OTTUMWA – A four-plane synchronized flying team sponsored by AeroShell arrives in Ottumwa this week for the Fly Ottumwa airshow.
Aeroshell performs tight formation aerial maneuvers at airshows all over North America.
“We don’t go quite as fast as the jets do, but it allows us to be a whole lot closer to the crowds,” said Mark Henley, team lead.
Because of their speed, aerobatic jet teams like the Blue Angels have to stay 1,500 feet from the crowd, Mark said. “We fly 500 feet.” Spectators can see into the cockpit.
Crowds seem to like the show, Mark said. “I’ve been on the team for about 21 [years], and we keep getting invited back to the same airshows.”
The team was founded in 1984 by Mark’s twin brother, Alan Henley, and Steve Gustafson as the North American Aerobatic Team. Alan , Gustafson and Ben Cunningham flew together for 12 years before adding Gene McNeely to the team in 1996.
Gustafson, the team’s left wing, learned his flying skills from his dad, Merle Gustafson. He first soloed while a junior a high school in the T-6 he flies with AeroShell.
Gustafson holds a commercial rating, single and multiengine instructor ratings and a seaplane rating in the F4U Corsair and the B-25 Mitchell.
Mark joined the team in 1997 when Cunningham retired. Mark has been performing in airshows for more than 35 years in more than 100 different types of aircraft. He has type ratings in the AD4 Skyraider, Grumman TBM, Boeing B-17, Douglas DC3, Consolidated B-24 Liberator and the North American B-25 Mitchell.
McNeely was integral in developing the team's sponsor base, and in 2001 the North American Aerobatic Team became the AeroShell Aerobatic Team.
In 2008, Alan was left paralyzed due to a non-aviation accident. The team reached out to longtime friend and Bryan Regan to complete the formation.
The team’s right wing, Regan dreamed of flying during most of his childhood. He had a commercial, single and multi-engine license, instrument rating and more than 7,500 hours when the AeroShell Team found itself in need of a backup pilot in the summer of 2008.
Regan’s airshow experience included flying all four positions with the Red Baron Pizza Squadron.
In 2010, Jimmy Fordham joined the team, filling various positions as needed, but he didn’t have a fulltime flight role until this year after McNeely retired.
Fordham’s was 14 when his father taught him to fly. By the time he was 18, Fordham had his commercial, instrument, multiengine, seaplane and instructor ratings.
Marion Cole and Merle Gustafson introduced Fordham to airshow flying in the late 1970s. During that time Fordham flew a Pitts Special, Midget Mustang and Schweitzer 126 Sailplane.
Fordham currently has more than 22,000 hours of flight time in more than 100 types of aircraft. He’s a retired Delta Airlines senior caption, flying the Airbus 330.
The North American AT-6 Texan flown by the AeroShell team, nicknamed the pilot-maker, was originally designed as a basic trainer for the United States Army Air Corps in 1938. The Texan was the primary training platform for all U.S. airmen in World War II who went on to fly fighter aircraft such as the P-51 Mustang, the F4U Corsair and the P-40 Warhawk.
The Texan has a wingspan of 42 feet, a Pratt and Whitney R-1340 AN-1 engine and a maximum level speed of 212 mph.
The team performs most of its shows in the eastern half of the United States, said Mark, but its also performed in El Savador, Nava Scotia and the Bahamas.
“We’ve been to Iowa,” Mark said. “Just not to Ottumwa.”
He hadn’t done his homework about the venue, Mark said, and was surprised that Ottumwa has a population of 25,000. “That’s very small. Our airshow act is not a very inexpensive act,” Mark said. “A lot of time we’re cost prohibitive.”
The team has flown in smaller towns, but those towns have to bring in large numbers from outside the community to pay for the act.
AeroShell will perform in Friday’s Night Flight as well as the afternoon airshows Saturday and Sunday. “We have a bunch of additional lights and things that we put on the airplanes,” Mark said.
The team will fly at twilight when the airplanes will still be visible but will be silhouetted against the setting sun.
Reporter Winona Whitaker can be contacted at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @courierwinona.