An Aerobatics Pilot Spins (And Rolls, And Loops) A Career From A Crash | KGOU
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An Aerobatics Pilot Spins (And Rolls, And Loops) A Career From A Crash

Aug 31, 2015
Originally published on August 31, 2015 6:29 pm

As part of a series called My Big Break, All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click, and people leap forward into their careers.

Patty Wagstaff performs incredible maneuvers in her small aerobatic airplane: rolls, loops and spins. She'll fly straight up, put the engine in idle, free-fall down, fire the engine back up and roar past crowds at air shows across the country.

But that's not the scariest part of her routine.

"Every air show pilot will tell you the most dangerous part of their job is getting to and from the show," Wagstaff says.

Aerobatic stunt planes aren't equipped with the instruments that allow pilots to navigate through clouds. When it gets soupy up there, Wagstaff says, she gets nervous.

"You can scare yourself a little bit. You don't have a lot of fuel in these planes, you have to get low under the clouds sometimes," she says. "I've never had any catastrophic accidents or anything like that. The only accident I had was in Alaska where the other pilot was flying. So I try and avoid it."

Wagstaff goes vertical at this year's EAA AirVenture Oshkosh Airshow in Oshkosh, Wis.
Jeff Berlin / Patty Wagstaff Airshows, Inc.

That accident happened before she was a pilot. Wagstaff used to live in Dillingham, Alaska, and would travel to tiny villages as a passenger on tiny planes. One flight she chartered never made it off the muddy runway.

"The pilot, who was pretty young and didn't instill a lot of confidence, didn't use the full length of the runway, and we had a full plane," Wagstaff says. "I knew there wasn't going to be enough speed and enough lift to get us off the ground."

As the plane bumped and bounced along the muddy ruts, Wagstaff says she could see the end of the runway fast approaching.

"I think [the pilot] must've hit the brakes and the thing just went sliding off the end, kind of down an embankment," she says. "Into the brush — and it slowly flipped upside-down."

She was covered in the boxes they were hauling and mail had spilled everywhere. Fortunately, no one was injured. Wagstaff and the other passenger were able to climb out of the overturned plane.

"I really don't remember the pilot," she says. "Who knows what he was doing. He was probably thinking about how to disappear forever at that point."

And that's when Wagstaff had a sudden moment of realization.

"I decided, 'This guy's an idiot. I can do a lot better than this, I'm going to take up flying — I'm going to start learning,'" she says.

That thought, she says, was her big break: "Sometimes you just need that little push."

But Wagstaff wasn't interested in flying straight and level. She wanted to fly upside-down.

Wagstaff runs her own aerobatic school in St. Augustine, FL. "Flying aerobatics is, to me, the most freedom you can ever have in an airplane — or really anywhere," she says.
Mosley Hardy

It took her years to find the right instructor, but once she sat behind the controls of a stunt plane, she was hooked.

"Flying aerobatics is, to me, the most freedom you can ever have in an airplane — or really anywhere," she says. "It's really three-dimensional. When you can put the airplane into something like a loop in the sky or roll ... around the axis of the airplane or go vertical, it's really total freedom."

In her performances, Wagstaff says she'll pull up to 10 Gs.

"There's one point in the routine where I'm going fast and I pull really hard, it's an eight-sided loop with half-rolls on each side," she says. "And we also push negative-Gs which is where you're upside down and you push the airplane ... to an outside loop like going over a waterfall. So all the blood goes up in your head. That takes a lot of conditioning to do."

Wagstaff is the first woman to win the U.S. National Aerobatic Championship and her winning plane is on display in the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum.

"I've been really lucky that aviation's been a great career," Wagstaff says. "I've had so many opportunities through it, met so many people, it's taken me all over the world. I'd say anybody that's thinking about a career in aviation — go for it. Especially girls. There's a lot of opportunity."

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

In the cockpit of her small aerobatics airplane, pilot Patty Wagstaff goes full throttle. She performs rolls, loops, spins. She'll fly straight up, put the engine in idle and freefall, fire the engine back up and roar past crowds at air shows across the country, but that's not even the scariest part.

PATTY WAGSTAFF: Every air show pilot will tell you the most dangerous part of their job is getting to and from the show and trying to push weather. We don't have instruments so we can fly in the clouds. You can scare yourself a little bit. You don't have a lot of fuel in these planes. You have to get low under the clouds sometimes. And I've never had any catastrophic accidents or anything like that. The only accident I had was in Alaska where the other pilot was flying, so I try to avoid it (laughter).

RATH: That accident was before she was a pilot, and in a strange way, it was her big break. When Wagstaff lived in Alaska, she used to travel to tiny villages as a passenger on tiny airplanes. One flight she chartered never made it off the muddy runway.

WAGSTAFF: The pilot - he was pretty young and didn't instill a lot of confidence - didn't use the full length of the runway, and we had a full plane. I knew there wasn't going to be enough speed and enough lift to get us off the ground. And you could see it coming. You could see the end of the runway coming. And we were just sort of bouncing along these muddy ruts and came to the end of the runway. And I think he must have hit the brakes, and the thing just went sliding off the end, kind of down an embankment. Slowly flipped upside down - I do remember that. You know, when the tail comes up, it kind of hovers there for a minute and then - whack.

We were able to climb out. I stood there with the other passenger. I really don't remember the pilot. He was - who knows what he was doing. He was probably thinking about how to - you know, how to disappear forever at that point. But for me, that was really, emotionally, my big break, as far as where I would go in aviation because I decided this guy's an idiot. I can do a lot better than this. I'm going to take up flying. I'm going to start learning. And I went and found an instructor and a plane, and I started. Sometimes you just need that little push (laughter).

I really wanted to take up aerobatics and learn how to fly upside down and learn how to do rolls and loops. And it took me a few years before I could find somebody with the right airplane that could teach me, but I finally did. And flying aerobatics is, to me, the most freedom that you can ever have in an airplane or really anywhere. It's really three-dimensional. When you can put the airplane into something like a loop in the sky or roll, where you're rolling around the axis of the airplane or going vertical, it's really total freedom.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIRPLANE ENGINE)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: (Inaudible).

WAGSTAFF: When I'm doing an air show, I usually pull about 10 Gs. There's one point in the routine where I'm going fast, and I pull really hard. It's an eight-sided loop with half-rolls on each side, and I usually pull tensions in that.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIRPLANE ENGINE)

WAGSTAFF: And we also push negative Gs, which is where you're upside down, and you push the airplane. And you push it, say, to the top of - say, an outside loop, like going over a waterfall. So all the blood goes up in your head, and that takes a lot of conditioning to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIRPLANE ENGINE)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: (Inaudible).

WAGSTAFF: I've been really lucky that aviation's been a great career. I've had so many opportunities through it and met so many people, and it's taken me all over the world. So I'd say anybody's that's thinking about a career in aviation - go for it, especially girls. There's a lot of opportunity.

RATH: Penny Wagstaff is the first woman to win the U.S. National Aerobatic Championship, and the plane she won it in is on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. She joined us from WFCF in St. Augustine, Fla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.