Over Memorial Day weekend, more than 114,000 people gather at Jones Beach State Park on Long Island, New York to watch planes rip through the sky at the 12th Annual Bethpage Air Show. A classically badass way to honor and celebrate the men and women serving in our nation’s armed forces, the air show features both military and civilian stunt planes effortlessly showing that the art of aviation isn’t limited to smoke designs that trail behind them as they fly, but flight choreography itself. The two-ton hunks of metal glide as elegantly as Olympic figure skaters and soar as terrifyingly as volcanic eruptions.
Riding passenger in a civilian plane before the air show, I had the opportunity to experience that marvel firsthand.
Jack Link’s Beef Jerky sponsored the "Screamin’ Sasquatch," a 1929 Taperwing Waco bi-plane outfitted with dual engines—a Pratt & Whitney 985 radial engine and a General Electric CJ610 jet engine. It gets its name from the scream it causes passing overhead, the roars of its engines sounding like that of an entire fleet as it reaches speeds up to 250 mph.
The Screamin’ Sasquatch’s pilot, Jeff Boerboon, has been flying airplanes since 1988 and is a three-time US National Champion in competition aerobatics. He became infatuated with stunt planes after attending his first air show at age five .“I saw all these people flying who eventually became my heroes in this sport,” Boerboon recalls. “It influenced me as a young kid and a seed was planted really early on. I continued with that passion; flying model airplanes and eventually flying full-scale airplanes.”
It took winning several competitions for Boerboon to be invited to join the John Klatt Airshows team—the group that produced this weekend’s show—and to ultimately fly the Screamin’ Sasquatch.
As the Sasquatch only seats one person, Boerboon takes me in her sister plane, an Extra 300L. I sign a waiver completely indemnifying the airport in the event of my death (the word “death” was reassuringly bolded on the form), and am jostled into a parachute and strapped tightly into the front seat of the plane. Seated in the cockpit behind me, Boerboon describes the experience of piloting the plane as “poetry in motion” as we taxi toward the runway. I make a joke about the MTA, but choke on my words as the jolt of the ascent throws me back against the seat.
The freestyle section of an air show is designed to shock and thrill the audience. The planes move erratically, giving onlookers the impression that they might crash into the ground, or into each other. Naturally, the pilots devote a large amount of time to choreographing and practicing their entertainingly chaotic performances. When Boerboon and his team first got ahold of the Screamin’ Sasquatch in January 2014, they spent months in the desert creating and perfecting their air show routines.
“It looks dangerous and exciting,” says Boerboon of flying the stunt plane. “We put a lot of effort and time into making it look like it’s out of control and wild. But we are in control at all times and practice over and over. My partner and I have been doing these formations for more than four years.”
“I like to call what we do ‘cartoon aerobatics,’” he continues with a grin. “We do moves that look like they belong in an animation, something make-believe.” That said, the takeoff and initial cruising are smoother than I anticipated. In a plane so small and intimate, you feel each and every movement, but Boerboon handles the aircraft expertly. The acceleration, immediate and powerful, thrusts you in all directions, but the general movements of the flight are less abrupt than switching gears in a standard car.
“This really isn’t scary at all,” I think. “The worst part is the anticipation. Look at me, casually riding in a stunt plane.”
Boerboon probably senses my overly comfortable state, because immediately and without real warning, the nose of the plane points up, and we rocket straight towards the clouds. I clutch the seat handles and yelp loudly, sending a wave of thundering static through my headpiece’s microphone. I heard his laugh crackle back in response.
At this point, let it be known that I've been a thrill seeker for the better part of my life, and salivate at the sight of an especially twisty rollercoaster. What is startling—and maybe even a bit unnerving—is that I can't see the twists on this particular rollercoaster. There is no constructed route visible in the distance. While I am strapped in tightly to my seat in the plane, the plane itself is an aerial free agent.
Boerboon’s voice comes through my earpiece: “Let’s do a couple of real mild aerobatics.” I take a deep breath and reply confidently, “Alright!”
The plane picks up speed, and for the next several minutes, we twist and turn rapidly through the air; shooting higher up, and straight down towards the ocean; flying completely upside down and backwards through the smoke the plane emits; spinning in tight, quick circles like a barrel rolling down a hill. Mild?
When Boerboon brings the plane upright and we straighten out, my stomach does not. I close my eyes, swallow hard, and breathe in through my nose, surprised at how terrible I suddenly feel. I don’t get motion sickness easily; I can read for hours in the backseats of cars and take on loop-de-loops after chili fries no problem. The one time I ever remember feeling queasy after a ride involves a particularly gnarly go at those damn Disney World teacups. I can go fast, slow, up, down, and upside down, but spinning… too much spinning is no good.
“How are you feeling, Jenny?” Boerboon asks, his voice showing slight concern. I suspect he sees me gingerly fingering the emergency barf bag to my left. “Good, I’m good…” I said shakily, trying to convince myself. A few more dips and spins, later, I'm pale.
“You still feeling good?”
“Ah,” I breathe, attempting to brush away the nausea. “I’m feeling okay…”
“Grab the control stick,” Boerboon commands. “You’re going to fly us.”
It's the part of the ride I was looking forward to most, and now I'm barely able to focus. I'm distracted by my stomach, which suddenly feels more turbulent than the ride itself.
“We’re going to dive down just a little bit for some speed. Bring the nose forward. Pull back. Keep pulling. Keep pulling! Now push the stick left. Harder! HARDER!”
I follow Boerboon’s instructions, and in between my deep breathing and quiet whimpering, try to appreciate the glory that accompanies taking control of such a powerful machine. “You’re doing a loop!” Boerboon shouts. I smile weakly. “I’m doing a loop!”
I relinquish control the moment we level out, though I'm supposed to be steering the vehicle for a more significant amount of time. “How are you feeling, Jenny? Ready for another?” It's obvious how tickled Boerboon is to share his love of stunt flying, and as desperately as I want to take full advantage of the opportunity, I'm not going to last any longer.
“A little queasy…” I mutter, reaching for the bag to my left.
I skipped breakfast as a preventative measure, but no matter. The glass of water I had while waiting in the hangar makes its way up my throat. “Air control, we’re going to head back. Over.”
Once back on solid ground, I try my best to convince the Jack Link’s crew that despite the evidence, I had a completely stellar time. My respect for Boerboon and the other stunt pilots skyrockets after my pitiful attempt to keep up; the moves they perform at the air show are much more complex and stomach-wrenching, for sure.
Aside from flying what he calls “absolutely the most amazing air show airplane imaginable,” Boerboon most looks forward to interacting with crowds after the show.“I love going down onto the beach after the show and seeing everybody, especially the youngsters,” he says. “I think back to when I was their age and that seed was planted in me to get started with this crazy sport. I wonder which one of those kids will be the next to follow in my footsteps.”
For more information, check out The Bethpage Air Show's website.