The 20th Anniversary Air Show
by Eric Johnson
Celebrating its 20th anniversary, the organizers of Boshears Skyfest 2012 have brought together an exciting and varied group of performers and planes to make this year’s air show particularly special.
Gates open at 9 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday, October 20 and 21, with the opening ceremony beginning at 1:45 p.m. both days. Prices are $15 in advance (advanced tickets available at all area Circle K stores and at Augusta Aviation) or $18 at the gate. Military with a valid I.D. get in for $10 at the gate. Children 12 and under get in free when accompanied by an adult.
As usual, the show will feature skydivers, aerobatics, helicopter rides, radio-controlled models, a parachute team, carnival rides, precision formation flying and, of course, a history tent.
In other words, there’s something for everyone, including these highlighted acts.
Gary Ward — Local Dazzle
Gary Ward, an acclaimed air show pilot based out of nearby Lincolnton, has a special connection to Daniel Field and Boshears Skyfest. Not only did he learn to fly at Daniel Field, one of Boshears’ namesake brothers, Forrest, sent him off on his first solo flight. Much later, Forrest’s nephew, Buster, who was once the field’s manager, helped him get certain certifications.
“I’ve known those people for many, many years,” Ward says.
Though he’s flown since he was 15, Ward didn’t take up aerobatics until the mid-1990s.
“A lot of people think it’s probably a midlife crisis, but I’ve always had the Need for Speed gene,” he says.
He was 57 years old when he flew his first air show in 1998. That makes him 71 today, though he looks and acts more like someone in his 50s.
“I had to beg, borrow and steal to get into air shows,” he says. “When you’re a newbie, people want to stay away from you until they know what you can do. Basically, they want to make sure you’re safe.”
And that takes time. Because of the waiver system instituted by the FAA, no one starts off flying air show routines right down to the ground no matter how good they are. At first, air show pilots are given an artificial hard deck of 800 feet. They re-qualify after a certain number of air shows so that deck can be lowered to 500 feet, then 250. Eventually, they can qualify for surface level flight.
“It’s tough,” he says. “There are a lot of hoops to jump through.”
It took Ward two years to get his surface waiver, and though he says most people can fly a really good performance at 250 feet, the surface waiver allows him to do a few things crowds have come to expect.
“You don’t do too many hardcore aerobatics below 250 feet, but it does allow me to take off and immediately roll upside down 20 feet off the runway,” he says. “It also allows me to dive back at the runway, go right down the runway and then pull back up into a maneuver.”
Though he can do hair-raising stuff like that — and he does it consistently at over 20 air shows a season, from Acapulco to Anchorage — he won’t be doing it at Boshears, because Boshears has an FAA mandated 400-foot hard deck due to the fact that it’s an in-city airfield.
“They say it’s in the name of safety, but every air show pilot will tell you it’s less safe,” Ward grumbles. “It’s something that was imposed on it many years ago, and we can’t get them to change it.”
More than an annoyance, it’s also a distraction, and air show pilots don’t like distractions in any of their many forms. Sometimes, the clip that holds the wire to his headset comes undone, causing it to flap around, and once, when he was flying at Sun n’ Fun, the big Experimental Aircraft Association show in Florida, the little sweat rag he keeps tucked under his leg got loose.
“I took off, rolled inverted and all of a sudden here comes this green rag up in the canopy,” he says. “And here I am going down the runway upside down 20 feet off the ground trying to grab this rag.”
Artificially imposed hard decks are distractions because the pilots do so much of their flying by feel.
“We don’t look at our altimeters,” he says. “That’s a distraction that takes away from our concentration.”
Obviously, anything that takes away from a stunt pilot’s concentration can be deadly.
“Crashes happen way too often,” he says. “I’ve lost a lot of people that I know, and almost every one was due to some kind of pilot error. Most of the time they stayed in a maneuver too long or did one extra roll coming down.”
Though aerobatic flying seems like a very precise form of flying, one glance inside Ward’s cockpit shows that though it might be precise, it’s far from calibrated.
“I don’t have any instrumentation except for an altimeter and an airspeed indicator,” he says. “When I’m flying directly toward the ground, I am looking only at the ground.”
Outside of the big screen that serves as his engine monitor, the only other things in the cockpit are a stick, rudder pedals, a throttle, the propeller and mixture controls and a piece of paper taped to the dashboard with green masking tape detailing the nine- to 10-minute routine he’s flying.
So in spite of the danger and the speed and the Gs — he can pull up to 10 positive Gs and around 5 negative Gs — deciding when to pull up from a dive that leaves him just feet above the ground is done totally by touch and feel. And unlike some pilots, who start rounding off the dive, Ward prides himself for nosing straight in. He says it gives the audience a bigger thrill, because viewers will anticipate whatever line the pilot is making. With a curved line, the viewer will anticipate close success; with a straight line, the viewer anticipates certain disaster.
“But you’ve got to be careful,” Ward says. “You can stall it like that and you can smack it into the ground, so you’ve got to know the airplane.”
In Ward’s case, the airplane is an MX2, a custom-built, carbon-fiber monoplane with a 24-foot wingspan and an empty weight of just 1,307 pounds. It’s one of just 25 ever built.
“I think I’ve got the best one,” he says. “It’s an airplane that’s comfortable and has a long range. Flying from here to Houston, Texas, is nothing.”
When you’re a professional air show pilot, that kind of comfort is important. Though an air show routine lasts no more than 12 minutes, sometimes he’s got to cover a lot of ground to get there.
Ward has a degree in aerospace engineering from Georgia Tech, but only worked in the industry for a year before coming back to work for the family’s sawmill. He continued flying, though, and once he caught the aerobatic bug, he was all in for the high-speed craziness air show audiences love, especially the tumbles and spins that have become his specialty.
“These are all pretty much out of control maneuvers and they’re not exactly predictable on the way that they end up,” he says. “So you want to be comfortable doing them low in case you come out on your back or in a spin or something like that.”
Though starting a maneuver without knowing exactly how it’s going to end seems like the definition of crazy, for Ward it’s just another day in the office.
Flagship Detroit — An American Classic
One of the most historic participants in this year’s Boshears Skyfest is the Flagship Detroit, the oldest flying DC-3 in the world.
The goal of the group formed to preserve it is to operate the aircraft as a historically accurate example of the American Airlines fleet of Flagship airliners, which flew from 1936 to 1947.
“We did a lot of research to get it right,” says George Dennis, executive director of the nonprofit Flagship Detroit Foundation. “We had the advantage of a lot of references at the C.R. Smith Museum, which is a nonprofit museum all about American Airlines. They had a huge archive, so we were able to get everything exactly as it came out of the factory in Santa Monica in 1937.”
Not only is the outside paint authentic to the period, so is the inside.
“We had already purchased the seats,” Dennis says. “They were already dated 1937, so we had a bunch of volunteers take all our seats — and these volunteers were all American Airlines mechanics in Kansas City — and they re-welded all our seats. We re-certified them and took them to the upholstery shop and put the same color upholstery that was on them in 1937.”
To complete the historic look, they have a couple of authentic stewardess uniforms and a couple of pilot uniforms, too.
Unlike most DC-3s, the Flagship Detroit did not see service in WWII, though 60 of American’s 85 DC-3s did.
When planes came back from the war they could have up to 80,000 miles on them. More than 60 years later, the Flagship Detroit only has about 48,000.
After its service with American, the plane was sold to the president of Mexico, who flew it for nine or 10 years back in the 1950s. It was then sold to a corporate entity and then to a company that used it as a fruit fly sprayer in California for a year.
The first year the foundation flew the restored plane on the air show circuit, they performed at 51 events.
“I’ve never worked so hard in my life,” Dennis says. “These air shows aren’t easy. You get there at 7 a.m. and they shut it down at 7 p.m. and then you have to do maintenance work and stuff like that. It can be pretty trying, but that’s what keeps bringing me back.”
The plane has a team of about 15, along with a few reserve pilots and a couple of mechanics.
“We don’t get anything from American Airlines except for the fact that they let us have a little spot in the 777 maintenance hanger in Dallas,” he says. “They’re very generous with that, but they don’t give us any money unless they hire us to do an event.”
They’ve done several of those in the past, including one in New York for an employee celebrating 70 years with the airline, but given the fact that American filed for bankruptcy, those events have probably come to an end.
Because plane is owned by the nonprofit foundation, Stewart is allowed to sell memberships to augment the money they make from air shows.
“Our memberships are a $150 initiation fee and then $100 every year after that,” he says. “With that membership, you can fly on the airplane whenever you want to, as long as there’s a seat available.”
After the event for the 70-year employee, who actually worked on the Flagship Detroit back in 1941, they barnstormed all the way to Seattle, making 21 stops along the way.
“On a typical barnstorming stop, we’ll fly over the city kind of low, do a couple of circles around town and it brings out people and we can sell a hat or a T-shirt and, if we’re lucky, a membership,” Dennis says.
At one such stop in Longmont, Colorado, an old man brought them his logbook and showed them that he’d actually flown that very plane — 17334 — several times, carrying First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
“That guy is now 93 years old, and he’s still flying,” Dennis says. “We’ve kind of adopted him as our senior pilot.”
Though Dennis flew DC-3s when he was younger, most of the pilots haven’t.
“It’s been a real eye opener for them because they were flying F-4s in the war and every American Airlines jet that came along and then they see this and figure it’s a piece of cake,” he says. “Next thing you know, they realize what an eye opener it can be.”
Though a DC-3 has a stellar reputation as a good-flying, durable aircraft — many are still flying cargo in other parts of the world — the fact that it’s a tail dragger makes it a little tricky for the uninitiated to fly.
When it comes to early airline elegance, though, the Flagship Detroit continues to deliver.
Team RV — the Aerobatic Dozen
Mike Stewart, flight lead and founder of Team RV, the world’s largest air show team, loves coming to Boshears Skyfest.
“We actually call Boshears one of our two anchor shows,” he says. “We’ve been doing them for a number of years and they’ve been supporting us for a number of years and have helped us grow our business, so we treat them very special and they treat us very special.”
Besides that, Augusta is a hometown crowd. The 10-year-old precision formation group started in the Atlanta area, and one of the wingmen, Bob Goodman, flew F-15s in the same squadron as Buster Boshears, Jr.
The group started with six planes flying local parades and doing some formation flying, but quickly grew, mainly because of the RV series airplanes they fly.
Seven thousand RVs are now flying, and though members of the team fly different models, they all have the same shape and relative size, making the differences difficult to see from the ground. A few were built in the side-by-side configuration, though they prefer to fly the tandem models because they’re easier to fly aerobatics with.
In short, it’s a reliable, economical plane to fly, and Stewart says you couldn’t operate a team as big as Team RV without a plane with those attributes.
Team RV’s claim to fame is its formation aerobatics and precision formation flying, which is extremely difficult to learn and even harder to perfect.
“Flying formation is a slow learning process, because pilots come into this business being trained to stay away from other airplanes,” Stewart says. “So getting them close to another airplane is unnerving early on.”
On average, it takes a couple of years of training before a pilot is ready to enter the air-show environment.
“We fly just a couple of feet apart, so it’s very tight and very precise,” he says.
Starting out, a wingman will typically stay 20 or 30 feet away from his lead.
“We’ll work on that for a while and gradually work our way into getting into a closer formation,” he says. “The wingmen are constantly looking at their leads. They never take their eyes off of them, and they’re constantly maneuvering to stay in position.”
Once the pilots are comfortable flying formation, they’ll start working on solo aerobatics so they can become proficient at that. Then, Stewart will start working them into the formation aerobatic portion of the routine.
Having that many pilots on the team means it’s important that everyone is not only an excellent pilot, but a good, reliable team member, and the fact that they all share something beyond flying makes that bond even greater.
“The fact that we all have a passion for building makes us very unique,” Stewart says. “Because we build our aircraft, we have a lot more trust in the aircraft that we fly.”
The way he describes it, their planes are like custom cars.
“If you want that kind of performance and technology, you have to build your own, and our aircraft are the same way,” he says. “The planes that we fly — you can’t buy them off a showroom floor, you have to build it in order to get that kind of performance and that kind of reliability.”
Though about a third of the team is made up of pilots who have retired out of the Air Force or the airlines, a few still have day jobs. Stewart himself worked for IBM until just a couple of months ago.
“You could never do this if you didn’t love it,” he says. “And we all love what we do.”
That love, he hopes, is contagious.
“The coolest thing about what we do is that we’re out flying air shows and inspiring young people with aviation and flying, and we’re doing it with airplanes we all built,” he says. “No one else in the history of air shows can ever say that they’ve put 12 aircraft up in an aerobatic box at one time with airplanes that they built themselves.”You Might Also Like: