High-flying pilots press on with Colorado mountain show

June 27, 2012

The air is thin over Breckenridge, Colo. Above 10,000 feet msl, Gary Rower’s 450-horsepower Stearman will put out less than half its available horsepower, making the beefed-up performance aircraft slightly less powerful than a stock Stearman. But Rower is planning to take his act to new heights July 4, with performances billed as “The Highest Show on Earth.”

Rower and fellow airshow pilot Buck Roetman had been planning to pair the Stearman with a 250-hp Christen Eagle; but an apparent mechanical malfunction and subsequent accident in June left Roetman’s airplane seriously damaged and Roetman injured. The performer won’t sit out the show completely, however, Rower said: Roetman is taking over the duties of air boss.

“He and I know the program better than anybody else and since he’s not going to be flying he agreed to take over air boss duties,” Rower said.

Rower’s solo performance will be preceded by Scott McMillan and Jill Wilkins flying in nonaerobatic formation in Yak 52s, Rower said, followed by Todd McLaughlin in his T-28.

At density altitudes in excess of 12,000 feet, Rower will compensate for reduced horsepower, higher turn radii, higher true airspeed, and a greater loss of altitude in maneuvers.

Rower plans to take off from Lake County Airport in Leadville, Colo., North America's highest municipal airport at an elevation of 9,934 feet, and perform a routine over Lake Dillon in Dillon, Colo., at 9:30 a.m. After a stop back in Leadville for fuel and service—hydration is important, Rower said—he’ll fly to Breckenridge for a performance at 11:30 a.m. against the backdrop of the peaks at Breckenridge Ski Resort.

Rower said he and Roetman, who began performing together in 2011, are among a small group of experienced high-density-altitude pilots who will perform above 5,000 feet; both have performed at as high a venue as Cheyenne, Wyo., which reaches close to 7,000 feet density altitude, he said.

Rower expects to set unofficial world records for the highest-altitude airshows over land and water; the National Aeronautic Association has no category for the feat. But the record attempt was an afterthought, Rower said: He has wanted to perform at the picturesque venue for almost a decade.

The over-land routine is expected to start at the top of the Imperial Bowl, slaloming down the ski slope over the Imperial Express Superchair, which reaches a peak elevation of 12,840 feet, to enter the aerobatic box from the west.

EDITOR’S NOTE: A previous version of this story said Buck Roetman would be performing in the airshow. Roetman will no longer fly in the show.