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How to Almost Get Arrested at An Air Show

By Danny Sorensen, EAA 38777

April 14, 2016 - From 1988 through 1994 I flew air shows in a Pitts S-1S that I had built and equipped with two Gluhareff propane-powered pressure jets. The airplane was named The Blue Dragon because the jets shot out flames that were 8-10 feet long in the daytime, and 15 feet long during night air shows. One of the terms of my contract was that I would make a publicity flight over the surrounding areas during the twilight hours of the evening before the opening day of the air show, with flames and smoke drawing the eyes of potential air show spectators to the sky, thereby enticing them to come to the show.

In July 1991 I was hired to fly the air show at Boeing Field, Seattle, Washington. Friday was media day, and all the pilots were introduced to the press, along with information about the airplanes we were to fly, and the types of performances we would be flying. The press was told that I would be flying around the area that evening with the flames and smoke, so “When you see an airplane on fire tonight, that will be Danny flying to promote the air show!”

By the time I taxied out that evening the sun was just above the horizon. This was perfect timing to make the 15-minute flight and get back on the ground just after dark. As I made the call to the tower I had the thought go fleetingly through my mind that I ought to tell them what I was up to. I was of the opinion that the show organizer had previously made the arrangements with the tower for this flight, and the thought passed through my mind like a tiny bubble of air through a fuel system. Not even a hiccup to be noticed.

I took off and headed north over highway I-5, flew to Green Lake, turned west to the shore of the Puget Sound, then turned south back towards Boeing Field. I was just about to call the tower when I heard another pilot report, "Boeing Field tower, this is so-and-so. There is a twin-engine airplane over the Puget Sound. Both engines are on fire and it's going to crash into the Sound!"

I immediately called, "Boeing Field tower, experimental Pitts four-seven-one-four hotel, I'm flying over the Sound with fire coming from jets mounted on my plane. There's no problem here. I'm flying a media promotional flight for the air show."

The tower called back, "One-four hotel, copy. You'd better shut them down. Every switchboard in the city is lit up. We're getting calls from the fire department, the Coast Guard, and the police."

I copied, shut off the jets, and got clearance to land. As I entered downwind the tower called, "One-Four Hotel, there's a Boeing Field police officer waiting to talk to you when you get down."

As I turned off the runway the police officer was waiting for me. I think he wanted me to stop right there, but I wasn't about to tie up a taxiway while I dealt with him. I ignored him and taxied to the hangar.

As I shut down and got out of the plane the officer came over with a flashlight and looked all around the airplane trying to figure out what I had been doing and how I had made fire. I think he expected to find fireworks strapped on somewhere. All he could see where these two cold stainless steel tubes mounted on the I-struts. He looked quite confused, and I was silently amused watching him.

He was a quite abrupt with me at first, asking me what I had done and how I had done it. I gave him a brief technical explanation of how the jets worked. I kept as quiet and calm as I could, and did not show any signs of being indignant or resistant to his questioning. As we talked his self-important authoritarian air began to leave him. After a few minutes he asked me to get into his car. We sat there for about 30 minutes as he asked questions and I answered with all gentle compliance.

We got to a point in his questioning when he recommended that he read me my Miranda Rights. That, I thought, was rather weird, as he had yet to tell me what I had done wrong, or what laws I had broken. He read me my rights, then said, “You'll probably receive some kind of citation for what you've done. All the emergency services have been inundated with calls from concerned people. Before I let you go do you have any comments or questions for me?"

I said, "Yes, I do. I don't understand what all the fuss is about. I flew exactly the same type of flight over Tacoma just last week for their air show. Nobody said one thing about it over there. I flew over Memphis, Tennessee, last month, and the air traffic controllers directed me over the most populated areas of the city so the air show would get the most exposure possible. I've been doing this for four years now, and this is the first time anyone has said anything negative about it. I don't understand what I've done wrong."

The police officer shook my hand, now seeming to be on my side rather than against me as at first. He left, and I spent the next few minutes telling my wife, Allyn, and another air show couple everything that had just happened in the cab of the police car.

Back in our hotel room, Allyn and I were watching the local 11 o'clock news on TV. The top story was about an earthquake a few miles off the coast of San Francisco. The number two story was about a stunt pilot who “flew over Seattle with fire trailing from his wings to promote this weekend's air show being held at Boeing Field." They showed some amateur video footage, and there I was, flying along looking like I was about to burn up and crash. Well, at least the air show got their money's worth!

The next morning when we got to the airport we were all the buzz. Susan Upthegrove, who had hired us, said she saw us on the news, and that the air show had gotten some great publicity. Just about everyone we saw at the air show had heard what had happened.

Over the next two days I flew my performances without incident, although I did have numerous interviews with the FAA. After all was said and done I was cleared of any wrong doing. I flew the Boeing Field show the following year, and the same FAA monitor was there. When I expressed how glad I was to see him, he was rather surprised and asked, “Why!?”

I said, “Because I don't have to go through all that again this year!”

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