HUGHESVILLE - No air show would be complete without the sight of a precision pilot dancing through the clouds, twisting and turning his plane like a dancer high above the crowd. During the "Balloonfest, Air Show & So Much More" held by the Lycoming County Rotary clubs on Saturday at the Hughesville Fairgrounds, the crowd was treated to an entire array of precision pilots.
The 11 members of team AeroDynamix fly in formation and fill the sky with astounding aerobatic tricks. Many of the death-defying stunts have been created and choreographed by team members themselves. They preform a wide array of tricks that no other team has been able to pull off.
Team founder and lead pilot Michael Stewart explained one of the team's newest and most unique tricks, the "Eight Ship Parallel Diamond Loop."
"Eight planes, flying in formation, go into a loop, which sends us briefly upside down. It takes a great deal of skill because keeping eight planes in formation when you're upside down is no easy task," Stewart said.
Stewart has 15 years experience as a pilot. As a young pilot, he was taken under the wing of a retired air force colonel, who taught him precision flying. Stewart became fascinated with the grace and skill of the aerobatics. A dozen years ago, his dream came to fruition when he founded the team.
"Our No. 1 rule is to come home safe to our families. We take into account our proximity to each other's planes, the wind turbulence and an array of other factors as we fly," Stewart said.
Team members fly in custom, self-built RV-8 planes. Their type of flying requires a high performance craft that simply was not available on the market, Stewart explained.
"It's like buying a car. If you really want the best you have got to build your own," Stewart said.
The team constantly is trying to expand its repertoire. In addition to continually developing skills, members learn new choreography each year to keep their performance fresh and exciting.
The crowd also was treated to a performance by one of the area's premier solo aerobatics pilots - Jeff Mauer, of Northumberland County.
Mauer's beloved bi-wing Pitts Special originally was designed in the 1940s. The plane's design was so elegant that it hasn't changed much over the years.
"This plane was created specifically for aerobatics. It's very fast, powerful and light," Mauer said.
He preforms about a dozen tricks each show, including a breathtaking free fall, which sends him plummeting toward the earth tail-first.
I was given a chance to ride along with Mauer on a brief flight. As he hooked me into the cockpit, I was slightly amazed at how little I could see. Before take off, Mauer wiggled the plane slowly right and left.
"This is called a tail-dragger, because it sits at an angle on the runway," Mauer said. He explained that wiggling back and forth allowes him to see around the front of the plane.
We flew me over Williamsport and circled around near the medical center. As we angled around, he asked if I was ready to try a few tricks. First, he preformed a "roll," which sent the plane briefly upside down. After making sure I wasn't feeling sick, he sent the plane into a loop.
As I watched out of the window, the ground seemed to completely slide behind me. Suddenly, I was staring at sky.
"Look up," Mauer said through the crackly headset connection.
I did, and was shocked to see the world upside down over head. The sight took my breath away briefly, but I was pleased to find that I still wasn't sick.
As we landed, Mauer explained that feeling ill during stunts depends on your focus.
"A lot of it has to do with keeping your eyes on a solid object in front of you," he explained.
After our flight, Mauer told me more about his personal history. He took to flying naturally, he said, carrying in the footsteps of his father, Paul.
"He was also a precision pilot. I've been flying planes practically my entire life," Mauer said.
"On a 16th birthday, some go take their drivers license test, I went and got my pilots license," he added.
He finds the entire experience addicting, from the adrenaline rush of tricks to the calm of being in the air.
"It's a very unique perspective, getting to see the world upside down and sideways, high above everyone else," he said.