May 5, 2011
By Dan Namowitz
There’s no such thing as an off season for airshow performer Skip Stewart anymore.
Bookings are up. A chart plotting demand for his act might look like the diagram of a vertical maneuver.
Winter used to give some down time when he could head for the hangar at Millington Regional Jetport outside Memphis, Tenn., and do maintenance and mods on his show aircraft.
Not so much these days. From the Persian Gulf to China, people want to see airshows, and some of those clients have the means to bring their performers overseas.
Call it America’s hot new export. But making the decision to go global is a challenging step for an up-and-coming aerobatic act.
Consider scheduling: How do you book performances stateside when your show airplane will be tied up for five weeks, sitting disassembled in a container on a slow boat to (and another five weeks coming back from) China?
It didn’t take long for Stewart to “snap” to the only logical solution: Build a second airplane during the off-seasons.
But those off-seasons are getting shorter all the time.
In February, during a dormant time for U.S. performances, Stewart was performing his act for the royal family, honored guests, and about 10,000 other onlookers at the Al Ain Aerobatic Show in the United Arab Emirates. It was his second visit—but unlike his first appearance in 2008, this time he flew during a time of high military alert and regional political upheaval (although you wouldn’t have known it from appearances).
“Libya contacted me, but I’m glad that I didn’t go there now,” he said.
In late March he kicked off the season in the Americas with a show in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic. Two days later he headed for Florida to perform at Sun ‘n Fun. His 2011 domestic itinerary has Stewart in performances once or twice a month through November. On Sept. 17 and 18, Millington Regional Jetport will host the Memphis Airshow, with Stewart performing in front of the hometown audience. In October that schedule will be punctuated by a performance in Xian, China, where he’s not sure exactly what kind of audience to expect. January 2012 will find him in El Salvador.
That’s show biz.
It wasn’t always like that for Stewart, who, when not vertical, inverted, rolling, stalling, spinning, or perpetrating some sublime combination of those attitudes and conditions, can be found flying straight-and-level in the left seat of a FedEx Boeing 727.
Back in 2005, AOPA Pilot looked in on him just as he was gaining some “cred” on the airshow circuit. He wasn’t so far beyond the will-fly-aerobatics-for-free stage that he could not recall in entertaining detail how he broke into the biz. One strategy was dropping in before shows in his Pitts S2S in hopes that he could substitute for a booked act that for some reason might have to withdraw.
The year of that interview, he flew 14 shows, and had lowered his altitude waiver, initially 800 feet agl, to Level One Unrestricted. Flying airshows was a hobby, he said; anything beyond that would be gravy.
Now there’s gravy. That schedule is up to 18 or 19 shows a year with the extended, international season’s bookings. And although Stewart says that he flies the same act, with the same margins as before in Prometheus, his thoroughly modified show plane, it’s a whole different ballgame after gaining acceptance.
“Initially there was a lot of fear that I was reckless,” he said. “My style is to appear dangerous. To some people it looked like I was dangerous.”
It was the inspiration and thrill of seeing airshows that made Stewart realize that he wanted to be a pilot. He had the knack for overcoming barriers to entering his chosen field—a trait that he has put to good use whether flying with one engine or three.
The boom-bust cycle of the airline industry was in bust phase when Stewart was nearing readiness to enter the pilot job market. Airlines had furloughed veteran pilots; would-be first officers were paying big dollars for their own training—just for a chance to get on with a regional airline.
Stewart landed a job, but after 15 months, he was laid off. Discouraging.
But then the business cycle rolled over, and things changed for the better. That helped shape a philosophy useful when trying to make it in aviation: Don’t let what is happening right now in your field keep you from doing something you feel you were born to do.
“All of a sudden there will be a boom again,” he said. “The best time to be a student pilot is a time like right now. No one is getting ahead of you.”
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