Aerobatic stunt pilot Jessy Panzer stands by a Pitts Special, an...

Aerobatic stunt pilot Jessy Panzer stands by a Pitts Special, an aerobatic single-seat biplane she had custom painted in what she calls "a pinkish-purple hot-rod kind of thing." Credit: Jana Farritor

As a child in Colorado Springs, Colorado, aerobatic stunt pilot Jessy Panzer hated amusement park rides — and was terrified of flying on an airplane, let alone piloting one.

Panzer is the lone female aerobatic stunt pilot scheduled to perform at the 18th Bethpage Air Show Memorial Day weekend at Jones Beach State Park. One of the few female aerobatic air show performers and air racers active in the United States, Panzer, 43, of Lincoln, Nebraska, had reason to be afraid.

Her father, Raymond, and five others were killed when the corporate turboprop he was piloting crashed in a hailstorm and blizzard in mountainous terrain near Price, Utah, on May 7, 1986.

"It was the day before my seventh birthday," Panzer said. "And I was afraid, very afraid, of planes after that. I would cry when I'd get on an airliner. It was traumatic, for sure."

How far Panzer has come since then.

She first took flying lessons at age 18, earned an aeronautical science degree from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona; began flying aerobatics in 2000; flew her first air show at the Nebraska State Fly-In in 2003; joined the U.S. Advanced Aerobatic Team in 2012; and has competed at the Reno National Championship Air Races. She first flew at Bethpage in 2019 in a Team Oracle-sponsored tandem event with legendary stunt pilot Sean D. Tucker.

These days she flies a Pitts Special, an aerobatic single-seat biplane she had custom painted in what she calls "a pinkish-purple hot-rod kind of thing."

"I was so nervous that first flight," Panzer said of her first lesson in a high-wing, fixed-gear, single-engine Cessna 172. "Scared, but excited. It was the craziest mix of emotions. I was thinking, 'My Dad died in a plane.' But, I was instantly hooked and wanted to know everything there was about airplanes."

Pilot Jessy Panzer does a maneuver in her Pitts Special. Panzer...

Pilot Jessy Panzer does a maneuver in her Pitts Special. Panzer is the sole female aerobatic stunt pilot set to perform at the Bethpage Air Show on May 28-29 at Jones Beach State Park in Wantagh. Credit: Jana Farritor


Panzer has flown Learjet, Gulfstream and Sabreliiner corporate jets, helicopters, recreational planes, aerobatic planes — even a World War II-era T-6 Texan and the legendary P-51 Mustang.

She says flying solo air show events is far different from being part of an act.

"Formation stuff is typically a lot smoother," Panzer said. "You're flying with someone right next to you, so you can't make erratic movements … You have to understand what the other person is thinking. It's like dancing. There's a leader and a follower … When you fly solo you just have to worry about yourself … It's a lot more gyroscopic, with quick movements."

Panzer says the favorite part of her eight-minute routine is a "torque roll."

She points her Pitts Special in a vertical climb, flying straight up until she runs out of airspeed and lift and begins an aerodynamic stall.

"You don't have unlimited power," she said, "so at some point you're going to come to a stop. At that point, there's nothing to counteract the torque of the engine, so the airplane starts to rotate in the opposite direction, gravity takes over, and you start falling backwards."

As the Pitts Special drops, she flips the plane, regains speed. Continues her routine.

"It's sort of like balancing on a bowling ball while standing on your head," she said. "It's super fun."

On the ground, Panzer is far more reserved. She drives an old Honda.

Panzer said she decided to try flying because she'd watch planes and think of her father.

The U.S. Navy Blue Angels will make their ninth appearance...

The U.S. Navy Blue Angels will make their ninth appearance at the Bethpage Air Show on Memorial Day weekend at Jones Beach. They are shown at the May 25, 2018, Bethpage show. Credit: Barry Sloan

"My family always told me how he died doing something he loved," she said. "So I had these good stories. Our house was right under the traffic pattern for the airport and every time I saw one of those planes I'd think about Dad and about being up there. I'd think, 'That's so cool. But how do you do that?' My imagination took over … I thought, this is a way to be closer to him, to know him better."

Other performers

The Bethpage Air Show will be May 28-29 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The U.S. Navy Blue Angels appear for the ninth time, while the U.S. Army Golden Knights Parachute Team makes its 16th appearance. The new Air Combat Command F-22 Raptor will be on hand, as will the U.S. Navy F-35C Demonstration Team, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the 106th Rescue Wing New York Air National Guard HC-130 / HH-60 Demonstration Team. Civilian performers include the Skytypers and their five World War II-era Texans, renowned aerobatic pilots Mike Goulian and David Windmiller, American Airpower Museum warbirds and the Farmingdale State College Flying Rams.

A Boston native, Goulian says what makes the Bethpage Air Show special is it's one of the U.S.' "mega shows," along with such locales as Chicago, San Francisco and Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

"It has that awesome vibe," he said. "Pilots are athletes and they feed off the audience and while you can't hear the crowd, you can see them … You see that huge crowd and it makes you eager to fly."

Windmiller, 58, of Melville, has flown every one of the Bethpage shows, and the recent Aviation Hall of Fame inductee at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City says he loves performing for local fans. He flies an 11-minute route out of Republic Airport in East Farmingdale in his Edge 540, which carries just 17 minutes of fuel — giving him precious margin for error.

"It's a really cool thing," he said of the show. "There's the jets, with all the noise and you get the speed and the rigmarole … With my flying, I get to take this little plane and do somersaults and back flips and I get that plane to stand still in the air with everybody watching. It's just really neat."

Like Panzer, Windmiller lost his father to a crash. His dad was killed on TWA Flight 800.

"Every time I fly out along the beach, especially when I head out east, I think of him," he said. "Absolutely … That's a phone call you never think you're going to get."

U.S. women pilots

  •  The most famous female aerobatic pilot in America is three-time U.S. National Aerobatics champ Patty Wagstaff, a 2004 inductee into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio. She is honored there along with aviation pioneers like Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Charles Lindbergh, Howard Hughes and World War II Republic P-47 Thunderbolt ace and former LIRR president Francis (Gabby) Gabreski.
  •  The Federal Aviation Administration said, as of 2021, just 9.02% of all licensed pilots — and 3.97% of sport pilots — in the U.S. were women. 
  •  One of the earliest air show pioneers was Bessie Coleman, the first Black woman and first Native American to hold a pilot's license in the U.S. — and the first Black person to hold an international pilot's license. Her fame preceded fellow Aviation Hall of Fame inductees Amelia Earhart and air racer Jackie Cochran. Born in 1892 in Atlanta, Texas, Coleman performed as "Queen Bess" and died when her Curtiss JN-4 Jenny crashed during practice on April 30, 1926, in Jacksonville, Florida. She was 34

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