Reporter tries barrel rolls with former fighter jet pilot at Springbank Airport

Postmedia’s Brodie Thomas on a media flight for the Wings over Springbank Airshow on July 26, 2019. Brent Handy / Postmedia

Brent Handy is less then a month into his official retirement from the military, but work is just taking off for the former CF-18 pilot and Snowbird.

He’s traded in jet engines for a good old-fashioned propeller, and Calgarians will be able to see his show this Saturday and Sunday at the Wings Over Springbank Air Show.

Six years ago he started flying a Pitts S-2 — a biplane designed in 1944 that has remained a staple of air shows around the world.

“It’s built to be unstable so it’s very manoeuvrable for the pilot — which I love,” said Handy. “As a stick and rudder pilot, at heart, that’s just what I love to do. I love the challenge.”

Hearing a plane is “built to be unstable” is not what I was hoping to hear minutes before climbing into said plane, but I decided to give Handy the benefit of the doubt.

As we were pushing the Pitts out of the hanger and onto the runway, he explained how he recently rebuilt the wings.

I’d have guessed they were made of aluminum, but Handy said that it’s a high-grade paint that gives the plane a glossy finish.

“It’s a wooden structure covered by fabric, to keep the weight extremely light — but it’s very strong.”

Strong when flying, but not necessarily built to stand on. I was told all of the places to avoid touching or kicking as I was climbing into the passenger’s seat — basically the entire outside of the plane — except for a tiny strip of non-slip surface on the bottom wing, and a handle between the top wings.

The intricate yoga dance needed to get in the plane was made even more difficult by the parachute I had to strap on before climbing in. In the end, Handy had to help bend my right leg and push my foot into my seat.

Brent Handy helps another passenger into his Pitts S-2 biplane at the Springbank Airport. Brodie Thomas / Postmedia

Before long we were up and sailing west towards the foothills. It was a day made for flying, with no wind or clouds.

Although I’m no longer a fan of roller coasters or midway rides, I was hoping to fly at least a barrel roll or a loop-de-loo, and Handy was about to make my dreams come true.

With his eight years flying for the Snowbirds, and another six as a Snowbird instructor, I had full confidence in Handy’s aerobatic skills, and some confidence in my mostly empty stomach. I’d passed on the doughnuts and coffee at the early-morning media event.

The first thing we did was a Cuban 8, which is kind of like a figure 8, but there are some rolls included. I think. All I know as that we were upside down at least twice, and my stomach wasn’t protesting too much.

Next was the hammerhead — flying straight up until the plane runs out of steam, and then falling away, only to recover.

At this point, Handy asked me on a scale of one to 10 how I was feeling, and I gave him a 10. He told me I was going to do an aileron roll, not to be confused with a barrel roll.

With his instruction, I took the stick, gently brought the nose up a bit, and then pushed it hard to the left. Effortlessly, the plane spun like a corkscrew.

It was fun, but I was relieved when he took control of the plane again.

For our last move before heading back to the runway, Handy wanted to perform a barrel roll followed by a loop (I think). It was at this point my stomach started to protest.

While an aileron roll has the plane spinning on its nose-tail axis, like a dart, a true barrel roll is like tracing a helix through the air. It was a difference I nearly learned the hard way.

There was no puke, but I did burp a few times.

After that, I told him I was an eight. The truth was, I was probably more like a six, but how often do you get to fly aerobatics on the edge of the Rocky Mountains?

Luckily, there wasn’t much left to do except a barnstorming pass of the runway.

Handy said performing at an airshow is a bit more intense than our leisurely flight.

“When I’m flying – it’s bang, bang, bang, right out of one manoeuvre and into the next,” he said.

“It’s a lot of work. It’s physically intense, like running sprints or something like that.

“It’s actually so much G-force you’re fighting to maintain consciousness because all the blood is flowing out of your head.”

We pulled about three-and-a-half G’s on our flight, but Handy’s more likely to pull 5 or 6 while performing.

An obligatory selfie taken once we were back on solid ground. Brodie Thomas / Postmedia

During the Springbank show, Handy will be flying solo, but also in a duo show with his wingman Todd Farrell, who will also be flying a Pitts.

The two will be zooming around in formation, doing loops, barrel rolls and hammerheads, for the 20,000 or so expected to attend.

Sarah Van Gilst, chairman and event producer of Wings over Springbank, said the lineup for this bi-annual event includes the Snowbirds, a CF-18 demonstration, and some vintage Second World War airplanes from the Erickson Aircraft Collection based in Oregon.

“This is the experience to get out there and see what else is out there besides the 737s and the WestJet flights,” said Van Gilst.

Sarah Van Gilst, chairman and event producer of the Wings over Springbank Airshow, stands by a Curtiss P-40E Kittyhawk from the Erikson Aircraft collection. It’s one of three vintage war planes flying at the airshow this Saturday and Sunday. Brodie Thomas / Postmedia

“You get to see smaller aircraft, you get to see helicopters … and you get to see our military flying.”

She said the weather is expected to be great for both days of the event. People are welcome to bring lawn chairs, small umbrellas, and coolers for food and refreshments, although there will be 15 food trucks on site.

There’s also a beer garden for the adults, and a kids’ zone with bouncy castles.

“All proceeds will go to (cancer support charity) Wellspring Calgary, so the more people who come out, the bigger our donation gets to be to the community,” said Van Gilst.

More information and tickets for the show can be found at wingsoverspringbank.com.

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