- 06 Aug 2020
- Multi-Mission Aircraft
Have you ever thought of those passionate professional members of the aviation community who pull incredible aerobatic G-Force maneuvers at air shows for you? Patrick Ryan highlights how the creative aspect of Aerial Work aviation and Aviation Entertainment comes together to make life more exciting!Back to Articles
With today's availability of "eye-catching" aircraft and highly professional performers, it is easy to see that today's aviation entertainment sector is bringing the world of aviation to the public like never before. But did you know, scarcely six years after the Wright brothers' first flight, Aviation Entertainment began...?
The first public international airshow took flight on a small airfield near Reims, France, in 1909. Since 1909, Aviation entertainment has grown well beyond just a few events and bailwire fixed-wing aircraft conducting simple fly-bys at a local airfield. Still, it now routinely takes place at airshows, fly-Ins, and even at large public venues every year.
So, what takes place under "the big circus-tent" of Aviation Entertainment?
First Act - What is Aviation Entertainment?
Even though there is no established formal academic or industry definition for Aviation Entertainment, this aviation industry sector exists and has its own unique culture, platforms, equipment, and business focus, just Google the terms Airshows, Fly-Ins, SkyDiving, Aerobatic displays, Drone Light Shows, and more. You'll see an industry that's focused on entertaining.
One of the key aspects of Aviation Entertainment or Aviation Entertainers is that they push the boundaries of ordinary flying, i.e., flying up to the limits of both man and machine. In other words, it might not be dull or dirty like other Aerial Work operations, but it's an endeavor meant to be dangerous and stir a sense of awe, interest, and anxiety for its audience.
The best way to understand or describe Aviation Entertainment is to look at two of the top-performing acts, Aerobatics and Wing Walking. Because of their awe-inspiring performances, you'll see Aerobatics and Wing Walking routines featured at most prominent airshows and fly-ins around the world.
Second Act -What is Aerobatics and Wing Walking?
Without a doubt, both performances share the spirit of performing in front of millions of spectators while conducting non-standard flight maneuvers. However, the similarities stop there. They both operate and perform in unique and specific ways.
From a big picture view, Aerobatic performances consist of aircraft of all types, even gliders, and helicopters performing non-standard maneuvers either as a solo act or in a formation. However, the core Aerobatic displays you'll see at most shows are fixed-wing (engine) aircraft.
The primary types of high-G maneuvers performed are Lines (both horizontal and vertical), loops, rolls, spins, and hammerheads. The bottom-line is it involves the stunt pilot rotating the aircraft at its max limits around the longitudinal (roll) axis or lateral (pitch) axis.
Probably one of the most thrilling or death-defying acts is Wing Walking. Wing Walking is the act of a fearless and skilled performer (with an Aerobatic pilot at the controls) climbing over the wings of an aircraft during flight.
In addition, while the Wing Walker is moving and positioning about the exterior of the aircraft, the aircraft is performing aerobatic maneuvers at the same time.
Third Act – What are the aircraft and equipment used for Aerobatics and Wing Walking performances?
Most Aerobatics and Wing Walking acts use specific kinds of aircraft with specialized equipment to enhance the visual aspect of the performance and add a level of safety for the performers. The predominant aircraft you will see used in these performances are prop and jet aircraft.
It goes without saying. The basic design of an aerobatic aircraft is to withstand high GForce stresses involved in aerobatic maneuvers. Additionally, aerobatic aircraft usually have a stiffer structural frame, more durable landing gear, and a higher performance engine. Aerobatic aircraft are usually equipped with engines, and fuel systems that are specially designed for zero or negative G flight, whereas standard GA recreational aircraft, during extended low or negative G flight, will typically starve the engine of fuel or oil.
When it comes to the kind of aircraft used in aerobatics, there are two types: specialist aerobatic planes and aerobatic capable aircraft. Specialist aerobatic planes like the Pitts Special and Yak-50 are designed for aerobatic performances. In contrast, aerobatic designed aircraft like the Cessna 152 Aerobat or R2160 Acrobin are still fit for general use – in other words, they can perform aerobatics while still being equipped to carry passengers and luggage.
Like Aerobatics, Wing Walking performances also use aircraft designed to conduct aerobatic maneuvers. However, the favorite class of aircraft used by Wing Walkers is the biplane. When it comes to biplanes, the preferred aircraft are vintage or classic aircraft like the Boeing Stearman various models, De Havilland Mosquito KA 114, or even a Grumman G-164 Ag-Cat.
Specialized equipment & systems
Regarding unique equipment and systems associated with Aerobatic and Wing Walking performances, the two-universal type of kit that stands-out is the smoke effect system and the safety harness & rig equipment for Wing Walkers.
Opposite to what a lot of people think, the smoke from Aerobatic and Wing Walking planes is not generated by normal combustion, nor is it a contrail. This smoke effect is generated by injecting various color vaporized fog oil into the aircraft hot exhaust system.
Besides this method, other performers use a smoke-producing system that can be integrated on the wingtips or under the airframe. Additionally, these new systems include various color injectors, which allows the pilot to change or mix colors while flying for maximum effect.
Wing Walker Safety Kit
About safety and Wing Walking, a critical piece of gear that keeps entertainment from tragedy is the rig & harness, which secures the Wing Walker to the wing of the aircraft. The rig & harness equipment is required to meet local authorities (and I would guess by the performer too) safety standards, which include the rig correctly secured to the mainframe of the aircraft and the harness secured by a second locking system or locking pin.
If you're thinking parachutes, surprisingly, Wing Walkers are not required to or use parachutes. The reason for this is if a parachute were to deploy unintentionally while wing walking, the result would likely be disastrous entanglement with the aircraft and more.
Fourth Act – Who are the performers, and do you have the "The Right Stuff" to be one?
When it comes to Aerobatics and Wing Walking performers, you will come across an incredibly unique group of people who often forego job security and physical safety in exchange for the thrill of flying death-defying aerobatics. So, who are these performers:
Aerobatic Stunt Pilot
As mentioned before, aerobatic stunt pilots are an exceptional breed of pilots. Many Aerobatic pilots own their planes and supplement their income working as aerial application pilots (crop dusters) or flying advertising banners for pay.
Additionally, Aerobatic pilots fly in competitions to earn flight hours and cash prizes. Some are members of a team that present exhibitions at public events and aircraft shows. Many experienced aerobatic pilots are certified flight instructors and earn additional income providing basic or advance flight instruction.
As you can imagine, aerobatic stunt pilots must be in good physical shape, have excellent reflexes, coordination, and hearing. Concerning their mental stability, they have one common or shared psychological trait, the need for speed!
About their training, many aerobatic pilots receive their training while serving in the military. However, the equal and alternative training pipeline for aerobatic pilots is via obtaining a commercial pilot's license with the addition of aerobatic flight training from specialized aerobatic flight schools or a mentor. From there, advancement as a professional aerobatic pilot consists of pushing the limits of building experience and performance over time.
Besides the aerobatic stunt pilot flying the wing walker aircraft, the daredevil who walks the wing is known as the Wing Walker. Not like a pilot, there are no license or rating requirements to be a Wing Walker.
However, most professional Wing Walking stunt teams require Wing Walkers to be in good physical condition, no taller than 5'5" and less than 120 lbs, and be able to withstand (mentally and physically) high G-Forces and wind pressure while flying at speeds of up to 130mph.
Additionally, when reading the profiles of many Wing Walkers, you will see many have a background in the performing arts, e.g., dancing and acting (plus, a bit of the stunt pilot psychology).
Relating to training and practice, Wing Walkers learn basic airmanship, crew communications, and the principles of aerobatic flight. Their practice consists of traveling the exterior of the aircraft, managing safety equipment, and operating from different positions (Standing and lying prone) on various parts of the aircraft while conducting high G-Force and air rushing loops, rolls, and hammerhead maneuvers.
As with any entertainment event and bring the performance to an end, Aviation Entertainment is not one type of aircraft or one type of event. It consists of many parts of aviation like Aerobatics and Wing Walking, which come together to provide entertainment.
When the curtains close on any Aviation Entertainment event, and the audience walks away astonished, happy, and emotionally affected by what they observed (especially the next generation of aviators) - " Mission Accomplished" - that's the purpose of Aerial Work Entertainment Aviation.
The next time you observe an Aviation Entertainment event, think of the passion, dedication, and the skill that these Aerial Work Aviation Entertainers joyfully bring to the world. Without them, the world would be a duller place.