Grand Junction Air Show to light a spark
Bob Markert knows the exact moment he decided to become a pilot.
He was 11 years old, sitting next to his dad’s La-Z-Boy watching a profile of a pilot in Vietnam during the evening news.
Toward the end of the piece, the pilot was shown sitting in the cockpit. He dropped the visor down on his helmet and gave a thumbs up, “and I said, that’s me,” Markert recalled. “It just lit a spark.”
A flight over Niagara Falls for his 12th birthday sealed the deal.
Markert, who served 34 years in the U.S. Army, Air Force and National Guard before a civilian aviation career, is part of the Rocky Mountain Renegades. The Front Range-based group of pilots with backgrounds in the military and civilian aviation will perform in the Grand Junction Air Show set for Saturday and Sunday at Grand Junction Regional Airport.
While this show comes 105 years after the Grand Valley’s first air show — a biplane landed at what is now Lincoln Park in 1912, according to gjairshow.com — and more than 113 years after the Wright brothers’ first 12-minute flight, there is still something fascinating about people flying.
This fascination extends to seeing the red burn at the back of a jet, a person walking on top of a wing, all the switches, dials and knobs in a cockpit, two jets roaring through the air seemingly straight at each other, then turning straight up, up, up.
Granted, it may be difficult to draw the gaze of some in the younger set off their devices and to the heavens, but when you’re with a crowd at an air show, “it awakens something in us,” Markert said.
The military jets, in particular, are truly intimidating to see up close, said Jim Gray, flight lead for the Renegades.
You can feel your bones shake when the engines hit full power, and as the jets do their routines they’re sometimes directly overhead and the force makes everything shudder, he said.
But things have changed in recent years when it comes to aviation and younger people. There are fences around all airports and no longer can you walk up to an airport and easily talk to a pilot, Gray said.
An air show presents an opportunity to do just that and Tom Spratt, another pilot with the Renegades, likes to talk to kids hoping to “light the spark.”
Spratt, a former U.S. Air Force and South Carolina Air National Guard pilot who now flies for United Airlines, started flying when he was 15 years old after a friend, whose dad was a pilot, invited him to go for a flight. Spratt was in the front seat of the plane. They took off and the dad turned to Spratt and said, “You got it.”
“All of the sudden I’m flying the airplane,” Spratt said, remembering how amazed he was at watching the ground slip behind them, the feeling of the turning plane and the adventurous freedom of it all.
It is that freedom Spratt likes younger people to experience when he takes them flying. Sure, they may be hooked on video games, but that actually translates to flying an airplane surprisingly well, he said.
What took Spratt hours to learn, they learn in minutes because they’ve been unwittingly practicing in their living rooms and they know what to do with their hands.
“Times have changed,” he said.
But video games and simulators can’t duplicate the real feelings of experience: wind in your face when the canopy is open, G-force and pure adrenaline, Spratt said.
“Today we have so much virtual reality everything that sometimes you can miss what reality is like,” Markert said. “When they see an airplane going overhead it awakens something in them, a sense of adventure. And they like to come to air shows to see that.”
The formations, the loops and rolls, the roars, zooms and rushing can’t be duplicated in another setting, and so the Renegades and other air show performers want to look good for themselves and the crowd, Spratt said.
Sometimes a performance is so smooth and the air is just right. Other times it’s bumpy and hot and you’re sweating to death … and still the crowd is thrilled, he said.
“They don’t see the fact that you were 6 inches out of position, but you know you were,” Spratt said.
Just as there is a certain camaraderie in the military, there is a camaraderie among pilots who can fly in formation.
“It’s total trust, It has to be total trust,” Markert said.
There also is a lot of practice and safety measures that go into it as well, he said.
But those are things Markert, Spratt and Gray and the other Renegades don’t mind.
Gray, for example, flew for the U.S. Navy and then for Delta Air Lines, retiring seven years ago. Despite being retired, he didn’t want to go “droning around in the sky” in a Cessna, he said.
“I need a little more than that,” he said.
So flying an RV-8 that he built, in air shows, with the Renegades is part of that.
“I just couldn’t think of myself as not being a pilot anymore,” Gray said.
So truth be known, “we’re entertaining ourselves,” Spratt said.
Learn about the Renegades at rmrairshows.com and watch their performance at the Grand Junction Air Show on Saturday and Sunday.