Herb Baker is a retired airshow pilot who performed over 300 plus times in 100 plus venues.
He never missed a performance in the first 10 years of his career.
He developed the “World’s Only Smoking Ring Aerobatics” when he designed and installed a special wing tip smoke system to enhance his performance.
And now the Federal Aviation Administration is bestowing two prestigious awards on Herb Baker the Wright Brothers “Master Pilot” award and the Charles Taylor “Master Mechanic” award.
We talked to Herb Baker about his career in aviation.
Q - Herb, I see you’re up for a few awards in the very near future.
A - Yeah.
Q - I would imagine that doing what you do, you should be a Master Pilot and a Master Mechanic.
A - (Laughs). Well, that came secondary, the aerobatic, airshow work. They award that award just to anybody who has been a pilot for 50 years without having a negative incident you might say.
Q - I see you retired in 2012. Do you fly at all these days? Do you miss it?
A - I still fly and that phrase Leonardo da Vinci said, and he had never even flown, how did he come up with this? Once you have discovered flight, you will walk the earth with your eyes forever turned skyward, for there you have, been and there you long to return.
Q - Why did you give up flying for the most part?
A - I didn’t totally give up flying, but flying to and from airshows, as you get older, I’ve recognized that the stress increases when you’re doing stressful things like weather flying. To get to an airshow you have to be a weather predictor. You have to be a good weatherman to do it safely. The stress of flying weather was not fun anymore. So, I said time to quit. I enjoy it when I'm I flying the airplane locally and I do an aerobatic routine and come back in, because the airplane needs it more than I do, to be flown.
Q - I guess we just can’t depend on meteorologists for an accurate weather report can we?
A - Aviation weather is really good. I don’t listen to the TV guys. We have to analyze our own from charts. Sometimes we get briefings from weather people. We have to do a lot of self-analysis which were trained for also. But, then you see the clouds in front of you and you wonder what’s going to be on the other side of the clouds.
Q - You’ve actually got “Ditto” up for sale as well.
A - Yeah.
Q - How is that going?
A - I took it up to a broker a couple of weeks ago up in Rockford, Illinois. It’ll take a while. It’s a limited market, but I’d like to see her stay in the airshow business because the smoke system is so special. It’s the only one in the world that has a smoke system in the wingtips.
Q - I take it there aren’t too many people involved in doing the type of airshow you did.
A - No (there aren’t).
Q- You actually got the flying bug because you saw the newsreel of World War II pilots taking off. Is that true?
A - Yes.
Q - You had relatives who were pilots?
A - Not pilots. They just served in the military services. But, watching the newsreel and seeing relatives come home from World War II gave me the interest in aviation.
Q - You just knew from that point on that’s what you wanted to do?
A - No, not necessarily. (Laughs). As a poor farm kid which I was I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had various jobs from milking cows to helping farmer friends and neighbors. I was always building something and making something. So, I’ve been quite creative as a mechanic, and as a designer. Design engineering was probably my biggest asset in the industrial world.
Q - That’s a pretty good background.
A - It is. It was for me. Very analytical. I taught myself the aerobatic routine. This was in Wisconsin. We lived up there when I had to learn this. There is a big four-lane highway that I used to practice over the highway for a straight line on the ground. I started at like 9000 feet, 7000 to 9000 feet because I was scared, (laughs), when you’re doing things you’ve never done before. You learn to do them. You get some training, get certified. Ground-level is more fun than 9000 feet.
Q - How did you teach yourself to do this type of flying?
A - The Navy had a good manual on flight characteristics and maneuvers. Certain maneuvers were approved there, but I didn’t learn that (aerobatics) until I got the airplane flying in 1996. I had done a few aerobatic maneuvers in light aircraft but nothing for an airshow.
Q - Before you started flying Ditto, you had that plane on display?
A - Actually, I bought Basketcase in 1992 and rebuilt her with myself and four other people. I first flew Ditto in 1996 and learn to fly her in 1996 then in 1997 I was invited to put her on display. That’s when I got interested in the airshow routines.
Q - Why did you decide to go into aerobatics?
A - Being at an airshow, I was invited to put her on static display at an airshow. Watching the other guys I just thought I can do that and that might be fun. That’s when I started training myself to learn aerobatics routine and I found out what it takes legally to get certified. There are requirements. They just don’t let anybody do it. The FAA regulates that so that only certified people are flying in airshows.
Q - Does someone from the FAA ask to see you put the plane through certain maneuvers before they will certify you?
A - Exactly. There are aerobatic competency evaluators. They call him aces. You have to perform in front of them. When you first get certified you’re not supposed to go below 500 feet above the ground. Then you do like 12 or 18, I can’t remember performances at that altitude. Then you’re allowed to go down to 250 feet and then actually down to ground-level. So, it took about two years to get down to ground-level certification.
Q - That sounds like a stringent test. A - It is and it should be. They regulate it well. They have safety examiners. I’m not sure what their title is but there at every airshow checking your certifications and your airplane.
Q - What’s the biggest crowd you’ve ever performed in front of?
A - Oh, goodness, probably 400,000 to 500,000 people. That was probably MacDill Air Force Base. I think they had the biggest crowds. And Willow Grove, Pennsylvania.
Q - In one day?
A - Spread out over two days probably. I’ve performed at a lot of military bases and the average crowd at military bases is high because they were free. I’d say the average is probably 2 or 300,000 at those bases.
Q - You took your act all over the US. Did you travel overseas with it?
A - I didn’t.
Q - Is that because the cost would be too prohibitive?
A - I wouldn’t have the endurance to fly that far. They do some in Central America and South America. A lot of the guys go down and fly that show, but, there again I wasn’t too interested in that. A lot of flying distance-wise to perform at one show.
Q - You never missed an airshow performance?
A - I didn’t for the first 10 years. I did miss one after that. I had an engine failure. It was local, trying to depart to go to an airshow. I had a piston failure.
Q - Were you ever in danger?
A - No. I was on the ground testing things out, checking it out two or three times. We were in the air trying to go, I noticed a problem with oil pressure so I went back to my home base and did some analysis on it and found out it was making metal as we say. They make metal when things are failing and we have screens that we used to interpret how the engine is failing.
Q - Mother nature no doubt played a big part in you not missing a performance for those first 10 years.
A - Yeah, it was except that I was retired from my job I had to be at. So, typically you do a practice performance on Friday and your show is Saturday and Sunday. I would normally go on Thursday, but I would be watching the weather so that I could go on Tuesday or Wednesday to make sure I got there. Same thing with coming home. I could come home any day.
Q - These days besides the occasional flying you’ve taken up golf?
A - I’m trying to learn how to play golf, yeah. (Laughs). It’s harder than trying to learn how to fly an airplane. It’s harder to learn. It’s very difficult to be good at it.
Q - But, it’s just one of those challenges you happily accept.
A - Yeah, exactly.