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Aerobatic pilot shows tricks of his trade in flight over Duluth

Aerobatic pilot Brent Handy releases smoke from his two-seat Pitts Special biplane as he takes off at Duluth International Airport on Monday. Handy will perform at the Duluth Air and Aviation Expo later this month. (Steve Kuchera / / 3
Brent Handy examines the cockpit of his Pitts Special biplane before a flight on Monday. (Steve Kuchera / / 3

Step gingerly into Brent Handy’s Pitts S-2B. It’s a biplane commonly referred to as a Pitts Special. The paint job is red and white in a pattern of rays and it’s exquisite. The wings are framed in wood and wound tightly with heavy fabric. So step lightly. A journalist on a previous one of these publicity flights accidentally put a crack in the canopy while climbing inside.

“Most bang for the buck,” is how Handy, an aerobatic pilot hailing from tiny Wyevale, Ontario,  described choosing the Pitts to start his own private air show enterprise.

Handy is among the performers scheduled to appear at the Duluth Air and Aviation Expo on Aug. 23-24. Flying with him upside down over the Duluth International Airport on Monday offered a chance to look backward to the horizon — suspended in an inverted perspective that strikes a person as the goal every child on a swing is aiming for.

They start flying them young in Canada — beginning at 12 years old in the Royal Canadian Air Cadets.

“The Boy Scouts for the air, with a military twist,” Handy says.

By 16, Handy was a glider pilot. By 17, a private pilot. By 23, a fighter pilot.

At 37, he’s got 20 years of flying under his belt and remains active in the Royal Canadian Air Force. His deft touch on the stick leaves his aircraft slipping into and out of maneuvers with ease, like a sky surfer rolling on invisible waves of air.

In 8½ minutes of flight, Handy manages a barrel roll, two loops (though not back-to-back) and the aforementioned inversion, an exercise that is as much gastrointestinal as it is aerodynamic. Handy narrates the exercise into a headset, and this omniscience from the pilot in the rear of the aircraft is just one of the details that make the experience pleasant and decidedly free of dread.

“I’m not here for risks,” he says. “A lot of people think stunt pilots take risks. I’ve got two kids at home.”

By the time the front-heavy craft catches the runway draft and picks its nose off the ground, it’s clear that if the jets are the Formula One racers in the air, Handy’s prop plane is the muscle car.

“It’s the classic air show airplane,” he says.

Handy touches the throttle and the aircraft thunders higher like a spike in a graph. When he activates the smoke, the smell is the final mark in the sensory activation checklist. The crowd likes the smoke because it helps it track the aircraft.

Handy is a trainer with the Snowbirds Demonstration Team, having been the No. 9 man in the nine-plane formation. Handy performed with the group during the last Duluth airshow.

“It’s a standard two-year term,” he says. “You get a first year and a last year.”

Handy says he prefers his present scaled-back schedule, giving him more time with his wife and their children, ages 3 and 6.

Not only doesn’t he like risks, the audience doesn’t either.

They want to see a pilot performing distinctly and well, he said, not fumbling along an edge that leads to nowhere. When the tricks are over, and with landing 30 seconds away, Handy explains once having spent eight consecutive hours piloting an F-18 with the Canadian Air Force. It sounds like a pinnacle. But he gets just as giddy piloting what he calls the “squirrely” Pitts Special.

“This never gets old,” he says.

Over and out.

Duluth Air and Aviation Expo When: Aug. 23-24

Who: Featuring Handy, the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and many more performers

Where: Duluth International Airport

More info:

To help: The airshow is looking to fill its final volunteering spots; volunteer groups are paid, making for a fundraising opportunity; contact (218) 628-9996