Sky Pilot

The siren call to fly a stunt plane can be a fatal one.

Bobbitt was a Level 4 pilot in the ICA's system, a 1 to 4 scale in which the most experienced pilots are rated Level 1. Cudahy says that the Parker resident erred on the side of safety: Bobbitt had been eligible to move into a more skilled class for some time, but he'd declined.

The specter of a public crash is real, and there are far fewer airshow performers than aerobatic competitors. There are always pilots willing to cross over, and one reason they do so is the opportunity to make some money.

Flying is not a cheap hobby. Aerobatic aircraft cost anywhere from $50,000 for a used Pitt to $300,000 and up for more modern machines. Airshows can pay well. New performers might pocket $1,000, and big names can earn $15,000 per weekend. While rare, sponsorships -- Oracle and Bud Light are a couple of the bigger ones -- can provide pilots with more backing.

Sam Turner

Bobbitt's plane, the Sukhoi-29, is one of the more expensive models and is widely recognized as one of the best and most versatile aerobatic aircraft in the world. At the last world championship, more than half the planes being flown were Sukhois. FAA records show that there are only 31 Sukhoi-29s in the country.

It is also a demanding plane. Like a performance car, the Sukhoi can be reassuringly responsive or frighteningly squirrelly, depending entirely on the skill of the person in the cockpit. "To fly it well, you must fly well," says Molidor, who used to pilot a Sukhoi for Bud Light. "And there aren't many people in the country who can fly it well."

There have been five crashes involving Sukhoi airplanes since 1999, including Bobbitt's. (Two of those occurred in Colorado, in Longmont and Telluride, both in 2000.) Still, National Transportation Safety Board investigator David Bowling, who's leading the inquiry into the crash, says the number isn't high enough to raise red flags over the condition of Bobbitt's plane.

Besides, according to Bowling, Bobbitt had practiced his entire routine the day before the Santa Fe show without a hitch. His plane had also been inspected and passed muster. "The FAA had two inspectors on site who talked to him during a Œramp check' before the show and went over his certifications and paperwork, and it was all okay," Bowling says.

Bowling says he is scheduled to meet soon with other investigators in a hangar outside Albuquerque, where Bobbitt's plane was moved after the crash. They'll examine the Sukhoi in detail to try to determine if a mechanical failure caused the crash. They'll also view results of toxicology tests and an autopsy -- all standard -- to see if something other than pilot error caused Bobbitt to plunge out of the sky.

"He was doing a maneuver well within his altitude ranges," Bowling says. "It wasn't dangerous."

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