Saturday, May 21, 2011

Acro Camp 2: Announcement and Casting Call

There's an audio edition of this announcement at

In May of 2010, four pilots from around the country gathered in southeast Michigan at my home airport. Two men and two women. Experience ranging from 300 hours to 12,000 hours. A lawyer and Air Force officer with a brand new commercial certificate. A psychologist with a CFI ticket. A furloughed NetJets pilot who runs a nonprofit. And an airline driver with type ratings in lots of heavy iron.

As different as different can be. But they all had a few things in common.

None had a tailwheel endorsement. And none had ever flown aerobatics.

Lined up on the ramp when they arrived were a Citabria, a Super Decathlon, and a Pitts S-2B. And two talented instructors who had cleared their schedules for the next four days. And a camera crew made up pilots and aviation enthusiasts with deserved reputations for translating the thrill of flight into digital adrenaline for thousands of the flying faithful.

You know what happened next.

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

Acro Camp, the independent documentary feature film that captured the whole experience, is in post and is slated for release late this summer. I’m editing video, arranging and recording music, and designing the packaging. And, frankly, re-living the event.

The experience was amazing. All four pilots – “campers” if you will – climbed into the airplanes and became superheroes of one kind or another. They faced fears, made friends, ate, drank, and became better, more confident, and safer pilots.

Fans arrived from as far away as Wisconsin, Iowa, and Pennsylvania, just to see what was going on. The airport regulars came by to see what was up. I got to drive my car at 80 mph down Taxiway D chasing airplanes with Will Hawkins and his camera hanging out the window and Jack Hodgson in the right seat working the taxi diagram.

For my part, I averaged something like two hours of sleep each night. It’s the most time I’ve ever spent at an airport without flying. And the most I’ve been awake in a long time. The evening after we wrapped, I fell asleep in mid-sentence while sitting there talking to Jack Hodgson in my living room. Twice.

Jim Rodriguez has become a CFI. Paul Berliner is still flying heavy iron, but talked his check airman at his next recurrent sim session into letting him barrel-roll the jet 707-style. I see Lynda Meeks at industry events as she grows Girls With Wings. And Michelle Kole looks out at me from the cover of this month’s Plane & Pilot as she flies the new Super Decathlon that she bought after we wrapped.

Acro Camp was so much more than a movie shoot. It was an opportunity to create, even if only for a little while, a perfect microcosm of what general aviation could be and should be. Birds chirping. A sun-dappled ramp. Pilots. Airplanes. Enthusiasts. Challenges. Parachutes. And not one person who doesn’t “get it” at some level.

I miss it. Everybody misses it. Even people who weren’t there miss it.

It’s interesting that, in one way or another, each camper, IP, and crew member has said words to the effect of, “Let’s do it again. Even if you don’t put memory cards or batteries in the cameras.” I understand that. I feel it.

But I think we ought to put memory cards and batteries in the cameras.

That’s right. We’re doing it again. And you’re invited to be a part of it.

This is the casting call for Acro Camp 2.

Listen up. Much of this will be the same as last year. But important things have changed.

By now, you know the drill. We need four pilots who want to fly aerobatics for the first time.

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 190 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.

Two campers soloed in tailwheel aircraft last year. We had a pretty special situation with the school’s insurance and really good weather for it. It’s possible that we’ll see some solos this year, but don’t count on it.

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 August.

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 crew, 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.

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. It’s all about doing things at whatever pace is best for you. Nobody will laugh at you if you’re not doing Lomcevaks by the end of Day 2. Nobody cares. You’re at the airport and learning and that’s more than enough for anybody.

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 three times. Twice on camera and once in an open cockpit. 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. 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 sorties on each day. More if we can fit it in. Probably a maximum of 10 hours Hobbs over the course of the camp. Last year, several of the campers mixed in a few purpose-planned tailwheel sessions just to break up the experience and take a rest. We want you flying as much acro as possible, but it’s not a death march.

And other factors will influence the amount of flying we get to do. Weather, the health of the aircraft, the health of the instructors, etc. will, of course, come into play.

I flew a Cirrus SR22 to Raleigh-Durham this weekend with Acro Camp IP Don Weaver and then we drove back for 12 hours. We had a lot of time to talk about this film. We have a lot of ideas about how to make this one better, both on screen and in terms of the campers’ experience.

For one thing, we’re thinking about having everyone learn the 2011 IAC primary competition sequence. It’s a 45-degree upline, a one-turn spin, a half Cuban, a loop, a 180-degree aerobatic turn, and a slow roll. Well within the reach of a pilot who’s trained at an event like Acro Camp. If time and personnel permit, we might be able to bring a judge from the local IAC chapter out to the box and have him or her judge each camper’s primary. Not to figure out who’s the best acro maniac, but to give each person a look at a judge’s scorecard and to better understand the competition process.

And there are more ideas where that came from. From barnstorming to BFM, it’s all running around in our heads.

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. I’ve also spent hundreds of hours logging and editing so I don’t have to pay anyone out of pocket to do it. Even the soundtrack is homegrown so I can put what little money there is into equipment and other stuff that will make the movie better.

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 feeding everybody at the end of one or two of the days. Like getting a friends-and-family discount on hotel through a friend who works for a major hotel chain. Like arranging 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.

Last year, the campers spent between $3,000 and $3,500 on aircraft and instruction. This year might be more expensive because of fuel prices, a different mix of aircraft, and other factors.

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). Last year, I managed to swing hotel rates in Marriott properties of around $90/night.

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 $4,500 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 $2,500 for an upset course that involves a lot less 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’s something to behold and I expect that later civilizations will be studying it in awe for millennia to come. I wrote it. I’m a pretty good lawyer and I’m slightly paranoid. The campers from the first movie were slack-jawed, and duly so. There’s a copy of last year’s waiver here. It might change for this year, but I think it’s a pretty good form.

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 with the prop 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 participant agreement 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.

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 large portions of the proceeds 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.

There’s a copy of last year’s participant agreement here. Again, it’s a good form, but it might change.

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 five years bringing you more than 170 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- or five-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. Eastern. The campers meet and have dinner with the instructors and the crew and do ground school. 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 or canopy off the aircraft in an emergency. The instructors go over the basic maneuvers for the next day.

Days one, two, three, and four we fly all we can. Three sorties per day per person is the target in the early going.

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

We have nailed down two periods that bookend the two possible timeframes during which we will do the camp. Period One begins August 10 and ends August 16. Period Two begins August 24 and ends August 30. The camp itself will certainly include the Saturday and Sunday within whichever of the periods we pick. The only thing we don’t know is which of the weekdays before and/or after will be included. We’ll nail that down after the selection process.

We’re leaning heavily toward Period Two because some of the tech personnel will likely have am easier time making that period. But we’re maintaining a little flexibility for now. They’re putting in a taxiway at the host airport beginning on August 1 and the main runway will likely be shut down for all or part of three days during construction. We don’t know when those days will be. And it’s probably goofy to think that we’ll be able to know any better when those days will be by waiting until June or July to set the dates. But we’re maintaining as much flexibility as possible until then.

And I don’t think it’s going to affect us one way or the other. There’s another airport nearby that’s friendly to acro. If we had to, we could ferry the aircraft there and launch from the other airport while they’re working on the runway at the primary airport. It would be a royal pain for the tech crew to move all of the support equipment for the movie, but it won’t affect the flying much, if at all.

Either way, we’ll nail down the precise dates not later that the time at which we announce the cast, which we’re trying to make at least 30 days before the camp so that we save campers the more ridiculous air fares that happen closer to travel dates if they’re flying in commercially.

One other note on timing. The weather in Michigan is usually pretty nice around that time of year. 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 and to do the kind of flying that 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 is not dispositive, but it’ll be a factor in whether you get selected as a camper.

We’re going to stage the camp at Berz Flight Training at Ray Community Airport (57D) in Ray Township, Michigan. Ray is a beautiful rural airport. Two runways. 9-27 is about 2500 feet long and 60 feet wide and it’s paved. Runway 18/36 is about 2,200 feet long, and half grass, half pavement. No gates. Low fences. If you drive your car back to the hangars, you have to stop short of the threshold of 18 to check final. The foot path that goes between the terminal building and the hangars crosses Runway 18/36.

Ray is the most beautiful airport to which I’ve ever personally been. It didn’t inspire the apocryphal Harper’s Field of Fingers in the Airport Fence Entwined, but it could be that airport. I love it. And you’ll love it.

Berz Flight Training started operations in 1948. It’s a Part 61 flight school that offers all kinds of primary and advanced instruction. The Pitts S-2B from the film is operated by Berz. Todd Yuhas, the principal, has been instrumental in bringing Acro Camp to Ray and helping us interface with the local pilot population. We’ve been received with open arms thus far and we’re looking forward to shooting the film there.

We plan to again use Barry Sutton and Don Weaver as instructors. Check out the Acro Camp website to see Barry and Don flying and instructing. And there’s even a sequence of Don and Barry in the studio playing for the soundtrack. Barry’s an excellent drummer and Don’s a classically-trained keyboard player.

By way of aircraft, the only one that I have down in ink is the Berz Pitts S-2B. The Super Decathlon from last year has been sold and the Citabria from last year is now strictly tailwheel and spin training – no acro. I’m working on lining up a different Citabria and Super-D or aircraft like them for the film. I’ve also received suggestions of other aircraft, but they’re working themselves out now.

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 late summer 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” – head to There’s an online application in the sidebar on the right. You’ll need to have a couple of pictures of yourself ready to upload and you might want to have a tape measure, a pair of jeans, and a bathroom scale handy. You don’t need your logbook unless you haven’t added up your time in awhile. Approximations are fine.

The application process is open right now. It’ll stay open until 11:59 PM US EDT on June 24 (that’s 0400Z on June 25).

Last year, 51 people applied. We selected 12 to interview. We talked to 11. And we selected four campers and two alternates. This year, we’re thinking that we might get 100 applications.

We’re again planning to narrow the field to 12 based on the applications, interview those 12 over Skype, and then pick four campers and two alternates. We’re hoping to get the process complete and announce the cast by mid-July.

Take as much time as you need to give good answers, but my best advice is to apply early. We start reviewing applications as soon as they come in and, if you’ve applied early, you’ll probably be under our eyeballs sooner and longer.

Don’t pre-stress over the application. We’re expecting quite a few applications, but, if you’re the right person, you’ll stand out by just being yourself. Write short, declarative sentences. Read what you write out loud. If what you write sounds unnatural when you read it out loud, you’re probably trying too hard. Back off a notch, relax, and be yourself. We’ll sense the genuineness if it’s real.

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. Additionally, I find that people who are active on myT are usually more involved in general aviation and make better candidates. If you spend some time on myT, you might well find a tidbit or two that’s helpful on the application.

The second is the Acro Camp website at The site will have ongoing outward-facing information about Acro Camp, as well as links to information about Berz Flight Training, 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 casting call. This is your chance to crawl through that USB cable and enter Airspeed’s world for a few days.

I hope that as many people as possible apply and that we have a really tough time picking the next set of 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.

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