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Flying in the Thunder Over the Valley Air Show

By Vance Breese, EAA 705840, for Light Plane World

Thunder Over the Valley Air Show

Mike Geddry Sr., CEO and curator of the Santa Maria Museum of Flight, Santa Maria, California, said that he would like me to fly in the August 2011 Thunder Over the Valley Air Show with my experimental gyroplane. I agreed without really thinking about it. Then I thought, what could a homebuilt gyroplane do in an air show that would be interesting? I felt it was an opportunity and vowed to make the best of it. At the very least it would make a good story for hangar flying.

In my opinion gyroplanes are the most interesting when taking off and landing. They’re comedic in their efforts to waddle into the air, and a well-executed simulated engine-out landing with zero roll is a thing of beauty. Unfortunately the runway was three quarters of a mile from the show center, so I needed to be more creative.

I asked a friend with a Bonanza. With a sneer he said, “Just get that thing in the air inside the air show box and people will be impressed. Land it and taxi back to the show with it still in one piece and they will be amazed.”

Cameras, crowds, and showing off have led to more than one balled-up aircraft; I found his advice useful if a little undignified.

Aerobatics are clearly defined in the FARs, and I felt I wasn’t qualified for aerobatics. I climbed up to 2,000 feet AGL to practice sporting around, but without reference points it was difficult to make progress.

I repeatedly practiced a simulated engine-out landing from the far side of the air show box at 1,000 feet AGL. I didn’t want to land short in front of a lot of people. I thought this would be a nice exit because everyone seems to want to know what happens when the engine goes quiet in a gyroplane with no power going to the rotor.

I read about air show waivers and found that what went on inside the box was pretty much up to the FAA official in charge, which is why it’s called a waiver. The FARs are superseded by the judgment of the person in charge. The only things that were sacred were the 500-foot line and the no props or rotors turning line.

One of the items on my preflight checklist includes looking for oil leaks. Invariably the answer is yes, my Lycoming IO-320B1A leaks. I was addressing the results of that answer when I missed the first pilots briefing on Friday. I didn’t know there was one.

When the work was completed, I called ground for a taxi to runway 30, and I was told to hold my position until the A-10 had finished its practice. I watched in awe as he placed that big fast attack plane exactly where he wanted it. He thundered over us several times, and I waved knowing he would never see me. I felt proud to be an American.

My wife, Edna, and I made some signs for the side of the aircraft that answered the most frequently asked questions. We purchased a step stool so the kids could climb up and sit in the aircraft to have their picture taken and to imagine they were exploring the trackless wonderland of the sky. We even had a blow-up of a picture she took from the backseat of the view at around 500 feet AGL—with the green hills fading into the distant mist for those who need a little extra stimulus for their imagination.

Thunder Over the Valley Air Show
Dream picture for kids sitting in the aircraft

Friday night I was restless for the excitement and didn’t sleep well due to the anticipation. Saturday morning the fog had the ceiling down to 600 feet as I drove to the pilots briefing at 0800.

The room was filled with people who looked like they came off of a recruiting poster for the Air Force, and there were four representatives from the Van Nuys Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) who looked like FAA guys. I felt proud to be associated with this group and a little intimidated.

Curtis, who works for SMX ATC was the air boss for the event, and after managing computer challenges, he gave an excellent briefing that even I could understand. The schedule was shown and the “Gyrocopter” was after the fly-bys of the 99s and the warbirds.

David from the Van Nuys FSDO was the person in charge of the rules, and he spelled them out with little room for ambiguity. He gave a very detailed multipage handout on the wavier; everything that wasn’t normal needed to happen inside the 2,000 foot by 2,000 foot box. The 500-foot line and the redline for no props or rotors turning needed to be respected at all times during the event. David made us aware that in the past a pilot had violated the temporary flight restriction (TFR) and was nearly hit by an A-10, so we needed to be vigilant for transient aircraft violating the TFR.

I spent some time with David after the briefing, whining about how gyroplanes didn’t fly like fixed wings and how a 500-foot hard deck wasn’t appropriate for such a small slow aircraft. He directed me to another representative who examined my certificate, statement of demonstrated ability, pilot logbook, aircraft logbook, annual condition inspection, operating limitations, and weight and balance. In addition he needed to see my original airworthiness certificate and registration. Somehow this didn’t lessen my trepidation.

I tracked down the announcer after the briefing and gave him a sheet with information on what defined a gyroplane, what I was fixing to do, and why. He was grateful and said that most hadn’t given him the information on their performance, causing him to wing it. That might have been a humorous reference to my aircraft.

Since I’m easily confused, I had written and laminated on my kneeboard what I was planning to do during those 5 minutes inside the box. It included the simplest things such as the air boss radio frequency and setting my altimeter at zero. I wanted to take advantage of the prevailing wind so that all my slow and climb maneuvers were into the wind and all my high-speed maneuvers were downwind. I did realize that high-speed gyroplane is an oxymoron, particularly in such fast company.

I called ground to taxi to the air show. Ground replied, “Experimental 142 Mike Golf, for display or are you flying in the show?” I told him I was flying in the air show and found excitement in saying the words. I was cleared to taxi on Echo and told to hold short of runway 12/30. I called again, holding short, and was cleared to taxi to the air show on taxiway Echo. The ceiling was around 800 feet with no blue sky visible at 0930. The event started at 1000 hours.

There were still no patches of blue at 1000 hours. So I tracked down Curtis because I couldn’t reach him on the radio and wanted to familiarize myself with the revised schedule. He was busy being frustrated because all of his radios were being used to store dead batteries.

It was almost 1100 hours before the two Cessnas and the Piper for the 99s fly-by were fired up. Patches of blue sky were showing through, and the wind was picking up. Edna and I rolled The Predator past the no props or rotors turning line and had to move next to the fire crew to get out of the way of the warbirds. There were three T6s, a Navion, a Stearman, and a Zero. They had a wonderfully noisy, smoky start. I felt very small in the gyroplane.

When the warbirds taxied toward the runway I fired up the Lycoming. I felt flying her hard with a cold engine would be a poor aviation decision. I wanted to be ready when called. I was premature and ended up idling almost 40 minutes waiting for the warbirds to finish. I was afraid to shut her down because sometimes hot starts can be difficult with this fuel-injected Lycoming.

I eventually received taxi instructions and taxied to runway 30 on Hotel. I did my run up and magneto, and the left magneto dropped 137 rpm and shook like a paint shaker. I leaned her out and ran her up, and in less than a minute she passed with a drop of 64 and 59 rpm. I set the altimeter to zero.

As the warbirds landed I found I could hear them but not the air boss. Runway 30 was over a little hill from the show, and I pulled out the squelch knob. My headset was filled with static and the somewhat truncated message “Two Mike fssss runway sszero clear ss for ssspopasss.”

I released the rotor brake, richened the mixture, advanced the throttle, and pushed the prerotator button. By the time I reached the centerline, I had 100 rpm and half back on the stick, another 50 feet and full back and I advanced the throttle. She was soon lifting her nose as I eased the stick forward and lifted off as nicely as she ever did. I climbed at her best angle of climb, and at 1,000 feet I turned back toward the box, descending to 600 feet and picking it up to 115 knots of indicated airspeed.

Thunder Over the Valley Air Show

As I crossed the edge of the box, I turned hard right and climbed into the wind across the box, bleeding off airspeed. The vertical speed indicator (VSI) was pegged at 2,200 fpm. I continued to pull back and the VSI slowed to 1,500 fpm. I felt the stick get a little loose. So I gave her some right rudder and right stick to make the rotors talk to the crowd, and I made a downwind high-speed pass (115 knots indicated airspeed, 128 knots showing on the GPS) to the center of the box and a climbing spiral tightening it up until she stopped climbing. I pulled her back and flew backward in relation to the ground, slowly descending. Then I pulled the power back and let the nose drop. I began the round out at 600 feet AGL from a near vertical descent and 120 knots of indicated airspeed. The blades made a wonderful whumping sound as I made a steep climb, slowly turning. I did some figure eights, another climbing turn, then pulled the power back at 1,000 feet AGL. I turned back toward the runway, and it seemed as though the aircraft was descending much too fast to make the landing. The air boss said, “Two Mike Golf, runway 30 clear to land.” I could hear him clearly now.

I found I had more altitude than I needed, and the landing ended up being a zero-roll gentle touchdown right at the entrance to taxiway Echo. Unfortunately no one at the show could see it. Then I heard, “Two Mike Golf, good job. Taxi to parking and follow the directions of the ground crew.”

Thunder Over the Valley Air Show

The fun had only just begun. There were people surrounding our display area and kids lined up to sit in The Predator and have their picture taken. I watched a little girl climb the steps with great trepidation and reluctantly sit down. Edna explained some things to her, and soon all the concern had left her face. She was doing the queen wave.

Thunder Over the Valley Air Show

I answered questions for the rest of the day, and I felt very few had a negative agenda attached. It was a lot of fun knowing that we were living the dream that lay dormant in so many. It was nice to kindle passion in some particularly intense young people.

As the event was winding down, the pilot of the A-10 stopped by asking a lot of questions about gyroplanes. I was intimidated by who he was and what he flew and answered the questions the best I could. Edna figured out what Captain Joe “Rifle” Shetterly was after and asked him if he wanted a ride in our gyroplane. She didn’t have to ask twice. I explained about being blind in one eye and brain injured to fly a one-off gyroplane designed and built by amateurs, yet he was undeterred.

Thunder Over the Valley Air Show
Friend Julie Shires trying out the cockpit

Rifle helped with the preflight and even added a few things to the list. He seemed genuinely interested as I explained the why of the various checks. We took off as the fog was coming in from the beach and headed toward Lompoc. As soon as we cleared the SMX airspace I turned on the intercom and said, “You have control of the aircraft.” Rifle acknowledged the transfer of control. After a little altitude hunting, he got the hang of her. It was interesting to see his approach to flying. Three-sixties were flown at exactly 30 degrees, fast entry and precise exit. Steep turns were flown at exactly 60 degrees. I felt fortunate for the opportunity to fly with someone with his experience, and I learned a lot.

The fog was moving in fast. When I called ATC at SMX from 10 miles out, he suggested we hurry before the field went IFR. Rifle transferred control of the aircraft, and I ran her up to 90 knots for our return to the field. I pulled the power back as we made a left base entry and made a gentle dead-stick landing right at the taxiway.

We returned just in time, a perfect end to a wonderful day of aviation adventure.

After Rifle left, I was trying to explain to Edna about what an amazing pilot he was, about all his combat missions, and the honor of being the pilot for the A-10 West Coast Demonstration Team. Edna laughed and said that he was just as excited as all the kids who sat in that seat today. To him it was another aviation adventure that he would remember for a long time.

My experience in the Thunder Over the Valley Air Show was an aviation adventure that I will remember for a long time, too.

Vance Breese is a frequent poster on the Rotary Wing Forum. Read “Living an Impossible Dream” from the Santa Maria Times for more about his remarkable story.

Vance Breese is an engineer at heart and the son of a famous test pilot, Vance Breese Sr. Doctors predicted he would never walk or talk again after suffering a traumatic brain injury in 1995 when he crashed at 260 mph trying to set a land speed record for motorcycles. His recovery to the point of becoming a certificated pilot in 2008 could be an inspiration for other brain injury victims. Read “Living an Impossible Dream” from the Santa Maria Times, and watch this matching video of his remarkable story. 

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