An Aerobatics Pilot Spins (And Rolls, And Loops) A Career From A Crash
As part of a series called My Big Break, All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click, and people leap forward into their careers.
Patty Wagstaff performs incredible maneuvers in her small aerobatic airplane: rolls, loops and spins. She'll fly straight up, put the engine in idle, free-fall down, fire the engine back up and roar past crowds at air shows across the country.
But that's not the scariest part of her routine.
"Every air show pilot will tell you the most dangerous part of their job is getting to and from the show," Wagstaff says.
Aerobatic stunt planes aren't equipped with the instruments that allow pilots to navigate through clouds. When it gets soupy up there, Wagstaff says, she gets nervous.
"You can scare yourself a little bit. You don't have a lot of fuel in these planes, you have to get low under the clouds sometimes," she says. "I've never had any catastrophic accidents or anything like that. The only accident I had was in Alaska where the other pilot was flying. So I try and avoid it."
That accident happened before she was a pilot. Wagstaff used to live in Dillingham, Alaska, and would travel to tiny villages as a passenger on tiny planes. One flight she chartered never made it off the muddy runway.
"The pilot, who was pretty young and didn't instill a lot of confidence, didn't use the full length of the runway, and we had a full plane," Wagstaff says. "I knew there wasn't going to be enough speed and enough lift to get us off the ground."
As the plane bumped and bounced along the muddy ruts, Wagstaff says she could see the end of the runway fast approaching.
"I think [the pilot] must've hit the brakes and the thing just went sliding off the end, kind of down an embankment," she says. "Into the brush — and it slowly flipped upside-down."
She was covered in the boxes they were hauling and mail had spilled everywhere. Fortunately, no one was injured. Wagstaff and the other passenger were able to climb out of the overturned plane.
"I really don't remember the pilot," she says. "Who knows what he was doing. He was probably thinking about how to disappear forever at that point."
And that's when Wagstaff had a sudden moment of realization.
"I decided, 'This guy's an idiot. I can do a lot better than this, I'm going to take up flying — I'm going to start learning,'" she says.
That thought, she says, was her big break: "Sometimes you just need that little push."
But Wagstaff wasn't interested in flying straight and level. She wanted to fly upside-down.
It took her years to find the right instructor, but once she sat behind the controls of a stunt plane, she was hooked.
"Flying aerobatics is, to me, the most freedom you can ever have in an airplane — or really anywhere," she says. "It's really three-dimensional. When you can put the airplane into something like a loop in the sky or roll ... around the axis of the airplane or go vertical, it's really total freedom."
In her performances, Wagstaff says she'll pull up to 10 Gs.
"There's one point in the routine where I'm going fast and I pull really hard, it's an eight-sided loop with half-rolls on each side," she says. "And we also push negative-Gs which is where you're upside down and you push the airplane ... to an outside loop like going over a waterfall. So all the blood goes up in your head. That takes a lot of conditioning to do."
Wagstaff is the first woman to win the U.S. National Aerobatic Championship and her winning plane is on display in the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum.
"I've been really lucky that aviation's been a great career," Wagstaff says. "I've had so many opportunities through it, met so many people, it's taken me all over the world. I'd say anybody that's thinking about a career in aviation — go for it. Especially girls. There's a lot of opportunity."
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