Talent, passion fly high at the Milwaukee Air & Water Show
Each year, the Milwaukee Air & Water Show attracts thousands of spectators to the lakefront to watch in awe as aircrafts of all shapes and sizes perform spectacular aerobatics.
While it's obvious that it takes years of skill and practice to successfully execute such feats, few people actually get a chance to experience this world firsthand.
Recently I was able to ride along in two of these unique planes and learn more about their mechanics and the extraordinary pilots that help make this annual show such an amazing draw.
For Rob Holland, pilot of the Veteran Home Loans MX2, this will be the fourth appearance at the Milwaukee Air & Water Show. The now full-time aerobatic pilot has 19 years of experience under his belt.
"I did do flight instruction, I flew corporate for awhile, but the whole time I was flying anything I could in between that would go upside down to build my experience," he said. "Then for the past almost 10 years I've been doing aerobatics full time and all those years I've been doing air shows."
While the primary goal of shows like these is to entertain, safety is always a priority for any air show participant.
"You want to make it look wild, you want to make it look crazy and dangerous, but it's the illusion of that, not the reality of it," said Holland. "I structure every maneuver so if something does go wrong, you get the out to fix it and try to get out of the situation. The airplane is very well maintained; my crew is just awesome at keeping an eye on the airplane and checking it all over. There's risk in everything, but we try to minimize the risk."
In addition to air show performances, Holland has also performed in air shows and aerobatic competitions around the world, including a gold medal finish at the eighth World Advanced Aerobatic Championships in 2008.
"Competition aerobatics is actually a lot different than air shows. It's actually more about precision and straight lines and very precise aerobatics. It's in front of a panel of judges, and it's not quite as exciting to watch as an air show is, but it's a lot of fun to fly," he explained. "There's actually three programs. Those are called the known, where a sequence is published at the beginning of the year and everyone flies the same thing. There's a freestyle, where we have to come up with our own sequence that meets certain requirements and point structure. Then there's an unknown, which they hand to us 18 hours before we fly, and to me, that's the real fun one because everyone's on the same page."
Competitive aerobatics presents an extra chance for pilots from around the world to form lasting friendships.
"Competition is usually all over the world, like this year the world championships is in Italy," said Holland. "That's kind of fun, being able to go to another country and see 23 to 30 different countries and 60 pilots from those different countries all competing in the same place. To come back to the world championship and see all the pilots that were there before, it's kind of like you just saw them two days ago. That's a lot of the fun, is catching up with friends and hanging out and sharing what you love to do with others."
The camaraderie is also a favorite aspect for Michael Wiskus, pilot of the Lucas Oil Model 11 Pitts biplane and fellow alumnus of the United States Aerobatic Team.
"It's a family. It really is," he said. "It's a small world. In the type of stuff that we do, there's a solid 25 to 45 people, and that's it in the United States that are actually really avidly out there pursuing air shows and doing this. And out of those, there's probably a top 10 or 15 that are kind of leading the way."
Unlike Holland, Wiskus is only a part-time aerobatic pilot. The rest of his time is divided among every other aspect of the sport and craft of aviation.
"I love everything that has to do with aviation. It's been my whole life since I was 15," he said. "I own a shop in the Twin Cities where we refurbish vintage aircraft, especially old biplanes. We take them right down to nothing and rebuild them to make sure that they're perfect. I also have a flight school up there. We teach aerobatics right down to getting your private pilot's license. Everything that I do in life is saturated in aviation. I couldn't imagine doing anything else."
Wiskus' show plane is one of just three of that model ever built.
"It's an extremely strong airplane," he said. "I'm pulling, on a regular basis, 7 to 10 Gs, and I roll upside down and I push out 7 to 7 and a half Gs. Now, keep in mind that during one 13-minute performance, I do that 15 times. Push, pull, push, pull, push, pull. So when you take an airplane like that and you look at it over its entire lifetime, 25 or 30 years of hard aerobatics, to have it beefed up, to have it be really strong, there's no other airplane that I would choose."
The airplane is built with this kind of force in mind, but defying gravity is something pilots have to work up to.
"Physically, it takes a toll on you," said Wiskus. "To roll upside down and have nine times my weight trying to shove me out of the top canopy, it's not a real comfortable feeling. But for us, it's gotten to the point to where we don't even think about it. We tighten our neck when we're supposed to, we tighten our torso and our stomach and the back of our legs to prevent the blood from rushing from one end of our body to the other, and we do it unconsciously. It all comes with practice."
It's a small price to pay, too. For these pilots, it's as much about getting people – and kids especially – interested in flying as it is about having fun and putting on a good show.
"More than anything, I really love introducing and showing and presenting this to people," said Wiskus. "What we do, not many people do. I hope to light the spark and get people interested in flying. The more kids I that can get involved and interested in this, the better. I can't wait to share it with more people."
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