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Look, Ma, No Hands...
William Johnson
September 14, 1970
That's the way it was decades ago when air circus pilots flew deadly competitions—and that's the way it is still as sports like Bevo Howard (preceding page) take to the skies and perform flights of fancy
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September 14, 1970

Look, Ma, No Hands...

That's the way it was decades ago when air circus pilots flew deadly competitions—and that's the way it is still as sports like Bevo Howard (preceding page) take to the skies and perform flights of fancy

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Bill Sweet was hunched over his walk-around microphone in a kind of Rum-pelstiltskin crouch, dark glasses glinting as he romped vigorously about in the knee-high milkweed and grass off the runway. Harold Krier, in his easy, low-key way, had said earlier, "Bill doesn't very often call the maneuvers right, I don't guess. And any pilot knows that his whole spiel doesn't really make much sense. But the crowd thinks he's saying something important, and that's what counts in a situation like this."

"The best way, folks, to watch an air show is just le-e-e-an hack in your neighbor's lap. And if she's good-lookin'—hey, boy!—just stay right there. Ooo-o-o-o-ohhhhh, My-yyyyy!"

Now Eddie Green came tumbling out of a plane, floating beneath his red, white and blue parachute and an American flag unfolded from a harness at his waist. Krier and Hillard opened smoke cannisters and red plumes billowed behind their planes as they performed loops and rolls around Green's drifting descent.

"It's the Red. White and Blue Network. On the air! God Bless America!"

With a quick swooping motion Sweet took his lighted cigarette and held it to the end of a fuse laid in the grass. It fizzed, then ignited three aerial bombs which exploded smartly, startling the crowd. He darted 10 yards through the grass and punched a small tape recorder in the rear of his station wagon. The national anthem roared out of the speakers, followed immediately by Kate Smith's one-of-a-kind God Bless America. With an impish grin Bill Sweet confided to a potbellied Rotarian who was watching his actions with some surprise, "Don't ever say things aren't first-class when Bill Sweet comes to town." Then he got back on his microphone as Krier and Hillard completed their aerobatics and Eddie Green tramped out of the grass where he had landed after his 1,143rd parachute jump.

They're really pounding that sky. Hey, there. Harold Krier! Look, he's out of control! Come on, Harold, straighten out! That's a boy! Without Champion Spark Plugs and Kendall oil reinforced by good old STP, folks, he might not have made it out of that. Their lives depend on having the best products working in those planes, folks. And you can get the best for your car at your neighborhood gas station. Ooo-o-o-o-ohhhhh, My-yyyyy! Rhapsody in smoke! That's fleur-de-lis they're doing, folks, which is a kind of French rosebud or something close to it. You better believe it!"

The show continued—Eddie Green's car-to-plane rope-ladder trick, some magnificent aerobatic flying by Krier and Hillard, a rather flat little comedy routine in which Hillard pretended to be a farmer who stole an airplane. Two hours passed. Bill Sweet never once stopped talking. And the crowd? Quiet and sober, utterly restrained and quite courteous. This was rural Tennessee; the roadsides were decorated with billboards of the Bible Belt—SPEAK THE TRUTH & SHAME THE DEVIL. But this is no longer a land of hicks and hayshakers. No. There are no rubes with bib overalls and open mouths come to gawk at the newfangled flying machines. The air show crowd at Smyrna was neat, colorful, well-groomed in Ban-Lon shirts and bell-bottoms, granny sunglasses and nicely pressed Bermudas. They had driven to the air base in GTOs and Mustangs and air-conditioned station wagons. They had left their color TVs and their power mowers and their barbecue pits to see Bill Sweet's production and they were mildly amused. Perhaps what Bill Sweet says is true: "Air show audiences are the highest class of spectators outside of college football. We don't get the hippies or the longhairs or the radicals. Just respectable, clean, down-to-earth folks."

They seemed to be that—not rich people, but straight people who keep their clocks set right and their bills paid on time. The pilots and the stunt men could have blended right in with them all. Now that the Washington Harrison Donaldsons and the Lincoln Beacheys and the Cyclone O'Neils have departed, to be replaced by corporation presidents and insurance salesmen and crop dusters, the air circus has come to be about the straightest scene in show biz. A place where the Establishment turns out to watch itself perform, where steeple stormers and kooks need not apply. Thai's what happened to the air circus.

Ooo-o-o-o-ohhhhh, My-yyyyy!

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