The route to becoming a display pilot is one that has been trodden by many people over the years. There are some familiar routes that people take. One guy has gone about it in a different way and has been very successful. Rob Edgcumbe sat down with Gregory “Wired” Colyer for Global Aviation Resource to learn about how the Ace Maker became a feature of the US air show circuit.
The US is a big country and, while there are some acts that perform at shows across the country, most are more regional in their appearances. Gregory and the “Ace Maker” and “Ace Maker II” can be seen across the country and how that came to be the case is an interesting story. Greg Colyer flies the Ace Maker, a Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star at over 20 shows a year spread all across the US. However, Greg is not a retired military pilot although he has a military background and a flying background. He is someone who has made his professional flying career a success while holding down a “normal” job.
Greg does not come from a flying family. His Dad was a musician and thought he would follow in his steps. No one in his family was a flyer but he knew from a very early age that it was what he wanted to do. “He said ‘You’re gonna be a musician’ and I said ‘No, I’m gonna be a pilot!’ My Mom has something that I wrote in kindergarten about what you want to be when you grow up and I said ‘I’m gonna be a fighter pilot’ and they said if you were an animal, what would it be and I said, “An eagle so then I can fly.’ It’s all I ever wanted to do.”
A career as an Army pilot was the plan after high school. Greg was posted to Fort Rucker, the centre of the US Army pilot training programme. He thought he was destined to be a pilot but circumstances intervened. An injury to his knee during the ground school phase put him out of flying and he was moved to Monterey in California, not far from his childhood home, for his treatment and convalescence. The Navy had a flying club for the post-graduate school there. “They had a flying club at Monterey Airport so I learned to fly in T-34s.”
By the time Greg was fit to return to flying training with the Army, he would have been required to extend his service by another five years. Instead, he decided he would take a different route. At first, he figured this would be as an airline pilot. Greg was studying for ratings, getting an A&P license and pumping gas at the San Carlos airport to pay for it while attending college. His friends started heading for the airlines and it seemed like his path would take him there too. Then, when he and his first wife found they were expecting a child, the low incomes at a regional suddenly seemed like a big problem. “I couldn’t live off $12 an hour so I became an air traffic controller.” As a result, he found himself based at Oakland Center, a major ATC facility for the west coast. Now the focus was on getting something to fly in his spare time.
Luck was on his side. This was the time that the Wall had fallen and the west was the place that lots of surplus military jets from the old Warsaw Pact were suddenly showing up. A buddy from high school called asking if he was interested in getting an L29. “At the time, I was flying a Stearman up in Seattle to see if I wanted to buy it. I was after something I could do aerobatics in like a Yak or a Stearman and I get this email from him. ‘You want to buy a Russian jet?’ I ask him where he is and he sends a picture in Romania with a big parka on and a line of these jets and he says, “They’re eight thousand bucks.’ With taking them apart shipping them, a spare engine and a bunch of spare parts it was about twenty grand total. I said, ‘I’m in!’ When everything arrived at Reno there were buckets of bolts, and parts everywhere and I thought ‘I don’t know what to do with this’ but a friend of ours says ‘Go down the Thermal. There’s a guy down there. He built those in the factory. He was a builder and a test pilot in Czechoslovakia. Don’t ask him how much or how long but if he likes you he will do it.’ We shipped him everything and three months later it was ready.”
With an airworthy jet and aviation fuel being cheap, Greg now had something that allowed him to have some fun flying around the area on his days off. Nothing specific to be done. Just have some fun. Another friend was getting in to the plane painting business and asked if he could paint the jet. (At this point in events you will start to understand why Greg is called Wired. Part of it is his nature which is pretty energetic. The other part is that he always seems to know someone. He is “wired” into a network of people that can get stuff done.)
If Greg paid for the paint, the buddy would paint it for free. What was never discussed was the paint scheme. “I assumed he was going to paint it silver but I go and pick it up and it is blue and yellow! I said, ‘What the hell type of paint job is that?’ and he said, ‘I went to Berkley and I love the Blue Angels so that’s why I painted it that way.’ I figured I would just repaint it but then I realised I could use that money for gas and after a while I figured I could live with it.”
This paint scheme would turn out to be fortuitous. Greg had been keeping his eye out for another jet. The T-33 was something he had his eye on. He had flown a friend’s jet previously. When he came across an example for sale, he put his L29 up for sale. He was not the only one selling one at the time but he put his up for sale with a spare engine and lots of spares but at a significantly higher price than the others. He got a quick hit. The University of Iowa was interested in it for a programme that they had coming up. They bought the jet and paid up promptly. Only when the deal was done and they had paid did he ask why they picked his jet when cheaper ones were available. “Your plane matched our school colours” was the reply. Greg now had the money to trade up to his T-33.
At this point his plan took a turn that he had not foreseen. Three months after he bought the jet, the economy collapsed and the price of aviation fuel soared. At the low price, he could afford to fly around on his days off. With fuel spiking, it was now too expensive to fuel up his jet for fun. “$400 an hour had become $3,400 an hour in a snap of my fingers! I can’t afford to fly my airplane.” He had two options. Either sell the jet or find a way for it to make money and pay for itself. He decided display flying was the way to go. “Unlike most airshow pilots that do it because they want to be airshow pilots, my circumstance was I needed to at least pay for the airplane and its expenses. I came up with a business plan and instead of marketing myself, because I didn’t have a recognisable name, I marketed the Aircraft. I became “Ace Maker Shows.”
The Royal Canadian Air Force had an aerobatics manual for the jet and Greg read it thoroughly and decided to teach himself to fly the manoeuvres. This does not sound like the opening to a story with a happy ending. However, while Greg is a guy who is not easily deterred, he is not someone who is foolhardy and certainly not someone who doesn’t understand risk. Consequently, he took a methodical approach to teaching himself the flight profiles and he developed a display routine that minimized risk. In his first season, for example, his routine did not include any vertical pull through manoeuvres.
He created a routine and got his initial display card approved by Wayne Handley, a well-known name in the business. At this point he was only cleared to 800’ base. Greg got another lucky break at this point. While he was just getting going, he got the opportunity to fly in two major displays. Fleet Week in San Francisco and Seafair in Seattle signed him up. As free shows, they don’t pay any performers. Either military displays or sponsored performers. They had a 12 minute slot free. “I paid for myself at Fleet Week and Seafair paid me about $500.” Both events are high profile shows so they gave him a lot of exposure. He flew 20 shows in his rookie year.
With the visibility from the first year and the decline in military support to shows generally, Greg quickly managed to sign up more appearances. He went to ICAS the following year, an event at which all air show performers and organisers come together. With the exposure from Fleet Week and Seafair, he got about 25 shows for his second season which, while not paying a lot, allowed him to make a little money.
Greg was now a well-established part of the display circuit. He had worked his way into the business. Meanwhile, he was still working full time in his ATC role. As a result of his seniority, he could select his shift pattern to work. “I’d work Wednesday night until 6am. I’d get of work at 6 o’clock, go to my jet, fly to the show or airline to wherever I had left the jet, do the show and then on Sunday night or Monday morning I’d reposition the jet to the next show, airline home and, if it was Monday, I’d basically get of the airliner and go straight to work. I used all my vacation on Sundays.”
The more displays that he flew, Greg was progressively able to work his display down to surface level. “By the start of my third season, I was down to an unrestricted surface card. I was flying a lot.” In the third season, he was beginning to make some money and by the fourth season, he realized this was viable. “I could do this full time so I retired from the FAA after five or six seasons.”
However, he hadn’t been trained by anybody. Only now that he had demonstrated his competence and professionalism did he find out how he had been viewed when he arrived on the scene. Most display pilots have been trained by someone familiar with the process or was an ex-military demonstration pilot. Everyone knows everyone else. Consequently, they all knew that none of them had trained him. A friend told him after his second season that a few had mentioned in his first season that they thought he’d be the next airshow fatality. Not that he’d done anything wrong, or flew unsafely, but no one knew his background. Here was a guy flying a high-performance military jet, low level without a military background or formal aerobatic training. Only now did people realize he had things under control. “I got a reputation as being safe, putting on a good show and being really easy to work with.”
As the display got more practiced, he was tightening up the flying and the display was getting a bit shorter. This progressively allowed him to add new elements to the sequence, which in the second season include vertical pull through manoeuvres. “In my first season, 95% of my brain capacity was focused on the basic flying of each manoeuvre and staying away from the ground. Now it’s 5% and 95% left for the details such as speeds, marks, etc. Even today it is still good to live with a little bit of fear. I have a strong sense of self preservation. All of my minimums are in my head and all decisions are made before I get in the jet. I make no decisions when I am up in the air. If I don’t meet a mark or a minimum, it’s aborted without a thought. I have a camera on my instruments to debrief myself each show. Every year, I have a greater part of my brain capacity looking at the details of performance and less is on flying the plane.”
He got to the Midwest in the second season and by the third season he was doing shows on the east coast. This was part of what prompted getting the second jet. The season had been successful and he still had his salary but now he kept one in Missouri and one on the west coast. “In the 2015 season, I did just as many shows as 2014, I went to the east coast and back just as many times, almost identical mileage, I spent $50k less on gas. That jet paid for itself by the end of the second season.”
There was a downside to this flexibility. Now shows could be scheduled that previously were impractical to do for logistical reasons. The first season with two jets had thirty shows. There were no weekends off. This was a punishing approach to sustain. “Flying the shows once I get there my fifteen minutes is a blast but there is 40 hours of work that goes into getting to that point. I’m running my own airline with maintenance, fuel, media etc.”
All of this means that Greg has a plan to cut back on his performances. The 2017 season does include 27 shows at the moment but the plan is to cut that back to closer to a dozen. “I’ve done ten times more than I ever thought I would do or achieve. If my flying career ended today, I would die a happy man with no regrets. I got to fly an F-4 Phantom, I got to fly a Hornet, a T-38. I got to fly all that stuff! The people are the biggest thing. It is like a family. I am so honoured to be a part of the airshow family. Everyone is like a brother, sister, always looking out for each other. I look forward to that more than I do the flying.”
This doesn’t mean Ace Maker is disappearing from the scene. Greg has been training 2 pilots who will be able to display the aircraft so “Ace Maker Airshows” isn’t going away. He is also looking at the possibility of a European tour, perhaps for the 2019 season. While he wants to reduce the commitment, he is still a pretty “Wired” guy so don’t be surprised if you see him on the show circuit for a while to come.