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Bethpage Air Show performers bring passion to skies above Long Island

One stunt pilot was inspired as a teen working by an airport, where he saw "all these cool airplanes flying around - and acrobatics looked amazing to me."

Aerobatic pilots Sean D. Tucker and Jessy Panzer

Aerobatic pilots Sean D. Tucker and Jessy Panzer (foreground) will tango at the Bethpage Air Show after taking Manhattan on Wednesday.  Photo Credit: AFP / Getty Images / Timothy A. Clary

Two stunt pilots will make their debuts at the Bethpage Air Show at Jones Beach State Park this Memorial Day weekend, thanks to the veterans welcoming them to the skies.

One quality all these free spirits share is their recognition that the journey to the fun zone hinges on the utmost discipline. 

Mastering everything from the science of aerodynamics to intricate control panels to preflight visualizations — plus the acrobatics — they stress that the door to their world can be pried open with enough determination, and a bit of luck. Though there might be a few detours along the way.

Three stunt pilots, one of whom will be in a helicopter, shared their stories on the eve of the air show:

Jessy Panzer, stunt pilot, Oracle Extra 300L

Formation flying, it turns out, is rather like dancing the tango.

“We’re doing a different kind of dance," said Jessy Panzer, 40, who for the first time will perform with Sean D. Tucker as the premier veteran soloist transitions to formation flying. "We’re dancing and he’s my dance partner in the sky.”

Her role flying wing includes not only performing dazzling and daring acrobatics with the greatest of precision and in coordination with Tucker, but keeping the proper distance between their planes which at times are just 50 to 100 feet apart.

After learning country western couples dancing, Panzer gravitated to the tango, the Latin American dance that distills drama through the discipline of fast-paced yet intricate steps. 

“It’s a very complex and dynamic dance; it’s the ultimate follow dance, there are so many subtle movements for the lead and the follower to follow,” she said.

“I love it, again, it’s one of the reasons I love flying acrobatics; I can’t have anything else in my brain when I do that, all I can think about is holding my frame, holding my proper posture and listening with my body to what the leader is telling me to do.”

Panzer's journey included some lean years as she worked her way up from flight instructor to air ambulance pilot to air racer and then acrobatic pilot.

And she initially hesitated, pondering a career in music before realizing she was much more enamored of physics and flying then practicing scales.

Working as an ambulance pilot, ferrying donated organs and medical staff under tight deadlines, helped Panzer, a certified flight instructor in airplanes, rotorcraft and seaplanes, hone her judgment.

“It’s like you kind of disassociate your emotions; if we push too far, we are going to be the ones in need of rescue," she said. "You just have to really keep that in mind as well; I have to make good decisions. It’s what you have got to do to keep everyone safe, even if you have to say 'no.' "

Aaron Fitzgerald, Red Bull helicopter

What could turning a helicopter into a flying crane to build power pylons in remote California mountains have in common with performing aerial acrobatics in a Red Bull whirlybird?

Both roles are immensely satisfying, partly because they are so difficult, said Aaron Fitzgerald, 49, who will be pulling off dizzying dives, upside down loops and flips and even pausing, momentarily weightless.

Fitzgerald started helicopter aerobatics in 2017, the same year he joined the team. He was invited by his predecessor after he had gotten to know Fitzgerald, whose aerial film production company was hired by Red Bull.

The maneuvers Fitzgerald will perform, while aiming to transfix and awe the crowd, also embody a bit of the American dream.

The audience should know, he said, “that I’m a regular guy and everyone one of them could do it if they so chose, that anyone could do it. I think we represent normal people who’ve chased after something extraordinary and get to do it.”

Perhaps not quite an ordinary individual: Fitzgerald was awarded the Medal of Valor by California firefighters for pulling people out of the flames after their helicopter crashed.

For Fitzgerald, his career to becoming a Red Bull helicopter pilot began as a U.S. Army paratrooper, though he did not become a pilot until leaving the service.

For him the choice was clear: “I just always wanted to fly helicopters — that’s really the only thing I ever wanted to do,” Fitzgerald said.

Now he performs many of the same maneuvers that the stunt pilot’s in airplanes will do.

One of the most spectacular was perhaps the hardest as initially it’s rather intimidating — because it begins with a front flip.

“Once you kind of figure it out it isn’t so hard to perform,“ he said.

Perhaps not for a pilot who polished his skills not only working with film and television productions but who can fly in all the workers and materials for new utility towers — and precisely set the beams — erected in mountain ranges.

And when he performs at an air show, he said “I think I’m sharing my love of action while they sit on the beach. It’s impossible to describe how great it is, how much I love it.”

Dell Coller, Jack Link’s Screamin’ Sasquatch biplane

For the first time ever, Dell Coller, 39, will fly the open cockpit biplane powered by a jet engine — dubbed Jack Link’s Screamin’ Sasquatch — that retired Lt. Col John Klatt usually flies.

Coller’s path to air shows began as a teenager mowing lawns and pumping gas by a Pennsylvania airport, where he saw “all these cool airplanes flying around — and acrobatics looked amazing to me,” he said.

That fascination with flight led to college, becoming a pilot, serving as a crew chief for a C-130 transport plane with the Air National Guard, flying in competitions and then a decade as a corporate jet pilot. But it was his logistical and mechanical expertise that led Klatt to hire him six years ago. 

Klatt, a former F-16 fighter pilot who served three tours in Iraq before becoming famed for his heart-stopping acrobatics in the Sasquatch, is turning its controls over to Coller.

“He’s been champing at the bit to operate that airplane,“ Klatt said.

Coller, who says he was hired “almost by accident” to handle the team’s transportation, ended up taking on more responsibility, including helping figure out how to power the biplane with a modern jet engine.

Coller’s qualifications include a decade of flying corporate jets around the world and years of competing in shows that judge pilots on the accuracy and precision of their maneuvers, much like the technical performances in figure skating.

At Jones Beach, those familiar with Klatt’s astounding feats can look forward to more of the same. “It’ll be a similar routine with a few changes and I hope I have a unique style. I want it to be exciting and I want it to be inspirational, “ Coller said, especially for youngsters.

“The real exciting thing is to share it with everybody else — to share the passion —and that I can inspire somebody to chase their dreams. That is what makes it for me.”

For Klatt, 52, transitions do come at a cost.

“It’s going to be a little bit hard for me to look up when Dell takes to the skies,” Klatt admitted.

However, “It’s very important to me to mentor the next generation.”

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