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There’s No Business Like Air Show Business (Part 1) November 16, 2011

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Two Saturdays ago, we made our first trip to Palm Springs and Palm Desert to attend the 8th Annual Jacqueline Cochran Air Show (actually held near Palm Desert in Thermal, California). We’ve already posted two photo essays of our visit to the Palm Springs Air Museum that weekend (click HERE and HERE for those).

Here at Lofty Ambitions, we’ve made no secret of our affection for air shows. We’ve attended almost every variant of air show. We’re not alone at these events. In recent years, some 25-26 million people have attended air shows in the United States and Canada. Air shows are the second most popular sporting events by attendance (well behind only Major League Baseball at 70+ million).

Stearman at jacqueline Cochran Air Show 2011

Some of our favorite air shows have been small, family-oriented gatherings like the College Park Air Show in Maryland; the Stearman Fly-In in Galesburg, Illinois; and Wings of Victory in Lancaster, Ohio. The smaller air shows allow us the opportunity to interact with aircraft and owners in ways that we can’t predict. Once, at College Park, an aircraft owner and restorer took us into his workshop—on the airport’s grounds—to see his most recent work on a long-term restoration project. He was painstakingly removing fasteners from seventy-year-old corrugated aluminum wings. Anna wrote a poem about that air show that made its way into her chapbook Turns about a Point. We never found out how far the man got with his restoration project, but his goal was to see the airplane fly again.

T-28 Trojans

We’ve also attended themed air shows, like our recent visits to the MCAS  Miramar Air Show (click HERE and HERE for posts on that), with its emphasis on Marine Corps aviation and the centennial of Navy aviation. Last fall, we traipsed over to nearby Zamperini Field (named for the man who serves as subject of Laura Hillenbrand’s new book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption) in Torrance, California, for their “Salute to North American Aviation” (click HERE for that post). Academics that we are, themed air shows have the feel of an upper-level seminar, a chance to dive deeply into some particular aspect of aviation.

Inside the Commemorative Air Force's C-53

Our experiences at the large, multi-day aviation events have also been rewarding and sometimes overwhelming. We aren’t Oshkosh mainstays like our friends Jim Amundson and his father, Glen. Glen Amundson has attended EAA AirVenture each year since 1987, and Jim has joined his father at nearly half those shows. Still, we’ve twice sweated out Oshkosh (see our Oshkosh post HERE) with best of them on those brutally hot and humid late July days. (The best of them would be Lisa, Jim’s wife, who once attended while six months pregnant.) We’ve also managed to take in the corporate-aviation-heavy shows like the Dayton Air Show and Chicago’s Air and Water Show. The size and scale of these shows (and even the parking) can be intimidating, but the pay-off comes in the range of aircraft and the quality of the performers we’ve seen.

Skydiver Rex Pembleton

Air shows are unusual events, in that they represent a confluence of American history: they’re political, they’re technological, and they’re commercial. For the next post, we’ll focus on the technological history, for air shows offer, in just an afternoon, a recap of the entire history of this technological achievement. Along the way in this series, of course, we’ll include photos, particularly of the Jacqueline Cochran Air Show earlier this month.

Happy Birthday, Evelyn Bryan Johnson! November 4, 2011

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Evelyn Bryan Johnson, the woman pilot with the most flying hours in the world, celebrates her 102nd birthday today in Morristown, Tennessee. The locals call her Mama Bird. Her total flying time is the equivalent of roughly 6-½ years.

(National Aviation Hall of Fame)

Evelyn Johnson learned to fly when World War II was raging overseas and women like Evelyn filled a variety of new roles outside the home. She decided to learn to fly when she saw an advertisement for lessons in the newspaper. Her first lesson was on October 1, 1944, her first solo was November 8, and she earned her private pilot’s license the following June. Within three years, she became a flight instructor, then an examiner in 1952. She later learned to fly helicopters, only the twentieth woman to do such a thing.

As of February of this year (see video below), Evelyn Johnson was working at the local airport four days a week. She didn’t let a car accident and leg amputation in 2006 slow her down much. That said, she stopped flying at the age of 96, in large part because of glaucoma, and gave up her title as the oldest flight instructor in the world. She trained more pilots and gave more than 9,000 FAA check rides, more than anyone else ever. She worries that today’s new pilots aren’t taught to use a map and that instructors are afraid to have student pilots practice stalls. All her efforts earned her a spot in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

Evelyn’s advice for longevity: “”Don’t sit down and watch the grass grow. Stay busy. Have something that you have to get up and do every day.” (Click HERE for that full news story from November 2010.)

To celebrate women in flight, we may just have to head to the Jacqueline Cochran Air Show this weekend. Jackie Cochran beat Evelyn Johnson into the air by several years and, in 1953, became the first woman to break the sound barrier.

MCAS Miramar Air Show (Part 2) October 5, 2011

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Last week, we wrote about “Writing Together, Writing Apart.” We’ve been thinking about those issues a lot lately, and we’re in the midst of drafting a couple more posts about how we write as a couple and as individuals and how we work together on a writing project and separately on different projects.

This past weekend, our visit to the MCAS Miramar Air Show reminded us that our writing together comes out of some shared activities that helped shape and solidify our relationship way back when. This week, we take some time to recount our Sunday of gaping at the sky (click HERE to see more of our PHOTOS in Part 1), but we’re also in the process of weaving this description back into our grappling with writing as a couple.

The annual MCAS (Marine Corp Air Station) Miramar Air Show, as you would expect from the name, has a decidedly military vibe. Most air shows have a present and past military presence, but Miramar is more of that than any other air show we’ve attended. This year’s show had the added mission of honoring the 100th Anniversary of Naval Aviation. The program is labeled “A Salute to San Diego,” with the following text just beneath: “1911 ~ Birthplace of Naval Aviation ~ 2011.” A quick glance might give the impression that the first landing on and take-off from an aircraft carrier took place in San Diego. In fact, those events took place 500 miles away in San Francisco. (Click HERE for a blog post, published on the actual 100th birthday, 18 January 2011, that contains some fantastic photographs of the events.)


This year at Miramar, the day’s signature event was the thirty-minute MAGTF (Marine Air-Ground Task Force) Demonstration Team. As befitting the ground part of MAGTF, there were tanks, armored personnel carriers, and Humvees careening about on the tarmac. But the real appeal for us were the numerous aircraft: C-130s, F/A-18s, AV-8Bs, and CH-46s just to name a few. Our eyes were pointed skyward watching the F/A-18 Hornets flashed by in high-speed passes at 600 knots. (We think that’s what the announcer said, but, of course, it was a bit loud at the moment he said it.) That’s just over 90% of the speed of sound (661 knots or 761 mph at sea level, which was about where we were, since Miramar means sea view).

We’ve never before seen as many helicopters in the air at once. In fact, this was the first time that either of us had seen an MV-22A Osprey up close and personal. The Osprey is a VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing) aircraft that the Marine Corps uses to move troops. The Osprey blends (some would say breaks) the characteristics of a fixed-wing aircraft with a helicopter. Or rather, with two helicopters, since the Osprey’s enormous blades and engines are mounted on both wingtips. The blades are so large that the Osprey can have them in the fully forward position only once it is airborne. It’s an odd, yet somehow very impressive-looking, machine.

Harrier, hovering

If we had only two words to describe the AV-8B Harrier, another VTOL aircraft in the Marine Corps inventory, they would be LOUD and improbable. The first time we encountered a Harrier at an air show was at the Quad City Air Show in the early 1990s, one of our first forays to such events together. Back then, a volunteer walked through the crowd to pass out orange earplugs and warn that the air show wouldn’t be responsible for our hearing loss if we chose to forego the offered hearing protection. We had our own earplugs on hand this time, and we admit we used them.

The Harrier is descended from a 1960’s British aircraft, the Hawker Siddeley Harrier, and Harrier pilots have been flying amazing maneuvers for nearly fifty years. This past Sunday, part of the MAGTF demonstration featured two Harriers flying, or hovering, really, perched atop shimmering towers of hot jet engine exhaust as they made their way down the runway at improbably slow speeds. That particular demonstration is among the least improbable bit of flying that the Harrier can do. Later in the day, a solo Harrier demonstration featured a vertical takeoff, another improbability that we’d seen twenty years ago on the shores of the Mississippi River. Ready for more? How about slowly flying sideways? Definitely another tick up the improbability scale.  At just about the point that your brain begins to wonder whether this some sort of videogame, the pilot throws the Harrier in reverse and confirms the surreal. These Harrier demonstrations never get old.

The Blue Angels

A full day of sun, sound, and standing on concrete took its toll. The Blue Angels were scheduled to begin their display at 2:45 pm, but they were delayed. It’s difficult to leave an air show before the last act, but by 3:00 pm, we were ready to call it a day. Besides, we’ve seen the Blue Angels several times, and our aching knees and backs were as pressing as our need for lunch. We headed for the exit slowly, lingered at the car with the doors open to cool it, and hoped to catch a glimpse of the Blue Angels before we drove away.

As we’ve written several times at Lofty Ambitions, serendipity sometimes catches us, and that’s what happed on Sunday. Just as we were finishing lunch at a restaurant on the road between the air show and the freeway, the sound of jet engines roared overhead. We rushed out into the parking lot and caught the Blue Angels show from a completely new vantage. We had positioned ourselves at a randomly chosen sandwich shop. In fact, we had stopped at a different place first, but it was closed. This randomly chosen sandwich shop just happened to be on the Blue Angels’ flight path. Roughly five minutes after the show started, Doug heard a gentle rumble behind us and turned to see four jets approaching in a diamond pattern. In just a few seconds, it became clear that they would fly directly over our heads: 200-250 feet above us at nearly 500 mph. The F/A-18 Hornets came over our position as a single jet, a pair of jets, and in the diamond formation at least a half-dozen times. By pure chance, we’d managed the best seats in the house.

All during the Blue Angels’ routine, cars spontaneously pulled into the same parking lot where we stood and emptied of families who plopped themselves down onto any grass they could find. An Indian family emerged from the Indian restaurant. Adults were as awestruck as the children. We all spent the next twenty minutes staring into the sky, looking at fast-moving flashes of blue and yellow. On that first pass overhead, a young boy standing not twenty feet away from us started spontaneously shouting and cheering. Anna was doing the same thing. The sounds that air show crowds make are different from the trilling ooh’s and ah’s of a fireworks display. Air show crowds gasp with punctuated yelps of wow’s and oh-my’s, as if surprised by every pass, every loop, every zipping into the distant clouds.

We are aviation nerds. Despite what we know about the physics of lift and gravity, of thrust and drag, the fact that a big metal contraption can manage controlled flight boggles our minds. One of the reasons that we like air shows so much is that, despite the complicated politics and ethics on display, the aircraft themselves have the power to turn anyone within the line-of-sight and earshot into an aviation nerd, if only for a couple of hours, if only for a few minutes in a strip mall parking lot.

We end this post on a different topic, with a video of Steve Jobs, giving the Commencement Address at Stanford University in 2005. Steve Jobs died today, after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. We drafted and revised this post on Mac laptops and are long-time Mac users. We like especially the way Steve Jobs talks here about learning widely and about the role of serendipity.

MCAS Miramar Air Show 2011 (photos) October 2, 2011

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Anna & Doug in a Spinner


Golden Knights








Best Seat at Miramar


C-130 Refuels Helos


P-51 & F-16


Sean Tucker


Blue Angels


We’ll have more about air shows in general and Miramar in particular soon!

Planes! Photos! A Day in Torrance, CA October 9, 2010

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The Western Museum of Flight is located next to Robinson Helicopters, and these are ready for delivery.


Today, we drove  up to Torrance to see the airshow at the Western Museum of Flight. We’ll write more about that and about the Portal of Folded Wings in nearby Burbank soon. In the meantime, enjoy a some photos.


Today's airshow at the Western Museum of Flight featured dozens of aircraft. We're fond of this one from the annual Stearman fly-in in Galesburg, Illinois.



The B-25 featured in the film Catch-22



P-51 Mustang getting ready to fly



Bob Hoover, airshow pilot who demonstrated the P-51 Mustang for decades.



Stearman in flight.


Serendipity Weekend September 15, 2010

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Yak-3 at Planes of Fame

When we decided to do Lofty Ambitions, one area of our lives we planned to explore was what it meant for us to grow up—to be children and become young adults—during the Cold War. As twelve-year-olds, the locus of our fears, because it was the locus of the nation’s fears, was the Soviet Union. By the time we came along, the confrontation had become familiar, and Ruskie bogeymen and the nuclear threat populated our favorite television shows. In The Six-Million-Dollar Mans first season, conspirators try to stop Oscar Goldman from negotiating with the Soviets and Steve Austin visits an island with a cosmonaut. In The Bionic Woman, scientists try to force nations to live in peace by threatening to destroy the world if any nuclear weapon is exploded. We didn’t necessarily plan to touch upon this area of our lives this week.

But the two of us have always placed great value on the role of serendipity in our lives. How else might we explain that a single grandfather can be the seed for each of our very different novel manuscripts? One of these serendipitous moments occurred again for us just a couple of weeks ago. On the same day that Wings, a 1966 Russian film, showed up in our Netflix queue, two of Doug’s colleagues—Stacy Russo and Brett Fisher—gave him the same article about aviation museums. The film depicts a woman whose life found its greatest meaning during her harrowing days as a World War II fighter pilot. The article, clipped from the most recent issue of Westways, reviewed several of the nation’s best aviation museums, including Planes of Fame. That’s a museum in nearby Chino Hills that we’ve meant to visit—and that weekend’s program featured lectures on World War II Russian aircraft.

It’s not as if we didn’t have other pressing tasks that weekend, but serendipity isn’t something with which to trifle. Planes of Fame hosted a panel lecture and then a demonstration of the Yakovlev fighter—the Yak-3, to be precise. Small, sleek, and powerful, the Yak-3 makes it clear why flying such a plane during the campaign on the Eastern Front could be the peak of Nadezhda Petrukhina’s life in Wings. The flying scenes don’t convey whether she flew the Yak-3, but that’s where serendipity points us when we watch that film the night before our visit to the aviation museum.

At the beginning of Wings, Petrukhina is measured for civilian clothes, a suit that is really a new uniform. The middle of the film is muddled by a love story—it’s set in Russia during World War II, so you know where this is going. Her lover’s fighter is wounded. As she instinctively circles her own plane around his in their last moments together, she watches her lover’s fighter auger into a forest. By the end of the film, we know where a friendly visit to the local aerodrome is going too: back into the air.

The airspace above us in Chino was a hive of activity: two general aviation pilots practiced formation flying, assorted Pipers and Cessnas and a lone Bellanca took to the air, and several commercial jets bound for LAX passed overhead. All the while, the Yak-3 roared through gentle arcs, its every moment aloft a tense battle between too much power and barely enough wing surface. It didn’t so much fly as prowl, as if waiting for one of the lesser aircraft to get out of line.

Charles Isaacs

One point the day’s speakers—Edward Maloney, Frank Mormillo, and Charles Isaacs—made shades the way we now view those flying scenes in Wings and the flight of the Yak-3 over Southern California. For the Russians, the air war on the Eastern Front was a numbers game. Estimates vary, but place Russian aircraft losses at 36,000 planes to German losses of 4,000, a 9-to-1 ratio. And yet, this wasn’t out of step with the Russian mindset, which might be crystallized as the attitude, If we have a single aircraft flying home at the end and they don’t, we win.

As the question-and-answer session was winding down at Planes of Fame, several men pointed out that what made an American aircraft most appealing to Russian aviators in World War II was the radio. If relative equals in speed or maneuverability meet, a plane with a radio is better than a plane without one. Serendipity isn’t everything, then. Planning, practice, and communication—negotiating as you go—must be part of the mix. Fortunate discoveries and happenstance connections don’t amount to very much if you can’t respond to them, if you can’t share them.

By gosh, it’s time for Oshkosh! July 28, 2010

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Collaboration.

Oshkosh 2006

We came to our enjoyment of air shows by two different paths; one of us (Doug) was born into it, and the other (Anna) fell for someone who’d been born into it. Doug’s childhood memories are steeped with vividly colored Stearman biplanes, their yellows, blues, and reds flying in formation over his hometown at the end of each summer. The biplane’s humming radial engines predicted the return to western Illinois of fall leaves and winds. Anna’s first airshow was a scorching July day in the Quad Cities in the early 90s, when a Harrier shrieked in our ears—despite the orange earplugs handed out to the crowd—and a B-52 flew in from Offut Air Force Base, re-enacted carpet bombing Desert Storm-style, and then returned home without landing. The heat, the sounds, and the sights were overpowering.

Texans in Formation

Over our twenty-plus years together, dozens of days have been spent looking at gleaming aluminum and smelling—tasting—the mechanical tang of burnt AVGAS. Our early adventures in the Midwest and in College Park, Maryland, were warm-ups for our visits to the grand-daddy of the them all, the EAA AirVenture at Oshkosh. Starting on the last Monday of July, AirVenture (known as Oshkosh to its devotees) runs for one hot, bright, buzzing week. On average, Wittman Regional Airport, the site for AirVenture, becomes home to about 10,000 aircraft, 250,000 visitors, and 1,000 port-a-potties. (Our sage advice is to drink enough water that you don’t get dehydrated without drinking so much that you must use a port-a-potty late in the day.) For the hand-selected FAA air traffic controllers who manage the skies and runways of Oshkosh, this is the pinnacle of their profession.

The roots of AirVenture are in homebuilt and experimental aircraft, and the event continues to offer workshops for those who build and fly their own. Many happy days of Doug’s childhood were spent endlessly poring over the homebuilt aircraft issues of Popular Mechanics. Among his pre-teen favorites were the VariViggen and VariEze designs from Burt Rutan (of course), the equally sexy Prescott Pusher, and the jet-powered version of the BD-5 (best remembered from the opening sequence of the Bond film Octopussy). Even though Oshkosh is a celebration of the homebuilt and experimental, the thrill of our first Oshkosh together turned out to be spending the day with Glen Amundson.

Glen's first plane, a Piper

Anna went to Oshkosh with friends in 2005. The following summer, we both went—with the same friends Lisa Long, Jim Amundson, and Jim’s father Glen. Doug worked with Jim at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory for four years, and over that time, Jim recounted more than a few of his father’s aviation stories. Some were humorous in that uneasy way that encourages amazed laughter when you learn that everyone survived (lesson: always check both fuel tanks). But the stories weren’t adequate preparation for meeting the man. In the stifling heat and humidity of a late-July Saturday in the Midwest, Glen, a hale and hearty octogenarian, spent five hours leading our entourage across grassy acres covered with aircraft. The alchemy of shape, structure, and power that human beings have used to tame drag and thrust, weight and lift, was never more varied and immediate to us than on that day because Glen was our living guidebook.

Jim and Doug listening to Glen talk about the Corsair

Glen’s enthusiasm—a childlike fascination combined with deep understanding—for all things aviation was obvious every time we paused in front of something with wings (that occurs frequently at Oshkosh!). He had the most to say when we made our way to a row of World War II Corsairs, in particular to an extremely fine example of that breed, an FG-1 produced by Goodyear. Anna has always found the Corsair to be the most birdlike of airplanes. To her, the Corsair’s winged aspect suggests avian movement: flapping, soaring. Doug favors the second-generation Corsair (affectionately known as the SLUFF—look it up). Glen’s reaction was necessarily more personal, for the Corsair carried him through the Second World War as a young Marine Corps officer. From the air, he saw—for good or ill—things few of us ever will.

Glen and Jim Amundson As he has every July for more than fifty years, Glen returns to Oshkosh this week, this time with his granddaughter Elin, who will experience the smell of AVGAS for the first time (she lurched in utero to the roar of the engines in 2006). Oshkosh is largely for the communities within aviation. There are scheduled mass arrivals of Cessnas and Mooneys, group photos for women pilots and veterans, and a sort of flea market of airplane parts. Our great pleasure has been as interlopers in the annual gathering. Our advice to Elin is to keep her eyes wide, wonder how we ever managed to build machines that fly, and ask Grandpa Glen to tell a story. In a few years, we hope that Elin will ask her parents to pay for a ride in the B-17. And when they say no, she’ll give them a pleading look and settle for a ride in the Ford Tri-Motor, a noisy box of a plane in which we had a great ride several years ago in Kalamazoo.


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