the loop, I’ll simply roll out and do a Half-Cuban exit,” she said.

Altitude is also critical in a tumble. “Tumbles are generally outside snap rolls with forward stick and opposite aileron and rudder. I’ve had tumbles hang up and didn’t want to recover properly, losing more altitude than they should, so I make sure I have a big enough cushion under me to recover.”

Obviously, high energy aerobatics only work if the airplane is built to take it. But there are dozens of performers who have crafted routines with airplanes that can only do variations of loops, rolls and wingovers. Putting together a routine with a Super Stearman, for example, can be just as challenging – perhaps more challenging — as putting together a high energy routine with an Edge 540.

Gary Rower has been flying his Super Stearman for 15 years and notes the airplane is capable of about ten maneuvers, so he has to mix them up, not only for the entertainment aspect, but for energy management.

The Stearman is a big, heavy airplane which limits its capabilities. “I can’t do a series of vertical maneuvers, one after the other. The energy just isn’t there. And, if I’m doing a high altitude show, energy becomes even more critical, so I build in a healthy margin of safety,” Rower said.

Flying the same routine in the same plane for 15 years resulted in a familiar mistake known as altitude creep. “I was getting lower and lower, but, because I had done it so often, it didn’t bother me. Several performers advised me to jack it up because they saw things that I hadn’t and I’m glad I listened,” he said.

Rower looks at peer advice this way: “I want the crowd to be excited and the professionals to be bored. Not the other way around.”

Flying a jet warbird presents its own challenges when developing a routine. Greg Colyer flies a Korean War-era T-33 trainer. When he started, he was told by others in the business that he shouldn’t expect to do well because there wasn’t much demand for his kind of airplane on the air show circuit. But just the opposite occurred. In his first year, even with an 800 foot card, he booked more than 20 shows.

Colyer’s routine is the result of studying the aircraft’s operations manual to learn what the airplane can and cannot do, then studying videos of the routines of other T-33 pilots who have gone before him. “I took the best of what I saw, combined those maneuvers with what I learned from the manual and used those maneuvers that would blend well together,” he said.

In his first year, Colyer said he practiced extensively, but he still avoided loops and Split-S maneuvers. “I would limit myself to Cuban eights, an inverted pass, and similar maneuvers. As I became more comfortable with the air show environment, I added the Split-S and loop to my routine, then added vertical rolls.” Now he opens with vertical maneuvers, does quicker turnarounds, a Lazy Eight at show center to show off the plane’s profile and exits on a 45 climb which allows for a quick turnaround to come back in with a double aileron roll. At one point, he practiced a Vertical Eight, but rejected it because of the risk. It also added little entertainment value because he had to climb to 10,000 feet to do it safely, so he left it out.

“By the end of my fourth season, my routine had become tighter and it also became shorter because my turnarounds were quicker,” he said. To keep his routine from becoming too short, Colyer added the Lazy Eight and some additional rolls. He also included a dirty pass, which looks cool, but also serves an important safety function. “In inverted flight, air can collect in the hydraulic assist on the ailerons. The way to clear it is to cycle the gear and dive breaks; so, after my inverted pass I make my turnaround, slow down and let everything hang out. The plane looks great at slow speeds with the smoke bellowing out and I don’t have to worry about the potential for hydraulic issues,” he said.

Even with padding his safety margins for speed and altitude, Colyer is able to present 14 maneuvers within 12 minutes. “I’m much more comfortable flying the airplane now. In my first few years, I concentrated on doing my routine. Now the routine is set and I’m able to pay more attention to the finer points. There isn’t much more I can do with the airplane without increasing the risk. I’ll continue to experiment in the off season, but if I’m not convinced I can do something safely every time, I won’t do it.”

The Lima Lima team flies T-34 Mentors and faces many of the same challenges as others who fly airplanes with limited capabilities. But using four airplanes also increases the entertainment opportunities because some of the airplanes can be in front of the crowd while the others are making their turnarounds. They also can do some stunning formation flying and head on passes that crowds love.

When Lima Lima began, it was a six-ship team, but two members dropped out. Team lead Skip Aldous says they haven’t changed the routine much in spite of the switch from six airplanes to four. “There were several years when we were non-aerobatic due to FAA certification issues, which meant we had to get really good at our formation work in order to be entertaining.”

Routines for powered aircraft are one thing, but gliders present their own set of unique challenges for the obvious reason that the only source of power, once they are off the tow line, is gravity, and — to make use of it — the glider must come down. Manfred Radius is one of the few glider pilots still performing in air shows. He’s been at it for 32 years and his routine has evolved over time, but much has remained the same. His biggest change is the elimination of his inverted ribbon cut “attempt.”

“I always called my inverted ribbon cut an attempt because I could only hit the ribbon about half the time due to wind or other weather conditions. It took so long to train a crew at each show site that I was wasting their time and mine each time I missed the ribbon, so I eliminated it all together,” he said. Now he ends his routine with a low level inverted pass.

At one time, Radius included a Vertical Eight in his routine. He would start the maneuver with an inside loop, then push to an outside loop for the bottom half of the eight. It was within the envelope of the glider, but too close to the edge for his comfort. “I don’t like getting that close to the limits of the aircraft any longer. I want a larger safety margin.”

One type of performance where development of a set routine is nearly impossible is the comedy routine. The setup may be a passenger suddenly finding himself at the controls of a runaway airplane and not knowing what to do, or it might be a drunk staggering onto the field, being chased by local police and jumping into an airplane and wreaking havoc on the air field for the next ten minutes.

Kyle Franklin, known for his prowess with biplanes, has also become a master at the comedy act. He becomes a drunk named Ben Wobnoski who jumps into a beefed up Super Cub and seemingly flies on the ragged edge of disaster while trying to gain control of the airplane and get it safely back to the ground.

“There is no way to create a set routine for an act like this,” Franklin said. “I have to improvise at every air show because every field layout is different.” He does have a few stunts that he tries to do at every show, however. “I will do flat turnarounds, drag the flower bombs on the wing tips at least twice, and do passes where I’m screaming out the door of the plane and waving frantically,” he said. He rarely gets more than 100 feet above the ground and his air speed can fall to zero or reach 120 mph in a dive. “I try to give the announcer as much to play with as possible because the panicked voice of the narrator is an important part of the act,” he said.

Once back on the ground, Franklin’s finale is to shut down the engine, come in front of the crowd and ground loop the airplane. He falls out, letting the tail pass over him.

Franklin is fortunate in that the airplane he uses for his routine is the same plane his father taught him to fly when he was young. It has been modified only slightly to better serve his act. “My entire routine is based on what my father taught me. It is all stick and rudder skills,” he said.

Franklin says he works so low to the ground he doesn’t have time to look at his gauges. He flies entirely by feel. “It is not an easy demonstration to master, because everything in my routine is what a student pilot is taught never to do with an airplane including fast, hard landings, steep pull-ups close to the ground, and flying on the edge of a stall. My father taught me to know my limits and the limits of my airplane and to stay within the envelope. That’s what I try to do with every flight,” he said.

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Mike Berriochoa
Mike Berriochoa is an air show announcer, former member of the ICAS Board of Directors, longtime communications professional and award-winning broadcast journalized based in Pasco, Washington.