“It sure beats working for a living.”
That from Steve Oliver. He and his wife, Suzanne Asbury-Oliver, perform at air shows across the country in the Oregon Aero SkyDancer.
Steve is the aerobatic pilot in the family while Suzanne is a skywriter — one of the few left today. Together, they travel about nine months out of the year, performing at shows ranging from the big ones — AirVenture and Sun ‘n Fun — to smaller fly-ins and military shows. Their favorites? “Just a fun air show,” Steve says, adding that the best are small air shows at uncontrolled fields.
But whether it’s at AirVenture or a smaller show, there’s more to being an air show performer than the routines each performs daily. Both spend a lot of time meeting their fans, signing autographs and letting people get close enough to see their plane, a 1956 de Havilland Chipmunk that has been specially modified for their performances.
The plane, which debuted in 1989, “took two guys two years to personalize,” Steve says. “It took 3,000 man hours to do all the modifications.”
Steve actually performs twice each day during a show — once in daytime, as the SkyDancer and again at night, when the plane turns into the FireDancer, complete with pyrotechnics. During the two-year modification of the airplane, he designed stainless steel mounts incorporating titanium heat shields for the wings. The mounts hold 30 different pyrotechnic pieces that are electronically ignited from the cockpit.
Suzanne is in charge of preparing the plane for the night show. It takes her about eight hours to mount and rig all the pyrotechnics. Steve then goes up and shoots everything off in about seven minutes.
Their partnership began in 1981, when they met while both were performing at the Kentucky Derby. Suzanne was flying the Pepsi Skywriter, a 1929 Travel Air biplane, while Steve was towing banners in his Stearman, also a biplane.
“A friend said ‘you’ve gotta meet this girl — she’s cute and single and she has a better plane than you,’” Steve remembers.
They went to lunch and, as fate would have it, right after that the Pepsi plane rolled, bending the tail. “Luckily, a mechanic had just taken her to lunch,” chuckles Steve who, besides being an ATP, is also a licensed A&P.
The two long-time pilots — she began flying gliders in Oregon when she was just 14, while he started flying lessons when he was 12, in a Piper Vagabond from a grass airstrip on his family’s farm in Missouri— married in February 1982. They haven’t been apart since.
It’s obvious after spending just a few minutes with the Olivers that they are a match made in heaven. After 26 years of marriage, they still hold hands and the respect they have for each other is evident immediately.
While Steve has been an aerobatic pilot since he was 17, he didn’t learn skywriting until after their marriage. “I had to marry her before she’d teach me to skywrite,” he jokes.
His first time skywriting was also his first performance, which he did in front of a crowd at the Daytona Speedway during the Daytona 500.
He notes that pilots who are used to being precise, such as aerobatic pilots or crop dusters, can master skywriting quite quickly. “You have to be as precise as you can, know your banks and turns,” he says. “We call it knowing the dance. We could teach Patty (Wagstaff) the dance. Because of her skills and precise flying, she’d be able to write Patty the first time she tried.”
Suzanne acknowledges that the world of skywriting is very secretive. “There’s nothing written down,” she says. “In the 1930s and ’40s, that was how some people made their living, so it was very secretive and we’ve kept that tradition.”
In fact, part of her contract with Pepsi was that she would not reveal her tricks of the trade.
But when she’s ready to retire — not anytime soon, mind you — she will “absolutely” pass on those secrets to the next generation of skywriters. She notes that the lucky person who will be her protege needs to come prepared to do the job. “If they have the proper system on their plane and their act together, I’ll gladly help them,” she says.
She notes that she has a 27-gallon smoke oil system, which allows her to write about 25 letters. “That’s what you need to do the job,” she says.
Today, “the job” involves about 15 events a year — down more than half from the 33 they scheduled each year during the first 18 years of their marriage. “That was every weekend, nine months on the road straight,” Steve says.
They are able to do it because they live out of a motor home during show season. “We’re gypsies at heart,” Steve acknowledges. “The good news is that we can put up with each other 24-7. We like to say we’re home every night, but the lawn changes every three days.”
Accompanying them on all their journeys is Pax, whom the couple call a true air show dog. They adopted her when she was just 8 months old from a dog pound in Salisbury, Maryland. She’s named for the first air show she ever attended, at Patuxent River Naval Air Station.
Also keeping them on the move are the relationships they’ve formed during their travels.
“It’s all fun,” Steve says. “We have friends from Anchorage, Alaska, to El Salvador. There’s not a state in the union that we haven’t worked and in each one we have friends.”
Many of those friendships were forged during the days when the couple lived in Florida and met other air show performers for “spring training.”
“It was a good excuse to get together and have a party,” Steve says.
But all took the training seriously. It’s not unusual for air show performers to fly three to five times a day as they practice their routines. Some aerobatic pilots take six weeks of flying five times a day before they are back to 100%, he notes. “Then there are some who can come right back to it. Kermit Weeks was known for that.”
Once air show season begins, each performer has a different training schedule. Some, like Sean Tucker, practice every day, including the day of the show.
“I’ll do four or five practices before a show if I’ve been away a while,” Steve says. “That’s so I keep sharp and my body can handle the Gs.”
Both Steve and Suzanne know they were born to be air show pilots. “I can’t imagine living a life where I’m not doing what I do,” Steve confesses. “If you love what you’re doing, you’ll never work a day in your life.”