By Jon McGinty
After a one-year absence, Rockford AirFest returned to Chicago Rockford International Airport (RFD) last weekend. The Congressional sequester last year forced U.S. military jet teams to cancel their participation in air shows across the country. Without the Navy’s scheduled Blue Angels, Rockford canceled their entire show.
This year, the USAF Thunderbirds precision jet demonstration team was the headline act, along with the Royal Canadian Air Force’s Snowbirds, and the U.S. Army’s Golden Knights parachute team. Budgetary restrictions still prevented any U.S. military aircraft from providing fly-bys or static displays, but airport officials estimate more than 135,000 people attended the two-day event.
A variety of civilian and Canadian military aircraft were invited to fill out the show and display, including Team Aerostar’s three-ship performance in their Yak-52 trainers, and the Warbird Heritage Foundation’s Douglas A-4B Skyhawk, a Korean War-era Navy jet. During Paul Wood’s flight in the Skyhawk, Rick’s Incredible Pyro provided plenty of “booms and burns” on the ground to simulate strafing and bombing runs by the Navy jet.
One of the most unique aircraft at this year’s AirFest was a 1929 red Waco Taperwing biplane, with a jet engine fastened beneath the fuselage. Dubbed the “Screamin’ Sasquatch” after an ad campaign by its corporate sponsor, Jack Link’s Beef Jerky, the jet Waco has a 450-horsepower, nine-cylinder radial engine in the nose to drive the propeller, and a Lear jet engine fastened underneath, which adds 3,000 pounds of additional thrust to the aircraft. With more thrust (forward force) than weight, the airplane is capable of maneuvers no other similar type can produce.
“With less than full power, we can hover like a helicopter with the nose pointed straight up,” says pilot Jeff Boerboon, 45, a three-time national aerobatic champion and member of the U.S. aerobatic team. He’s been flying since 1988. “Then, from a dead standstill in midair, with the jet, we accelerate to 80 knots straight up.”
The plane’s maximum speed is 250 mph, more than twice the speed of the original aircraft. According to Boerboon, the Waco’s airframe has been “beefed up” (pun intended) to withstand the added stress of the additional engine. The two-engine design originated in 2006 with stunt-flyer Jimmy Franklin. John Klatt, owner of the airshow company that owns the plane, and himself an accomplished aerobatic champion, purchased the “project” more than a year ago. Lead mechanic Dell Collar and engineer Eddie Sauerman helped design and build the modifications, and test pilot Len Fox flew the initial flights of the Waco in Arizona last year.
“I have to manage two separate systems to fly the jet Waco,” explains Boerboon. “Each engine has its own fuel supply, throttle control and lubrication system. A computer screen on the instrument panel monitors both engines independently, and a big red warning light tells me when something is wrong. The most demanding feature is to keep the speed down, within limits. Full throttle on both engines would exceed the top safe speed of the airframe.”
This is the first season of performances for the “Screamin’ Sasquatch” and Rockford’s AirFest was the third of 12 scheduled airshows for this summer.
My demo ride at AirFest 2014
By Jon McGinty
Standing next to the bright red monoplane, Tim Jarvis, operations manager for Klatt Airshows, tells me to step into the leg straps of a backpack parachute.
“You won’t need it,” he assures me, with a smile.
Then, he straps me into the cockpit’s seven-point harness, so snugly I can hardly breathe, and demonstrates how to maneuver the quick-release levers, should I need to exit the plane.
“But you won’t have to,” he says, still smiling.
His final instructions point out the location of the white “barf bag” Velcroed to the inside of the plane, also remarking it probably won’t be needed.
With the roar of the 300-horsepower Lycoming engine in front of me, and pilot Jeff Boerboon’s exclamation behind me —“Let’s feed your wild side!” — the Extra 300L shoots down the runway and leaps into the air. Speeding upward at nearly 200 mph, we soon join up with John Klatt in a blue plane like ours. He is also carrying a wide-eyed passenger to demonstrate the sensations of stunt flying. As I watch the wingtips of the two approaching airplanes bounce up and down, the difficulty of such precise maneuvers in midair becomes very real.
We soon roll to our left, and Boerboon puts the airplane (and me) through some “gentle” aerobatic maneuvers. First, we pull up into a loop, putting a panorama of Illinois farmland over my head, and experiencing 4 Gs (four times the force of gravity on earth). Then, a roll as one wingtip follows the other from side to side. With white smoke following us, we point skyward into a hammerhead stall. The nose gracefully points earthward again, producing -1 G, and causing my camera to try to float out of my white-knuckled hands.
Back on the ground in less than 10 minutes, I am presented with two photographic memory cards: one, a video from a panel-mounted camera pointed at my face; the other, a GoPro still camera mounted on the left wingtip and pointed at the canopy, which shot photos every 5 seconds during the flight.
In the video, aside from rotating my jaw to equalize the pressure in my ears, and licking my lips (my mouth went dry the minute our wheels left the runway), I don’t look too nervous … well, maybe just concerned.
From the June 11-17, 2014, issue