Local pilot is flying ace
James Barrett isn't much different than the athletes at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. Like them, the rural Baldwin resident has to be in shape for his event.
However, his event isn't among the hundreds in Sydney. Barrett is an aerobatic pilot. And he's one of the best. He recently placed second at the U.S. National Aerobatic Championships in Denison, Texas.
Barrett competes in the intermediate division in the single seat of his one-of-a-kind Staudacher plane. During looping, rolling and straight line maneuvers, the plane covers up to 300 feet a second, and Barrett comes face to face with up to 9 G-forces. In comparison, a roller coaster takes its passengers on a 2 G-force ride.
"The flying I do would cause the person not conditioned for that type of flying to pass out," Barrett said. "You have to be a person in good physical shape to do this."
Barrett keeps in shape by walking and eating healthy. As competition season draws near, he takes a few weeks to build up to a 20-minute flight every other day.
"That's about all your body can stand," Barrett said. "It is very hard on the body."
Barrett's plane is designed to soften the physical impact on his body. His knees are bent and elevated, preventing blood from rushing to his head or to his feet during maneuvers. It is a feature designed by years of experience.
The Staudacher was built by its namesake, John Staudacher. It is the last and best one of 26 built in the world.
"Everything he learned, he put into this one," said Barrett's wife, Marilyn, of the improvements John Staudacher made with each plane.
The Staudacher was preceded by two airplanes built by Barrett at his farm east of Baldwin both Christen Eagles, and the second an improvement upon the first.
When Barrett started building the first Christen Eagle in 1990, he was already an experienced pilot he was a captain for Braniff International airlines for more than 20 years before retiring. He became interested in aerobatics when he started building a plane designed for just that.
"The more I became involved with the building, the more I became involved with the aerobatics," Barrett said.
Even with more than 20,000 hours of jet time, he needed a different kind of training. One of the best aerobatic trainers, John Morrissey, was conveniently located in the Kansas City area. Barrett trains with Morrissey two weeks a year.
"Having the experience of flying helped," said Barrett. He said most of his competitors are or were airline, corporate or military pilots. "The transition is hard. These are hard to fly."
And competition is tough. A pilot flies three tests during a competition: a standard test flown by every competitor, a freestyle test and an unknown test. All of the tests are confined within an airspace, marked by a 3,300-square-foot box on the ground and monitored by boundary judges.
At nationals, Barrett's plane left the box four times penalized 10 points each time. Only 17 points separated Barrett from the champion, who only left the boundaries one time. Had he exceeded the boundaries one time or not at all, he would have won the competition.
"Had I only had one out, I would have won," Barrett said. "It is very hard to stay in the box. You have to develop a timing technique. You have to have a clock inside your body that tells you when to start and stop a maneuver.
"My airplane is considerably faster than most of them that helps me stay in the box."
Barrett intends to start competing at the advanced level next year, but he hopes to return the nationals next year and win the intermediate championship. He had already made the move from sportsman (he got third in the nation in 1995) to intermediate.
"I am going to fly advanced part of next year, and I want to go down and get first place in this class," Barrett said.
He said advanced maneuvers are not much more complex than the level he is at now. However, pilots enter negative G-forces at the advanced level by flying on the outside of a loop, instead of the inside of the loop as in the intermediate level.
Barrett and his plane are perfect partners striving for perfect scores. However, his trust in the plane took months to build.
"When I first bought the airplane, it intimidated me, because no one could tell me what the airplane would do," Barrett said. "I had to figure it out for myself. Now I have full faith in the airplane. I know when things don't go right, it will recover."
And things don't always go right. Two of Barrett's friends were killed while practicing aerobatics when he was first starting out. And he has encountered "scary moments" himself.
"When you dive into the box, instantly it's like an explosion of maneuvers," Barrett said of flying 1,000-3,500 feet from the ground. "When you are doing maneuvers, if you are 1,200 feet up, you are one to two seconds to the ground. If you do this, you have a lot of scary moments."
But when it's done perfect and it has to be done perfect at Barrett's level the sequence of maneuvers is sheer beauty. James' favorite movement to perform and Marilyn's favorite movement to watch is the hammerhead where the plane shoots straight up until it stops, then pivots and falls straight down the same line.
"It is beautiful to watch," Marilyn Barrett said.
Marilyn Barrett joins her husband at all competitions, but she drives. In a way, though, she is a co-pilot helping to buckle him into the plane or providing a drink of water. Having been around planes and pilots most of her life, her husband's hobby doesn't scare her in the least. That's good, because their son Jim is turning his piloting skills to aerobatics as well trained by his father.
"It is a fun thing, but it is not a thing you can go out and haphazardly do," James Barrett said.