Impromptu Airshow

19 Mar 21 15 Comments

On the 26th of August 2019, a glider pilot posted a video of him flying his high performance glider at the Aeroplanes Trains and Automobiles event held two days earlier in Spanish Fork, Utah.

The glider was a Schleicher ASW-27, a 15-metre sailplane certified in 1997. Designed by Gerhard Waibel, a famous German sailplane designer, the glider has a super-light structure made from a complex composite of carbon, aramid and polyethylene fibre, which allows it to carry a water ballast system to control the wing loadings. The glider flies at 70 km/h (43 mph, 38 knots) with no ballast and full flaps and has a “never exceed speed” of 285 km/h (177 mph or 154 knots).

Bruno Vassel is a YouTube sensation with over 100,000 subscribers, with many great videos of gliding around the US in his ASW-27, including honest analyses of mistakes he has made. He attended the air show at Spanish Fork Utah and was showing off his glider on the ramp. Then apparently, the airshow management asked if he would do a glider demo flight for the crowd.

He was flattered to have been asked and started thinking about what he could do to show off the abilities of the ASW-27 glider.

I do loops all the time and I have been known to do a few low passes so why not put them together and show everyone how much energy and potential a glider has with just a few thousand feet to work with! I towed to 3k’ above the ground and the video shows the rest. What a random and interesting experience! FYI – the owner’s manual for the 27 has a page specifically on how to do proper loops. My entry speed was at 115 knots indicated and I was pulling 3.5 g’s. I think I pulled them off well enough. The wings didn’t come off. While that was fun and all, I think I will be leaving the airshow stuff to the guys who know what they are doing. Last 2 things: I sure wish the helicopter ride business would have just waited so I could finish the routine without having to worry about hitting them taking off or landing while I was swooping. And yes, I saw the segmented circle and flew over it. Did you even notice it? That would have been super bad hitting its pole at 185 mph!

Bruno called it “a random and interesting experience” and described how he did a series of loops and low passes from a 3,000 foot tow. Here’s the nine-minute video that he uploaded after the event:

The video had over 200,000 views. At least one of those viewers reported the flight to the FAA.

The FAA was suitably concerned about the idea of an untrained pilot doing aerobatics over a crowd at an airshow. Bruno removed the video from YouTube but of course it was much too late.

FAR 91.303 defines aerobatic flight as:

an intentional maneuver involving an abrupt change in an aircraft’s attitude, an abnormal attitude, or abnormal acceleration, not necessary for normal flight.

There are a number of regulations around aerobatic flights and air shows in order to reduce the risk both to pilots and those on the ground, including people not attending the airshow.

Bruno had thought that he was taking the necessary precautions by not flying over the crowd but he repeatedly flew low passes near other buildings. He also says that his lowest loop was 1,900 feet above ground level, although from the video, I have to admit it looked a bit lower than that.

The ASW-27 is type certified for “semi-aerobatics” and the manual that Bruno mentions does say that the some simple aerobatic manoeuvres are permitted, including positive (inside) looping, lazy eights, chandelle and stall turns. The manual also states that it is imperative that aerobatic manoeuvres are only performed by qualified pilots who have received proper training.

Bruno had not had any aerobatic training nor any experience with airshows. Obviously he was not an approved airshow performer.

He soon learned that “approval from the airboss” and precautions based on having read the manual that came with the glider were not enough, even though the glider is type-certified for semi-aerobatics. He put the video back up, saying that the FAA wanted to make an example of him and so by posting the video, he was helping to educate pilots.

He received a seven month suspension of his licence.

To his credit, Bruno updated the video description taking full responsibility for breaking regulations and explaining the actions taken against him.

I hope this will help other pilots to not have to go through what I have over the last ten months.

However, a few weeks ago, he posted to his YouTube channel again, excited that he had his pilot’s licence back.

I’m disappointed to discover that he appears to have decided that the FAA action was unreasonable.

I fought the good fight spending many thousands of dollars because I really believe the suspension was not justified, but it was a flea fighting an angry gorilla situation and they smacked me hard.

What’s funny is during the “trial” for my airshow, one of the FAA guys arguing against me asked why I didn’t just call the FSBO and ask if I could fly the performance. My response was, “Because it was on Saturday and you were closed.” I thought it was really funny but none of them laughed.

Personally, I thought he was very lucky not to have lost his licence completely!

In the comments of the new video, a fan asked if, now that his licence had been reinstated, he would consider holding a raffle to take one of his YouTube subscribers for a flight.

He responded:

Great idea! I love to give rides in two seat gliders. Something to think about.

This is followed by another commenter pointing out that this, too, would be attracting unwanted FAA attention, with a consideration as to whether he was acting as a pilot-for-hire without a commercial licence. Well, quite.

One thing that bothered me was that there was no further mention of the airshow management and the “airboss”. They surely must have known that it was against the law to ask a pilot with no aerobatic experience to put on a display on the day of the airshow. Not to mention the fact that, as nothing was rehearsed, Bruno appears to have been dodging helicopters during his flight display. I was unable to find any comment on this, although I noticed that the official video does not show the glider flight and the only comment to it, asking if there was any video of the glider flying display, has gone unanswered. The event has since been renamed to “Wings and Wheels”.

Categories: Aerobatics, PE,


  • An interesting article, and a video obviously made with a top-of-the-range camera, in full HD.
    Of course, there are different aspect to be considered.
    If I may relate it to my own performances: In the ‘seventies I worked as a commercial pilot, mostly flying Piper PA18 Super Cubs doing advertising (meaning: towing a banner), photo flying and the occasional sightseeing flight, usually with a Fuji or C172.
    We were based at Hilversum (EHHV) when I was suspended for a fortnight.* Which, incidentally, also meant no pay, we were paid by the hour and in summer often logged 40 hours per week. Pay was very low, even in to-day’s currency probably not far above the legal minimum. So the punishment was actually quite severe.
    What was the transgression? Often we did flights of over 4 hours, twice a day. A long day, flying actually at the stalling speed. So after dropping the banner at the end of the day we had a bit of fun.
    I had developed an approach technique which meant coming in at about 1000 feet on short final and still coming to a halt less than 100 m. after the fence. (it was, probably still is, a grass aerodrome).
    How? No I won’t tell you. The aerodrome manager and chief instructor, at the time, Paul Wesselius, was usually quite tolerant. One day we were given the comment: “I understand that you are flying commercially and time is money, but will you please keep your circuits outside the aerodrome boundary.” The dimensions were approx. 500m. square.
    Wesselius’ reason for grounding me was: “I realise that you are highly experienced on the Super Cub, but if one of my students sees it and tries it for himself (women were expected to be more sensible, I guess), he will surely kill himself.”
    On another occasion, a few years later, I was asked to do a demo flight at an airshow in a Stearman biplane. It was owned by a relatively inexperienced private pilot, but I had never flown it myself. By that time I had moved up to the Cessna 310 and joined the Tiger Club at Redhill. I had the best of two worlds.
    There also had been some horrific accidents at airshows, where pilots had lost control doing aerobatics at low level towards the crowd.
    Flying mostly IFR, multi engine, in and out of some of the biggest airports in Europe had made me think a bit more about my responsibilities. I had done aerobatics in the Stampe, I had failed to impress my instructor, Neil Williams. Considering that I had less than 2 hours in the Stearman I decided to keep it safe and restricted myself to some very steep turns.
    But yes, there was temptation and if I had been in a Stampe I would have been very tempted t do some aerobatics.
    After all this: How does it apply to Bruno?
    Bruno is a rich guy who can afford to own his aircraft, a high performance glider and a propeller aircraft as well. Judging from the video, he had good control over it and no, unless the video caused distortion, it did not look as if he did his loopings too low. His final low pass was indeed extremely low, I reckon about 50 feet, but in a straight line. So yes, the FAA did the right thing. Ignoring it without any form of sanction would have given the wrong signal to others. So he was made an example of, he was given a suspension. In my case, on a very minimal income, a two week suspension – during the limited period of time when we could actually earn our money – was more than just a period of imposed inactivity.
    But then, rich guys take their privileges for granted.

    I had been suspended earlier as a result of my first solo cross-country in very poor weather in Nigeria, but that story has been told already.

    • Since the banner-towing aircraft were flying “at the stalling speed” it seems very likely that your secret technique was to let it stall and drop almost vertically before recovering at the last minute with just enough speed to reach the runway. If so, I’m not surprised that Wesselius didn’t want anybody else to try it!

  • I think a 6 month (not 7) suspension was fair & just.

    He’s got the experience and ability to do the display safely, but he needs to follow regulations and plan for a safe event, including coordinating with the helo rental.

    I consider the suspension an official notice to simply do better next time. I do think the airshow management should have been fined as well.

    On the issue of raffling off rides, at least here near Ti-Co (Titusville-Cocoa) the local warbirds community offers rides in their P-51 (or whatever) for $250-$500 or so to defray maintenance and fuel. I don’t feel that’s any more “for-hire” than giving my friend $20 to cover gas on a long trip, especially considering it probably doesn’t cover a fraction of the costs of flying those planes.

    • In the USA a private pilot can accept money to help with the cost of operating the airplane as long as the pilot pays no less than his pro rata share and the only costs involved are directly related to the flight. So if a PPL and two friends take a weekend trip somewhere, the three of them can split the cost of the fuel, rental, ramp fees and oil, but the pilot has to pay at least a third of the total and the passengers can’t pay for the hotel as an little bonus.

  • Gene, interesting points and I agree, the show management were amiss as well.
    Coordinating with the helo?
    An aircraft in distress has the right-of-way over all other air traffic. A balloon has the right-of-way over any other category of aircraft. A glider has the right-of-way over an airship, powered parachute, weight-shift-control aircraft, airplane or rotorcraft. Etc.

    On the “For hire and reward issue: that is largely a grey area.
    I was once reported, accused of flying commercially on a PPL.
    A group of 3 journalists were going to a war zone in Biafra (Nigeria). No commercial transport was available so I did the flight in a Cherokee 180 of Lagos Flying Club.
    I accepted a cheque for their 3/4 share and could demonstrate that I had paid my own 1/4 by comparing the amount with the bill from the club.
    This was accepted by the authorities so: in my experience, if you do undertake a flight on a cost-sharing basis, make sure that you can prove it. If not, you do not have a good defence. Maybe none at all.
    I suppose that a relatively small token contribution should be okay.

    • ISTM that right-of-way rules have a couple of covert assumptions: that the craft being yielded to is less maneuverable (which certainly doesn’t apply in this case — imagine a random helicopter doing 5 successive loops that quickly and close together) and that the craft is moving vaguely steadily (so that the yielder knows which way to dodge). If Vassel presented the right-of-way defense to a review panel I was on, I’d be tempted to substantially increase the penalty on the grounds of insolence and/or incorrigibility (which Sylvia’s last paragraphs suggest is an issue); he strikes me as someone who just doesn’t pay attention to consequences, or realize that there are reasons for rules.
      e.g., in another compartment of my life, I shoot arrows and throw sharp objects; both communities have a saying that every rule has somebody’s name on it, i.e. the rule was made because somebody did something blatantly stupid but not previously illegal.

      I can imagine lawyers fighting forever over details of a complaint that any rides Vassel might give would be for-hire; there are probably formal cases (like yours or Gene’s) against such a complaint, but it would depend on details — e.g., does he sell tickets (which would require its own permit in many jurisdictions) or give them away? If sold, does he donate all the income to a non-profit (and did he announce up-front that that would happen)? I expect there are many cases that could have been charged (not necessarily convicted) — if they’d been noticed; in Vassel’s case he’s already been noticed and should probably take extra care, as having money for lawyers doesn’t mean he wants the hassle.

  • Leaving aside that Bruno was doing an impromptu, and not quite legal aerobatic show, the glider has legal right-of-way. It would therefore have been the responsibility of the organisers of the show, as well as the operators of the chopper, to ensure that there would not be a conflict. Meaning of course: risk of a collision between the helo and the glider.
    The law was formulated with the underlying understanding that a glider, not having an engine, could be forced to land other than on the selected landing place.
    I have taken a few lessons in a glider. It did not continue because my parents were not prepared to pay the fees. The thing was a Sedbergh. It was an open bathtub with wings and the performance – glide angle – was far from impressive. The Schleicher that Bruno flew could probably fly rings around it and still easily make three or four passes after the Sedbergh had landed. The video clearly shows how little altitude it lost during his demonstration. In order to control the landing speedbrakes were used, otherwise my guess is that it could have gone around again.
    The right-of-way was probably formulated with gliders like the Sedbergh in mind.

    Regarding rides for-hire: I am not a lawyer, but in my opinion any ride for which a ticket is issued in exchange for payment makes it a commercial flight. Irrespective of whether the operator pockets the money or donates it to a charity.
    And as Chip writes, the issue of tickets puts it in an entirely different category. It would require an operator’s licence, manuals, an operations manager, chief pilot, a designated (and approved) maintenance base, route manual, in short: it would open a legal can of worms.
    Of course, for sight-seeing flights this can all be simplified but still …

  • I’m an anaesthetist. A really good one. While calling into the operating theatre to see a buddy to arrange a social get together, I noticed he was doing a really tricky anaesthetic. I had experience with these. We hadn’t asked the pt if I could do the anaesthetic, but my buddy thought, what the hell. The hospital didn’t know me either, but I was keen as mustard and they said, what the hell, give it a go.
    So I did the anaesthetic and also showed a couple of the nurses how to deal with emergencies by dropping the patients blood pressure artificially but in a safe way that I had practiced lots.
    The pt woke up none the wiser and it was a real treat for everyone involved……….
    Does this seem a fair analogy to the story above?
    Is everyone OK with me doing this too because it seems in the flight world you guys can be a little loose occasionally and try to justify it. I hope you feel the same way about your next anaesthetic.

  • Dr Carl,
    Somehow I don’t think so. Every profession and associated discipline is subject to its own, specific rules and regulations.
    Bruno was not qualified to do aerobatics. Judging from his video he was competent, but that does not equate with a qualification.
    The airshow was obviously a bit impromptu. There was a mix of different modes of transport but nothing resembling a demonstration at an official airshow. The show where I flew the Stearman was preceded by a briefing where all participants were given explicit instructions about what was expected, the limitations, a safety briefing and a time slot.
    At the time I was already a reasonably experienced commercial pilot, but was not supposed to perform aerobatics, nor was I encouraged to do so.

    Comparing it with your own anaesthetic: Your “buddy” knew you, knew that you were (are) a highly qualified specialist and obviously vouched for you.
    You do not specify who in this case was the responsible anaesthetist. My guess is that your “buddy” remained the specialist in overall command; to use the aviation expression. He was the “captain”, you were the “P/F”. Do I have that correctly? You were both highly qualified, your friend knew that and vouched for you when he (I guess that the term “buddy” indicates a male doctor) allowed you to handle the tricky anaesthetic under his responsibility.
    When I was flying the Cessna 310 my boss had a good friend, a Belgian top anaesthetist. It is unlikely that you know him, he must have retired years ago: Dr. Denis Gheys.
    Dr. Gheys was a keen private pilot and came along in the 310 whenever possible, often with his wife. He was also a very nice man and often we spent time together when my boss was at his business meetings.
    On one occasion, Dr. Gheys met a colleague. I forgot where, but the result was that Dr. Gheys attended an operation where his new friend was in charge of the anaesthesic. And although he was not known there, his colleague accepted his credentials and allowed him to participate.
    So, Dr. Carl, correct me if I am wrong (I am not on familiar terrain here), but the difference, a very big one, is:
    Airshows attract visitors, spectators or so-called “non-involved persons”. Their safety must not be compromised.
    Airshows have a higher than average number of accidents. Pilots are keen to demonstrate their skills and the performance of their aircraft.
    In order to ensure that the public can see all this, they fly at lower than normal altitudes.
    In the past, organisers of airshows have been forced to re-think their responsibilities because of some horrific accidents that involved the public.
    This has led to the imposition of rules and regulations that are supposed to eliminate the risk insofar as possible.
    This is the reason why display pilots in general are supposed to be trained, qualified and have demonstrated their ability to execute their sequence before being allowed to participate.
    Bruno may have been competent, but there was no real structure to his sortie. Not in the sense that it had been submitted to, and approved by the organisers beforehand.

    Now take the operation: An anaesthetist is a highly qualified medical specialist, and I am sure that when two get together, even if they never met before, they know within minutes whether or not the other person is who he or she claims to be. “Spoofing” is not going to work.
    So if one such qualified specialist – who most certainly is know as a qualified professional to the surgeon and other staff in the operating theatre – brings a colleague with him and introduces this colleague to the staff, this is by itself a seal of approval. No specialist will bring a “quack” and allow him to do the work if not totally certain of the other’s abilities and qualifications.
    It would be in direct contravention of with their Hippocratic oath and it would ruin their own medical standing. As well as endangering the life of the patient.
    So in the end, Dr. Carl, no I do not think that your assessment, this comparison, will stand up.

    • Again, my apologies. I did not mean to offend. I feel I have elicited a reaction I did not intend to do. I will refrain from such comparisons and comments in the future.

      • I thought it wasn’t a bad analogy, to be honest. Please don’t refrain; it’s great to have a broad range of views in order to keep the conversation going. The back and forth can be a bit robust, at times, but that just means you made a statement worth clarifying, not that you shouldn’t take part.

  • Just for AndrewZ. It is nearly Friday (actually it is!), so nobody or very few will read it.
    You are at the right track but no, even that technique would not have enabled me to do a short-field landing from 1000 ft on short finals.
    The Super Cub 150 has flaps. They are operated mechanically with a handle on the left side of the cockpit.
    Technique: Power all the way back (of course), full flaps and pull back on the stick until it stalls.
    As the aircraft stalls, dump the flaps to zero.
    IAS: now marginally above zero.
    Nose down, recover.
    As soon as the speed picks up: Sideslip (steep)..
    This will bring the aircraft in a nose-down position.
    Cancel the slip.
    Line up with the landing direction,
    Stick back, full flaps, stall, dump flaps, sideslip (if necessary to remain in line with the runway, slip in opposite direction), etc.
    Don’t forget to have about 55 mph on very short finals, or you won’t even make it over the fence. Flare as soon as you passed over it.
    Full stop should be about 75 m. past the fence.
    Descent angle: at least 60 degrees with very little forward motion..
    Don’t forget: we flew often 30-40 hours a week. I logged about 3700 hours on the Super Cub. We could do things with the PA18 that are not in the manual, so: “don’t try it at home”!
    BTW, did you know Paul Wesselius?

    • Thanks Rudy. It’s not so much a case of “don’t try it at home” as “only ever try it at home, on a flight simulator”. No, I didn’t know Paul Wesselius. I only mentioned him in my previous comment because you identified him as the person who told you to stop, and it was easy to imagine the horror that someone in his position would have felt at the thought of a student pilot trying to imitate your technique.

  • I grew up in a flying environment. Uncle Chuck flew P51s in the 363rd with Chuck Yeager. After the war he retrained to rotor-wing and flew 2 tours in Korea.

    Bob Hover was one of his friends and the Cole Brothers were extended family. I sat in an uncle’s lap and flew a SuperCub before I sat in grandfather’s lap and drove his ’56 Olds 98.

    I watched these guys fly all my life, after flying F4 Phantoms and OV-10 Broncos for the USMC, I would never attempt to do with an airplane what these masters did every day.

    I do not subscribe to the monkey see, monkey do theory. Those who try are some seriously dumb monkeys. Knowing one’s abilities is a gateway to long life.

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