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I have always loved speed, fast cars, running horses, and spinning around crazily on carnival rides, as fast as a machine could go, as blurring a sensation as possible. - Patty Wagstaff
Have you ever seen an airplane perform an inverted ribbon cut? If you haven’t seen it at an airshow you can “see” it at the Museum in DC (and online) in the form of Patty Wagstaff’s Extra 260 aircraft, flying inverted along the second floor walkway above America by Air (minus the ribbon).
But first of all, what is an inverted ribbon cut? This maneuver is when a pilot flies an aerobatic plane toward a string spanning a runway between two poles held in place by two brave people. On approach, the pilot rolls the plane 180 degrees around its axis until it is upside down, establishes level inverted flight, aims at the string’s center point —usually marked with colorful ribbon or crepe paper —and flies through it, cutting the string with the propeller. Did I mention this is accomplished at a height of 20 feet?
Though always a crowd pleaser, ribbon cuts are performed by surprisingly few aerobatic pilots. Patty Wagstaff, the US National Aerobatic Champion in 1991, 1992, and 1993, and the first woman to win a combined men and women’s competition, is one of the few. Wagstaff researched the maneuver and found it evolved in 1930s Europe from pilots picking up hankies with hooks on their wings. Vincent “Squeek” Burnett was the first American to perform it.
Wagstaff took the challenge, motivated by her energy but also by the fact that she would be the second American woman to do it, following Betty Skelton, Feminine Aerobatic Champion of 1948, 1949, and 1950. On Skelton’s first attempt, the engine in her plane quit and she just barely managed to right her aircraft and avert disaster. She then went back up and did it perfectly. Skelton’s Pitts S-1C Little Stinker is now suspended inverted at the entrance of the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, as a homage to her pioneering ribbon cut (and also because her little Pitts is about the only aircraft to fit in that space!).
Wagstaff carefully trained and soon added this maneuver to her already impressive and complex routine. Remember the people holding the poles? They have the best view at the show. Imagine watching all that precision and power flying down the runway and speeding right by their faces, punctuated by the chop of the propeller on the ribbon! Heart pounding, but worth every second. (Hint: you must have complete faith in the pilot!)
When we decided to move Wagstaff’s Extra 260 from the Museums’ Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight Gallery in 2009, we immediately saw the perfect spot along the second floor walkway. Inverted seemed the way to go in terms of presentation and offering visitors the chance to look up into the cockpit. They can see the sturdy protective steel frame around the pilot and look through the clear plastic floor windows that help the pilot with visual and situational awareness.
I consulted with Wagstaff and her crew chief to get the right position of the aircraft and its control surfaces: slight nose-up attitude, elevator down, left aileron up, right one down, and rudder to the left (as seen in this image for crabbing into the wind). These positions ensured that Wagstaff would fly safely. Occasionally the control surfaces are moved by our cleaning crew, but we try to keep them accurate.
Our collections team leader for this particular suspension, Dave Wilson, and his experienced staff prepared for the actual inverted suspension with a trial run at our Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration, and Storage Facility. They pinpointed the necessary hanging points, cable lengths and other details as it hung from a lift. At the Museum, instead of installing the wing with the aircraft on its wheels and then rotating it for suspension, they decided they would install the wing with the aircraft already inverted on a lift and then suspend it. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
The Extra’s wing is one piece and is known to take some effort to be properly installed. It turned out that it became even more difficult to hammer the bolts into place with the plane on its back. What was expected to take a few hours stretched through the night. Once accomplished by specialists taking their turns at the stubborn bolts, suspending the aircraft was the easy part. The Sun soon greeted us all.
Aerobatics and aircraft suspension—both require practice and precision.