2 loops and a roll: Pilot and her historic plane gear up for Freedom Fair air show

Vicky Benzing strapped a parachute on her back and climbed into the open-air cockpit of her World War II-era biplane at the Tacoma Narrows Airport on Friday.

“We probably won’t need them,” she told an anxious News Tribune reporter. “But if we do any loops or rolls, we have to wear them.”

She did two loops and a barrel roll, to be exact.

It was just another morning of flying for Benzing, a pilot for more than 30 years who has performed aerobatics for a decade.

She is one of about 15 pilots who will fly in the air show during Saturday’s (July 4) Freedom Fair along Ruston Way in Tacoma.

Friday’s flight took Benzing above the sparkling South Puget Sound waters, Tacoma Narrows bridges and Purdy Sand Spit.

Kayakers and fisherman waved as the 1940 Boeing Stearman biplane soared at an altitude of 500 feet, with Mount Rainier as the backdrop.

Then, as the plane closed in on an area safe for stunts, it was time for the first loop.

Benzing elevated the aircraft to about 2,500 feet, with the speedometer gradually ticking up to 140 mph.

“Here we go!” she yelled through the headset.

The horizon rotated as gravity shifted; the floating feeling at the loop’s peak swiftly shifted as the plane hit a G-force of about 4 coming out of the loop.

“At the top you’re basically weightless,” Benzing said afterward. “It’s just enough (G-force) to keep the engine running.”

The roll that immediately followed, while visually more disorienting, wasn’t as physically intense.

But it was just as thrilling.

“There’s nothing like it,” Benzing said into the headset.

One more stomach-churning loop and it was back to the airport, flying past Fox Island and Chambers Bay golf course.

Benzing said Friday’s stunts were only a fraction of what air show viewers will see Saturday. Other maneuvers in her sequence will include hammerheads and spins.

Some of them will “pull 6 or 7 Gs, which is a lot for a plane like this,” she said.

Aircraft featured in Saturday’s air show will range from a modern C-17 to other WWII-era planes.

Air show director Doug Fratoni said the fun doesn’t end with Freedom Fair.

Gig Harbor Wings and Wheels at the Tacoma Narrows Airport on Sunday will give attendees the chance to see airplanes up close, including those that fly on Saturday.

There will be face painting and a bounce house for kids, live music provided by The Hub restaurant, a classic car show and a traveling documentary exhibit teaching attendees about the Tuskegee Airmen — the first black military aviators in the U.S. armed forces. A rare red-tailed P-51C Mustang fighter, like those the airmen flew, will be parked outside for attendees to view as well.

And for locals afraid of the heat, Fratoni said there will be crowd misters and shade tents for cooling down.

“You’re a whole lot closer to the action,” he said of Sunday’s event. “It’s a smaller, more intimate setting. It’s going to be incredible.”

It’s up-close-and-personal time around planes that got Benzing hooked.

Her love of flying started when her uncle, a pilot, took her flying as young girl. She said she would marvel at the world below.

“I thought we were flying over Toyland,” she said, laughing. “That’s how young I was when he took me flying for the first time.”

After trying skydiving (the first of more than 1,100 jumps total), Benzing was hooked on all things airborne.

She took classes every week for nearly six months while attending the University of California at Berkeley.

“The rest is history,” she said.

After that, Benzing did aerobatic training alongside the late Amelia Reid and Wayne Handley, both legendary pilots and air show performers.

She earned a Ph.D. in chemistry between flights, launching a career in the high-tech industry in the Silicon Valley.

“You don’t have to be a professional pilot to fly,” Benzing said. “Make it a hobby and it can be just as fulfilling.”

But in 2006, Benzing retired and started flying full-time.

She regularly performs in air shows and competes in the Reno Air Races. She’s done aerobatics at Freedom Fair four or five times, and she said the Puget Sound is one of her favorite places to fly.

“It’s absolutely gorgeous,” she said.

Benzing flew the red Boeing Stearman biplane from California on Thursday; the trip took about six hours.

The aircraft is a metal frame covered in fabric with wooden wings. It seats two people.

Despite being 75 years old, the plane has had only four or five owners, Benzing said. After the military sold it for $770 in 1946, it was used for crop dusting in Oakland, California, until it was dismantled in 1973.

It was reassembled in 1990, eight years before Benzing purchased it.

“It was a working plane for a while,” she said. “Now it entertains people.”

And offers a different perspective, too.

“Flying changes your life,” Benzing said. “You’ll never look at the world the same again.”