Interview - Paul Bennet

Interview: Paul Bennet, stunt pilot - 2nd May 2008

Media Man Australia continues to meet and interview greats from the stunt and aviation world.

How did you get started in aviation, working your way up to stunt pilot?

I didn’t become an air show performer or stunt pilot as you call it over night. It has taken a lot of hard work and practice to become competent to do all aerobatic maneuvers down to a crowd pleasing ground level. To start with I have flown model aeroplanes all of my life. My Father has a pilot’s license, and we used to go on flying holidays. My interest in aviation has always been there from when I was very young. For a long time I didn’t have enough money to learn to fly, so I tried to stay away from full size flying. I wish I hadn’t. One day I was offered a ride in a Pitts Special S2A. It was fantastic. I new what was next. I went straight to the Royal Newcastle Aero Club and booked my first lesson. It all started. As soon as I received my restricted license, I started my aerobatic training with Phil Unicomb at Action Aerobatics.

It was a lot of fun and very challenging. I remember thinking early on it Pitts training “will I ever be able to fly this machine?” It had a mind of its own. It is a common fact in aviation that if you can fly a Pitts you can fly anything.

After soloing the Pitts S2A I proceeded to compete in aerobatic competitions. I competed in the Graduate category at the Nationals which I won. The following years I continued competing in Sportsman coming second and then Intermediate coming second again. I them moved to Advanced where I have been competing for four years always finishing in the top three, and currently the Advanced Australian Champion. In the process of moving through the grades of competition, this requires new approvals to be allowed to fly lower to the ground. When I moved to Advanced I received a 500ft low level approval. In the second year in advanced I received a 300ft low level approval. After a lot of low flying and practice I received a ground level approval. There are only 7 people in the country that have ground level approvals. When I had been flying in Advanced for a few years I started doing a few small air displays. I enjoyed it a lot. I decided to do more air show flying. Since making the decision to make this move the low level display flying has really taken off. The crown loves the Pitts Special with the noise and smoke and the way I fly it. I have now added the knife edge ribbon cut to the display. This is a real hit. It takes a lot of practice and skill to get comfortable at ground level.

What types of aircraft have you had the opportunity to fly over the years?

I have flown several different aircraft over the years from the Cessna 152 which I learnt in to the Cessna 172, and 182. I normally fly a Beechcraft Bonanza for traveling long distance or an Eagle 150.

For Aerobatics I have flown the Pitts S2A, S1S, S2C, S2B, as well as the Extra 300L and Giles 202. I have also flown the Tigermoth, and the Stearman. I have been fortunate enough to do some Warbird flying in the T28 Trojan. I love flying and will fly anything offered to me.

Who do you look up to and see as a mentor of sorts?

There are a few people that I look up to and follow. Phil Unicomb is the guy who has taught me from the start. I have done all of my Pitts training and ground critique with Phil. Phil has been a very successful competitor. He has won most aerobatic competitions in Australia as well as the World Tigermoth Aerobatic Championships. He is well known in the aviation industry as one of the best pilots and instructors available. He is a great guy and a great friend. Phil used to fly in the Sky Aces Formation Aerobatic Display team. He has also done my formation training. I also talk to Skip Stewart from America from Skip Stewart Air Shows. He is one of the most dynamic air show pilots available.

Who do you take notice of in the aviation business, and what's your thoughts on Dick Smith and Richard Branson?

In the business world I have great respect for both Dick Smith and Richard Branson. They are both fantastic business men. I like their attitudes. I grew up knowing Dick Smith as my father used to build Dick’s Shops. I remember having Christmas Parties at his weekender at Ross Glenn on the North Coast. We always received Christmas Cards and letters from Dick’s wife Pip. They are great down to earth people. Dick has been great for the aviation industry.

Richard is certainly a go getter. His ideas and goals are excellent. It is great to see a business man like him making his goals happen. He has the right people in Burt Rutan to make his space travel possible. Richards’s ideas for the environment are also excellent. I have no doubt he will achieve all of his ambitions.

What parts of Australia has your aviation career taken you?

My career as an aerobatic performer has taken me all over NSW, QLD and Victoria. In the near future I will be heading to Perth for some displays as well.

I have opportunities to compete and display overseas, however this costs a lot of money. I will compete overseas shortly as I have qualified for the past three years.

Describe your current aircraft?

The aero plane I currently use is a Pitts Special S1S. It has 200HP with a fixed pitch propeller. It is a great advertisement because it is eye catching as there are not many Biplanes around as well as being loud. It is certainly unique.

What sort of venues and events do you perform at?

I do a number of different shows for different viewers. The Air Shows are normally at major airports with approx 10,000 to 20,000 people. I do some other display such as surfing competitions where there are a different range of people, however still at least 10,000 watching on.

What sort of sponsor would you prefer to have advertised on the plane?

I am not fussed on exactly who the sponsor is to be. Any company could get advantages out of being a sponsor and I would do my best for whoever it is.

Where have you been performing lately?

I recently was invited to fly at the Albury Air Show. My display was a great success. There has been an excellent response to my performance. It was the first Air show where I have performed the knife edge ribbon cut. I am the only air show performer to attempt this in Australia. I have since performed the ribbon cut again at the Mudgee Air Show last weekend. It was another huge success.

I will now perform the knife edge ribbon cut both ways as well as upside down. This has only been done in America by Sean D Tucker.

What events have you got coming up?

I have several displays coming up in the near future. This weekend I have a small display at Maitland for a private function for probably 500 people. The next Air Show is at Coffs Harbour, followed by Evans Head, Bunderberg, Nowra, Nelson Bay, and Avalon. I have a number of events pending at the moment.

What's your thoughts on performing at a beach, and how about Bondi Beach if the opportunity comes up?

It is excellent to perform at large events held at the beach as there are such a large number of people that can see the performance. It can be a real winner for a sponsor.

What media attention have you received?

I have done several TV and radio interviews over the years to either promote the given Air Show or to promote the display. Earlier this week I was on the front page of the Mudgee Guardian performing the knife edge ribbon cut.

What safety precautions are in place?

The aero plane is maintained thoroughly as it is essential to make everything as safe as possible. The moment we think that display flying is safe is the day we should give it away.

Before each public performance the air frame has a thorough inspection with some of the panels being removed. The engine cowls are removed and the engine thoroughly checked. The oil and fuel are checked as well as all of the control surfaces. The aero plane is then polished before departure.

What sorts of stunt, in collaboration with other stunt performers would you like to attempt?

I would like to perform a knife edge pass with a stunt bike rider doing a back flip over the top of me as I pass underneath him with a wall of flame behind.

Do you have anything in mind for the Guinness Book Records?

I am not sure about the Guinness Book Records however I am sure we can find something to break.

What charities and world causes are you associated with?

I am a member of Virgin Unite. I have done several shows to help charities such as the Westpac Rescue Helicopter.

What sorts of challenges have you overcome?

I have a few challenges with the aero plane. Approx 18 months ago I had to rebuild the top wing on the aero plane as a block had come loose on the rear spar. This was a major job. When I put the wing back on I wanted to make sure the engine was in good condition. On further inspection I realized that the engine was making metal and needed a rebuild. This was another major problem as it is expensive to rebuild the engine and you can not do it yourself. I pulled the engine apart myself and delivered all of the parts to Scone Aircraft Maintenance for the rebuild. I picked up the engine six weeks later and re installed it I. A week later the great machine was back it the air.

What amendments would you make to your Pitts?

My goal is to build or have built a new Pitts with a larger engine. I would like to start with an S2S and strengthen the fuselage. I would build new wings with big ailerons for a faster roll rate as well as make larger elevator and rudder. I would also have built a 400HP Lycon Lycoming engine. This aero plane would be far better than anything seen in Australia.

What's your current engine specs?

My current engine is an IO360 4 cylinder 180 HP producing 200HP. You can’t ever have too much power.

How does the internet assist you?

I think the internet is a great way to be seen. Everyone looks on the internet. I have seen several of my performances on YouTube from people that I don’t even know. I guess they really liked the show.

What's your favorite movies?

My Favorite movies are Top Gun and The Aviator. Howard Hughes reminds me of me.

What are you currently reading?

I am reading the commercial pilot study books so I can improve my license situation.

What's your motto?

My motto is Don’t let Fear Stop You.

What do you do to relax?

To relax I spend time with my great family Rachael, Summa, and Jett, or I go for a fly, sailing or flying models.

Editors note: That was Paul Bennet, one of Australia's greatest air show performers. Something tells me we are going to hear a lot more from Paul. The skies the limit!


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