Chaos in the air
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
RIFLE, Colorado ” Imagine you’re strapped into a pickup ” fitted with a jet engine.
Flying above you is a speedy, trick airplane. And you’re going to race it. You give it a head start, and then you gun it, going from 0-60 miles per hour in less than a second.
After a few more, you’re going more than 350 mph, and your body rushes forward as your parachute opens. You’ve won. A 1,000-foot tall blast of pyrotechnics celebrates your victory.
“Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?” asked Neal Darnell.
Not like that stops him.
Darnell, 59, is one-third of the trick aviation group, Team Chaos. Currently, it’s made up of him and his Flash Fire Jet Truck, Randy Harris and his Skybolt 300 biplane and new member Gary Ward, flying his MX2 acrobatic aircraft. Since 2004, the guys have been performing their combo of mid-air trick and fire-enhanced ground stunts at shows and exhibitions all across the country. Today and tomorrow, they’ll be making it to our neck of the woods, showing off their death-defying feats at Garfield County Airport.
But, what, exactly makes them want to do it?
“If you’re 12, this is your dream,” said Harris, laughing. “As everyone knows, men never mature, so we’re living the dream of a 12-year-old.”
Though he’s got himself a desk job in Tulsa, Okla., “Chaos” is what he’s passionate about. Even as a little kid, his destiny seemed to be sealed. His father, a musician, would try to get him to sit down and practice the piano or whatever, but every time Harris would hear a plane outside, he’d run to the window and forget what he was doing. He earned his pilot’s license as soon as he got out of college. Now, at 47, he’s been in the air for 23 years. He thinks his natural desire to entertain encouraged him to learn tricks not long after.
Though he acknowledged the heart-stopping quality of his stunts, he downplayed their danger, calling the acrobatics “like any other kind of acting.” Actually, he seemed more into the altruistic parts of this job than its adrenaline rush. When he was a child, he met an aviation acrobat who acted like such a friendly, cool guy, that Harris wanted to be him. He likes the idea of setting that example for youngsters now.
“I hope we do the same thing,” he said. “I hope we make a positive impact on kids, and they say, ‘Hey, I could do that someday.'”
For Ward, 67, a big draw of these shows is doing such wild and crazy stuff at an age when some folks are sitting in easy chairs.
That’s not Ward, not by a long shot.
“Have you ever heard of the need for speed gene?” he said.
He sure has. Though he’d been a pilot for years, a desire to do stunts wasn’t lit in him until 1995, when he and a friend bought and renovated a crashed, trick airplane.
After a while, his buddy realized the sport wasn’t for him, but Ward pushed on. These days, he does his rolls and dives and “dog fights” at about a dozen air shows a year.
In 2008, he’ll manage at least 15.
“I’m doing stuff airplanes aren’t supposed to do,” he said, sounding pretty proud of that fact.
Though Darnell is more earth-bound than his flying co-horts, he’s got the same dedication to this most-out-there of sports.
As he put it, their show is “a pretty amazing deal.”
“We’re having a ball,” he went on.
Stunts of all kinds are in his blood, after all. Before semi-retiring in 1999, he produced many varieties of vehicle events, from monster truck rallies to motocross races. Both of his grown sons race stock cars, and even his grandsons, ages 5 and 9, have recently gotten into the action. Presently, Harris himself holds the ground speed record for a vehicle at an air show. As he described just what he likes about this risk-taking lifestyle, he mentioned the everyday thrill and all those places he gets to travel. But there’s a much simpler answer, too.
“You do it because you love it,” he said.
Contact Stina Sieg: 384-9111
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