Job: Air show pilot
Role: During air shows, pilots entertain audiences with death-defying aerial manoeuvres such as torque rolls, tumbles and advanced spins, often synchronizing their routines to music. While shows typically last the duration of two or three songs, pilots can spend years training and practising their routines.
"It's very demanding on the body, that's for sure," said Dave Mathieson, better known as Super Dave Mathieson, a full-time air show pilot from Hamilton, and star of Discovery Channel's Airshow. "I train three or four times a day every day for months leading up to air show season, getting the body in shape."
Mr. Mathieson explains that most people fall unconscious when subjected to a G-force of 5 or 6 – the force of gravity on the human body is magnified during acceleration – but air show pilots must train their bodies to stay alert at forces much greater than that.
Mr. Mathieson says that pilots practise their manoeuvres at much higher altitudes than on show days, providing a little more leeway. It is during the practice period that they work with ground crews, coaches and supervisors to design and perfect a routine.
"You start doing the sequence over and over and over," Mr. Mathieson said. "Everything you do is the same routine at every air show. You can't add or make it up. Once it's approved, you stick with it."
Education: In order to become an air show pilot, one must obtain a private pilot licence issued by Transport Canada. There are a variety of institutions across Canada that offer aviation training, including Mount Royal University in Calgary, Seneca College in Toronto, and the Professional Flight Centre in Vancouver.
But to become a licensed air show pilot, pilots need to first hone their skills and complete the Aerobatic Competency Evaluation (ACE) program administered by the International Council of Air Shows and regulated by Transport Canada.
There are a number of training programs specific to air show pilots available in Canada, including those offered by Harv's Air in Manitoba, the Rockcliffe Flying Club in Ottawa and the Canadian Flight Centre in Vancouver and Kamloops, B.C., each of which train pilots to pass their ACE exam.
"Once you get your air show (licence), you're limited to about 800 feet above the ground, which is very high and difficult to do airs shows because people can barely see you," Mr. Mathieson said.
Mr. Mathieson explains that pilots begin with level four licenses, which restricts them to flying above 800 feet, and must complete eight practice or rehearsal shows to move on to level three, which has an altitude restriction of 500 feet. To qualify for level two, which has an altitude restriction of 250 feet, pilots must perform at 12 public air shows. After 16 air shows above 250 feet, and with the oversight of two evaluating ACEs, a pilot can attain level one status, which has no altitude restriction. Each prerequisite must also be completed within 24 months in order to move on to the next level.
"You don't really start making money until you're at 250 feet or at the surface, so it's very expensive to get into at first," Mr. Mathieson said.
Salary: Becoming an air show pilot is a career path that costs a lot of money before it returns any, if at all. The cost of owning, storing, fuelling, insuring and maintaining a personal aircraft, as well as the cost of training, can reach or even surpass $100,000 a year for several years before any sort of financial return.
"You're not going to get paid until you hit that 250-foot level, and you're travelling all over North America to hit the number of air shows required to get to that next level," Mr. Mathieson said. "Even when you get to the surface (licence), guys that just do this as an air show pilot and rely just on what's called 'performance fees' – the fees that air shows pay you – you basically break even."
Mr. Mathieson explains that air show pilots typically make their salary the same way that NASCAR and Formula 1 drivers do – through sponsored advertising on their vehicles and uniforms.
"When you get really professional at it, if you get the big sponsors, you make as much as a NASCAR driver; it can be huge," he said, adding that each sponsorship can net a pilot several million dollars. "If you do it right, you can make a lot of money at it. If you do it wrong, you can go broke quick."
Job prospects: A limited air show season in Canada can make it difficult for pilots to find work, though there are opportunities in other markets.
"Typically you can do eight to 12 shows per season," Mr. Mathieson said. "I do shows all across Canada and all over the States, Mexico, Costa Rica, all over. There are shows out there. It's just hard to get hired, because they only hire six or seven people a year, and there's a lot of competition out there."
Furthermore, only a very select group of talented pilots are able to make a living as an air show pilot.
"There's only two sponsored guys in Canada, which are Pete McLeod, sponsored by Red Bull, who does air shows, and myself," Mr. Mathieson said. "All the other air show pilots in Canada aren't sponsored, and they're trying their best."
Challenges: In a business that thrives on exhilaration and danger, accidents unfortunately do happen on occasion, and when they do, it has an impact on the entire industry.
"Between two and seven of your friends die every year doing it – from mistakes or if something happens to the aircraft or they lose control," Mr. Mathieson said. "Especially if something happens at the beginning of the season, you've got to be smiling and concentrating on the air show when you've just lost one of your good friends, and knowing it could be you next."
Why they do it: Though it's a dangerous job, those who enjoy the adrenalin rush will likely never find a more exhilarating career path.
"It's a career that I've always wanted to do. It's been a dream," Mr. Mathieson said. "It's just incredible flying an amazing aircraft."
Misconceptions: While participating in an air show is inherently risky, Mr. Mathieson says that every element is meticulously planned and rehearsed.
"The show is choreographed, it's studied, it's rehearsed, it's professional. It may look scary and dangerous but that's the art of putting on a good show," he said. "The manoeuvres are supposed to look scary and dangerous and death-defying, but to us it is not. We practise the outcome and we have safety backup measures in place."