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Eric Arakawa holds one of his creations aloft in his workshop in Waialua.
Vol. 8, No. 4
August/September 2005

  >>   An Island At Sea
  >>   High Rollers
  >>   The Print Master

High Rollers 

by Derek Ferrar
photos by Sergio Goes

Hank Brckner, halfway through
a roll over the ocean and still smiling.

Aerobatic flying is one of those things that just captures the imagination, one way or the other. You go to an air show and watch those daring young men in their flying machines dive, roll and loop-the-loop, and you either think to yourself, "Whoa! I wonder what that feels like," or you think, "Holy barf bag! You’d never get me up there."

Being more inclined to the former (at least that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it), I was on it like the Red Baron out of the sun when Hana Hou!’s editor called to suggest that I go up for a spin, as it were, and then pass the vicarious adrenaline kick on to you, the readers.

A little research revealed that there are only three pilots on O‘ahu who fly aerobatics—or at least who have their own specialized planes for doing so—with one of them, coincidentally, being the president of the very airline you are currently flying. (Never fear, though, he’s not up in the cockpit.) In addition to Hawaiian Air prez Mark Dunkerley, the other two are Clint Churchill, a former Air National Guard fighter pilot who is now a top gun at the $2 billion Campbell Estate land trust, and Hank Bruckner, a longtime flight instructor who gives aerobatic rides and lessons for a living.

To start off, I hooked up with Hank in his tiny Kaimana Aviation office out at the airport, crammed with aeronautic charts, diagrams of stunt routines, autographed pictures of astronaut pals and the like. A strong, silver-haired skipper type, Hank exuded reassuring competence even as he described maneuvers that many people would consider flat-out psycho.

"People tend to think of aerobatic flying as an extreme sport, where you’re trying to get out on the edge of control," he explained. "But in fact, we work very hard to look crazy. As a pilot, you always have to be in control of everything; you may feel a lot of really intense feelings, but you’re not on the edge."

Or to put it another way: wiping out is not an option.

Hank ran me through a bit of aerobatic history, explaining that the sport basically has its roots in World War I, when warplanes made their dog-fighting debut. After the war, aces who’d gotten addicted to the thrill started barnstorming for cash. "Unfortunately," Hank said, "they developed a lot of maneuvers before they developed aircraft that could handle them, and they got themselves into uncontrolled spins that killed many, many pilots."

Nowadays, he assured me, it’s not a problem—aircraft design and piloting skills have come far enough to handle even the most extreme maneuvers, such as the insane end-over-end tumble known as a Lomcevak, a Czech word meaning "berserk headache," or, metaphorically, "drunken bum." (For some reason, the Czechs have long been big players in the aerobatics world.)

We headed out to Hank’s two-seater Cap 10—not the most powerful of aerobatic planes, he admitted, but excellent for teaching and more than capable of spinning the head of any thrill-ride passenger. He pointed out some of the features that distinguish an aerobatic aircraft, including its powerful motor, light airframe weight and large flap surfaces. It was Greek to me, but I appreciated his just-the-facts tone as I eyed the decidedly small flying machine that he casually pushed out of the hangar like a loaded Costco cart.

After strapping on our parachutes—admittedly not the most reassuring of precautions—and running through some routine emergency procedures ("if I yell ‘Bail! Bail! Bail!’ I’m not kidding"), Hank addressed what can most delicately be described as the "tummy issue."

"Some people don’t get airsick; some do," he said. "For most people, dealing with g-force is a learned behavior. You have to train your body to do it." He added, however, that he never lets anyone get to the point where they toss their cookies in his airplane. "As soon as you’re not feeling as well as when we started, then we either level off for a while or call it a day," he said.

Then we were strapped in and ready to go, and Hank fired up the propeller. We taxied to the massive jet runway, which made the Cap 10 feel even smaller, and popped into the air seemingly effortlessly. With tower chatter in our headphones, we cruised over O‘ahu’s central plain to the North Shore; the island’s rippled ridges and sparkling coast were stunning from the air. Then we reached a designated stretch of airspace over the Ko‘olau Mountain foothills, and Hank went to work.