Sky Pilot

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

Initial reports pegged Rick Bobbitt's stunt at last month's Santa Fe Air Show as a relatively easy maneuver called a hammerhead.

A former Navy aviator, current United Airlines flight officer and experienced aerobatic competitor, the 46-year-old Parker resident was certainly qualified to perform the trick. The International Aerobatic Club gave him its top rating.

Later inspection of a video from Bobbitt's flight revealed, however, that he was actually attempting a torque roll. A more complicated trick, this crowd-pleaser starts with the airplane rocketing straight up. Once it drops energy and the wings lose their "bite" in the air, the counterclockwise rotation of the prop-driving engine in Bobbitt's Russian-built plane (the rotation is clockwise in those built in the U.S.) begins spinning the aircraft.

As the plane begins to turn, the pilot also allows it to fall backwards, tail first, toward the ground. After sufficient time to let the crowd gasp in awe, he reduces the power and directs the plane back into a nose-first dive. It's a real showman's move. The danger comes in letting the plane gain too much speed at it drops tail-first; after all, airplanes aren't meant to fly that way.

When Bobbitt's 1993 Sukhoi-29 began dropping backwards that day, spinning in its torque roll, something went terribly wrong. He never recovered into the anticipated nosedive. The plane tumbled out of the clear blue sky and slammed into the ground. Bobbitt, who had a wife and two children, died on impact.

Rick Bobbitt participated in two air sports; the representatives of each prefer that people don't get them mixed up. The first of Bobbitt's loves was aerobatic competition, which is like figure skating in the air -- except that instead of an ice rink, pilots perform their moves, or "sequences," inside a 9,000-square-foot cube in the sky.

Like race-car driving, aerobatic flying can be hard on the body. G-forces -- enhanced gravity generated by acceleration -- can wreak havoc, resulting in anything from blackouts to broken blood vessels in the eyes. Negative Gs -- which cause too much blood to flow too quickly to the head--can cause a pilot to lose his sense of balance, known as the "wobblies," or produce what's known as the "stupids," in which there's difficulty thinking clearly.

Such stresses take a toll, and dying while flying is a regular occurrence among competition pilots. Every year there are between one and two dozen aerobatic "mishaps," most resulting in fatalities. The accidents occur almost exclusively during practices; Lisa Popp, executive director of the International Aerobatic Club, says no pilot has died in a sanctioned competition. The crashes can often be traced to pilot error made during a spin -- disorientation can be a problem -- or from flying too low. A minority of the accidents are attributed to mechanical problems.

In addition to aerobatic competition, Bobbitt performed stunts in his plane during airshows -- the activity that cost him his life. The difference between airshows and aerobatics is the difference between being an Olympic gymnast and a circus acrobat. The former is about being judged on technical and artistic merit; the latter is based on showmanship and crowd reaction.

Because the aim of airshow performers is to wow the spectators, "Airshows are much higher risk," says Gerry Molidor, president of the International Aerobatic Club and a former airshow pilot himself.

"Rick did airshows strictly for fun," says Glen Marshman, president of the Rocky Mountain Aerobatic Club and a good friend of Bobbitt's. "But I won't do them -- they're too dangerous." One way pilots show off is to fly very close to the ground -- meaning a lower margin for error when the flight goes bad.

Strictly speaking, the number of airshow deaths is small. John Cudahy, executive director of the International Council of Airshows, estimates the average at about two or three crashes a year. Yet most are filmed by spectators, triggering public alarm. The tiny number of participants also skews the sport's danger rating. Cudahy says that there are only about 400 or so active stunt pilots. When three die every year in crashes, that's a .75 percent fatality rate. (If the country's 28 million basketball players suffered the same mortality rate, about 200,000 people would perish annually from playing hoops.)

Still, the safety rate is much better than it once was. In the late 1980s and early '90s, American stunt pilots had "an unacceptably high number of accidents," Cudahy says. The carnage peaked in 1991, when a dozen pilots perished while performing at or practicing for airshows. A few spectacular crashes in Europe and Asia, in which audience members also died, added to the bloodshed. (Cudahy points out that no spectators have ever died during a show in this country.)

Like aerobatic competitors, airshow participants earn a flight rating based on their skill and experience, which determine how close a pilot may fly to the ground. Unlike competition pilots, though, who maintain a large cushion of air underneath them at all times, the most highly rated airshow pilot has literally no altitude restrictions: He may fly within mere feet of the ground if he wishes, and many do.

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.

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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