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Benzing's Stearman is 'continuous ballet in air'

Vicky Benzing will perform in the daily air show today and Saturday in her 1940 Boeing Stearman. Except for the engine and a smoke system, the plane remains as it was built 75 years ago with two ailerons and no inverted fuel or oil.

By Barbara A. Schmitz

  • Benzing’s Stearman is ‘continuous ballet in air’
    Airshow performer Vicky Benzing.
July 23, 2015 - Vicky Benzing recalls her first air show performance. It was for a local winery and she was paid with a case of wine.

Things have certainly changed since then for the pilot whose career has spanned more than 30 years; she now also holds commercial ratings in helicopters and seaplanes, plus an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) rating.

In her first air show performances ever at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, Benzing will fly today and Saturday in her Stearman.

She's ready–and “beyond excited.”

“Flying in the Stearman is like a continuous ballet in the air,” she says. “It’s big, loud, and puts out a lot of smoke. You can fly it close to the audience, and that’s why people like it.”

However, it is more difficult to do aerobatic maneuvers in the Stearman, compared to her Extra, which is more energetic and lively.

Except for the engine and smoke system, her Stearman remains as originally built by Boeing. Thus, it has two ailerons instead of four like most air show aircraft, she explains, and no inverted fuel or oil. That means she has to keep two hands on the stick to roll it and maintain positive gs on the aircraft or the engine will quit.

Benzing credits her uncle, who flew in air shows and at the Reno Air Races, with giving her the aviation spark. “He took me flying and I was so young that I couldn’t tell if we were flying over a toy land or real houses and cars,” she recalls. “But I still remember that flight. That’s why the Young Eagles program is so important. You never know what will start a spark.”

Benzing didn’t learn to fly, however, until she was in college and a friend asked her to go skydiving. “We went out and I made a jump, and that led to more and more jumps,” she says. “I was around airplanes a lot, and I would come home and talk about learning to fly.”

She started training in a 1941 Taylorcraft at a time when training included spin training.

“He taught me how to loop the airplane and I was pretty jazzed,” she recalls. “I don’t know how to describe flying in 3-D space, but it’s the most freeing feeling you could have.”

After that, Benzing took a 10-hour aerobatic course, and bought her first plane, a Luscombe. But then she got involved in her career—she holds a Ph.D. in physical chemistry and worked in the Silicon Valley high tech industry—so aerobatic flying took a back seat for a while.

But 11 years ago, Benzing took a ride in Wayne Handley’s Extra 300L. “As we were taxiing back in, Wayne said, ‘This is going to be a very expensive ride for you, huh?’ Indeed, within a month, I had bought an Extra,” she says.

She started training with Handley in 2005 and started competing shortly after, taking first in the Intermediate category in both the Northwest and Southwest Regional Championships in 2006. By 2008, she was a top 10 finisher at the U.S. National Aerobatic Championships in the Advanced category.

Benzing says it’s difficult to become an air show pilot without flying competitions first. “Competitions teach you about flying for an audience, proper placement in the aerobatic box…and incrementally it moves you down to fly at lower altitudes as your skills build,” she says. “You fly for a bunch of people who tell you how much your flying sucks, what you are doing wrong, and in the end it makes you safer.”

Benzing also competes in the Reno Air Races, flying a Lancair Legacy, and will be flying overseas in an air race challenge series next year.

 “I call the Legacy my time machine,” she says. “It’s like a miracle. One moment you’re here and the next moment you’re in the next state.”

She says her success in air racing can be contributed to luck, skill, and great advice she received from Lee Behel, who coached her in technique, how to fly the course, and how to make the millions of small modifications to the airplane to make it fast.

Benzing, an EAA lifetime member, has come to AirVenture for a long time, and says it’s like coming home. “I call Reno my September family and this is my July family. You see so many people that you know from across the country. It’s like old home week.”

But she also comes to see what AirVenture offers. “I like seeing the new airplanes, the new development in avionics and all that stuff,” she says. “I like to see it all.”