By David Guest
Tacoma Daily Index editor
Performing on a stage that’s just a little higher than most, Will Allen had to find a way to make a personal connection to an audience which would never see his face while he was performing.
Monday over Commencement Bay, the “Flying Tenor” brought the Tacoma Freedom Fair crowd into the cockpit of his cherry-red Pitts Special biplane using a little smoke, a lot of yoke and a serenade from the sky.
The aerobatic pilot from Renton came up with a plan several years ago to combine his two great loves: flying and music. The “Rock ‘N Roll Airshow Man” was born out of a need to book flying gigs and satisfy the urge to entertain. It is an urge that dates back to Allen’s days as a trumpet player for legendary music teacher Hal Sherman’s Kent-Meridian High School jazz ensemble in the mid-1980s.
Using speakers on the ground, high-tech communication equipment in the air, and flying a high-performance stunt plane, choreographed to an original soundtrack produced in his home studio, Allen is able to interact with his audience in ways Mick Jagger can only dream about.
“I got to put together my two biggest passions,” Allen said while tending to his aircraft. “I’m basically putting together music that I love and flying that I love. And honestly I love both of them so much they were in conflict … what am I going to do for a living? So I think I’ve figured out how to put them both together.”
Allen, and other aerobatic pilots such as Renny Price, Jim Bourke and Frank Donnelly, put on a pair of shows over the holiday weekend – Sunday at the Gig Harbor Wings and Wheels event and Monday’s Freedom Fair air show over the Ruston Way waterfront. Everett’s Historic Flight Foundation buzzed the shoreline with vintage WWII-era DC-3, B-25 and F-8 aircraft and Greg Colyer’s T-33 “Ace Maker” jet tore through the skies. But it was Allen’s showmanship along with his heart-pounding aerial maneuvers that carried the day and left the crowd below calling for an encore.
Allen’s first aerobatic ride came while he was working at Boeing Field as an aircraft fueler, while also finishing up the final requirements to getting his private pilot’s license. “I went up for a ride and I realized at that point that I liked doing this,” said Allen about stunt flying. “This aerobatic stuff was pretty danged fun. I’ve always liked roller coasters and things like that. I’m a bit of a thrill seeker.”
About 10 years later, Allen put rock ‘n roll, spins, loops, rolls and dives together to earn a living — as an aerobatic flight instructor, competitor, and air show performer. Now, Allen travels throughout the country to put on around 10 shows a year, flying the Pitts S2B and its cramped cockpit to each destination. Allen compares flying the small plane cross-country to driving a drag race car from Arizona to Florida – the ground moves by fast, but there’s lots of refueling stops before he reaches his destination.
“You’re stopping a lot. It’s loud,” said Allen. “It’s not meant for that kind of flying.”
Allen can go about 250 miles, or an hour and a half before needing to land and refuel the Pitts’ 29-gallon tank. Performance aerobatic planes are designed to be light and nimble. Big fuel tanks, cushy padded seats and other comforts found in standard small planes add weight that doesn’t contribute to the Pitts’ aerobatic performance. So they’re out. But that means the frequent stops for fuel can be a good thing for a pilot who needs to stretch his legs.
“The best part of transiting this airplane is that I get to visit cities I would have never thought of visiting,” said Allen. “I’ve found some places in the U.S. that I thought, ‘this city is pretty cool. I want to come back here just for fun.’”
Fun. Like strapping yourself behind a 260 hp Lycoming engine that can pull you toward the clouds at a rate of 2,700 feet per minute, propel you through the air at nearly 190 mph and exert enough G-forces to shove your stomach into your spine. While singing the National Anthem. That’s Will Allen’s kind of fun and it’s a blast.