John Rippinger acknowledges the danger.
He flies his T-34 within inches of his Lima Lima Flight Team’s five other planes during air shows. And that’s why they conduct extensive briefing and debriefing sessions before and after every show.
“We’re very, very practiced that way,” said Rippinger, 66, of Schaumburg. “We hope to be predictable, even to an extreme.”
Yet Rippinger knows there’s a danger threatening air shows that practice can’t avoid: the sequester.
The Chicago Air & Water Show lost its military acts, including F-18 fly boys and performances by the Air Force Thunderbirds and the Golden Knights U.S. Army parachute team, to federal budget cuts.
That shifts the focus to civilian acts like Lima — originally of Naperville. Their pilots will take off at the 55th annual air show on North Avenue Beach this Saturday and Sunday with 14 other civilian aerobatic and water-based performances, including the AeroShell Aerobatic Team, Sean D. Tucker & Team Oracle and the Firebird Delta Team.
Mary May of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events said this year’s lineup of civilian flight teams should still make for an amazing show.
Rippinger thinks the Chicago Air & Water Show is a good test for these civilian acts. He said air show coordinator Rudy Malnati knows how to get the top civilian performers.
Two civilian-owned military planes will fly over crowds on Lake Michigan: a British Sea Harrier — a noisy “barn burner,” as Rippinger calls it — and an A-4 Sky Hawk.
Still, the thrills provided in the past by the Thunderbirds and the Blue Angels, flight teams that alternate appearances, have long been a highlight of the Air & Water Show.
Although the impact of the sequestration means higher demand for civilian teams in the short term, Rippinger said the lack of military acts could eventually doom air shows.
“‘Where is the air show business going next year?’ is the big question,” Rippinger said.
There’s a silver lining, as both the Thunderbirds and the Golden Knights have been cleared to resume training flights to practice for 2014’s slate of air shows.
For now, Rippinger and his “eclectic group” of Lima Lima pilots will take to the skies this weekend. He said the Lima Lima Flight Team, which started as a nonprofit organization in 1975 at the Naper Aero residential airpark, has performed all over North America.
The pilots themselves are also diverse, living all across the U.S.
“You’ll never find (any of our teammates) in the same church, club or social group,” Rippinger said. “But we all have this passion for flying. It’s a unique little fraternity we have.”
He related the flight team’s air shows to theatrical plays rather than Hollywood stunts. While their show is new to every audience, pilots hope the performance is always the same.
“It’s something you’re trying to self-perfect all the time,” Rippinger said.
An air show pilot is a special breed, Rippinger said. He or she must be willing to spend money on a plane and gas and have the talent and time to fly.
“We don’t do it for the money,” Rippinger said. “We do it because we can. You climb the mountain because you can.”