Thrill of a part-time job

Lt. Col. John Klatt guides his plane's nose smoothly upward, bit by bit, until the sky and ground swap spots and patches of Kansas cropland flood the view through the glass top of his tiny cockpit.

He and his lone passenger are practically suspended upside-down in thin air over Wichita, parachutes strapped to their backs, lap belts confining them snugly in their seats.

Momentarily, with equal calm and grace and skill, the pilot returns his high-performance aerobatic plane to a traditional, upright flying position.

Only now, he asks, "Are you ready to have some fun?"

Klatt is a veteran pilot with the Air National Guard's aerobatic team — and an airman who completed three combat missions in Iraq. Klatt has brought his John Klatt Airshows to this weekend's air show at McConnell Air Force Base.

The jaw-dropping, suck-in-your-breath maneuvers performed by Klatt and other aerobatic pilots are part of a tradition that, Klatt points out, dates to the early days of flight. Indeed, a German air show in 1909 billed itself as the world's first, and it was quickly followed by others, including 1910's Los Angeles International Air Meet at Dominguez Field.

"Air shows have become one of America's great pastimes, I think they're important for folks to be able to come out and see improvements in aviation," Klatt says, clearly enthused about helping to show them off.

The 43-year-old native of Duluth, Minn., says listening to stories of his aircraft-mechanic father inspired his early interest in flying. As a teen, he washed airplanes to earn money for flight lessons.

He was introduced to the Air Guard as a college student.

"My neighbor was a member... and he told me that I could learn to fly and go to pilot training through the Air Guard, and essentially that's where I learned to fly professionally," Klatt says.

Yet, ask him where he learned to perform the swoops and spins in his aerobatics show, and he answers dryly:

"I read a book."

Klatt later admits he's being a little facetious — he's had flight lessons and coaches and mentors throughout his more than 25-year career.

Learning maneuvers

Aerobatic pilots fly at higher — and therefore safer — altitudes to learn new tricks. They practice a single maneuver hundreds of times before performing at lower altitude for an audience.

"Obviously you wouldn't do anything at an air show that wasn't 100 percent predictable," Klatt explains. "... I fly the same routine at every air show."

Klatt's handcrafted aerobatic plane is lighter than most automobiles, weighing in at just 1,200 pounds. It tops out at more than 300 mph and is capable of pulling more than 20 G's — 20 times the force of gravity and twice the load of the F-16 that Klatt pilots in his "day job" with the 148th Fighter Wing of the Minnesota Air National Guard.

The spins and twists and pulse-pounding G-forces get easier with practice, he says.

"Your body has to get used to it," he says. "You build a tolerance for G's, and I think your body gets more accustomed to such a strenuous environment."

A part-time job

Back in the plane over Wichita, Klatt hurtles directly skyward, perpendicular to the Earth's surface, then turns the plane into a partial roll that sets it diving back toward land.

Klatt flies at more than 150 air shows a year and likens his perfection of these maneuvers to the persistence and concentration required of an athlete.

"You have to have the ability to train a lot and practice," he says, citing golf. "I kind of equate it to any other sport that requires a great deal of practice to be good at."

A minute or two later, by the time he performs a third stomach-churning aileron roll, his passenger has begun to succumb to the heat and turbulence, and he calmly and quickly returns to a Jabara Airport landing strip.

It's hard to imagine a more thrilling part-time gig.