To the crowd peering skyward, it's awesome enough that Bill Cornick can finesse his little biplane through dizzying aerobatic feats like end-over-end somersaults and crazy spins.
But when he finally hoists himself out of the tiny cockpit and removes his helmet, they get another surprise, and someone, often a kid, is likely to blurt out, "But you're an old guy!"
At 65, he's not really old. But as he puts it, "There are not that many grandfathers out there doing this."
Cornick, who lives in Thousand Oaks, will be doing it again Saturday and Sunday during the Camarillo Air Show and Expo '98 at Camarillo Airport. After a two-year hiatus, the aerobatic performances are back in the show this year, and for the first time the pilots are paid professionals like Cornick.
If you're looking for a Father's Day outing, this one has a little something for everyone. You can eyeball the restored World War II aircraft of the Confederate Air Force--everything from a Japanese Zero fighter plane to a hulky C-46 Army Air Corps transport. Pilots of experimental airplanes will fly in. The Camarillo Chamber of Commerce Business Expo will display products and services. For kids, a flight simulator gives the feel of flying.
Expect a crowd, though; show organizers are estimating 25,000. The gates are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with the air-show acts from about 1 to 3 p.m.
Cornick is among eight pilots scheduled to take to the skies for some daring aerobatic action. It starts with some patriotic razzle-dazzle as his stepson, Gary Hamm, parachutes with an American flag while Cornick flies circles around him in his striking green, white and black Pitts S-1S, smoke trailing from the plane.
Cornick's performance is a solid 15 minutes of fast-paced stunts, choreographed one right after another so they look like aerobatic gymnastics. In one, he flies straight up, then he lets the plane literally fall backward.
He makes it look easy. Using a public address system, he chats with the crowd while spinning, flying upside down and doing rollovers. "I've got a wonderful view of the ocean, no the mountains, no the ocean . . . " he jokes.
It's a far cry from his 30-year career as a pilot for United Airlines. He now works full time on air show performances all over the Southwest and teaches aerobatics at Camarillo Airport.
He's an old hand at stunt flying. He got his first taste in the Air Force but took it up seriously in the mid-1970s when he bought a light plane, intending to teach his son to fly. By 1978 he was competing, and now he is ranked as one of the West Coast's top pilots in the most-skilled class. He evaluates other aerobatic pilots for competency and also judges events.
His little plane, barely 800 pounds, was factory built in 1981 but modified heavily for the kind of flying he does. "The airplane is a hell of a lot more interesting than I am," he jokes.
It has plastic-covered openings on the lower front sides and bottom to give him a better view of the ground. The top and bottom of the wings have the same contours.
"It flies upside down as well as right side up--the plane doesn't know the difference," Cornick said.
The short wings and most of the fuselage are fabric-covered.
Ask him what the toughest stunt in his repertoire is and he says, without joking: landing. "The Pitts is very unstable on the ground." Taking off isn't easy either. "You have to taxi doing S turns because you can't see anything ahead of you."
As for mishaps, he's had one of note. In 1984 during a practice flight, his engine failed and he glided to a landing in a Piru river bed. "I wasn't injured but the airplane was severely injured," he said.
Through practice, Cornick has conditioned himself for the rapid, dizzying gravitational pulls and pushes his body goes through during every performance. "It takes a lot of motor coordination," he said.
To keep himself fit, he runs or walks 35 miles a week.
He has a life outside of flying. He and his pilot wife, Nancy, have seven grandchildren. And at the dozen or more shows he performs in a year, he says it's relating to the kids that gives him a tremendous high.
"It's the same excitement people felt about aviation in the barnstorming days," he said.
Stumped for a Father's Day gift? After a day at the Camarillo Air Show, how about a sunset flight along the coast in a 1952 airliner-turned-corporate luxury liner?
The vintage bird with its swivel seats, mahogany touches and elegant powder-room fixtures will be available for 30-minute flights over Ventura Harbor, Carpinteria, Ojai and Santa Paula.
Jeff Whitesell, owner of the 16-passenger airplane and a pilot for Delta, is offering the scenic flights Saturday and Sunday beginning about 5 p.m. The cost is $100 per couple, and during the ride, fathers will be honored with a champagne toast.
Reservations are not required but may be made by calling (805) 388-7227.
The Camarillo Air Show and Expo '98 runs Saturday and Sunday at the Camarillo Airport. Gates are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets are $5 per day for adults; $6 for both days; $2 for children 6-15; free for kids under 6. (805) 484-4383.