In a sense it is like the good old days, when the whole town turns out to watch torque rolls over Oshkosh, Immelmann turns over Odessa, Cuban-8s over Farmersville or the lovely Lomcevak (falling leaf) over Dothan.
There is no really dependable census of the number or variety of performers willing to stunt fly. Some work in leaky AT-6s, fouling the air with noise and smoke while doing limp barrel rolls in front of the stands. Some soar in the sparkling hummingbird beauty of the tiny biwinged Pitts Special. Others appear in flip little clipped-wing Cubs, in snorting 450 Stearmans, in mystical aerobatic Piper J-3s, in De Havilland Chipmunks and—yes, occasionally, in whining P-38s or even that grotesque tin goose, the Ford Tri-Motor.
The cockpit geniuses may be men like Hal Krier or Duane Cole or Bob Hoover, who wears a schoolteacherish black suit and flies his Shrike like a demon. Or Barbara O'Connor, mother of two, from Fayetteville, N.C., or Bud Fountain, the crop duster from Modesto, Calif., or perhaps Bevo Howard, the fellow who loves nothing so much as hanging upside down, his hands waving at the crowd from his open cockpit, his propeller kicking up dust from the ground—which is streaming past about five yards below his head.
It is natural to assume that Bevo Howard is one of an admirable but utterly incomprehensible breed of rakish bird, somewhere between Smilin' Jack and Steve McQueen, flying a Buecker Jungmeister, a dashing red and white biplane that was made in Germany in 1936 and transported to the U.S. via the dirigible Hindenburg. Howard thrills half a million or more people each year with his act. Every weekend for a fee that is never less than $500 he dons a soft leather helmet and goggles, cinches himself into the cockpit of his snarling museum piece, cries "Contact!" to some fellow who cranks his propeller and vaults into the skies over Charleston, S.C., bound for Pensacola or Santee or Bridgeport. Howard has a routine of three dozen delicate maneuvers, and he ends his performances by gracefully rolling the Buecker on its back and roaring inverted beneath a red ribbon stretched 18 feet above the ground. Sometimes he does it with no hands—the stick pressed between his knees—and the crowds adore him. Whenever he steps out of his plane Bevo has to sign autographs. For Bevo Howard is an authentic defier of death, is he not—a crazy aviator, a smiling flyboy, vintage Lincoln Beachey?
No, really he is none of these. Beverly E. Howard is 56, with a snow-white crew cut and a well-seamed face that can break easily into a grandfatherly smile or set severely into an expression of elderly disapproval. To stay in shape he swims each day at the YMCA pool, and he is quite proud of what he has done. "I've swum 1,850 miles in 6½ years. My goal is to go 2,200 miles in 7½ years because that's the distance from Charleston to Los Angeles." He is president of Hawthorne Aviation. Inc., and in his paneled suite of offices at the Charleston airport there are dozens of mementos of his flying feats. There are autographed photos from the Air Force's Thunder-birds inscribed to "The Master" and from the Navy's Blue Angels addressed to "The World's Greatest Aerobatic Pilot." There are oil paintings depicting Howard in his inverted flying position and a favorite painting hung in the office shows several Canada geese flying upside down.
Bevo Howard does not want visitors to mistake his major purpose in this world: "People look at my gray hair and they say to me, 'Bevo, why? Why do you do it? You have all the success, all the honors a man could want, so why do you keep flying air shows?' And I tell them that it is my hobby and that I love it. I tell them I would not do it if it weren't extremely challenging." Howard's blue eyes become rather hard and he speaks with distinct emphasis. "I'm a businessman first and an acrobatic-show pilot second. Hawthorne Aviation employs 700 people and we have eight affiliated businesses in six different states. We are extremely diversified. We do $11 million in sales a year. I have been president since I was 21 and I am the sole stockholder."
When Bevo Howard flies into town for a show, instead of doing a couple of chain loops and roller coasters over Main Street to announce his arrival, he passes out to the press and to the air-show announcer mimeographed sheets which list some proud accomplishments: voted in 1943 South Carolina's most outstanding man by the Junior Chamber of Commerce, member of the board of the Citizens & Southern National Bank, listed in Who's Who in the South and Southwest, chairman of the 1967 Charleston United Fund campaign that raised $846,000. Howard makes it clear that he would like the announcer to use this information in introducing his act.
Beverly Howard is a stern and straightforward fellow, and neither his positions nor his values alter when he changes from his executive blue suit and tie into dungarees, white sneakers, red shirt and that leather helmet and goggles.
"When I throw my leg over that cockpit there's nothing on my mind but concentrating on flying—on doing my maneuvers so that the crowd gets its money's worth. I'm no daredevil. What I do is perfectly calculated. If I had to believe I was risking my neck every time I flew upside down, I would soon enough grow bored with it." The Buecker goes bump-bumping down the runway and climbs into the sky, only to come raging back upside down with Bevo Howard waving both arms. It is hard to believe that the man at the controls is not some kind of swaggering freak or madcap kid. It is hard to believe that on the ground he can fade into a crowd of Rotarians without a ripple.
Howard is no aviation aberration. For the world of air circuses is not generally inhabited by the young, the romantic or the Easy Rider kind. "I suppose it is a little depressing," says Carl Craft, a 42-year-old pilot from Shreveport who stars in a Pitts Special. "But you don't see much but grayheads around this business anymore. There are many more good aerobatic flyers in the country than we've ever had, but the majority are in their 40s and 50s. Graybeards. and they're fairly wealthy, besides. No one can perfect this kind of stunting without a sizable income or someone subsidizing him on the side. And even if kids could afford it, you just don't find them hanging around airports like they used to. Kids need something more exciting than watching airplanes land to turn them on these days."