The Jumbo Flies an Air­show

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Front Page - BY CHRIS­TINE NE­GRONI

The Boe­ing 747, like you’ve never seen it fly.

Ap­ply­ing right rud­der to level the wings, Sil­ver­man pushed for­ward on the yoke, low­er­ing the nose and in­creas­ing air­speed to get the air­plane above 160 knots.

“What hap­pened?” he asked over a cho­rus of alarms go­ing off in the cock­pit. “En­gine fail­ure,” Wolfe replied, adding, “Se­vere en­gine dam­age check­list.”

“Cor­rect,” Sil­ver­man said, and started plan­ning to take the air­liner to 1,500 feet, turn­ing south­east to an emer­gency land­ing at San Fran­cisco air­port’s Run­way 28 Right.

“Okay guys, good job” came a voice from be­hind Sil­ver­man in the dark­ened sim­u­la­tor; Fed­eral Aviation Ad­min­is­tra­tion safety in­spec­tor Rick May­field was sat­is­fied. Be­fore the men would be per­mit­ted to fly a real 747 in San Fran­cisco’s three-day Fleet Week Air Show, May­field would cre­ate more emer­gency sce­nar­ios for each to prac­tice in United’s sim­u­la­tor in Den­ver.

Talk­ing about his ra­tio­nale for the en­gine-out episode he’d used on Sil­ver­man, May­field said, “The main con­cern for us is when the 747 is fly­ing at high al­pha or, you know, a high an­gle of at­tack and slow speed, that’s crit­i­cal for that air­plane. And one of the big threats we have at Fleet Week is bird in­ges­tion.” As the safety rep­re­sen­ta­tive re­spon­si­ble for cer­ti­fy­ing United’s air­show per­for­mance, he has to be sat­is­fied that the pi­lots can han­dle any num­ber of prob­lems.

THE BOE­ING 747 WAS FLY­ING AT 145 KNOTS, 300 feet above the San Fran­cisco Bay, and just be­gin­ning to climb when the left out­board en­gine sud­denly failed with a star­tling loud bang. As the air­plane yawed from side to side, the pi­lots—ge­orge Sil­ver­man in the left seat, Don Wolfe in the right, and Joe Sobczak in the ob­server’s seat be­hind—were held in place by their shoul­der re­straints.

Last sum­mer, I watched the show from San Fran­cisco’s Ma­rina Green Park, along with United em­ploy­ees and cus­tomers. As Ge­orge Gersh­win’s “Rhap­sody in Blue” be­gan to play over the loud­speak­ers, the 747 en­tered from the west just above a fog layer at 1,500 feet. At the con­trols, Don Wolfe started a fast de­scent with the right wing low­ered, to dis­play the 747’s dis­tinc­tive dome. Pass­ing show cen­ter at 300 feet, Wolfe rolled the jumbo back to­ward the left, putting out the speed brakes and spoil­ers in or­der to make a tight turn and as­cent to 2,000 feet.

“The show is about 11 min­utes long soup to nuts, and we prob­a­bly spend close to 20 hours in the sim prac­tic­ing,” says Sil­ver­man. United is the only air­line whose pi­lots per­form such a prac­ticed and well-or­ches­trated flight.

Still, pi­lots worry that each year’s per­for­mance will be the last. “There’s a dis­cus­sion ev­ery year as we start to pre­pare about whether or not we want to par­tic­i­pate,” says United’s chief of op­er­a­tions, Bryan Quigley. “My feel­ing is that un­less some­thing changes dras­ti­cally we’ll con­tinue to do it.”

At dozens of air­shows each year, ac­ro­batic air­craft of all sorts per­form—but not air­lin­ers. It is an op­por­tu­nity lost, says Frank Well­born, a former Blue An­gels C-130 per­former and now a re­tired Fedex MD-11 cap­tain. “Most peo­ple see planes at a gate or see them take off. They can­not see them fly­ing around up close,” he says, re­call­ing how he spent evenings in col­lege watch­ing air­planes land and take off. Watch­ing an air­liner fly­ing low and slow in an air­show can re­mind sev­eral gen­er­a­tions of peo­ple of the plea­sures of that long-ago pas­time.

For the past 21 years, Amer­i­can Air­lines has been treat­ing au­di­ences at Chicago’s Air & Wa­ter show to the grace­ful sight of an air­liner cruis­ing at 1,000 feet. In 2014, Amer­i­can flew two air­planes: a Boe­ing 737 in the air­line’s new liv­ery and

, a DC-3 that en­tered the Flag­ship Detroit Amer­i­can fleet in 1937. The old and the new air­lin­ers were the open­ing act last sum­mer, fly­ing along the shore of Lake Michi­gan, but spokes­woman Les­lie Scott says there was no so­phis­ti­cated chore­og­ra­phy in­volved. “There’s al­ways an awe as­so­ci­ated with see­ing an air­liner fly­ing that low and to see the ca­pa­bil­i­ties,” says Amer­i­can’s Judi Gorman. “We are hop­ing that by see­ing our brand and be­ing as­so­ci­ated with the Air & Wa­ter Show, when some­one thinks of travel, they’ll think of Amer­i­can.” United has taken a dif­fer­ent tack. From the air­line’s first ap­pear­ance in Fleet Week, in 2008, its per­for­mance has been con­stantly re­fined, says Steve Hen­der­son, a former Thun­der­bird pi­lot and head of United’s air demon­stra­tion pro­gram. Along with Sil­ver­man, Hen­der­son chore­ographs the act.

“The work­load is much greater in an air­show demon­stra­tion,” the FAA’S May­field ex­plains. “They’re fly­ing the air­plane in non-stan­dard con­fig­u­ra­tions. They’re fly­ing at non-stan­dard al­ti­tudes, and they’re chang­ing these al­ti­tudes and con­fig­u­ra­tions con­stantly.” Sil­ver­man says: “It all comes down to pitch and bank and al­ti­tude changes, but they’re hap­pen­ing very rapidly. You come by the crowd at 300 knots, you’re very ag­gres­sively slow­ing the air­plane down, pulling the throt­tles to idle, drop­ping the gear, drop­ping the flaps. You slow from 300 knots to 140 in a land­ing con­fig­u­ra­tion, over the cen­ter­line again, then rais­ing the gear so the crowd can see this mas­sive gear as­sem­bly.”

The airspace also presents chal­lenges for a jumbo jet. “The air­liner is not made to slow down quickly and turn tightly on a down­wind,” Wolfe says. When he is fly­ing pas­sen­gers, he has 10 miles for a ma­neu­ver; fly­ing the same ma­neu­ver in the air­show, he per­forms in a box 3,000 feet wide and two miles long. The rou­tine is de­signed to po­si­tion the big air­plane so that the crowd can see it from ev­ery pos­si­ble an­gle, in­clud­ing a gasp-in­spir­ing run di­rectly to­ward the spec­ta­tors. Nose down, the jumbo zooms to­ward the ground for 10 sec­onds be­fore pulling up sharply. Wolfe says the idea is to make the mas­sive air­plane look even big­ger—and it does—but more im­por­tantly, it fills United em­ploy­ees with pride and gives the rest of us goose­bumps.

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