Henry Haigh

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Creativity may come from thinking outside the box, but if you fly outside the box in competitive aerobatics, you're history. Henry Haigh flew inside the box well enough to win the World Aerobatic Championship in 1988, at age 64. Fresh from last month's induction into the IAC Hall of Fame, Henry talks with AVweb's Joe Godfrey about representing the U.S., the airplanes he built and flew, and his twenty years of competitive yanking and banking.

Henry HaighHenry Haigh was born in 1924 in Ann Arbor, Mich. It wasn't long before he was flying aerobatic competitions using gas-powered RCs. Uncle Sam taught him how to fly real airplanes, but WWII ended before Henry could get into it. After some time off to raise his family and start a business, Henry bought a Ryan PT-22 and resumed flying, and began competitive aerobatics in the early '60s, winning his first contest. He won the IAC competition at Fond Du Lac a total of seven times, placed second in the United States championship several times, and won the United States Aerobatic Championship in 1980.

He was on the U.S. team every year from 1973-1991. In 1976, Henry placed first on the U.S. team, but with USA-USSR tension building, the proverbial Russian judge bumped him to 13th overall. He kept practicing, changed airplanes, modified his routine, always looking for improvement. In 1988, at the age of 64, the dedication and practice paid off when he won the World Aerobatic Championship, beating second-place finisher Kermit Weeks. AVweb's Howard Fried says Henry is "the smoothest and most precise manipulator I have been privileged to observe in a lifetime of attending airshows and aerobatic competitions." These days, retired from competition, Henry lives in Howell, Mich., and flies a Super Cub, a C-185 on floats and is building a modified Super Cub. He was inducted into the IAC Hall of Fame in October, 1999.


What do you remember about learning how to fly?

When I was a kid I just took to airplanes. Every toy I ever cared about was a model airplane or something that flew. I got into gas-powered model airplanes in high school and entered some contests. Just as I was getting into that I joined the cadet program of the Air Force. I graduated from the cadet program in 1944 and went to B-24 school in Kirtland, Alabama. I finished B-24 school on VE day, the day the war ended in Europe. That stopped all training of B-24s, there was no point in doing any more. So I was sent to B-29 school and was sent to Kearns, Utah, which is an overseas replacement depot. While we were training there and waiting to get a whole squadron together to go to Saipan for an attack on Japan, they dropped the atom bomb and that ended all the training. So I'm lucky that I got a lot of very expensive excellent training and never had to shoot anybody or get shot at.

I got an education, too. Prior to my entering the cadet program they had a requirement and were only taking people with two years of college or better. They ran out of those guys about six months before I joined up. So they put out the word that if you volunteered for induction you could get into the Air Force and they would send you to a college training detachment. That's how I got in and I was sent to the University of Tennessee where I got a year's credit.

After the military I went to Wayne University to finish my education. My father had started a small machine shop during the war making B-24 parts, which is ironic. When the war ended he started making parts for Ford and GM and that's where I worked part-time when I went to college.

There's a Henry Haigh high school in Dearborn. Who is that named for?

That's my grandfather. He was one of the pioneers in Dearborn. He was a lawyer and a friend of Henry Ford. When he retired from law he did some writing for the Henry Ford Museum. That's about all I remember about him.

When did you get interested in aerobatic competition?

I put flying on the back burner after the military. I was concentrating on college and I got married and had the responsibilities of a family so I didn't really touch an airplane for about 10 years after I got out of the Air Force. One of my loves was aerobatics so when I did get back to flying that's what I started doing. I had a traveling airplane, a Cessna 172, and I'd fly to see customers with that. But for aerobatics, I bought an old Ryan PT-22, which is a terrible aerobatic airplane. It would go upside down and it would do a loop but the only thing it did really well was snap rolls. It did beautiful snap rolls.

I was slowly leaning toward competition and I got to know some of the people doing it. I flew the Ryan for a few years then I had a Zlin, then a B cker and along the way I met Curtis Pitts. He sold me a nice round-wing Pitts and I started competing in about 1970, and I was able to compete for about 20 years.

When did you enter international competition?

The Nesterov Cup
I had always had a goal of being on the United States Aerobatic Team that went against the best pilots from around the world. I qualified for that team in '73 and I was a member of the team every year from '73 until '91. In order to do that you have to finish 5th or better in the U.S. National Championships. I did a six or seven regional competitions a year in the states to practice for the internationals. I finished first on the U.S. team when we went to Russia in '76, but I finished 13th overall. I took a beating from the Russian judge.

I finished second in the 1980 world championship in Oshkosh. I kept training and working on getting better and I went to Spitzerburg, Austria in 1982 and missed winning the world championship by 5 points out of 17,900. It was close. I won the world championship in Red Deer, Alberta in 1988, at the age of 64. I'm in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest pilot ever to win the world championship.

I'd like the politicians to explain if an airline pilot isn't qualified to fly at age 60, how could I come along at 64 and beat 80 of the world's best pilots? I think it ought to be up to the individual's physical condition. They should set some high standards but if a pilot gets to be 60 and he's physically capable and his heart's in good shape I don't know why he shouldn't be allowed to keep on flying for a while. There are quite a few airline pilots in aerobatic competition. I got to know them and compete against them and they hit 60 and they can still fly competitions but they get kicked out of the airline. Here's a guy who can push and pull 9 Gs for 20 minutes at a time and he does it four or five times a day and he's in great shape.

I couldn't say what the arbitrary cutoff date ought to be but there are certainly a lot of guys out there flying that ought to be allowed to go on if they want to and they can meet the physical criteria for it.

Who were your teammates on the U.S. teams?

There were so many talented pilots. Many of them were airline pilots and many weren't. They were all extremely talented. I'd hate to start naming names because I'd hate to leave somebody out. Everybody that made it to the team was dedicated and capable.

Tell us about the international competition itself and how you prepared for it.

The program when I was flying was to fly three separate flights in front of judges. One of the flights was a known compulsory that was published at the beginning of each year. The international teams would have input and they'd develop a routine of about 20 maneuvers over twelve minutes or so. Everybody in the whole world flies the same routine. You find out about it early in the spring and you can practice it all summer long. Then there's a freestyle flight that has has to include so many maneuvers from each family and it's about the same length. That one you can design yourself. The last flight is an unknown that nobody gets to see until the day before so you don't get a chance to practice it. When it gets handed out you take it back to your room and study it and try to memorize it. The way to prepare for that is to practice all the maneuvers that you know will be on the unknown. It's about the same length as the other two flights.

Just going out and practicing one maneuver over and over doesn't give you the proper workout because you can set up the entry speed any way you want to. The way to practice a difficult maneuver is to put a couple of maneuvers ahead of it so you force yourself to think ahead and set up the proper speed and the correct position coming into it.

Clint McHenry and Henry
at Yverdon, Switzerland, 1990
I practiced around home every day, with at least one 25- or 20-minute flight. That doesn't sound like a lot but when you practice the 100-yard dash you don't practice it for an hour. I'd go out and fly two routines of about 10 minutes each, then spend another few minutes on individual maneuvers. That would give me about a half-hour of flying and I'd be wringing wet and there'd be perspiration on the canopy and I'd put the airplane away and come back and do the same thing the next day.

For a big contest like the U.S. Nationals or Fond du Lac I'd go off for a week with my friends, the other competitors. One of us would fly and the others would critique us on the radio. I'd be helping my competitors just like they'd be helping me. In five or six days of that you could log about 14 hours on the tach. That isn't a lot of cross-country time but that's a lot of practice.

How much did you modify your freestyle from year to year?

I kept trying to make it easier for myself. The freestyle used to be 30 maneuvers. But when you've got eighty pilots in world competition and it takes two days to fly the whole group it's killing the judges. They're standing out there 10 hours a day in the hot sun. So they cut the freestyle from 30 maneuvers to 20, but they left the difficulty coefficient the same, so you had to compound more maneuvers. You couldn't just pull up and do a hammerhead, you had to do a roll coming up and a four-point roll coming down, or some other compound maneuver to keep the difficulty coefficient up. So every year I'd look for a way to build a routine that I could fly and get points.

Aerobatic box graphic courtesy of Air & Space Magazine

How big is the competition box?

The box is 1,000 meters square with white panels on the ground that are big enough to be seen from 3,000 feet. The boundary judges are 50 meters outside that box with sighting devices and radios and if you go outside that box you're dead. You have no chance of winning an international title if you go outside the box.

So it's important to have the airplane exactly where you want it for every maneuver, and while you're in the middle of that maneuver you're thinking two or three maneuvers ahead. This is all happening very fast and there's a lot of physical strain. To do the routine properly you're looking at nine Gs positive and negative every time I'd fly. You develop some tolerance for the Gs by a lot of practice. If you just started at nine you'd pass out. You have to work up to it. Here in Michigan I couldn't fly much in the wintertime so when I'd start flying again in the spring it would take me two weeks to get acclimated to pulling and pushing Gs again.

Did you ever turn the wrong way or skip a maneuver?

Oh sure. Everybody does that when they're starting out. You've got your card there on the instrument panel and it's very easy to skip a line and leave something out, or turn the wrong way. And you've got places where you can substitute one maneuver for another. It's very easy, for instance, to substitute a half-Cuban for a horizontal 8. The first part of a horizontal eight starts out as a half-Cuban. You might pull up into a horizontal 8 and do the half roll coming down and now you're in the Cuban 8 and you've got a Cuban 8 you're supposed to do later and now you're lost. That can happen when you're starting out then as you get more comfortable you take steps to make sure it doesn't.

Did you fly the competitions in the Haigh Special?

The Haigh Special
The Haigh Special is one of the last airplanes I built. I sold that to Chris Panzl. It's a highly modified Pitts. The top wing was swept, the fuselage was longer, much bigger engine, retractable landing gear, and it was quite a performer, but I never competed with it. I competed with two airplanes, one I called a Super Pitts. It was the first Pitts to compete with spring aluminum gear, it was a very clean airplane, very light, and had 15-20% better vertical penetration that a stock Pitts. I flew that airplane until 1978 when I switched to a monoplane that I called a Superstar. I switched to the monoplane because the Europeans kind of looked down on the biplanes. I will admit that the Pitts is so small and boxy that it's difficult to judge it. The biplanes outperformed anything out there, and still do, but when the Europeans went to the monoplanes it was hard to score well with a biplane. That's why I switched.

The Superstar is a standard mid-wing airplane with a 200-horsepower engine. It had very good vertical penetration but you had to fly it very fast. The monoplanes were hard to recover from if you happened to get low and slow on an unknown routine, for instance. The biplanes were so light and agile that you could get the speed back, but you really had to control the monoplanes. I won the world championship in 1988 and finished second in the world in 1992 in the Superstar.

Can we ever get the politics out of international competition?

In 1976 the Russians made a political contest out of what should have been an aerobatic contest. Their press releases announced that their Russian pilots were doing so well, and they played a lot of games with us. It was the first world contest I had ever flown in. There had been no world contest in 1974 for some reason so it had been four years since the last competition and we really couldn't get much feedback from the previous U. S. team pilots. So we were learning from the beginning and the Russians had some fun with us, changing the rules in the middle of the game and pulling little funny tricks. It was a good learning experience for us.

In all those Gs did you ever have a structural failure or an engine failure?

Everybody has an engine quit on them once in a while I guess. I read somewhere that your chances of having a complete engine failure are about the same as your chances of winning the Irish Sweepstakes. So I flew for years and years and never had any trouble and then I won the Irish Sweepstakes two times in one year. I had a Bonanza with a brand new engine that threw a rod and disintegrated the engine. Fortunately I was coming into the Pontiac airport when it happened and I was able to make it in. I've had little problems now and then that everybody has, but I think the military training that I had taught me to handle the emergency and stay cool. No matter what you've got to keep flying the airplane.

I like that old saying: Let me use my superior judgment to keep from having to use my superior flying skills to stay out of trouble.

Both of your sons fly. Did you teach them?

There's a problem when you start teaching your family. When you tell somebody they did something wrong or made a mistake it changes from instruction to criticism. It's very difficult to overpower that. My oldest boy was living in Tennessee and got to know the airport manager there and that's where he learned to fly. I did give a lesson or two to my younger son and I could see right away that no matter how careful I was with my words and no matter what I did everything came off as criticism. There was a heck of a good instructor nearby and I liked his system. He gave all of his students their first 15 or so hours in a J-3 Cub, then switched them to a 150 for the radios and instrument work. So my son Matthew got real good training and now he's a heck of a good pilot.

What is that instructor's name?

Joe Grastik is his name. He's no longer living. He was a commercial painter and taught flying in the evenings and on weekends and put a lot of students through his school.

What products does Haigh Aviation make?

My son started a company a while back to make machine parts. We manufactured a tailwheel for the Pitts. It can be a difficult airplane to land. When I was flying I was always fooling around changing things, trying to improve them, and one of the first things I made was a lockable tailwheel for the Pitts. That made it a dream to land and I guess we've sold about 3,000 of them. The company right now is making automotive parts with computerized milling machines and now doing anything aviation-related right now.

In the AOPA airport directory there's a note for the Howell, Michigan airport that says "intensive flight training." Is that you?

I wouldn't call it intensive. We have two schools on the field and they do pretty well. The airport has had some problems, like a lot of small, local airports out in the country. But it's starting to get developed now, and they're putting in an instrument runway and making other improvements. I don't teach.

What airplane are you flying now?

I have a Super Cub and a 185 on floats and I'm building an airplane that'll be a modified Super Cub. I don't fly aerobatics anymore. I've been there done that. I spend time fishing and take the floatplane up to Canada.