corner of New Jersey holds some surprises for those whose impressions of that
state have been formed for them by guests on TV talk shows. Surprises like
clean air and green and black fields of onions which form a quilted landscape
resembling that on the far side of Omaha. Elsewhere, ridges and wooded
not-quite-mountains ruffle the countryside and hold the pale morning haze in
the depths of their valleys. But here, where New Jersey and New York silently
meet in the middle of one of those onion patches, the land is as flat as a
tablecloth. And where the land is the flattest and the furrows the straightest,
is where you are most likely to find Leo Loudenslager.
If he doesn't
answer his phone and his hangar door is open, Loudenslager will be up there,
1,000 feet above the fertile earth, rifling through the air in his Stephens
Akro, carving the sky into cubes with angles so sharp you could shave on their
is the U.S. aerobatic champion and the farmers under his practice area have
grown to know him, or at least his tiny dark blue plane, well. Two years ago
Loudenslager and his new wife Suzy moved from Riverside, Conn. to Sussex, N.J.
for only one reason: those rectilinear fields are the best area for practicing
aerobatics within commuting distance of LaGuardia Airport where, as a
commercial airline pilot, Leo flies in a much more subdued manner.
Even on the
ground the first impression one has of Loudenslager is that of a man in tight
control. He moves quickly, on the balls of his feet, like a hurdler or maybe a
karate master. His hair is un-fashionably short, even for an airline pilot, and
his conversation is articulate but economical. Little of Loudenslager's
personality is in the mold of past aerobatic champions. Almost to a man, they
have been outgoing, gregarious individuals, possessed of what writers like to
label "charisma." Tom Poberezny, the 1973 national champion, who began
competing at the same time as Loudenslager—1971—says of the fledgling aerobat,
"It wasn't that Leo was exactly unfriendly. He was pure business and didn't
say a word to anybody. He was extremely hard to get to know."
doesn't fit the mold in a lot of ways besides personal intensity. For one
thing, he grew up in Columbus, Ohio and it is common knowledge that if you
aren't from the South (or maybe California or Wisconsin), you can't fly
aerobatics. Moreover, Loudenslager's airplane isn't a biplane.
beginning of his career, Loudenslager made it clear to the cliquish world of
aerobatics that he would be doing things his way, and one of the key
ingredients of "his way" is flying a monoplane. That was a radical
decision because biplanes—specifically the Pitts Special—ruled the aerobatic
roost in this country.
showed up at the national contest in 1971, he had previously flown in only one
other aerobatic event and didn't intend to enter the advanced category. But he
changed his mind at the last minute and decided to bite off the biggest chunk
first by leaping right into unlimited competition to slug it out with the
proved winners. He says, "Those two practice weeks leading into that
contest were the worst of my life." Loudenslager doesn't use hyperbole and
he doesn't smile at the recollection. "I was scared, the plane was very
unstable in some maneuvers and I was flying so hard and pulling so many
negative Gs that the broken blood vessels in my eyes made them look like a
rabbit's. I thought I was dying."
He didn't fly as
badly as-he felt because he came in ninth in a 14-man field, an amazing feat
for a rookie in an unproved design. In 1975, after four years of cut-and-try
development on the airplane, Loudenslager and his much modified Stephens Akro
became national champions, unseating the Pitts after an eight-year reign. This
month, at Sherman, Texas, Loudenslager will be trying to become the third pilot
to win back-to-back national titles.
Loudenslager's success has been the result of a brand of discipline that
overlaps everything he does, from maintaining his weight at 160 pounds to
working long nights on his airplane. He needed all the discipline he could
muster when, seven months before the 1975 nationals, he discovered a cracked
main spar in the wing of his plane. There was no way to repair it to his
satisfaction; the only solution was to build an entirely new wing. Loudenslager
took this opportunity to make massive modifications in the airframe. So, with
his chances of winning the title and also making the U.S. squad that would be
traveling to Kiev for the world championships this past July hanging in the
balance, Loudenslager and his partner, Jim Roberts, closed their lives to the
rest of the world and proceeded to build what was essentially a new airplane.
The effort was worth it. Loudenslager scored 19,657 points at the nationals to
beat his nearest rival, Henry Haigh, who flew a Pitts, by 106 points.
Still, in terms
of motivation, Loudenslager is not unique in his sport. Drs. Bruce Ogilvie and
Champe Poole, the team that did psychological profiles of hundreds of
successful athletes in many different sports, have characterized aerobatic
pilots as "...ambitious, organized, autonomous, with unusual capacity to
apply themselves over long periods...a collection of extremely driven men."
They would have to be driven men to throw themselves so completely into a sport
that ranks with frog jumping for obscurity and financial rewards and combines
the physical punishment of a torture chamber with the cost of Formula I