Patty Wagstaff Takes To The Skies Again At The Florida International Air Show – Florida Weekly

Patty Wagstaff COURTESY PHOTO

Patty Wagstaff was not born with an airplane’s yoke in her hands, anymore than Tiger Woods was born swinging a golf club or Tom Brady with his fingers on the laces of a football. And while Mrs. Wagstaff may not be a household name, in the world of aviation and air shows, she is every bit of a celebrity.

It is a common misconception that people of extraordinary ability did not have to work at it. But like the aforementioned elite athletes, Mrs. Wagstaff benefited from an encouraging father and a dogged personal determination to reach her goals.

And also like them, she not only worked her way to stardom, but she also continues to dedicate herself — as much as any professional athlete — to her career.

By the way, in oversimplified terms, a “yoke” is the steering wheel of an airplane — and Mrs. Wagstaff has been doing magical things with them since the mid-1980s, just a few years into her flying career.

Like so many young people who go on to become pilots, Mrs. Wagstaff’s interest in flying began at home. Her father was a U.S. Air Force B-25 pilot who later took his wife and two daughters with him to Japan to fly as a captain for Japan Airlines. In those days, long before the post-9/11 era of secured cockpits, Mrs. Wagstaff’s father would take her on flights in the piston powered four-propeller DC6 he captained, even allowing her to briefly take the controls, circling Mt. Fuji on one occasion. Mrs. Wagstaff’s sister must have gotten similar treatment, as she would go on to become a pilot for Continental Airlines.

Patty Wagstaff is also an aerobatic instructor. COURTESY PHOTO

After coming back to the States with her family, Mrs. Wagstaff arrived at her own decision to earn her wings in the most ironic of ways. Following a failed takeoff attempt on a short muddy field in a chartered plane in remote Alaska, she found herself hanging upside down from her seatbelt beside a fellow passenger. Emerging shaken up but uninjured, she thought to herself, “Heck, I can do better than that.” Mrs. Wagstaff described how she “dug an airplane out of the snow” and begged local instructors in Alaska to give her lessons.

Patty Wagstaff will demonstrate her aerobatic skills at the Florida International Air Show. COURTESY PHOTOS

“And so, I was very lucky that I learned to fly up there,” Mrs. Wagstaff said. “I had some really good instructors and it was a fantastic place to learn to fly.”

Cold, dry air is much more dense than warm humid air, allowing an airfoil (the wing) to generate lift more easily. Combine that with the mountainous terrain and its effects on air currents, weather and visibility — versus the flat, featureless terrain of Florida — and you get an environment that will develop and challenge the skill of a pilot like few other places in the United States.

Around the same time as her venture, a committee of like-minded aviators and aviation enthusiasts were organizing the first in a 40-year stretch of air shows at a small general aviation airport, a former Army airfield, known by the airport code KPGD. Fast forward to Oct. 16 and 17, and you’ll have the opportunity to see Mrs. Wagstaff perform her award-winning aerobatic routine at that most recent event, now known as the Florida International Air Show, at that same airstrip, which has since evolved into Punta Gorda Airport.

SOCOM Para-Commandos glide toward Earth from 10,000 feet.

In the time since earning her private pilot license, the first rung on the aviation ladder, Mrs. Wagstaff has racked up an impressive list of certifications and ratings including commercial pilot, instrument flight rules, seaplane, rotary wing (helicopter) and certified flight instructor, including instruction for taildraggers, bush planes and aerobatics. Her type ratings, which are certifications to fly specific models of aircraft, include everything from warbirds to military trainers to executive jets. She also has performed for millions of spectators at air shows throughout the world.

But it was aerobatics that captured the imagination of Mrs. Wagstaff as a young pilot. Even before seeing an aerobatic display, she began taking aerobatic lessons and developing the skills of an expert pilot. After attending her first air show, her future course came into focus.

A member of the F-16 Viper Demo Team takes flight.

Mrs. Wagstaff now resides in St. Augustine, where she runs an advanced training and aerobatics flight school, Patty Wagstaff Aviation Safety.

And to this day, she continues to push herself.

“I mean, I’m a full-time athlete, and so that’s what I do,” she said, “… and I’m in shape to do this. It’s not like I just go jump in the plane once a year and fly an air show. It’s something I train for all the time.”

If you doubt for a moment that an aerobatic pilot is an athlete, consider the forces involved. Performing loops, turns and rolls subjects the body to multiples — or fractions — of the force of gravity as a product of centrifugal force. The tighter the turns and loops, and the quicker the rolls, the more force is exerted. Gravitational force is commonly abbreviated as “G,” where 5 Gs, for example, means five times the force of gravity, or a 175-pound person feeling like 875 pounds. According to Mrs. Wagstaff, her routines include moments of up to 10 Gs, equal to the forces experienced by fighter pilots, and more than those of astronauts rocketing into space.

“You have to tense everything up,” she explained, in order to keep your blood where it belongs.

“But the negative Gs are really what you have to worry about,” she said.

Negative Gs are experienced when the cockpit of the airplane is on the outside of a turn or loop, slinging the blood toward your head.

When that happens, “You just have to relax,” she said.

Her routines include moments of up to 5 negative Gs.

“I keep in shape. I work out,” Mrs. Wagstaff asserted. “I kind of live my life like that to stay in shape. You really have to.”

And it isn’t just physical acuity that pilots have to develop.

“You really have to be mindful of everything,” Mrs. Wagstaff explained. “It changes a little bit at every show because the show sites are different. Sometimes you’re flying over water; sometimes it’s windy. You have to flex and adjust.

“You have to stay within a certain box (of airspace). You can’t fly over the crowd; you can only get so close to the crowd, and sometimes the wind is blowing you towards them. So, you really have to concentrate.”

“When I’m getting ready for an air show, I fly every day,” she added. “I usually fly around 300 hours a year, and that combines cross country flights, air show practice flights and giving instruction.”

Mrs. Wagstaff has accumulated an impressive total of around 12,000 hours of flight in her decades of experience. But, “It’s the airline pilots who really rack up the time,” she said.

Mrs. Wagstaff said she’s excited to return to the Florida International Air Show, which is in its 40th year. Due to recent runway expansions and the global pandemic, this is not the 40th consecutive year for the show, but four decades ago “was even before I got my start,” she observed, “and I’m proud to be a part of it.”

Along the way, she has accumulated an impressive resume of accolades and honors, which include enshrinement in the National Aviation Hall of Fame. One of her airplanes, the Goodrich-sponsored Extra 260, hangs in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Mrs. Wagstaff, who will perform an aerobatics display in her new GB1 GameBird at the Florida International Air Show, is rightly proud of her accomplishments and of being a role model, for young ladies especially, as the first woman to win the U.S. National Aerobatic Championships — a feat she accomplished three years in a row.

“I would tell people that if they are interested in flying, they should do it,” she said. “And they will find it gives them a feeling of accomplishment like no other activity. It also builds confidence and gives people focus and discipline.

“Plus, it’s fun. The sunsets and sunrises are beautiful, and you’re never wasting time when you fly.” ¦