What It Takes to Be a Top Airshow Pilot

Step inside the world of the airshow performer, where the difference between fame and fortune or merely scraping by can be measured in equal parts skill, luck and adrenaline.

Anna Serbinenko
Anna Serbinenko performs in her Decathlon at Tri-City Water Follies in Washington.Anna Serbinenko

It’s a crisp December morning in Las Vegas, and hundreds of the world’s top aerobatic pilots gather. None of them are flying, despite clear weather.

Instead they pack the Rio Hotel and Casino’s Brasilia ballroom to listen to a motivational speaker. “Live lives of adventure and purpose,” the speaker encourages them. “Stretch yourself beyond your comfort level. When others stop working hard, those who excel keep going.”

As if this group needed the prodding. Then again, these performers might benefit from a nudge beyond the expected if they want to stand out in this crowd. It’s opening day of the International Council of Air Shows’ annual gathering. Over the next few days, airshow producers will shop for acts to thrill their audiences through the warm-weather months ahead.

After the keynote ends, the exhibit hall fills with hopeful performers — from the well-known and iconic to the obscure — all trying to define their own place in the world’s airshows.

The airshow acts sort into rough categories: There are the patriotic and warbird shows — at the pinnacle, the Navy’s Blue Angels, Air Force’s Thunderbirds and Canada’s Snowbirds. Farther down, some MiG Fury Fighters, a Pearl Harbor re-enactment act and the Commemorative Air Force’s P-51 Mustang Red Tail Squadron. Then there are individual performers: an F4U-4 Corsair, a World War II-era North American T6 trainer and assorted Yaks.

Looking for something a little different? Try novelties, Aisle 2: performers like the Alabama Boys comedy act starring Greg Koontz, a staged hoax featuring a country farmer who steals a Piper Cub for his first flight lesson. Or there’s the Geico Skytypers skywriting team, or Matt Younkin’s Twin Beech 18, rocking its wings 90 degrees with flaps and gear down in a sequence known as the “Elephant Waltz.”

Michael Goulian Geico Skytypers
Airshow performer Michael Goulian flies his Edge 540 above the Geico Skytypers, who paint the skies with their North American SNJs.Courtesy Geico Skytypers

Of course, the aggressive-tumbling, smoke-and-pyro crowd is well represented too.

Altogether, these acts add up to a rush of adrenaline, a circus and a sideshow carnival. But how does an airshow pilot stand out?

Michael Goulian, one of the world’s top airshow performers and a Red Bull Air Race pilot, has seen it all in his 20-plus years of performing. He says the difference between becoming an airshow star and fading into relative obscurity can be measured in all the practice hours when no one is watching, the financial sacrifices and 
cross-country trips to small-time gigs.

“From the outside, the airshow business appears to be really sexy,” Goulian says. “You fly these awesome airplanes in front of people, and it seems like the best job in the world. Truth be told, it is the best job when you get there. It just takes tons and tons of passion.”

Michael Goulian
Michael Goulian (USA) - Lifestyle
Michael Goulian has proved himself as one of the best performers in the airshow world, having received three of the industry’s top showmanship awards. He performs a heart-pumping airshow routine in an Extra 330SC. His relentless pursuit of perfection in the cockpit has also earned him a spot on the Red Bull Air Race World Championship circuit.Red Bull

The Outsider

At the fringes of the show, Anna Serbinenko works her aerobatic box for the day, a 10-foot tabletop booth in the very back of the exhibit hall. Friendly but intense with long, dark hair and a can’t-quite-place-it accent, she shows hints of pilot swagger without fully showing her cards.

Nothing about her resume makes sense. Born in Ukraine, Serbinenko lived in Switzerland, Germany and Brazil, where she had zero exposure to aviation. She has a PhD in financial mathematics, fluency in six languages, and day jobs teaching in universities and developing software for brokers and the foreign exchange market. Not your typical airport rat.

It was only after moving to Vancouver, Canada, in 2008 that Serbinenko took her first flying lesson. Even then, she was more interested in learning to fly for travel than for tricks. “But I went for that first flight, and then I took lessons for my private, commercial and instructor rating in one year,” Serbinenko says. “I literally lived at the airport. I was working at night. Then I would drop my son at daycare, go to the airport, do my training, pick him up, spend the evening with him, then two hours of sleep and back to work.”

Anna Serbinenko
Not your average aerobatic pilot, Anna Serbinenko started flying in 2008.Red Bull

That first year, she happened to be at the airport for an airshow and saw a pilot with smoke on make a heart in the sky. It was a maneuver called an avalanche, a simple inside loop with a snap roll at the top to form the heart. “To me, that was love at first sight,” Serbinenko remembers. “I said, ‘Next year, I will be up there.’”

Never mind her lack of experience. Or the fact that she still had a significant fear of spins. Or that there were exactly zero female Canadian airshow pilots. Or that she built her act around a 180 hp American Champion 8KCAB Super Decathlon. You can worry about being different or you can embrace it. For Serbinenko, different has become 
her brand.

Serbinenko did not want to compete with gyroscopic performers in high-performance Extra monoplanes. “There are enough of those on the airshow circuit,” she says. “I didn’t want to be like everyone else.”

Serbinenko started with the avalanche, still her opening maneuver. Then she built a deliberately slow, graceful routine to the accompaniment of classical music, Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” She bills herself as the Sky Dancer, and the idea has worked in a classic example 
of counterprogramming.

It’s a challenge to design a routine in the Decathlon, with its limited power. “Whatever energy you have, you have to preserve,” she says. Still, she follows the avalanche with a series that includes inverted moves, outside maneuvers and a hammerhead that transitions into an outside loop.

It’s funny too how practice piled on top of practice can look like good luck. After an initial performance at her local airport, Serbinenko was invited to a larger show with 5,000 spectators. From there, she has worked her way to Brunswick, Maine, where more than 10 million watched her on TV; to Washington’s Tri-City Water Follies, performing in front of 200,000; and Vancouver’s annual Celebration of Light fireworks festival. That one was just her and a half-million spectators — no warm-up acts and no one after her, except the fireworks.

Anna Serbinenko
Anna Serbinenko in her American Champion 8KCAB Super Decathlon.Anna Serbinenko

The Keeper of the Flame

William Shakespeare once wrote that some are born great, some achieve greatness and others have greatness thrust upon them.

Can all three be true for the same guy? Maybe, if you’re aerobatic pilot Kevin Coleman. To talk with Coleman is to walk through aerobatics history, though he’s just 24 years old. Coleman understands his world in relation to the airshow world’s legends — especially Marion Cole, an airshow pioneer.

Coleman’s dad flew aerobatics as a hobby, and Cole was a fixture at the family home. “He was at the hospital the day I was born. He was at all my birthdays. He was pretty much a family member,” Coleman recalls.

So from the age of 5 or 6, Kevin would go out with the grownups in his family’s Decathlon. He’d beg them to do aerobatics until they nearly ran out of gas. And, when Coleman reached the age of 10, Cole shifted him to the front seat and taught him how to fly aerobatics. “By the time I was 16 and ready to solo, I already had about 350 hours of instruction from one of the best aerobatic pilots who ever lived,” Coleman recalls.

Kevin Coleman
Kevin Coleman
By age 16, Kevin Coleman, above, had 350 hours flying with the legendary Marion Cole.Red Bull

Around the same time, Coleman went with his dad to Oshkosh and became inspired by an unknown, first-year performer named Michael Goulian. After the show, the pilot took a picture with him, standing on the flight line in front of his airplane. That was it for Coleman, his picture for the future. From then on, he wanted to fly an Extra just like Goulian. His flying style would be crisp and precise just like Goulian’s. He’d compete in the IAC Nationals just like Goulian. Someday, he’d fly in the world’s biggest airshow and take photos with the kids, just like Goulian.

But Coleman has also spent his life around airshows and around performers, so he’s added others to his mental mix tape from years of watching and listening.

Coleman throws in some Sean Tucker to the mix: “Sean is the definition of showmanship,” he says. “He has this choreography — the whole sequence — that flows.”

Kevin Coleman
Kevin Coleman performs in his Extra 300SHP.Mike Shore

And Coleman also adds a 
little Bill Stein for his deep understanding of aerodynamics and his gyroscope maneuvers.

The funny thing about achieving greatness, though, is it adds up to more than the sum of its parts. “Now there’s a Kevin Coleman style, and it’s got all three of those guys in it,” he says. “You can still see their influence, but it’s me now.”

Now, with his friend and fellow 
performer, Rob Holland, Coleman is trying to figure out how to push airshow performances to a new, millennial style. When the two met, they discovered 
that each had been at work trying to perfect the same new move, a so-called “inside tumble.”

In a more common outside tumble, the airplane’s tail flips forward over the nose. Both Holland and Coleman, though, were trying on their own to understand how they could use gyroscopic precession and P-factor to flip the airplane backward nose over tail. “Rob has made the inside tumble famous,” Coleman says. “He’s figured out how to do it better than me. So probably that inside tumble is the most significant thing to come out of our new era of aerobatics.”

At age 26, Coleman is still closer to the start of his career than the end, but he’s starting to see things come around full circle. This year after he and Goulian performed at Oshkosh, they took a picture together in front of the flight line. It’s the fully developed image from 20 years ago.

“You fly these awesome airplanes in front of people, and it seems like the best job in the world. Truth be told, it is the best job when you get there. It just takes tons and tons of passion.”

- Michael Goulian

To be sure, there are many challenges still to come. “I haven’t had any plateaus,” Coleman says. “It’s been awesome, awesome, awesome, and then awesome. I’m nervous about what’s going happen when my career levels off and it’s just stable.”

No chance of that. The day after we talk, a press release hits my inbox. Kevin Coleman will join the Red Bull Air Race Challenger Cup for 2016.

It’s another awesome to add to his resume. And, once again, he’ll be just 
like Goulian.

Kevin Coleman
Kevin Coleman is trying to figure out how to push airshow performances to new boundaries.Mike Shore

The Natural

It’s July 23, 2015. Sammy Mason flies the hold at Oshkosh, preparing to dive into the aerobatic box and begin his first performance at the iconic airshow. As he waits, Sammy thinks about the great aviators before him who waited in this same patch of sky. “I couldn’t help but get goose bumps thinking about how many amazing aerobatic pilots had been in that same situation, their first time at Oshkosh in the same hold, you know?” he recalls. “[Gene] Soucy, [Tom] Poberezny, Tucker, [Charlie] Hillard, Goulian … it was pretty, pretty intense. I was nervous but also kind of in awe.”

Awe-inspiring doesn’t half begin to describe Mason’s ascent in the world of aerobatics. With the rugged good looks of a Southern California beach kid and a laid-back Jeff Spicoli speaking style, he projects the casual fluency of someone who has been flying all his life. Which is true, even if that doesn’t add up to so many years yet.

Sammy Mason
With both parents involved professionally in aviation, Sammy Mason‘s dream was to fly aerobatics and airshows. Mason learned the trade and started performing at local airshows at age 16. In 2015, at age 21, he made his debut at AirVenture Oshkosh.Red Bull

“Since I was little, all I wanted to do was fly aerobatics and airshows,” Mason says. So, although he was just 21 years old as he prepared to take on AirVenture ’15, he had been single-mindedly focused on his goals for a long time. Mason soloed a glider on his 14th birthday, the youngest possible age, and began aerobatic training in a motor glider shortly after.

Flying from the Santa Paula, California, airport, where his mother is airport manager and his father restores classic airplanes, Mason knew what he needed to do. “There came a point where I didn’t want to go to school anymore because it was taking so much time away from all the flying and sports I was doing,” Mason recalls. “So I convinced my parents to home-school me.”

By 16, Mason headed for world-famous airshow pilot Sean Tucker’s Tutima Academy in King City, California, for advanced training in a Pitts S-1S biplane. From there, he began flying local airshows and entering aerobatic competitions. There was also a lot of banner towing and corporate flying to pay the bills. And Mason learned to cultivate sponsors. His current one, 5G Aviation, is a California aerobatic aircraft dealer for which Mason ferries airplanes from the factory and gives demo flights to prospective customers.

It also helped that Mason placed fourth in the International Aerobatic Club’s 2014 U.S. Nationals advanced-power contest — higher than any other Pitts, and the first in a long time to rank so highly in a four-cylinder S-1S. All that practice and experience comingled with some luck. In 2015, Oshkosh celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Pitts Special and was looking for a performer to fly a routine in a stock airplane. And that happens to be Mason’s current specialty. What he had been practicing and perfecting back in Santa Paula turned out to be just what the airshow world wanted.

He recalls Michael Goulian telling him: “Hey, we just got done with this Oshkosh planning meeting, and we were looking for a stock Pitts. I recommended you.” Mason’s immediate response: “Heck yeah. That’s a dream come true.” “My routine is in a ’70s-era biplane, and it has all the stuff people were doing [then] in the Pitts. But it also has some stuff that you don’t think of a stock Pitts as being able to do,” Mason says.

When, for example, is the last time you saw a Pitts S-1S doing Harrier-like hovers? Or spiraling towers, a corkscrew climb on the vertical to stall speed and a flat spin at the top?

Sammy Mason
Sammy Mason flies a Pitts S-1S. Unlike many airshow airplanes, Mason’s Pitts has not been modified and is powered by a 180 hp Lycoming engine. ­Mason pushes the airplane to its limits to provide a terrific airshow that blends tradition with new maneuvers.Evan Byrne

For Mason, Oshkosh is the culmination of about five months of specific practice for one show. First, there’s the basic sequence design, then determining altitudes and airspeeds for each maneuver and devising an out in case anything goes wrong. What if I lose an engine here? What about a control failure there? “You have to think about that for every single maneuver. Then you have to put all those together and compensate for wind drift and density altitude for each sequence. It’s really complicated,” he says.

In the end, all those variables come together in a single moment, place and set of conditions. In the hold above AirVenture, Mason waits for his clearance from the air boss and thinks about everything that has brought him here. He steadies himself, knowing how many times he has done this before. “Every runway looks the same, and you’d like to think that every performance. You just focus down the runway and on flying your performance, not worrying so much about the crowd.”

Then the signal comes. Mason dives into the box. His thoughts “all go away, and it’s just business as usual — being safe, hitting numbers and doing my job.”