It seems that just about everybody, young and old, enjoys the spectacle of airshow flying. But what goes on behind the scenes in the lead-up to those 12 minutes of aerial ballet? How does an airshow pilot prepare for a show? And what challenges are involved in putting a show together? Aerobatics ace Paul Bennet explains.
Many spectators approach me after a display, quoting comments like “You have the best job in the world” and presume that the last 12 minutes is a quick and easy way to get paid.
I will have to admit that on many occasions all that rolling and tumbling on air show day may well be the only time I feel free from my “job” as an air show pilot, and to quote air show legend, Patty Wagstaff, this can blur the lines between “working hard and hardly working”.
There is a lot involved behind the scenes before I can perform for an air show.
Firstly, I have to get booked for a show and this starts months before with lots of advertising, phone calls, emails and then, finally getting the opportunity to put forward a proposal for the air show committee to consider. Getting my appearance fee to be accepted by an air show can be like landing with the Dunlops up, bringing your proposal to a screeching halt.
Air shows can be local or on the other side of the country (not to mention internationally) and many air show organisers are unaware what’s involved and the sacrifices that may be made in getting to their shows. Air shows that are driven by the dollar often can’t justify the fee for ‘only’ 12 minutes of flying, forgetting that I may have to travel half way around the country, with a crew and spare parts. Then you ask yourself what price you put on your life? Every low level flight has its risks and you have to really consider what these risks are really worth. Any professional display pilot that wants to participate in air shows as a career, will not participate at their own cost. Many organisers are now realising that if they want a safe and world class display, then there will be a fee.
Once a show is confirmed, we work on the paperwork for the event. This can be a daunting experience for any new air show, so I have assisted in helping with this to get their air show “off the ground” by gathering all the required paperwork for the show and submitting to CASA for approval.
Also, I must organise and submit my own personal approval for the air show. This entails detailed information on my flying experience, intended aircraft to use and its paperwork, intended display area, proposed display sequence and any limitations imposed on the aircraft’s certificate of airworthiness. Once these details are completed, I must review the display area and complete a detailed risk assessment on possible threats that I may encounter during my display. Then rate the risk by stating where it falls in a range of High Risk and High Probability to Low Risk and Highly Unlikely (it is about here in the process that I starting thinking that I should have charged a higher fee!).
In the weeks leading up to show day, I must be 100 per cent confident in not only my ability to flying the desired flight sequence to minimum heights, but ensure that my equipment is to a safe standard for the proposed flights. I will conduct a risk assessment and small maintenance pull down of the aircraft to satisfy myself that it is in top condition and when satisfied the training flights can begin.
Training flights are conducted daily leading into the week of the air show and are critiqued by my team members. My team are also experienced air show and competition aerobatic pilots and I value their input from every flight on whether their comments are positive or negative. I believe it is very important that any display pilot regularly gets their displays critiqued leading up to an air show and I happily offer this service to the experienced and new comers to the air show industry.
A few days before the air show I will be looking closely at the location of the air show (airfield, military base, or beach) and its forecasted weather conditions. If conditions are looking poor between my location and the events, then I endeavour enough time to safely get the aircraft to its location, and this often requires extra time away from work and family.
High performance aerobatic aircraft are not usually designed with cross country flights in mind. They are often small, loud and uncomfortable with limited navigation equipment. So adequate flight planning is essential. It won’t be long before you have an exciting story to tell once you start ferrying aircraft of this calibre.
Once arriving at the air show, it is nice to get a practice flight over the display area if time permits. This flight is to adjust to the new environment, which would include items such as the surroundings (features such as mountains and beaches), crowed deadlines, low level hazards (location of wind sock?), emergency procedures (what if my engine stopped now?) and most importantly density altitude. Not accounting for changes in elevation and temperature and your career as an air show pilot will come to a halt very quickly!
Display day! This means another early morning. It starts with display briefing with all other pilots and officials early in the morning. This covers topics such as forecasted weather, airport procedures, radio frequencies, emergency procedures and the display program.
Once the briefing is completed it is time to start preparing myself for the display and this is where bringing a small team along pays off. While I mentally focus on my task ahead and keep an eye on weather conditions, my team will prepare my aircraft for flight. In many cases, they will prepare four aircraft. This is to ensure that my focus is entirely on the performances and not distracted by small dramas such as chasing down the fuel truck.
Come display time I will take the time to walk through my display sequence before entering the aircraft. This is done alongside a team member to ensure that I am in the right state of mind to be flying the complicated sequence ahead. Once we are both satisfied I will strap in and taxi out.
On completion of the 12 minutes of exhausting flying, it would be nice to sit down and be refreshed by a cold drink of water, but it’s time to meet the fans, and debrief with my team while the flight is still fresh in our minds. We discuss what parts of the flight went well and if some parts did not go so well. A lot is happening very quickly inside the cockpit and if something that looked quite normal to me from inside the cockpit, may have happened to look very different or even unsafe from the ground, then we explore the reason and methods as to why straight away.
Once the air show is over officially, and the general public are heading to their local watering hole, it’s time for another formal debriefing on the day’s events. Again these discussions are had on what went well and where improvements can be made by the pilots and organisers. It is only after this briefing that I can begin to relax and enjoy the “survival party” with the locals and my fellow aviators.
For me, working as an air show performer is a great way to share my passion of aviation and aerobatics with the general public. This can only be done through supporting your local air show because after all, there is nowhere else that the public can get close enough to touch and marvel at the beauty that is aviation.
This would be incredibly hard to achieve without the fantastic support of my long term sponsors, such as Superior Airparts, ECI, Performance Aero, PG Aviation, Bose, Catto Propellers, Skytech Starters, Trojan Fibreglass, Luskintyre Aircraft Restoration.
A day in the life of an air show pilot can be fun, exciting, rewarding, and exhilarating, however very physical and mentally draining. My experience is that you can push past the exhausting tasks required to be an air show pilot as the rewards of promoting and keeping aviation alive and well is on its own very satisfying.
So as you have just read, a lot of work goes on leading up to that 12 minute performance. I have only discussed my solo aerobatic display here. On many occasions I will flying multiple displays in very different aircraft, over the course of one show. But the truth is, for those 12 minutes, it doesn’t seem like work, but a break from the reality of the workload involved that had given me this opportunity to be here.