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August 1, 2005
By Phil Scott
In Skip Stewart's world there are three steps in a pilot's education: takeoffs, landings, aerobatics. "Why everybody doesn't do that baffles me," he says. "That's what flying is all about. If you don't do that you're, like, driving a bus around." He is one of the rising young stars on the airshow circuit.
Stewart lives in Memphis, where he flies for FedEx and performs aerobatics in his highly modified Pitts S-2S. A few years ago he was an aerobatics instructor, and a woman he'd taught mentioned his name to a guy who needed an airshow performer in Jackson, Tennessee. "I didn't have a waiver, but I did some research and found that you don't have to be somebody special to do it," Stewart says. He flew before an aerobatic competency examiner (ACE) and passed an oral exam. There was a bit of a time crunch: The show was Saturday, and Stewart scheduled the test the Thursday before. For a fee, though, he could get a rush on the waiver. He passed, and the ACE signed him off to fly his routine no lower than 800 feet agl.
"The first show was fun," he says. "I had used to use my jump-seat privileges to fly around the U.S. just to watch shows, so to be a part of one was very cool." Hooked on show biz, that next year he flew a few more shows — nine, actually. He'd do just about anything to fly in one; he'd show up in his Pitts hoping that one of the other performers couldn't make it. "You would be surprised how difficult it is for a new guy to be booked to fly a show — for free!" he says. Stewart logged enough shows to get his waiver reduced to 500 feet agl; the middle of the third year, 2002 — when he flew seven shows — he got down to 250 feet. In his fourth year, 2003 — a 10-show-season — he was down to Level One Unrestricted. Last year he flew 10 shows; this year his total will reach 14.
Each year Stewart's price went up, from $0 to the low thousands today. "My goal is to fly 12 to 15 shows a season," he says, "and get my fee up closer to five figures."
Even when that happens, he doesn't see himself giving up his job flying right seat on the Douglas DC-10. "At this point it's a hobby," he says. "Going out and not having to pay for it would be great. Anything above that would be gravy."
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