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Do You Have What It Takes To Be An Air Show Stunt Pilot?

Have you ever fantasized about being an air show pilot? One of those All-American, movie star- types who perform death-defying stunts in the air to the cheers of the crowd below? Well, it’s not that easy. Here’s an inside look at what it takes to be a professional air show stunt pilot, and the challenges and dangers they face in their chosen career.

A Unique Breed of Pilot

Today’s air show stunt pilots are a unique breed. They often forego job security and physical safety in exchange for the thrill of flying death-defying aerobatics. Why would a pilot choose such a difficult path? Flying a stunt plane is either a passion or it’s not. Many professional stunt pilots knew from an early age it’s what they wanted to do. At the air shows of their youth, they were usually the kids that were first to arrive and last to leave—dreaming of flying upside down and clamoring to talk to, "a real stunt pilot."

Many professional stunt pilots will admit they are not only confident in their abilities—a critical factor for safety and success—but also "addicted to the rush" of flying on the edge of control. But the reality of being a professional stunt pilot is a lot less romantic than some may realize. For one, it’s inherently dangerous, and flying becomes riskier whenever aerobatics are involved. Stunt pilots learn to live with the reality that any given air show could be their last. While advances in airplane design—such as lighter propeller blades—enable pilots to do previously impossible maneuvers, there is nothing to replace hours of the training and practice required to perform aeronautical acrobatics.

Mitigating Unnecessary Risk

A good pilot is a master at energy maintenance. That is, adeptly managing the amount of air speed, or kinetic energy, used in an acrobatic stunt. You need to fly fast enough to perform the stunt, but not too fast that you overstress the physical limitations of the plane. A good stunt pilot will know how to conserve energy by balancing the plane's air speed with the potential energy of its altitude. In addition to training—you can never do enough spin recovery training. And of course, a responsible pilot takes aircraft maintenance very seriously.

But all that training and maintenance costs money, and—unless you’re a stunt pilot with a name and reputation—many stunt pilots are not paid as much as you would think. Many are sub contractors who charge a fee to appear at an air show—and that fee can be negotiated down due to heavy competition from other stunt pilots.

Travel demands are another drain on a stunt pilot’s lifestyle and finances. Some travel around the country to appearances as much as six months out of the year, and flying a stunt plane around the country can take a toll on a pilot’s physical and mental health.

Increasing the Excitement Factor

With so many summer entertainment options out there—from 3-D blockbusters movies to interactive Xbox games—acrobatic air shows are upping the excitement factor to attract and maintain crowds. That means stunt pilots are working harder to create and perform more awe-inspiring sky stunts. All the more reason to respect the men and women who call themselves professional stunt pilots. It’s summer air show season. If you get a chance, catch one in a town (or sky) near you. This summer’s air shows are sure to be some of the most exciting in aeronautical history.

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