Wayne Handley

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Wayne Handley's 41-year and 25,000-hour flying career has taken him from cropduster to legendary air show performer. Later in January, he'll attempt a world record for time-to-climb in his new Turbo Raven, a unique airplane with more thrust than weight and the ability to use inflight reverse thrust. In this month's Profile, Handley talks with AVweb's Joe Godfrey about learning to fly, naval aviation, crop dusting, the new airplane, and the challenges of travelling the airshow circuit.

Wayne HandleyWayne Handley was born March 26, 1939, in Carmel, Calif. After a career in Naval aviation, he built a successful crop dusting business in Salinas, Calif. In 1983, after years of performing for unappreciative grapes and lettuce, he decided to enter the International Aerobatic Club competition. Finishing 20th out of 21 was humbling enough to make him serious about competitive aerobatics. It worked. He went on to perform for millions of spectators, and received the Bill Barber Award for showmanship in 1996, and the Art Scholl Memorial Showmanship Award in 1997.  He holds the world record for longest inverted flat spin at 67 turns (which he claims is more of a reflection on IQ than skill) and this month plans to try and set the world record for time-to-climb for all propeller-driven airplanes in the Turbo Raven.

For the past several years, Wayne and his wife Karen have travelled from show to show in the Raven. After a show it took Wayne about three seconds to velcro in an electric AI and a GPS and they were ready for cross-country. The Raven had a cargo pod which attaches to the underside of the fuselage to carry three duffles and a hanging bag. Wayne got the idea from watching a FedEx Cessna 208 (Caravan) taxi by one day. A few more bags and the folding poles that hold the ribbons for the ribbon cut fit in the turtle deck. 1999's travel plans are different. Wayne will fly the one-seat Turbo Raven while Karen rides in a T-210 piloted by Wayne's mechanic/announcer. Once they arrive, the 210 will serve as a photo platform for media rides to promote the upcoming show.


You're not kidding. Your home airport is really your home airport.

I live in Greenfield, Calif., or actually four miles west of Greenfield, out in a nice little canyon. The airport is on the east side of the valley and my residence is on the west side of the valley, nine miles in between, three stop signs. I can make it in about ten minutes and wouldn't even consider living in an area with a working stoplight.

You hold the world record of 67 inverted flat spins. What other aviation achievements are you proud of?

I was very active in the politics of the crop dusting business. I was on the Board of Directors of the California Ag Air Association. I was President in '78, twenty years on the Board of Directors, received the George Baldrick Memorial Award, which is the highest award in the California Association, Member of the Year, Pilot of the Year, lifetime member, and Plumber of the Year, and I'm the only one to win the Plumber of the Year twice. That's an award given to somebody that should have probably chosen a different occupation.

In aerobatics, I won the California point series in intermediate in '84, the unlimited point series in '85, '86, and '88. I also recieved the Bill Barber Award for showmanship in 1996, and the Art Scholl Memorial Showmanship Award in 1997.

How did you get interested in flying?

What probably got me interested in flying first was the fact that my mother used the spoon as an airplane and my mouth as a hangar to encourage my eating when I was a baby. Being born in '39, my real formative years were in the early '40s. A lot of the heroes of the war were pilots. I lived out in the country by myself, didn't have any playmates. I remember making a little airplane out of scrap lumber and I used to sit out there and fight the war by the hour as I entertained myself.

Do you remember your first airplane ride or the airplane you soloed in?

My father would not allow me to fly or ride a motorcycle as long as I lived under his roof, so when I went away to college my first airplane ride was my first lesson. It was an Aeronca 7AC in Salinas; that would have been 1957, and the great thing about that is the college owned the airplanes and had an A&P course, and I was able to fly the 65 horsepower 7AC champ for $2.50 an hour, which included fuel, insurance, that was the whole thing. My instructor was a projectionist at the local movie theater and he charged $5 an hour, so I got about eight hours of dual, soloed, and had 70 hours when I went in the Navy. I didn't get any more dual after I soloed, so you can imagine the habits that I had developed by that time.

Did your father fly?

My father was both a very accomplished musician and a mechanic by trade but, unfortunately, I didn't inherit either talent. I couldn't carry a tune in a bucket and the most dangerous part of my aviation career is when I have a tool in my hand.

Have you ever taught someone to fly?

I've never been a CFI. I've taught people how to fly and after I got the basics done turned them over to a CFI to really do their cross-country work and all of that, and then I've been a coach in aerobatics, since you don't need a CFI to teach aerobatics, it's not an add-on rating. I had a Pitts S2A for several years and just sold it this last year, but really found that I learned more about flying as I was teaching than I ever had before. I think you see that in a lot of different fields.

Is there some trait all great pilots share?

I don't think there's any such thing as a natural pilot, and what makes a great pilot is somebody that has developed the experience to be able to know his or her limitations, and just make good practical decisions. If you can identify the ego, which is such a big problem in aviation, and control that, and do things predicated on wisdom rather than spontaneous surges of ego, you can become a great pilot.

Is there an airplane you've always wanted to fly?

I think, like a lot of pilots, I'd like to get involved in the space program. I'd like to fly the Shuttle. I volunteered for a program called Project Astronaut when I was a student in the Navy flight program. I don't know of anybody who ever volunteered for Project Astronaut that actually ever became one.

Do you have a favorite airport?

I think my favorite airport is my own. I built is from scratch as a crop dusting strip. My neighbors are great. If they ever call up regarding flying out of the airport it's to say that they're having a barbecue on Saturday and if we had anybody practicing could they please move over closer to the house and give them an air show. I'm the airport director, I'm the board of directors, and it doesn't get any better.

Wayne and Karen wiping down the Raven
Wayne and Karen with The (original) Raven at Oshkosh '98.

Your wife Karen travels the air show circuit with you. Is she a pilot?

Karen is the greatest support person in the world, but she has no desire to ever be in an airplane by herself, does not really care to fly, but has just gone through, from 1990 until 1998, traveling with me all over the United States, Canada, and part of Mexico in the front seat of the Raven where she can't transmit, she can't land, she can't even open the canopy from the front seat. She sat in there and has just racked thousands of hours between shows. Then she does a first-class job of support at the show with both public relations and setting up the ribbons for the ribbon cut. Even though she's a far better driver than I am, she has no desire to get in an airplane by herself.

Any place you’ve always wanted to fly to but never had the chance?

Alaska. In my next lifetime I want to go to Alaska and spend a big part of it up there. I love to hunt and fish and I love that type of scenery, and that's a type of flying that is akin to crop dusting and aerobatics. I think there are a lot of similarities with bush flying and what I've done and would like to do that but I don't see that I'm going to get much of an opportunity this time around.

What's the most remarkable thing you've ever seen from an airplane?

I try and point it out to everybody that I can...the gloriole. That is the rainbow, the 360-degree rainbow around an airplane shadow as it's cast on a cloud. It's there 100% of the time, the intensity changes with the lighting conditions, but I just love to take people up and if there's any clouds at all, get out in an area where I can get the shadow of the airplane on a cloud and show them that. That's probably one of the more beautiful and romantic parts of aviation.

Any emergencies or off-airport landings?

I landed several times during my crop dusting career, for one reason or another, out in some type of field or on a road — that was kind of just part of the business — and then there was the time that I made the wrong turn in the box canyon and I definitely landed off-airport and that terrain was so hostile that I could never get the county planning dept. to declare that as an airport area, either.

What happened?

It was 100% pilot error. I was filming a movie. I had a big camera on the airplane — it was Grumman Ag Cat — and I was coming down a canyon that I'd flown a couple of times with the producer/director. There was one point in the canyon where I had to make a 120-degree turn to the left as a ridge came down and kind of intersected and forced the main channel of the river to go around it, and with different lighting and different altitude that I was flying at this particular time, when I got to that point I didn't recognize it and instead of making a 120-degree left turn, the way the sun was hitting into the canyon to my right, it looked like the way to go, so instead of making 120-degree left turn, I made a 15-degree right turn, and as soon as I did that the door closed behind me. As I proceeded up this canyon the horizon kept getting higher and higher even though I was at full power, full rpm, and climbing at the best rate of climb that I could get out of the airplane, it was obvious that I couldn't out-climb it and it was also too narrow to turn. I sat there with the inevitability that I was going to crash...and I just had to take the bull by the horns and crash it my way rather than just waiting until I ran into something and, obviously, it did work out okay.

Touch-and-Goes

I wish the FAA would...

Require spins of all pilots before certification and not certify an airplane that could not be recovered from a spin. Those would be the two top things on the agenda if I was a god of the FAA.

I became a safer pilot when I...

Started instructing aerobatics, as I mentioned earlier. There's no better way to learn than have to stop and analyze, truly understand a maneuver so you can verbalize it in a way that the receiver can understand it.

You'll never catch me flying...

Probably, out of respect for my wife, you won't see me flying anything in the racing department. After my military background, flying in the Navy, carrier work, that type of thing, crop dusting, and competition aerobatics, air show aerobatics, I don't think I could ask her to put up with air racing. I don't think I'll get into that.

Most pilots don't spend enough time practicing...

Emergency landings. I had a fellow come in here to my airport one time with a Yak 55. He had eight hours in the airplane and he was out practicing tumbling the airplane before he ever learned how to land it, had an engine problem, had the runway made, blew the whole thing, and totalled the airplane. He didn't get hurt, but I just see that happening so much and it's one of the things that I always really stress with my aerobatics students, is I would set them up for a 270-degree overhead approach that would get them out of trouble in most situations.

Tell us about your naval career.

I entered the Navy flight school in 1959 as a "NavCad" — a naval aviation cadet. Both the Navy and the Air Force needed pilots at the time and waived the four-year college requirement and had these cadet programs where you could go in with two years or the equivalent of two years of college. When I completed flight training I got my wings and commission as an Ensign at the same time, so I went in in '59, went through the flight program, started out in props, then advanced. I switched over to F9s and F11s. I went into the Navy with an open mind as to whether or make a career out of it or not and, as the luck of the draw, I was assigned to a utility squadron in North Island, San Diego, Calif. Utility squadrons are just basically what it sounds like. You do all the odd jobs in the fleet. We were targets for the radar school at Point Loma, which is the most boring job in the world. On Monday they'd never seen a blip on a scope before, so we'd be out there basically flying for 10 or 15 minutes and then do a 180. By Wednesday we'd be doing simple intercepts.

I was also a drone controller. They took the armament panel out of my airplane and put in basically model airplane control gear, so I was flying the Ryan Q2C Firebee, which was a neat machine to control, and I controlled it both from the air and land. At 22 years old there were times when I would have two headsets on, one controlling the drop aircraft — I was going to drop the Q2C Firebee — and on the other frequency I had the ship that was going to be firing their surface air missiles at the drone, so without giving it any thought at all, there were several days when I was 22 years old that I was in total control of the Pacific missile range and it never even occurred to me the responsibility I had.

Being a utility squadron, we had obsolete aircraft and a lot of our senior officers were passed over for higher rank. Since they weren't going anyplace morale wasn't the best and, being stuck there, I made the decision to get out of the Navy rather than make a career of it.

In 1963, when I had 18 months remaining active duty, they gave me the option of going to Miramar and transitioning into the F4 Phantom. I was new at the time and the catch was to sign up for an additional 18 months, which would give them three years worth and made it worth their while, and I really almost did that. I came home on leave to make my decision. Both the local crop dusting companies were interested in hiring me when I got out of the Navy. We were very familiar with the six- to nine-month cruises and had a child at that time, so made a decision to not to stay in, and I've always questioned that, I always felt I came off the drawing boards to be a fighter pilot. Had I made the decision to go fly Phantoms, I would have probably been in the Gulf of Tonkin, bobbing up and down when the lid blew off and my career would have been drastically different than the way it turned out.

Wayne Handley

Did you ever consider flying for the airlines?

I interviewed with the airlines at the end of my military career, and in 1964, which would have been the best time probably in history of the airlines to sign on, they told me when I had my interview with United that I would be a flight engineer for six to eight years and I just couldn't see riding sidesaddle and looking over my left shoulder every time they said I had a bogey at twelve o'clock, so I passed on that and came home to the crop dusting business and really enjoyed that.

Give us a couple of hair-raising crop dusting stories.

I could talk all day on hair-raising crop dusting stories. Probably one of the biggest hazards that I faced working in the Salinas Valley, which is a coastal valley here in California, was working in fog. We always had a lot of work to do. We had a very small window each day to get our work done in between daylight and when the wind came in off the ocean, which was usually around 10:00 a.m. or so, so with the marine layer we always had in here in the summertime, fog every morning, where was a lot of work to do. There was always that push to get out before the weather was really good enough and I probably scared myself more overrunning my visibility in fog than most anything else.

One morning I got trapped in a very low layer of fog. It was so low that I could see the glow of the sun, and I was flying a Stearman and I overran my visibility, just couldn't make the turn back, couldn't keep going, but I could see the faint glow of the sun out the top and I went to full power, full rpm, just everything I could get, and with a real good feel of the airplane, no flight instruments, at all. I pulled the nose up, held the airplane right on the edge of the buffet and kept the glow of the sun bracketed in the left N-strut and just prayed that I would pop out on top rather than the other option. The possibility was losing the sun and that would have really been the end of it. So you can see working the weather was always a problem.

I hit five wires in 25 years, which is about average in this area for that amount of time. An interesting point about wirestrikes: It's much better to hit a power line than a telephone line. When you hit a power line, when you get more than one wire involved, you arc weld them and break them that way, where the phone wire just stretches and stretches and it's not uncommon at all to pop insulators off of one pole and then the second pole and the third pole before the wire breaks. It seemed like those little single-strand phone wires always did more damage to the airplane than going through larger power lines which you could weld and break through.

Turbo Raven
The Turbo Raven. It'll go straight up, straight down, and backwards.

Tell us about the Turbo Raven.

It's an idea I came up with five or six years ago. I wanted to build an aerobatic airplane with a positive thrust-to-weight ratio and invent some new maneuvers. The airplane has 80 hours on it and I have about 50 of those 80, and each time I fly the airplane I'm expanding my own envelope a little more. I did four shows with it at the end of the season. It seemed to be very well received and now I have the wintertime to really develop a first-class act. We're coming out with some new music that's going to add to the entertainment value, so come next spring I'm looking forward to having an airplane and a routine that will just be another step forward in the aerial entertainment world.

Can you really moonwalk the airplane?

The new maneuvers that I can do with the Turbo Raven are primarily in the vertical. I can take off in about 200 feet, rotate right to the vertical, and the airplane stabilizes at 60 knots and approximately 4,000 feet per minute, depending on the density altitude, and I'll take it up to, like, 2,000 or 2,500 feet and pull it over on its back down to a 45-degree down line and roll it and set up for my next maneuver. You can come in slow, pull it up to a stop, hang it there in a torque roll or go ahead and climb out of that. And, I have reverse capability in flight, which not very many airplanes have.

I'm not sure what else has that because multiengine airplanes and all have a squat switch on the landing gear that prevents them from going into reverse in flight for safety reasons. What reverse enables me to do is to make my approach to the runway flying level at 2,000 feet above the runway and get almost what feels to me from the cockpit like I'm right over the point of intended landing and at about 80 knots lower the nose, raise the gate on the throttle that allows me to come into reverse, and as I bring the nose down keep coming deeper into reverse and keep pushing the nose down and then when I am able to put the nose to the airplane, look over the nose of the airplane at the point of intended landing, just hang in there on reverse and hold about 99 or 95 knots and really come out of the sky, and then down at about 300 feet come out of reverse, transition back to idle, and take it in and land it. As soon as the tailwheel's solidly on the ground, I can come back into reverse again, bring it to a stop and back the airplane up.

Who has dibs on the Raven?

The Raven will stay with us. I've got it booked, along with the Turbo Raven, at some of the shows for next year. We're going to do some refurbishing on it this year. It has a fresh engine so it will be in tip-top shape for next year and it's going to stay on the line.

Oracle Raven
Can your software provider do this?

Since Oracle is your sponsor can we assume you're into the Web?

Larry Ellison (founder and CEO of Oracle) came along at a time in my air show career that if I hadn't picked up a sponsorship I probably would not have been able to keep going. Now Oracle is on the sponsorship side and Larry Ellison is on the private side backing me in the Turbo Raven.

I'm kind of the Fred Flintstone of the computer age. I'm just having my Web site built up now. I don't spend any more time than I have to on a computer. I just kind of bounce around and take a look at other sites in my category and see how they're setting things up.

Any records you’re in pursuit of with the Turbo Raven?

The next record I'm going for will be the time-to-climb. Sam Burgess holds the record with a Bucher Jungmeister that had an Allison turboprop in it and that's not even a question. The time-to-climb for all turboprops is held by General Chuck Yeager in a Cheyenne 400. That's a minute and 48 seconds to 3,000 meters, and then Rare Bear, Lyle Shelton's F8F, holds the record for all propeller-driven airplanes at a minute and 31 seconds to 3,000 meters, and the way the turbine is set up right now I can do it in a minute and 30 seconds. I'm working on ways to ensure that I can do it in a minute and 25 seconds, so it would eclipse all prop-driven records. That's on tap for probably sometime in January.

What started your interest in competitive aerobatics?

I had helicopters in my ag operation in the late '70s. I sold my last helicopter in '81. I had a tail rotor assembly on the shelf that had gone up in price to the tune of a little over $19,000 and one day that tail rotor system left and a Pitts S1C took its place in the hangar. I told Karen that I probably would play with it for six months or so and then sell it. I think I actually meant that when I said it...(laughs)...but in that six months I was introduced to competition aerobatics with the International Aerobatic Club and in my first contest, in 1983, I flew Sportsman. There were 21 contestants and I came in either 19th or 20th. I remember there was a young man there about 18 years old, he had about 300 hours or less, and he came in fifth or sixth, and I figured, well (chuckling), I guess I'm not going to win it with my logbook. I'd better learn how to play the game. Really liked the people. They were very accommodating, helpful with the constructive criticism, right on down to the Gatorade. I really liked the people and got hooked on competition aerobatics.

What's the biggest crowd you've performed for?

Chicago's big. They talk about between two and three million people; I think there's 600,000 people within walking distance. Miramar, El Toro, they've talked about crowds in excess of two million people at El Toro. I've flown some of the bigger shows, obviously. San Francisco Fleet Week, no way of knowing how many people are watching there; there's just people all over the city watching. Oshkosh is the mecca of general aviation. Reno Air Races, that's the Mardi Gras, a lot of parties, a lot of friends, a lot of good flying.

And the smallest crowd I ever flew for was probably right here at my strip. As a good example of ego, if I'm practicing and one car pulls up and stops alongside the road, it affects the intensity with which I fly.

(pauses)

I can tell you a story on Bill Reesman. He always denied having an ego and one day he calls me and says "You're right; I do have an ego," and I said, "Really, how did you figure that out?" and he said, "Well, I was out in one of the Yaks flying aerobatics and all of a sudden I realized it wasn't any fun and I stopped and thought 'Why isn't it any fun?' and I realized it was because nobody was watching," so (chuckling) the ego doesn't care how big the crowd is.

Did you ever ad-lib during a show — try something you just thought of without practicing it first?

You have to have some real solid rules flying air shows and one of my rules is never add anything. You can always leave something out but never add anything. On numerous occasions things didn't feel quite right and I left them out but I really can honestly say that I've never really just thrown something in on a whim. Occasionally an inexperienced air boss will ask you if you can stretch your routine once you're into it, and I don't do that. It's not only not safe; it kills the continuity of your act. You have choreographed this thing so one maneuver leads to the next maneuver so you have the right altitude, right airspeed, and everything is clicking and you have a harmony and rhythm to it. You break away from that and start ad-libbing, the entertainment value suffers. That's a good time to let the announcer tapdance.

What scares you?

Ground rush (laughs). That gets my attention. Any time that something's not quite right. I have to think about that a minute. When the airplane does something unexpectedly, that scares me. It's telling you something. Airplanes talk to you all the time and it's a good idea to listen and take the warning, check it out. Just the unexpected things that pop up are usually what scares me. That would fall into something like a near midair, anything unexpected that just kind of pops up in your face.

Team aerobatics seems to be catching on. You’ve done a lot of team work with Dan Buchanan’s glider and the Showcopter helicopter team. Are there others? What are the planning sessions like for working as a team?

I've also worked with Sean Tucker. Sean and I had a two-plane routine called Pitts-Azz. We were both flying Pitts aircraft, and more recently Rocky Hill and I have worked together. One of the popular things at air shows is what I call a squirrel cage where three or four performers go out and get in a racetrack pattern and are live over the PA system on a discrete frequency where we banter back and forth and work with the announcers on it, but kind of a competition situation where each come in and do one of our whizbang special maneuvers and vie for the crowd's approval on those.

Down in San Diego at Miramar they call it the Barnstormers Flying Circus and it went over very big. You've got to be careful with it. You have to trust the people you're working with, and basically that's the bottom line in all team-type work: group dynamics. It has to be people that you can trust and that trust usually comes from a little experience having worked with people. With the turbine I'm kind of getting myself out of that arena. I'm not going to be able to work with Dan unless we change our routine because the big thing there was cutting the streamers off his tail, supposedly to help him get his weight and balance back. I obviously can't be doing that because of the FOD (foreign object damage) potential with the turbine engine.

I'll probably be able to work with the Showcopters even better because I'll be able to fly slow and actually stop the turbine, and squirrel cage. They'll be some people that'll be reluctant to play with me. I just did a squirrel cage at Victorville and it was fun because they were challenging me to do things like the torque roll. Well, (chuckling) I don't think anybody's going to challenge the Turbo Raven to a torque-roll contest anymore.

General Jimmy Doolittle
General Jimmy Doolittle

Is there some figure from history you'd like to fly with?

Jimmy Doolittle. I had the opportunity to meet General Doolittle and ride with him in a limousine one day where we were able to talk one-on-one. He was just a great human being, contributed more to aviation than any one other individual. His early aerobatics, then being the pioneer on developing instruments necessary for instrument flight, then just prior to WWII when he was working with the oil companies to give us the higher octane fuels so people like Pratt and Whitney could develop the higher-horsepower engines. Then his wartime exploits themselves and later being such a great ambassador for aviation. I honestly feel that no other individual contributed more to aviation than General Jimmy Doolittle.

Looking through your logbook, what flight are you particularly proud of?

Back when I received my wings, the last flight that completed my naval flight training. At that time, I thought I had just accomplished the greatest goal of all time and there wasn't much else left in life, now that I'd done that. Obviously, that was just another step along the way, but I really think back that that was one of the proudest moments and knowing what I had to go through to win my wings. I have a lot of respect for anybody that I see wearing wings 'cause nobody gets them easy; they're not a gift in any stretch of the imagination, especially in the Navy where you have to land on the carrier and do what you have to do to qualify.

Flying has given me the opportunity to...

Be my own person. I've been flying for 41 years. It's all I've done in my adult life, given me the opportunity to meet great, great people. I just can't say enough about the people I've had the opportunity to meet in the aviation world, and the freedom associated with aviation. It's probably the two things that I enjoy the most, is the people and the freedom.