04/14/11 — Aerobatic flier will perform feats at weekend's Wings Over Wayne

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Aerobatic flier will perform feats at weekend's Wings Over Wayne

By Gary Popp
Published in News on April 14, 2011 1:46 PM

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Rob Holland, aerobatic flier, runs through tricks including loops, rolls and hammerheads. Holland will perform at Wings Over Wayne 2011.

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Reporter Gary Popp, left, takes a test flight with aerobatic flying instructor Rob Holland. Holland will be performing at the Wings Over Wayne air show this weekend.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Staff writer Gary Popp actually took a flight with Rob Holland, one of the pilots scheduled to perform in this weekend's Wings Over Wayne Air Show.

Before stepping into the rather smallish-looking MX-2 airplane, I was given a crash course in what to do if the pilot were to yell into my headset, "Eject, eject, eject!": Jerk off my headset, unbuckle my safety belts, climb out on the wing, and once I was clear of the plane, pull a metal loop on the shoulder strap of my parachute.

No problem. I was ready.

Sitting in the front seat of the two-passenger aircraft only a few feet behind the propeller, I took a deep breath as we picked up speed on the runway of Wayne County Airport.

A moment before the pilot shifted the aircraft's controls to send us zooming high into the air, I read a sticker posted only inches from face that read "Fly it like you stole it."

And that exactly what award-winning aerobatics pilot Rob Holland did for the next 13 minutes as we reached speeds over 260 mph and felt the impact of 6.5 G-force.

In seconds we were thousands of feet in the air. Holland started the session with a number of maneuvers including a roll, which quickly sent the aircraft's 24-foot wing span end over end as smooth and seemingly effortless as I might spin a football in my hands.

Next up was a half-roll, which suddenly had us flying, as Holland put it "straight and level," only we were completely upside down.

From this position I could see, through the crystal-clear canopy over our heads, much of Wayne County and it's open fields beginning to sprout vibrant greens from the recent rainstorms and springtime sunshine.

But with few words Holland forcefully reminded me that we were not on sight-seeing flight, and I was soon pinned to the back of my seat with the skin on my face making its way to my ears as we approached 7 Gs in a maneuver known as a "hammerhead."

Holland flew us 2,000 feet straight up, where the aircraft then came to a complete stop. Falling back toward earth, Holland pointed the nose of the MX-2 down and we completed the maneuver with fantastic speed.

Operating the nearly $500,000 aircraft with expert dexterity, Holland also completed broad loops and wild tumbling, which to anyone on the ground it would have appeared the pilot had lost all control of the aircraft.

Thankfully, that was not the case, because with 18 years of flying -- nine seasons of air shows -- under his belt, I was in good hands.

"When I was about yea tall, my dad brought me to an air show," Holland, 36, said, holding his hand about four feet off the ground. "I walked into the gate and saw people flying upside down and just fell in love with it."

He said he'd always been interested in flying and airplanes and that for as long as he could remember he'd had model planes in his room. The difference after that air show, though, was that all of those planes were rehung upside down.

But getting from there to now -- in 2008 he was the World Advanced Aerobatic Champion and later this year will be one of he'll be one of six aerobatic pilots representing the United States in the World Unlimited Aerobatic Team competing in Italy later this year -- was a "long road," he said.

"You start way back and take lots of baby steps," he said.

And to show people the kinds of crazy stunts that can be done in an airplane -- his MX-2 is a 1,200-pound, 385-horsepower carbon fiber flying machine built in Wilkesboro -- takes lots of practice. However, unlike in other sports where there's a foam pit to fall into when learning new tricks, Holland doesn't have that luxury.

"I don't have a foam pit, but I do have a lot of altitude to play with," he said.

He explained that when he's practicing, he sets his floor between 4,000 and 5,000 feet -- giving himself a cushion to correct any mistake that might occur while in the air.

During the show itself, though, his routine, which he updates every season, is performed anywhere from five to 2,000 feet off the ground.

"What it does, you have the illusion of danger, but we try to take that out of the reality," he said. "You just keep finetuning and practicing it until everything come out the same way every time."

And when all those tricks -- usually 35 to 40 choreographed together over the course of a 12 minute shows split into two parts -- come together and the crowd shows it's appreciation, it really is a rush, he said.

So he's excited to be bringing Rob Holland Ultimate Air Shows back to Wings Over Wayne for the fifth or sixth time.

"It's just a great base. I've gotten to know a lot of people here and it's great to come back," he said. "They really put on a spectacular show here. It's probably one of the best shows in the country."

And while he said he knows most people come to see the jets like the Thunderbirds and the F-15E Strike Eagles and the F-22 Raptors and their tax dollars at work, he believes he plays an important role, too.

"The beauty of a good air show is its diversity, and I've got my own little niche in the market," he said. "Hopefully I can show people things they've never seen an airplane do before."

-- Assistant News Editor Matthew Whittle contributed to this report.