Saturday, January 16, 2010

Acro Camp Announcement and Casting Call

Listen to this post in audio form on the Airspeed podcast! Or you can listen here by using the direct link below.

Okay, it’s time to go on radar with a project that I’ve been contemplating for a few months now. It still might not happen and I’m not guaranteeing that it will. But we’re close enough to a “go” that I think it’s time to get the word out and see what kind of interest there is.

As you know, I’ve been exploring aerobatics for the last two years. It’s been a lot of fun and I’m a safer and more competent pilot because if it. I’ve learned how to manage energy, recover from some pretty unusual attitudes, and actually look good in the sky doing it. Sometimes, anyway.

If you’ve been following the video episodes, you also know that I’ve been shooting in-cockpit video of myself learning these maneuvers. I do it to become a better pilot, but I also do it to have fun and to be, if only for a few tenths of an hour, The Guy in the Red Airplane.

You go to airshows and you see performers up there just tearing it up and you wonder what it’s like. Sometimes you wonder so hard that you have to pretend that there’s something in your eye for a few minutes. You know what I mean.

At some point, you quit wondering, climb over the fence, and go find out.

That’s exactly what I did. My reactions were visceral and, in many ways, unlike any other feelings I’d ever had. And it was different every flight. Driving home with my fist raised out the car window. Driving home with a stop along the way to just sit there with the air conditioning on full and a bag in my hand. And everything in between.

It’s a dramatic and human experience. The kind of experience that they make movies about.

So let’s make a movie.

It’s tentatively titled Acro Camp. Four pilots from different walks of life and around the country gather in Michigan in May or thereabouts to take over a Part 61 flight school for four days and fly aerobatics for the first time.

HD cameras and audio rigs in each aircraft, including the rig that I use to shoot acro and that I used in the T-6A at Randolph last year. Steadycam roving around the ramp and in the pilot lounge. Hand-held cameras available for cast use.

The current thinking is that we’re going to use Sutton Aviation at the northeast corner of Oakland County International Airport (better known on the radio as “Pontiac”) (KPTK). Sutton has a Citabria and a Super Decathlon, each of which is aerobatically certified. We might also add one or more additional airplanes, one of which might be a Pitts S-2B or similar aircraft.

We shoot a couple of Terabytes of video and then edit it all together to make a visually compelling presentation of one of the most exciting and inspiring aspects of general aviation. I’m also composing original music for the soundtrack and I have a couple of really good ideas ready to develop between now and post-production.

So here’s the thing. I’ve already had the initial experience and my reactions aren’t the kind that I want to capture. So I want to capture the experiences of others.

Have you ever had the urge to crawl back through that USB cable, cross the firewall, and spend a little time in Airspeed’s world? Well, this is your chance.

This is the casting call for Acro Camp.

You need to be at least a private pilot with no substantial aerobatic training. An upset recovery course or spin training won’t disqualify you. Neither will any aerobatic flight where you were just a passenger and didn’t manipulate the flight controls to a substantial extent.

I’d also prefer that you not have a tailwheel endorsement. More about that later, but the idea is that, if the weather is too low for acro but high enough for pattern work, you’ll train for your tailwheel endorsement. And might even obtain it.

You need to be physically of a shape, size, and weight that will fit within the volume, weight, and balance of a Super Decathlon, Citabria, or Pitts S-2B, be able to see over the dash without hitting your head on the ceiling, be able to reach the rudder pedals with full travel without being so long of leg that your knees interfere with the stick or the throttle, and be able to properly wear, and operate if need be, a parachute. We’ll do actual weight and balance calculations for the actual aircraft and look at the weight limits of the available parachutes and come up with a hard weight number soon. In the meantime, figure a weight maximum of 220 lbs. If you think that you might be outside the envelope, e-mail me and I’ll check with the school.

All flight will be dual, so you won’t need a current medical. Obviously, if there’s anything wrong with you that would impair your ability to fly and pull Gs without bending yourself or the airplane, this isn’t for you. But a medical certificate isn’t required.

You need to be able to get yourself to southeast Michigan on your own power and feed and house yourself for a four-day period in late April, May, or early June of 2010 to be announced.

You have to get along with other people. The camp might be boring at times and stressful at others. Prima donnas and whiners need not apply. I care a lot more about your personality and your willingness to fly to the best of your ability than your beauty or your manly cleft chin or your mad pilot skills. If you’re going to sit around and whine if it rains or complain that the restraint system is relocating your kidneys (and it does), stay home. If this sounds like a huge adventure that’s about discovering things with a team of some of your future best friends, tuck in your shirt and keep listening.

In parts of the camp, you’ll feel completely alone in the front seat of the aircraft, even with an instructor in the back. At other times, it’ll be a mob of your fellow campers, production volunteers, instructors, and others. Your capacity to have these experiences under widely-varying circumstances during a short time period, and in a way that evokes empathy from a broad audience, is by far the most important thing.

You probably have a better chance of being selected if you’re not white or male. Before you send me hate mail or fan mail, here’s why. I have nothing against white males. I’ve been one most of my life. White males are just fine. But one of the purposes of the movie is to reach outside the airport fence and capture the imaginations of as many non-aerobatic pilots – and non-pilots – as possible. It’s a fact that we’re more empathic about people who look like ourselves. I want the cast to be made up of an assortment of people such that everyone who watches the movie can identify with at least one pilot. And the other thing is that women and non-white persons are grievously under-represented in the pilot community. If I can show women and non-white persons people like themselves taking on the challenge of flying an airplane upside down, maybe I can get the message across that the color of your skin or the fact that you’re a woman doesn’t matter. Gravity and aerodynamics are color- and gender-blind. It we can tell even a little bit of that story, how cool would that be?

At the very least, in the words of a good friend of mine, it can’t be a sausage-fest if that can be avoided. And the more diverse the cast in that and other ways, the better.

In the early going, you’ll go up with an instructor, get the feel of the airplane, and learn some basic energy management concepts and maneuvers. Probably some wingovers, a few stalls, some pitch oscillations, and some unusual attitude recoveries. Then whatever the instructor thinks is appropriate.

As your sorties go on, you’ll learn such additional maneuvers as the instructor thinks you can handle.

There are four basic aerobatic maneuvers. The loop, the roll, the hammerhead, and the spin. Almost all other maneuvers are variants or combinations of those basic maneuvers. You’ll experience these and others as you demonstrate that you’re prepared for them.

Toward the middle of the camp, you’ll come up with your own aerobatic routine in consultation with your instructors. It can be basic, intermediate, or whatever. The point is that you should pick out a routine that you know you can do, but will be challenging to get right and make beautiful.

If we can figure out a way to judge the performances, we’ll do that. And maybe have trophies and awards for the best-executed routine, the most improved, the bravest, the person who scared the instructors the most, and so on. Whatever’s constructive and fun.

If you feel motion-sick, you’ll just knock off the acro at that point. No harm and no shame. You finish out the sortie by heading back to the airport and getting tailwheel instruction for whatever’s left of your sortie. Nobody has to throw up in – or on – an airplane, instructor, the ramp, or a fellow camper. And throwing up in the back of the crew car is strictly prohibited.

If you do throw up in or on any of the foregoing, it’s truly no big deal. I’ve done it. (So that’s why the Air Force told me I could keep the gloves!) Many others have done it. Heck, I’ve even dry-heaved on the ramp after the flight was over. There are three kinds of pilots. Those who have hurled, those who will, and those who lie about it.

If you know for sure that you have a hair-trigger tummy, this thing probably isn’t going to work for you. But DO NOT forego this opportunity because you don’t know how your tummy will react. The only way you can know is to do it. Even NASA still has no good predictor of which astronaut candidates will experience space sickness and which ones won’t.

You might be pleased to find that it doesn’t bother you at all. You might be bummed to find that you’re green around the gills after three maneuvers. There’s no way to tell until you do it, so don’t fail to express your interest for lack of confidence about your tummy.

And the good news is that, even if you’re a little urpy after the first flight, motion sickness improves over subsequent flights. I can usually do only about 20 minutes my first flight of the season. But, by mid-summer, I can go an hour. Even airshow pilots tell me that they can only handle about 20 minutes or so their first time up for the season. The sorties can be relatively short if it’s bothersome early on. And you’ll have three or four days over which to condition your tummy.

The idea is to have each camper fly three 1.3-hour sorties on each of days one and two. Then two 1.7-hour sorties on days three and four. More if we can fit it in. Probably a maximum of eight hours Hobbs over the course of the camp.

Several factors will influence the amount of flying we get to do. Weather, the health of the aircraft, the health of the instructors, and the usual factors will, of course, come into play. Where we can fly will also have an effect. There’s an aerobatic box over near Romeo, over the proving grounds. That’s about a 20-minute trip each way. That affects aircraft turn and also affects how often we need to fuel. There’s talk of trying to get an aerobatic box directly over the Pontiac airport, which would be cool in a number of ways, not the least of which would be that turn times would really decrease and we can fly more efficiently.

Everybody wears a chute on every sortie. Obviously, you have to wear a chute when you fly acro. Additionally, we don’t want to keep having to rearrange the seat cushions on the aircraft every time we turn them. Further, I don’t want anyone to see any footage of, say, tailwheel training in the pattern (which doesn’t require chutes unless you really suck), mistake it for acro without chutes, and make trouble for the camper or the instructor. (Are you getting the sense that we’ve really thought through the regs and are going to make this thing squeaky-clean compliant with every reg? Good!)

Let’s talk money and control.

Like almost all new-media projects, I have a shoestring budget for this. I’ve plowed most of it into the HD cameras and other equipment and going out and flying the equipment so I know the best positions and angles. Like a couple of thousand dollars so far and I’m just getting started.

In a way, I think that this is a great thing. It’s the ultimate expression of democracy in media production. Everybody says that technology is such that you can go shoot a good movie with a few thousand bucks’ worth of equipment. That’s exactly what we’re going to try to do. It’s as much a testament to new media as anything else.

The other thing that this is going to mean is that each camper is going to have to pay his or her own way for the entire thing. Getting there, the airplane rental, the instruction, food, hotel, ground transport, and the trip home.

I can help in some ways. Like picking people up from Detroit Metro Airport if they’re flying in. Like feeding everybody at the end of the day. Like getting a friends-and-family discount on hotel through a friend who works for a major hotel chain. Like trying for a block time deal on the aircraft and instructors. I’ll try to make it so that it costs no more than it has to.

There are two reasons for structuring the thing this way. First, the aforementioned shoestring budget. Second, the campers will likely be private pilots and I don’t want to get anyone in trouble with the FAA or otherwise with any allegations that any private pilot camper received compensation for flying. Or even paid less than his or her pro rata share of the cost of the flight.

And a third reason when we get to the liability issues.

I’ll try to come up with an estimate of the cost. Worst case, it’ll be something like $210/hour for the aircraft and instructor in the Citabria or Super-D. The Pitts will likely be $330/hour with instructor. (But it’s a Pitts. Sell a relative if you have to.) If we assume eight hours max flying with two thirds Citabria or Super-D and one third Pitts, figure around $2,000 for the flying. In any case, you only pay for such flying as you actually do, provided that you do fly when you can.

Remember that we’re taking over a school for four days. The school is going to clear its schedule for the aircraft and instructors and give it all to us. Just like your local FBO, if you don’t fly when you can and nobody else takes over your time, you might have to pay a part of what you didn’t fly.

You can figure out your own travel costs to and from the location. The closest major airports are Detroit Metro (KDTW) and Flint (KFNT). Hotel could be as low as $40 per night if we get a great discount, but figure something closer to $80 per night just to be safe. It’ll be a nice place. It’s a major luxury hotel chain.

I think we can get the costs down below these back-of-the-envelope guesstimates, but I want to be conservative so nobody gets mad at me. More information soon.

Whatever the cost ends up being, let me make one thing perfectly clear. Neither I nor Airspeed is taking any money from you for the camp, either directly or indirectly. You’re paying the school, the airlines, the taxi driver, the hotel, and the waitress. And paying them directly and only for what you actually buy. From them. I get nothing from the flight school or the instructors or the aircraft lessors or anybody else. No kickbacks, no nothing. I don’t charge you anything to come participate if you come. The only thing that Airspeed has going here is gathering raw material for a movie and eventually making and distributing the movie.

Let’s say that it ends up running you $3,000 with your airfare, hotel, training, and whatever else. Wouldn’t you pay something like that for a new rating or a similar accelerated school? There are places in the US where you pay in excess of $2,000 for an upset course that involves less than five hours of flying. And they don’t give you the possibility of being in a movie. Or being a part of the groundswell of new media. I think that that experience is well worth it, I’m putting in more than that, and I probably won’t even get to fly. Make up your own mind, but it sure seems worth it to me.

Liability, insurance, and other related issues: Neither I nor Airspeed nor anyone else associated with the movie is taking on any liability. This is a shoestring thing. And it’s aerobatic flight, so, like a lot of other things worth doing, it involves risk. I’m merely helping make arrangements and I’m going to try to put together a movie out of the footage that we get. The flying is strictly a thing between you and the flight school just as though this wasn’t Acro Camp and as though I’m not involved. You’re going to get some flight training and I’m there to watch and document. Period.

Accordingly, you’ll sign the biggest, baddest waiver you’ve ever seen. It’ll be something to behold and I expect that later civilizations will be studying it in awe for millennia to come. It might even have curse words in it just so the jury doesn’t misunderstand. It’ll be drafted by yours truly, who is both a pretty good lawyer and slightly paranoid.

That’s the only way we can do this. If you want a piece of me or Airspeed, you can’t be a camper. Stay home. That’s a benefit of the bargain upon which I insist. And, yes, this piece of audio will be Exhibit B right behind the waiver and right in front of a mountain of other stuff. You bend yourself or an airplane or walk into a prop or get into a car wreck on the way to or from, you’re on your own.

Unless I actively call you out, chase you across the ramp in an airplane, and run you down in cold blood, you’re on your own. I’m not trying to be a jerk. This is the only way that Airspeed can do the project. I hope that everyone understands.

Any waivers or liability issues or any other matter between you and the flight school are between you and the flight school. Period. I’m not involved, other than to show you where it is and shoot video of you while you’re doing whatever it is you do there.

You’ll sign a release that allows Airspeed to use your likeness and video and stills of your activities in connection with Acro Camp in the movie and in any promotion of it, like in trailers, on posters, and in similar ways.

I don’t plan to use anything embarrassing or personally awful. This isn’t The Real World or Road Rules or The Real Housewives of anyplace. But, if you hurl or are scared or things like that happen, it goes in the movie. This is about challenges and facing up to them. Fear and hurling are okay. Sometimes, they’re par for the course. Nobody wants to watch a movie about people who aren’t challenging themselves in some way.

I talked at length in the First Solo episode in 2006 about my trepidation about my first solo. That is, in part, what made it one of the best episodes in the show’s history. I’m going to put my own hurl in the T-6A in a future episode of Airspeed on that very topic. Remember when I talked about diversity in the pilot population? I know people who don’t fly because they get motion-sick. I want to reach that population, too. To show them that it’s no big deal and shouldn’t stand in the way of the Big Dream.

You’ll get credited, but you get no points, no back-end, and no other piece of the movie if it makes any money. The movie is almost guaranteed to lose money and not go anywhere beyond an insular minority of pilots and aviation enthusiasts. And, if it does, you can be reasonably assured that I’ll piss away any proceeds on doing more stuff for Airspeed and you’ll benefit from having the content that those efforts yield. I’m eating the costs mentioned above and putting in the sweat to make it happen, so I think that’s fair.

You’ll be welcome to blog, podcast, write, Tweet, or otherwise express your experiences. In fact, it’s encouraged. We might even invite traditional media in to cover this and ask you to tell those folks about your experiences.

In any case, this isn’t Survivor or some other reality show where the producers stand on your neck and make you go through them to talk about your experiences. First, having those involved blog or podcast or Tweet, or whatever is great publicity for the project. Second, it strikes me as slightly evil and a violation of the unwritten tribal charter to try to clamp down on that kind of expression. Third, this thing has grown out of a new-media ethic than encourages sharing and free expression and I don’t think that it’d be true to the project’s roots to try to funnel the buzz through a central point and put AdSense up against it.

Offloading the audio and video every day is going to be a monumental task but, if we can swing it, we’ll even try to give you audio or video clips that you can use for your podcast, blog, or other outlet to go with your new-media chronicling of the event.

That said, there’ll be reasonable limitations on the use of the Acro Camp and Airspeed trademarks and the other rights necessary to make the movie happen and to protect the franchise if I or the school decides to do more with it. You won’t be able to distribute the movie yourself and you won’t be able to hold yourself out as speaking for the movie. Reasonable stuff like that.

Last comment I’ll make in this piece about control, rights, and stuff like that:

You’ve noticed that I’m pretty absolute in terms of rights and control and other elements of this project. I’m not trying to be a jerk, except where it serves the project. Insisting on having certain rights and being the sole decision-maker in a lot of respects is the only way that I can give myself the best chance of having the artistic control and fulfilling the vision that I have for the project. And if, by some miracle, this project gets a distribution deal, I want to be able to sit down at that table knowing that I have all of the rights I need to go forward without being beholden to any third party for licenses, permissions, or other things that put a drag on the process or make it so that I can’t sign up for stuff like warranties and indemnification that distributors and others are going to demand.

Does this mean that you’ll need to trust Airspeed and trust me? You bet. There’s no way around it. Do I deserve your trust? I hope so. I’ve put hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars over the last four years bringing you more than 150 episodes of the best podcast I know how to make. I’ve walked the walk for you and given it away for free, together with a little piece of my soul with each installment. I hope that I’ve demonstrated that I “get it” and that I’m a worthy conduit for the energy that I’m proposing that we release with this project.

Okay, on to fun stuff like dates.

I’m thinking a four-day thing with an arrival the day before the first day. Day Zero would be an arrival day. You show up around 4:00 or 6:00 p.m. The campers meet and have dinner with the instructors and the crew and do ground school. Everyone will have read the book Basic Aerobatics by Geza Szurovy. The instructors go over the aircraft and the safety systems. Everybody learns how to strap on a parachute. Everybody learns how to get the door off the aircraft in an emergency. The instructors go over the basic maneuvers for the next day.

Days one, two, and three, we fly all we can. Three sorties per day per person is the target in the early going. About 1.3 Hobbs per sortie. Maybe less if we can get an aerobatic box right there above the airport and don’t have to haul all the way out to the other box near the proving grounds. Later on, we go to longer sorties, say 1.7 Hobbs, and maybe two per day. A lot will depend on the respective campers.

Day 4, those that have to leave in the afternoon fly first and then leave. Those who don’t have to leave until later fly last.

Day Zero will be a Wednesday or Thursday, so the event will run Wednesday through Sunday or Thursday through Monday. Talking about possible time windows in terms of the Day Zero for each, the options are April 28 or 29, May 12, 13, 19, or 20, or June 2 or 3.

One other note on timing. The weather in Michigan is usually pretty nice around that time of year. The spring rains are usually over and it’s pretty flyable and not so hot that you roast while taxiing. (And I think that we’ll get to take the bubble off the Pitts so it’ll be open-air!) But the weather could knock out a day or more of flying. If we can’t do acro but it’s still VFR out there, you’ll fly tailwheel and go for your endorsement. The idea is to fly as much as the weather allows.

If we get most of the material that we need for the movie done, but we’re up against the end of the camp, we might need you to stretch it a day or come back to finish up. Your willingness and flexibility to stretch your stay a day or come back will weigh heavily in whether you get selected as a camper.

We’re going to stage the camp at Sutton Aviation at Oakland County International Airport (KPTK). Your instructors will be Barry Sutton and Don Weaver.

Barry is a longtime instructor and an FAA designated examiner. I’ve flown all of my acro dual with Barry unless you count the Air Force and airshow performer rides. If you’ve seen my acro training video episodes, that’s Barry in the back. If you’ve listened to the tailwheel training episode, that’s Barry’s measured voice and well-composed patter you’ve heard.

I know Don, but I haven’t flown with him. He has experience running camps like this at places like the Harvey-Rihn flight school in LaPorte, Texas and others.

I met with Barry and Don on Thursday for lunch and we went through my concept document for the project. They’re excited about it and are already in the process of making some things happen. They also gave me some really good feedback about how to structure the sorties, how many people we could bring in, what facilities we can use, and related information.

Both Barry and Don will be instructing in the Citabria and Super-D the first day or two, After that, if we can bring in the Pitts, Don will switch to the Pitts, Barry will be in the Super-D, and we’ll be running Pitts and Super-D for the rest of the camp.

I think we’re going to be able to get a dedicated room at The Aviation Station upstairs at the ramp to use as a lounge, ground instruction room, video and tech equipment swap-out facility, and secret lair to use in cording our plans of world domination. Additionally, there’s a ramp there that’s relatively private, so we can probably hang out right there on the flightline, go meet the incoming aircraft, send off the outgoing aircraft, and (if we get the box over the airport) watch the campers fly.

There’s a lot to organize over the next few weeks and months to make sure that this happens. There remains some substantial chance that things won’t pan out and that Acro Camp won’t happen. But you don’t get a movie made by being timid or waiting until the last minute to talk to your constituencies about it.

A lot could go wrong. It could rain. One or more aircraft might be squawked and be unavailable to fly. Instructors can get sick. It could turn out that the video we shoot sucks or that we end up without a compelling story to tell. Too many things to try to shake a stick at.

Think of it this way. If you’d go to southeast Michigan in May to fly such acro as you could, play some euchre if it rains, fly some tailwheel if it’s low, and have a few beers with like-minded people regardless of whether anyone was shooting a movie, that’s great. If it isn’t low IFR, doesn’t rain, none of the airplanes is squawked, everybody’s fun and cool to be around, and you also get to star in an independent movie by doing it, that’s icing on the cake.

So, if you’re interested in participating in this little project as one of the pilots – one of the campers – shoot me an e-mail at with your name, address, and phone number. We’ll have a more detailed application process soon and I’ll contact you to let you know about it.

In the meantime, there are three places you can go for additional information about Acro Camp.

The first is The exclusive official online group for Acro Camp will be the Acro Camp group on myTranponder. It’s free to sign up for myT and it’s free to join the group and interact with others about the movie. myTransponder understands new media and social media better than anyone else. It’s run by fellow members of our aviation tribe and I think it’s only right to have the pilot lounge for this effort be on myT. When the online cast member application becomes available, it’ll be posted exclusively in the Acro Camp group on myTransponder.

The second is the new Acro Camp blog at The blog will have ongoing outward-facing information about Acro Camp, as well as links to information about Sutton Aviation, the aircraft, the instructors, and other materials. Press releases will also appear on the site and it’ll be a particularly good as a contact point for (ahem) traditional media.

And, as always, I’ll be doing episodes updating everyone right here on Airspeed and at

So that’s the announcement and the casting call. This is your chance to crawl through that USB cable and enter Airspeed’s world for a few days. I’ll be back on future episodes to talk more about progress and keep you updated.

I hope that as many people as possible apply and that we have a really tough time picking the campers. I hope that we pick you. I hope that you show up and meet some of your new best friends. I hope you laugh. I hope you cry. I hope that you scare yourself silly at least once. I hope that you surprise yourself many times by what you can do. I hope that you come away a more confident and safer pilot. I hope that the experience changes you and causes you to stretch the boundaries of what you thought was possible and reexamine who you are and what you believe about yourself. I hope that the project carries a little bit of general aviation outside the airport fence and entices some of our neighbors to join our tribe.

This is going to be cool. I can’t wait.