Friday, May 15, 2015

Drive in the Country or Tumble Through the Sky; Acrobatic Pilot Rob Holland's Flying Lessons

I made the one hour drive on the beautiful back roads of New England, rounding the curves and ascending the hills. Distracted by spring in full bloom, I struggled to concentrate on the road ahead. 

By the time I arrived at Westfield Municipal Airport and introduced myself to acrobatic pilot Rob Holland I was exhausted and we had yet to fly.

That’s what sustained focus will do to you.

I’d been invited to go up with Rob during a practice session for this weekend’s Great New England Air Show in Western Massachusetts and to write about the experience for a chain of Connecticut newspapers. We would do barrel rolls, hammerheads and tumbles. 

That 30 minutes of being tossed around in a plane 3000 feet above the Berkshire foothills should seem more relaxing than a drive in the country is notable for this reason.

I know that being in an airplane with a professional acrobatic pilot at the controls, a pilot who sees every performance as an opportunity to refine his skill provides me with a safer environment than my own car when I am driving on 45 miles of two-lane highway.

Rob, aged 41, is a four time winner of the National Aerobatic Championships and a winner twice of the World Freestyle Championships. He is a pilot for whom a barrel roll is no more difficult than rolling out of bed. So before we took off, I asked him how he had safely achieved 11 thousand flight hours. 

He said that he uses a combination of behavioral tools that focus his concentration. Simple things like eliminating distractions and pressure. That’s why he does not listen to the music that accompanies his show.

“I don’t want to listen to music. If I listen to the music I find myself flying to the beat instead of flying to the ground.”

To make a show that entertains means flying outside of what the audience perceives to be safe though Rob insists that’s an illusion. 

“You try to make it look wild and crazy and out of control. That’s the showmanship of it. The reality is the show is 100% choreographed.”

There is comfort in the familiar, of course. With as many as four performances at each show and 20 shows on the schedule this season. Rob will have flown the same 12 minute flight more than 80 times between now and November. To prevent complacency he thinks about the unique characteristics of each flight.

“Every air show is different and I’m always striving to improve,” he told me. “It’s a lot of work and even if at the end of the year I've done the same routine, each one is different.”

Courtesy Rob Holland by Steven Serdikoff
Rob Holland's flying lesson for the weary airline pilot and the enthusiastic weekend general aviation pilot is the same; “Never take anything for granted. You can have 1000 hours or you can have 1000 of the same hour. If you find yourself having the same hour, then something needs to change.  Find a way to challenge yourself on every flight.”

Holland secures my safety harness. Photo by Steven Serdikoff
During my thirty minutes in the front seat of Rob’s Extra (named after German pilot Walter Extra, how cool is that for a name?) Rob explained each heart-stopping step, each push or pull of the stick and he warned me when I needed to prepare for the big G loads we would encounter next.

We flew inverted. We flew above, below and then off the left wing of the Geico Skytypers performance team. We rolled and flipped and when I asked for the trick most representative of the Rob Holland loved by air show audiences across the country, he put the plane into a tumble and the plane went nose over tail.

After my flight with Rob, I sat on the pavement outside the airport fence with 8 year old Josh Maciolek and his mom Sherri. The boy had heard the Blue Angels fly by while still in school that afternoon and wanted to see them up close.  His mother, a long time air show enthusiast was happy to indulge him. 

The three of us were not alone in the parking lot. It was filled with spectators getting a preview of this weekend’s show. The FA-18s roared through their rehearsal while Sherri kept her hands clamped over Josh’s ears and we all grinned like idiots.

Air shows exist to demonstrate the never-ending technological achievements in aviation and the proficiency and daring of the pilots. Audiences of all ages and even those who care not at all about airplanes thrill just the same.

By now, I had collected my things along with my wits, and was ready to head back to Connecticut. With Rob’s words in my mind, I turned off the car radio and concentrated on the journey ahead committed to making the drive home not just another hour on the road, but a different and safer one as well.

That’s what an air show can do for you.

Holland and Sean Tucker prepare for the Great New Engand Air Show

See Rob Holland in action here.

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