Issue 8.4: August/September 2005

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.

 
Mark Dunkerley, putting
his own spin on things.

Imagine you’re in a virtual-reality video game, complete with g-force squish-o-rama. The pilot flicks the controls, and suddenly the horizon spins, flips and rolls. You strain momentarily against your shoulder straps, then your head suddenly gets plastered to the back of your neck, and then almost before you know it, you’re back to level again, almost as if nothing had happened. There’s a sense of detachment or unreality to the whole thing, save for the flight plan filed in your gut.

For the pilot, of course, it’s all different, with each trick a ballet of subtle, coordinated adjustments of stick, rudder pedals and throttle. I tried to watch what Hank was doing, although at that point the attitude of my head was not entirely up to me. Happily, my stomach stayed reasonably content, so we were able to run through a few of the staples on the aerobatic set list: a roll; a loop; a Hammerhead Stall, in which you go straight up until the plane stops climbing, then fade over to the side until you’re diving straight down—a particularly intense sensation. We did a Half Cuban 8, which combines part of a loop with a roll, and a point roll, with Hank stopping jarringly at four precise ninety-degree angles on our way around.

The most exciting moves were the "stall" maneuvers, meaning that one or both wings are forced to a point where they lose their aerodynamic traction, like a car going into a skid. Among these were the "snap roll," which looks pretty much just like it sounds, and the once-dreaded spin, doom of so many early flyers.

For the spin, Hank slowed the plane down until it suddenly stopped moving forward, then we started rotating and dropping—not nose-down like in the movies, but horizontally, with an oddly leisurely feeling. The sensation was almost pleasant, belying the mortal danger this would have put us in if not for Hank’s flying skill.

"It’s not that hard to recover from a spin once you know how to do it," he said over the headset as he casually pulled us out of it. "As long as you’ve got the altitude..."

After about ten or fifteen minutes of tricks, I still didn’t feel sick, but I definitely felt something, so we headed back to town. "We pulled almost four positive g’s and two negative g’s on that last combination," Hank said, pointing to the marker needles on the acceleration gauge. "Almost a six-degree spread, not bad." For comparison, four positive g’s is about what you’d pull doing a loop in a roller coaster.

 

 
Clint Churchill, cruising by
Hank Bruckner.

A few days later, I went flying with Mark, who focuses on precision competition flying, where judges mark you off for the tiniest of flaws, as in diving or gymnastics. Compared to Hank’s relatively comfy plane, Mark’s custom-built, carbon-fiber Giles 202 is like a stripped-down athlete: It has a 200-horsepower engine, weighs just 1,000 pounds, is painted a glittery blue and green. Think Formula One as opposed to Hank’s eighties-era Camaro.

Mark’s plane is also even smaller than Hank’s, looking as much like an enlarged model as anything. The unpadded seats are scoops of plastic, the rudder pedals mere bars of metal; there wasn’t even a floorboard between my feet and the fuselage’s delicate guts. ("Watch the wires," Mark admonished.) The co-pilot’s control stick was so tight in my crotch that Mark jokingly worried about bringing me back "still a man."

Definitely a no-frills flight. But then, this plane wasn’t built for comfort, it was built to win—which is part of the reason Mark was the 2002 advanced aerobatics champion of the northeast United States; the other part of the reason being Mark’s tight flying.

As we strapped in, Mark told me that flying had been a dream of his since he was a boy, which was what led him into the airline business. So why is he piloting the company instead of one of its planes? I wondered. "Well, I quickly found out that what I like to do is fly upside down," he said, "and not many airlines are in the market for that."

I asked Mark what he gets out of aerobatics. "It’s the closest thing to complete freedom that I know of," he said. "When you first start, you’re very concerned with operating the controls, but after a while, it’s like the airplane is an extension of yourself. Sometimes it’s very existential, and you’re just wrapped up in the experience of it. On other days, it’s all about precision and control."

With Mark I wound up doing a lot of upside-down flying—a most unusual sensation when you’re dangling from your shoulder straps, looking up at the ocean. Then Mark let me take the stick as he talked me through a roll and then a loop. It was a big thrill to feel like I was making all this happen, even if I knew I was only doing the easy part while Mark worked the rudder and throttle in his seat behind me.

 
Mark Dunkerley,
Clint Churchill and
Hank Bruckner
(left to right).

I never got the chance to fly with Clint, although I’ve always loved to watch him do his impressive air show routine for the Kailua Beach fireworks show every July 4th. (Both he and Hank perform there each year, and at other occasional air shows around the Islands.) With his "unlimited" class Extra 300 plane—unlimited being the most powerful classification in competition—Clint throws down the extreme stuff, like the tumbling Lomcevaks and incredible backwards tail slides and this wild thing where he flutters down through the sky like a leaf.

Clint, who took up aerobatics after thirty years of flying F-15 fighters in the Air Guard, said he finds the activity "very cleansing": "It just puts whatever problems you might have in your job or your life into perspective. I always come away from a mission with a smile on my face."

Of the three O‘ahu fliers, Clint has had the closest brush with disaster, when his canopy shattered on him several years ago over Maui. "One moment everything was normal, and the next I was flying a convertible," he recalled, "with the wind blasting me at 150 miles an hour." His glasses and headset were stripped off, and part of the canopy had given him a good bang, but somehow he managed to get the plane back down, a testament, Hank says, to Clint’s "sheer airmanship."

You’d think an experience like that might put Clint and any pilot who heard about it off flying for good, but then the danger is a big part of the allure. Mark quips: "I used to smoke, and then I took up aerobatics to help me quit because I heard that you can’t smoke if you want to handle the g’s. Now my wife leaves packs of cigarettes around, hoping I’ll switch back."        HH

Both Hank Bruckner and Clint Churchill take passengers up on aerobatic thrill rides, and Hank also gives lessons. Hank’s company, Kaimana Aviation, can be reached toll-free at (877) 316-2261, or online at kaimanaaviation.com. Clint’s Acroflight is at (808) 254-1479, or acrobaticpilot.com.