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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
We are racing down again. Wham! Boriak pulls us flat. Wham! He cranks us back up into the sky, and we are on our backs with the earth racing away. We teeter over the top of the line. In this furious rummaging of my soul, I have found no terror and also, amazingly, a hint of real pleasure. Bam! We are level again, 300 feet, 250 mph. "O.K.," Sergei says. "Plane trimmed. All yours. How you feel?"
It is 11 o'clock. I am ready to learn to fly.
Just to be around Leo Loudenslager was something else. His faith was strong. His greatness sounded like this: "I was scared. The plane was very unstable in some maneuvers, and I was flying so hard and pulling so many negative G's that the broken blood vessels in my eyes made them look like a rabbit's. I thought I was dying." Or this: "It used to be I'd push the nose under into a maneuver needing high negative G's, and I'd hear myself whimper from the pain. I'd tell myself I'd do just one more maneuver and come down. Some days I'd keep saying that through 150 maneuvers." His intensity was like a cold. It gave him the shakes, a short temper, a fever to win. To be within five feet of Leo was enough to get you sick too.
Say it was 1974, and Leo was flying his Laser, the prototype of the plane that would eventually end up in the Smithsonian with his name next to it. When he took off, everything on the ground would just stop. The longhairs at an aerobatics contest in their Beetles, the crop dusters who'd come out to see what they could do against the airline boys, every one of them would freeze and look up. There went Leo again, reworking every law of physics about 50 feet off the ground. You could hear the plane groaning with the effort, the prop screaming in tail-slides as it fought against the backward-running air current. Watching Leo was like watching a suicide, some of his fellow competitors said. His moves were too fast, too low, too dangerous. For the pilots who admired him, he was every good day they ever had stuffed into a four-minute sequence.
The year 1974 may seem like a strange place to begin a history of aerobatics. Why not start off with Petr Nesterov, the Russian who flew the first loop, in Kiev in 1913? Or Jimmy Doolittle cranking around the first outside loop in 1931? But beginning there would be like starting a history of art with cave drawings. They are important, sure. But Leonardo! Caravaggio! Picasso! There's the meat. So, Leo Loudenslager.
Leo insisted it was all just work. That was part of his charm: modesty in a seven-time U.S. national champion. He'd knock his uneven blond hair back, brush at his long sideburns and explain that it was the thousands of hours he spent in the air. He did work harder than anyone else, of course. As Leo saw it, the sport had to own your mind, it had to possess your heart. So he developed a willful focus and an unshakable certainty about his plane.
Leo's practices were brutal. Four, five times a day he would fly in the hottest heat he could find. He wanted the extra drain of the sweat. It is easier to black out when you are hot, harder to control your body in the plane. And every flight had to be perfect or Leo was furious. He never made a mistake twice. Leo wanted to reduce, as much as possible, the distinction between himself and his machine. "This is a contest between pilot and airplane," he said of aerobatics. He didn't see it as a battle against other pilots, but as a struggle to get his machine to do what he wanted. In 1975 he was national champion. And again in '76, '77 and '78, a record four in a row. In '78 he nearly won the world championships before an unintentional rules violation on his last flight. Some said he was screwed by the Soviet-rigged jury.
Leo was remaking the way pilots flew. He began with his plane, the Laser, constantly refining it. He was maniacal about getting weight off it to enhance performance, finally stripping it down to 842 pounds (a flight-school Cessna weighs about 1,800 pounds) by doing everything from drilling holes in his canopy mount to sanding away extra metal from the engine. He once engaged a chemist in a long discussion about the possibility of using acid to etch away the insides of the steel tubes of his airframe to save a few ounces. What he did to the plane was a preview of what he did in the air. Before Leo aerobatics had a graceful pace. He wanted it to be different. Now. In his air-show performances he'd pull to vertical and do a three-quarter vertical snap roll... on takeoff.
The chance to win was more important to him than anything else—his health, his plane, at times his life. In 1978, competing at the world championships in Czechoslovakia, he miscalculated on a figure and in a fraction of a second had to decide between staying safe and winning. He was pointed straight down and didn't have enough altitude to perform his planned snap roll. "Two thoughts shot through my mind," he said. "One: If you're going to have a chance at this contest, you've got to go for it. And two: Can you get away with this without killing yourself? Well, I thought, Goodbye to Suzy and the kids. I knew I didn't have time to rethink. I did it. I was shaken by it, but I went on."
In 1980 Loudenslager won the world championships with a series of violently perfect flights. From that competition there is a picture of Leo and Betty Stewart, an American who won the women's world title, standing with their medals hanging around their necks. Leo has the impish grin of a victorious revolutionary. Although the photo is black and white, Leo seems to have a golden glow. He looks immortal.