Gene McNeely fell in love with aviation as a kid, took lessons in high school, and finished his first pilot certificate on the G.I. Bill after serving in the U.S. Navy. Now, after 24 years with one of the best-known teams on the airshow circuit, the AeroShell Aerobatic Team slot pilot has decided to retire.
McNeely slid into the slot position with the team for the final time Nov. 5 at the Stuart Air Show at Witham Field in Stuart, Florida, and reflected on his decades-long love of aviation.
McNeely has logged more than 26,000 hours in a variety of aircraft, from crop sprayers and cargo haulers to race airplanes at the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada. Some of his favorite hours were flown in the North American AT-6 Texan.
“For years, I flew in the same southern regional airshows as Ben Cunningham, Alan Henley and Steve Gustafson, who were flying together as the North American Aerobatic Team,” McNeely explained. “We all got to know each other pretty well. Ben retired around 1994-95 and they asked me to join them. Then Mark Henley, Alan’s brother joined us. We clicked. We grew together as a team. We worked really hard and a few years later we became the AeroShell Aerobatic Team.”
Henley, the team leader, said in an email exchange with AOPA that Jimmy Fordham, who has logged more than 20,000 hours as a corporate, charter, airline, and airshow pilot, will take over the slot position moving forward, having already performed in that capacity with the team many times, alternating with McNeely during the past two years. As for adding a new member to the team to back up the quartet of Henley (lead), Fordham (slot), Gustafson (left wing), and Brian Regan (right wing), Henley said that will be no easy job.
“We are always looking but they are hard to find,” Henley wrote.
McNeely said that of all the airshows he flew with the team over nearly a quarter-century, one still stands out in his mind.
“Our first night show at Oshkosh—that was the biggest audience we had ever flown for at that time and it was absolutely incredible to look down and see all the cameras flashing at night,” McNeely said.
He added that while a passion for aerobatics, a drive to constantly refine and improve those skills, and aeronautical experience are key ingredients to a successful airshow career, good sponsors might be among the most important.
“Without a sponsorship, you’re just flying as a hobby,” McNeely said.