Mario Hamel Interview
(The Northern Lights Aerobatic Team)

Mario Hamel is one of five pilots from The Northern Lights Aerobatic Team, based out of Montreal, Canada. The Northern Lights are this year's headliners at Air Show 2000, being held at the Syracuse Hancock International Airport on July 8 and July 9.Taking him out from what can only be described as a hectic schedule, Mario Hamel spoke with us about The Northern Lights.

Q - Mr. Hamel, how long have The Northern Lights been together?
A - This is our sixth season. We've completed five seasons, and we're in the middle of our sixth one.

Q - When did you join The Northern Lights?
A - I joined in '96, in their second year.

Q - Prior to that, you were in the Canadian Snowbirds?
A - That's right. I was in the Canadian Air Force for eleven years. The last two years were as a pilot in the Snowbirds, which I believe have performed in Syracuse either last year or the year before.

Q-That's right.
A - My last year on the team was in '95. Since then I have been with The Northern Lights.

Q - How many shows do The Northern Lights perform in each year?
A - We perform at over 25 events every year except for this year. Actually, I believe the average is 27 the last five years.

Q - Where do you perform?
A - Mainly in the U.S. but also in our North America. Every year, we've gone outside of North America for at least one event. We've been to El Salvador, Central America, Mexico, obviously Canada. We've also gone overseas to Thailand, China, and Germany.

Q - You've seen a good part of the world.
A - A little bit.

Q - At least from the air.
A - That's right. (Laughs).

Q - How many people do you have in your support crew?
A - There's only eight of us including the pilots. Much less than any of the military teams.

Q - Is it tough to get into The Northern Lights? What qualities do you have to have?
A - Well, we're looking obviously for pilots who have air show experience. Aerobatic experience obviously as well as formation flying if possible, but that's very rare. Often, we end up taking a pilot who's very good in aerobatics, who's a known air show performer and then we'll do the formation training to complete the qualifications.

Q - At first, I thought The Northern Lights was made up entirely of Canadians.
A - There's a guy from Long Island. There's a girl from Switzerland, and there's another guy from the Ukraine. There's actually only two Canadians on the team.

Q - Besides the ooh's and aah's of the crowd, when you're flying these maneuvers, is there any practical value to the paces you put these planes through? Is that something you learned in the military?
A - No, actually what we've done in the military is more of the formation training and very little aerobatics, because we're flying jets and you don't really do aerobatics in a jet. We've learned our aerobatic flying through the civilian performers. The airplane that we fly was built strictly for aerobatic competition. We use it for air shows. None of us compete anymore. That's what the airplane is built for, to do what we do.

Q - So these planes are specially built?
A - Yeah. It was originally built by Walter Extra to win the world aerobatic competition. Now, it's mass produced. I think they're putting out four of those a month. And, we have five of them. (Laughs).

Q - How dangerous is the work you're doing?
A - It's not dangerous. (Laughs). You know, it's all a matter of training. Practicing and training and doing it right. We spend a lot of time talking about what' we're going to do, prior to a show, talking about what we've done afterwards. Whenever we can, we film the performance so we can analyze it afterwards. We never spend any kind of time without flying at all. So, it's all a matter of training.

Q - Have you ever lost a member in an accident?
A - No. We've actually never had any kind of air show accident at all.

Q - Have you always wanted to be a pilot?
A - No. Actually most people did, but I did not. I joined the Air Cadet program to play in the band. (Laughs). I got interested in aviation at that time and I was already 14, 15 years old when that happened. I've been flying since I was 17.

Q - That's how many years ago?
A - That's 17 years. (Laughs).

Q - How long can you expect to do this? Ten years? Fifteen years?
A - Oh, yeah. That's the plan. It wouldn't be a first. Most air show performers are actually older than The Northern Lights team members, because very few people do it as a profession. Most people do it as a hobby. So, it's people who have been flying for a long time, and have enough money to buy an exciting airplane, and finally do it as a hobby. So, most people that perform at air shows are a good ten, fifteen years older than we are. We're a very young team which for what we do it important, to us. We can do it for the next ten, fifteen, twenty years.

Q - Do you get a lot of famous people out to see the show and shake your hand?
A - We don't see that very often because air shows are still in their infancy. It's not a well known event like NASCAR is. There are people obviously that come over. There's a lot of interest in air shows, but, not quite at the level it needs to be at this time.

Q - Have there been any famous people who want to have their picture taken with you?
A - We've had Al Gore take a picture with us. I don't know if that counts. (Laughs). Last year we did an air show in California that was for Bob Hope. He was into flying quite a bit. We've taken a few popular golfers flying. But, that's pretty much it



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