Airshows - Risk Taken for the Oppertunity of a Lifetime
I well remember the first airshows I attended. Amazingly, I was in my teens and went at the insistence of my good friend, Richard Craighead. Richard was dead set on becoming an Air Force fighter pilot and later flying for the airlines. He did exactly that, and of this writing is a senior captain for United. We would drive in my car to Barksdale AFB for the Holiday In Dixie airshows that go back at least into the 60’s
I remember being dazzled by Bob Hoover flying his P-51 Mustang and also his Shrike Commander. Hoover put on a phenomenal show. I remember once seeing Marion Cole fly at Barksdale in his modified Jungmeister. Little did I know that I would someday be flying with “The Master,” as many called him through his life. I was awed by what I saw, but had no faith that I would ever be elevated in airshow circles to the status of performer.
I learned to fly in Magnolia Arkansas and shortly after purchased a Citabria. It was a beat up old thing, but it was a plane, and it could be rolled and looped. In another section of my website I describe my early flying experiences. But, airshows were a far cry from just flying aerobatics, and I had no hope or ambition of becoming a performer.
Actually, I flew something of an airshow in 1970 right before getting my commercial pilot’s license. It was a sportsman competition in Bastrop, Louisiana. I had taught myself aerobatics including flying in the “box” for the competition. I will never forget flying to Bastrop in my Citabria. I was scared to death. I wanted to fly in the competition, but I knew virtually no one who did this kind of flying. I had simply applied for membership to the EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) and also the IAC (International Aerobatic Club). They sent me some paperwork for competition, and I could read the aerobatic diagrams, so I knew what I had to practice for the competition.
I was so insecure in a new environment, around new people, and at a new airport doing something I had never done before. I flew that afternoon of my arrival, and did okay in a practice session, but I was still worried. That night I sat in the restaurant at the hotel where I was staying, and saw Marion Cole with wife and friends sitting at a table some distance away. To me Marion was unapproachable. He was like a god in the airshow world—very famous along with his brothers Duane and Lester.
To my amazement Marion got up out of his seat and walked across the dining room to my table and introduced himself. “I’m Marion Cole, what is your name?” I was stunned that the Master would grace me with his presence, but he did. Marion had seen me fly earlier, and for some reason he could sense my anxiety and feeling of being alone in this new world. I so greatly appreciate him doing what he did. He did not have to, but that is the man he was, always there to help people.
In around 1973, I bought a Pitts Special and had Marion check me out in his two-place Pitts. Later in 1980, I desired to fly a Decathlon and put the plane through its paces, so I contacted Marion and arranged to have him give me an hour of dual, which back then cost me $80. Both times that I had flown with Marion, he complimented me on a job well done, and that meant a lot to me. Later I found that compliments for Marion were rare, and I should have felt even better at the time!
I purchased a Bellanca Decathlon in 1983 and soon after got a call from Marion to my home in Springhill, Louisiana asking me if I would like to fly at an airshow—and of all places in Bastrop! I literally jumped at the chance. “Sure, Marion, I would love to!” I flew over well in advance and was practiced up on both inside and outside maneuvers in the 150 HP Decathlon.
That day, a very nice yellow Decathlon landed and two women got out. One was Sharon Whitehurst. Sharon was Billy Whitehurst’s daughter. Billy owned Bolivar Aviation, a thriving training center specializing in training foreign students, well prior to 9-11. To be honest, I was very attracted to Sharon, and not because she was a flight training mogul’s daughter, but she would not give me a glance. I did get a glance from her friend and one of Billy’s flight instructors Debbie Staub who came with her.
Billy had contracted to deliver an airshow to the officials in Bastrop and he needed Sharon to fly, along with me. This was probably Sharon’s last airshow. Within a few weeks, I got a call from Marion and he said, “Billy and I have booked four airshows in Kentucky and Tennessee, and we were counting on Sharon to fly. But, she has left home and moved to Panama City, Florida to be with her boyfriend. Would you be interested in these four shows?” That was in May of 1983, and I could not be happier to have those four shows. I flew three of them, but had to return home from the last one due to my father’s death on June 3rd, 1983.
Marion knew I could fly, and knew I was reliable. If I said I would take a show, I would be there. He gave me a lower altitude for my performances, as he was an FAA designee. After that it was like, “Let the Shows Begin!” I can’t say how many shows I have flown with Marion, but it is somewhere between 50 and 100. Soon I had a Level 1 waiver from Marion and the FAA that removed all restrictions on how low I flew at airshows. I took full advantage of my new ground level waiver, and did not hesitate to work very low attempting to dazzle the crowds. In all my life, that era was one of the most rewarding that I have ever experienced. We had great times and met great people.
Often Duane Cole would fly with us, and travel to and from show venues with our group. I have written many pages on those days and someday I hope to publish a book on my adventures with the Cole Brothers.
Marion, in his mid 60’s started having trouble with his signature maneuver, the inverted ribbon cut. I was announcing for him in Corinth, Mississippi when I saw him descend inverted to where his rudder was no more than an inch or two off the runway. Hitting the runway with this lowest part of the plane’s tail would have spelled an instant inverted crash. After that day, Marion only made one or two more cuts and retired to just flying a few shows and instructing. Slowly scaling back his airshow efforts caused me to find my own shows, and of course the numbers of show I flew went down also.
In late 2010, I penned a draft of my aviation past, and brought a copy to Marion for him to read. For some reason I know that Marion did not believe that I appreciated him as many of his other students had, and I wanted to show him that I did very much appreciate what he had done for me. The only way I could convey my true appreciation for him was to write about our times together. He was too sick to read, as he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and was in the hospital at that time. Lee Gunter, one of his long time friends, went with me to the hospital where I gave him the 100-page manuscript with photos. I left and thought that I would never know if he read it in his condition.
One night in late 2010 or early 2010, I got a call from Marion telling me he loved the book. His son Larry Cole read it to him as Marion could barely read due to his illness. He said to come see him and I did. While there, as I turned to walk out, I said, “Marion, all your life you have resisted all suggestions to have your life written down like your brother Duane has done. Why don’t you let someone write your story?” To my surprise, Marion said, “Well, I would really like that.” I told him I would do it, and he eagerly accepted.
“The Performer” was finished and published by the family in June of 2011. Marion died on the 8th of July, about a month after the book was published. To the very end, Marion loved signing his book and seeing to it that all his friends had one. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, paying back to the man that enabled my dream.
I attempted to give up airshows about a year ago, but found that like a dope addict, I just had to have a few more hits. I renewed my medical and competency card, and as of this writing am back to flying a few airshows. I know that there will come a time when I too, like Marion will have to lay it down, but so far, so good. Although currently, I am 62, I seem to still fly as well as I did when I was 35. I still love the thrill of the show, the smell of smoke oil, and dazzling crowds.
From the earliest days of barnstorming to present time, it still comes down to the individual and their machine--the melding of sights, sounds, and the feeling you experience as you control what has become a mechanical extention of yourself. It is a display of piloting skills that modern technology can augment, but never replace. It is the danger perceived by the crowd, but the risk managed by the pilot. It is all worth it? To me it was.