Life lessons from an aerobatic champion volunteer make airshows happen!

Originally printed in SW Aviator Magazine

Air shows bring out the best and brightest stars in aviation. These events bind communities together with a volunteer spirit, and fuel the dreams of aspiring young pilots as they gaze skyward. On a bright morning, perfect for flying, SW Aviator had the pleasure of witnessing the highest aviation ideals put into one spectacular day by former national aerobatic champion, Mike Mancuso. Mike was a member of the Northern Lights Aerobatic Team. Currently, Mike tours the United States to thrill audiences in the Klein Tools Extra 300L. He also adds nostalgia to the flight line with his classic Beech 18. Each year the National Association of Flight Instructors designates Master Flight Instructors based on four guiding tenets, Participant, Creator of Media, Service to the Aviation Community, and Educator. With Air Show season right around the corner, it is time to get excited about the people, and what it takes to fill the summer skies.

Participant in Aviation:

Mike has a life that revolves around flight. Up before dawn to prepare for the air show, he tends to preflight preparation, show briefings, and provides media interviews and flights. Once the visitors start to arrive it is time to meet with eager young visitors at the Klein Tools Extra 300L display. To describe Mike as outgoing is an understatement; he smiles more than a bride on her wedding day. He operates an FBO and travels the nation thrilling audiences with cutting edge aerobatics. His operation is not a one-man show. Mike fields the responsibility of both employer and employee. He manages the ground crew and must strategize the performance schedule year round. Once a weekend is over, it is time to fold up the “tent”, and travel to the next event.

Creator of Aviation Media:

Mike has created a show that highlights the extreme edge of flying. His show is a heart pumping mix of sound and aerial dynamics. The show is choreographed to music, and a running dialog live from the cockpit. Mid-show he arrives at show center to sign autographs while he waits for a challenge race with the jet truck. He has designed souvenirs for the crowd, aerial photography from the chase plane, and press kits. But the flying is what makes the show possible. Mike makes it seem effortless with his easygoing demeanor, but he practices and improves his show continuously.

Service to the Aviation Community:

By two in the afternoon Mike has already flown three performances, fifteen aerobatic media flights, signed scores of autographs, posed for pictures, and personally greeted thousands of visitors. But his real work for the day is about to start. Vanessa Cordova and Ann Marie Cruz have arranged a flight through the Reach-for-a-Star Foundation. Vanessa and Ann Marie are young cancer patients with a dream of flying in an airplane. The two young ladies have no idea about Mike’s impressive aerobatic credentials or thousands of flight hours, they just want to fly. Well, that was until they actually arrived at the airport. Now butterflies have taken over and the thought of getting into the tiny Extra 300L is just a little too much. As it turns out they are both scared of heights. Several people are trying to manage the situation and coax the young ladies into the small aircraft.Reach for a Star Flight in the Klien Tools Beech 18 Mike explains as we wander over to meet the girls that this is the exact reason he bought the classic Beech 18. He said that the Make-a-Wish and Reach-for-a-Star children prefer to fly with a friend and enjoy a social flying experience. When he tells the girls that they can fly together in the Beech they start to warm up to the idea. When he tells them that back in the day, movie star’s like Marilyn Monroe used to fly around in a plane just like this one, there faces started to brighten. “Let’s pretend we are our your pilots and you are flying to a big movie premier.” The intrepid little movie stars climbed into the plush interior and gave an Oscar winning performance. They never stopped smiling for the entire flight. Mike makes it point to fly special little guests at every Air Show he attends.


Mike is an outstanding flight instructor. I know this because we took the Extra 300L for a thrill-a-minute aerobatic workout. There are aerobatics, and there are AEROBATICS. This was no mere media flight. He taught loops, rolls, inverted flight, hammerheads, barrel rolls, and all the “usual” stuff. Just like Penn and Teller, Mike likes to share magic secrets that make each stunt possible. When we were flying in formation, knife-edged, away from the chase plane it was all I could do not to test out the parachute. Mike calmly flew formation with the other plane he could not see and said, “look down”. Like pulling back the curtain to see that the lady was not cut in half, he was using the crisp 12 o’clock shadow of his smoke trail to maintain precise separation. Then it occurred that this is a basic flight lesson. Like a student that can’t see over the instrument cowling during a landing flare, you must expand your field of view and use all of your senses. Mike also pointed out that there is never a time in the entire show that he could not return for a safe landing in the event of an engine failure. He demonstrated engine failures from nearly every conceivable attitude, to an easy power off landing. He simply combines an unusual attitude recovery with basic engine failure procedures.

All pilots have more in common with an Aerobatic Champion than with earthbound friends. Pilots seem to make the world their home. Like the Astronauts looking back at the Big Blue Ball, little life problems seem small and easy to step over from 10,000 feet. Mike Mancuso not only demonstrated that Air Shows are a team sport, but why they take a team effort. If you love aviation and want to promote our industry, consider volunteering for a nearby air show. Volunteers make air shows happen. Your skills as a pilot, aviation enthusiast, or whatever your day job might be are needed to help these community events remain successful. The sense of pride helping thrill the crowds is unmatched. There are great perks as well, behind the scenes access, crew parties, and making new friends.
You might think that a simple Cessna 172 or 40-year-old Mooney M20E might not be air show material, but think again. Several Air Shows are also fly-ins, and visitors love to see all sorts of airplanes, especially ones that they could actually fly! We need pilots to act as ambassadors, recruiters, and static “performers”. Relating the experience to a guest that you actually flew yourself to visit the air show is the height of cool! Putting the entire spectrum of aviation before the public is our goal, and helping to show aircraft that are within reach makes the show more “real” for the average person. Come out and be a hero for a day, we need your help.

Invitation Sidebar:

I would personally like to extend a welcome to fly-in Amigo AirSho in El Paso on October 7-8-9. Since the show is at Biggs Army Air Field (KBIF) pilots need to arrange an arrival time. Space is limited. For more information please visit or call 915-56 AMIGO. For a list of Air Shows in the great South West, please check the SW Aviator schedule of events at

Byline: Dave is a flight instructor with helicopter, single engine, and multiengine ratings. He works with Momentum Interactive, creators of FLITELite.

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