Bill Stein of Santa Cruz, California, flies his plane upside down Sept. 19 at the Seward Municipal Airport. Stein was in Seward helping Bob Freeman of Lyons, Colorado, and Tom Larkin of Denver, Colorado, train for the United States National Aerobatics Championships in Sherman, Texas, from Sept. 23-30.
They say practice makes perfect.
But when you’re rolling, looping and turning in an airplane, it can be difficult to get a reference point on your progress.
That’s why aerobatic pilots train with their friends.
On Sept. 19-20, Bill Stein of Santa Cruz, California, Bob Freeman of Lyons, Colorado, and Tom Larkin of Denver, Colorado, visited the Seward Municipal Airport to train for the upcoming United States National Aerobatics Championships in Sherman, Texas.
Stein, who now flies at air shows for a living, was on the ground watching Freeman and Larkin perform different aerobatic sequences. From his vantage point, he could give them advice on how to improve.
Stein grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he saw famous aerobatic pilot Bill Barber perform at an air show as a child.
“‘Geez, I want to do that,’” Stein said.
He began flying in 1986. He said he got his pilot’s license specifically to learn to fly aerobatics.
“I started taking lessons right away,” Stein said.
As he got better and better, Stein said he was introduced to the world of aerobatic competition. However, he said aerobatic competitions are not exactly spectator sports.
“[It] is really about precision flying,” Stein said.
He said judges look at each pilot’s lines horizontally, vertically and at a 45-degree angle. Each pilot in a division flies the same sequence.
Stein said he, Freeman and Larkin came to Seward because of its strong community of aerobatic pilots, namely Harry Barr of Raymond, a man Stein said helped cultivate that culture.
In a phone interview on Sept. 22, Barr said he got his first plane in 1954 or 1955, after his cousin took him on a ride in his plane and let Barr take the stick.
“I was hooked,” Barr said.
Barr later got into aerobatics in the mid-1960s after attending an air show and thinking, “I ought to try that.”
He said the first time he tried a roll, he got disoriented once he got upside down, and pulled up on the stick for more altitude.
But because he was upside down, pulling up actually pushed him down. He said he was glad he had plenty of altitude.
“It was a fun learning experience,” Barr said.
Since the 1960s, Barr said planes and equipment have improved in ways that allow aerobatic flying to be a little easier. He said there are inverted oil and fuel systems and wings that give the planes lift if they’re right-side-up or upside-down.
With this new equipment, Barr said he has seen more people take part in competitive flying.
Barr built a hangar at the Seward airport in 2003, partially because the airport has wavered air space, which means aerobatic pilots can practice at the airport without closing it down.
He said in order to do this safely, all of the pilots and ground control have to be in communication with each other.
Barr also helps host the annual air show at the Seward Municipal Airport during the Fourth of July.
“Seward has been a very, very delightful community, aviation-wise,” Barr said.
Barr said he was also grateful to Greg and Terry Whisler, the airport mangers.
“They tolerate us crazy guys who like to fly upside down,” Barr said.
Stein also said the Seward area is great for pilots. He said many of the pilots in the Fourth of July air show are Barr’s friends.
“There’s a real family feel to what we do,” Stein said, adding that he sees friends everywhere he goes in the U.S.
Stein said he has been to Seward for practice several times in the last 15 years.
“It’s just a great spot to practice,” Stein said.
Even though he’s not competing himself, Stein said helping his friends fulfills the part of him that always wanted to be a teacher.
“It’s fun to have someone set a goal and be a part of their process to accomplish it,” Stein said.