Stunt Plane soaring

Aerobatic pilot Andrew Wright makes loops, spirals, and rolls look easy. How’s he do that?

In videos of Andrew Wright flying his G202 stunt plane, his facial expressions reveal the intensity required to fly challenging aerobatics. He constantly looks around, up, and ahead, anticipating his next move while he completes the current maneuver. He braces his body against the nine Gs of a hard pull up or the five Gs of an outside loop that will throw him against the seatbelts. The three cameras mounted on his plane—two in the cockpit and one on the left wing of his plane—capture the earth, sun, and clouds spinning around the small craft with dizzying speed.

From the spectator’s point of view, the small plane climbs, snap rolls, loops, and spirals, leaving a trail of smoke for visibility. In one particularly breathtaking maneuver, Andrew flies straight up until the engine appears to stop and his plane slowly slides backwards toward the earth, tail first. At what seems the last moment before the crash, the plane’s motor roars back to life.

From takeoff to finish, Andrew has carefully orchestrated his performance, even the engine “failure.” He smiles and explains, “Actually, the engine is idling and the propeller is still spinning. The reverse airflow can actually stop the engine, and it’s happened a couple of times. Even if the engine doesn’t restart, it isn’t a big hazard because I have this long runway below me. I can just land.”

Andrew didn’t grow up yearning to fly airplanes, but he thought flying gliders might be fun, so his wife bought him a flight in a glider for his 33rd birthday. They were living in New Jersey, a long drive from any place to learn to fly gliders, so he turned to powered aircraft and soon earned his license. At the time, he was commuting to California for his job in cyber security, staying over one weekend out of three. On those weekends, he started aerobatics training in Livermore, California, and checked out to fly a couple of years later.

Two stunt planes flying close to each other

Andrew first flew competition aerobatics in a rented Citabria and later in a Pitts Special. “Competition teaches you good discipline to anticipate what’s going to happen,” he says. “In competitions the box is only 3,300 feet by 3,300. That means it takes less than 15 seconds to fly from one edge to the other, so sequences have to be very tightly packed.” Competitors fly three different sequences. “The first is known, so everyone flies the same sequence,” he says. “The second is free, which is a routine you have made up and practiced. The last is unknown. No one has flown these sequences, and you don’t get to practice. You just have to go up and do it.” The lowest permitted altitude for competition flying in the advanced category, in which he flies, is 200 meters (660 feet).

At air shows Andrew is allowed to fly whatever he wants in considerably more space. An airshow box can be 6,000 to 12,000 feet long. Andrew holds a surface waiver granted by the FAA, meaning he can fly as low as he dares. His personal minimum is 30 to 40 feet.

Flying stunt plane

Andrew has been flying exhibitions for seven years in his own airplane, a G202 carbon fiber kit plane. He carefully orchestrates every show from the narration script for the announcer, to the music that plays while he flies, to the complex aerial sequences that he performs. First, he fuels his plane, loads smoke oil, completes FAA paperwork, and gets his script to the announcer and music to the sound person so that he won’t be rushing around at the last minute. Second only to the aircraft pre-flight inspection, the pilot briefing is the most important step in getting ready to fly.

At the briefing, he learns when he will perform. Then, he says, “I sit down and think it through. I fly a pretty complicated set of routines spaced tightly together, all of which I have carefully worked out and practiced over time. Special considerations are wind—its speed and direction, whether it is blowing off or on crowd—and the crowd line.” He’s allowed to fly within 500 feet of the crowd line.

Andrew Wright's plane

Andrew appreciates his mentors, Debby Rihn Harvey and Jan Collmer, for cultivating his interest in flying and helping him to develop the necessary skills to be an aerobatic pilot. And Andrew wants to share his own experiences with others. “I want to show people, especially kids, the fun stuff that can be done in a plane. I want to inspire kids to get into aviation,” he says. He’d like families to make it out to an airshow to see him and other pilots take to the sky. Who knows? Maybe a son or daughter will be inspired to learn to dance in the sky as well.

Plane to Plane

Glenn Watson taking pictures from plane

Photography from an Aerial Perspective

Meet Glenn Watson. He makes his living snapping photos while strapped inside doorless airplanes.

How did you get interested in aerial photography?

My father was a pilot and a photographer, so I became interested as well. My father taught physics. When we moved here from Houston, he taught aviation classes at Georgetown High School as well as physics classes.

One year on a motorcycle vacation, I stopped in Nevada for the Reno Air Races. I took a bunch of pictures of it and they [weren’t that good], but I was hooked on becoming an aerial photographer. I’m the kind of person that, when I decide to do something, I want to be really good at it.

Glenn WatsonHow did you improve your craft?

Five years ago, a friend in Dallas held a workshop on how to take pictures from another airplane. Afterward, I knew that this is what I had to do.

The biggest challenge getting into the field was getting people to trust me. I did a lot of flying for free, not getting paid for pictures. This got expensive, but you have to do that to get your foot in the door.

Tell me about your pilot and plane.

David Zavaleta flies for me. I met him on Craigslist and joined his five-member flying club. We left that club and now own a 50/50 share in an A36 Bonanza. David flies for me about 90 percent of the time, but there are a few other professionals I trust, including Andrew Wright. We chose the Bonanza because it’s certified to fly without the door. You can’t get good photos shooting through glass.

Two stunt planes

How do you prepare for a shoot?

Every detail of the flight is carefully planned, and I brief all pilots. The shot list comes second to safe operations and coordination for the formation. I fasten everything to me because you can’t have anything fall out and possibly hit someone on the ground. Then I fasten myself to the plane and start taking pictures. I do only still photography. Shooting videos from the air is difficult because it’s so bumpy.

What performers or aircraft have you photographed?

I’ve photographed regional performers like Andrew Wright and Jan Collmer, but I’ve also photographed some of the nation’s top aerobatic pilots, like Rob Holland, Skip Stuart, and Greg Colyer. Last year, I got to photograph the Blue Angels Navy team. That was cool.

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