There Is No Business Like The Airshow Business

01 Bill Adams_Hrutkay_

Bill Adams said many times… “There is no business like the airshow business.” “Stunt Flying”, was the old term used for aerobatics many years ago. To me, aerobatics are carefully planned and executed to maximize the thrill for crowd and minimize the risk for the pilot and spectators. “Stunt Flying” seems like something that happens after someone says “hold my beer and watch this…” In a time of “Stunt Flying”, Bill Adams was one of a handful of pilots performing “precision aerobatics.” He was a highly skilled pilot and businessman, and pretty much developed the modern airshow as we know it.

Bill Adams performed at EAA Airshows for many years. He was actually EAA #1002, in 1965 there were about 3000 members; I joined in 1986 and have EAA #271,015, join today and you get a number of about 1.2Million. Bill was there in the beginning. Before EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, there was the EAA show at Rockford Illinois, Bill and his “Air Show” performed at Rockford many times, the last being 50 years ago in 1965.

Bill was born in 1925 in Watertown, Wisconsin. As was common at the time he left school in the 8th grade to work on the family farm. Starting at age 16 he hung out at the Waukesha Airport, doing odd jobs and learning about flying. He took any job he could find to support his flying habits. He learned to fly in a J-3 as many others from the same era, earning his license in 1949. He built his skills as a crop duster and supported his family as a machinist in Milwaukee. Along with being a pilot, he was also his own A&P mechanic and took care of his own airplane. In 1948 he started seriously learning aerobatics after watching Marion Cole perform in Shawano, Wisconsin. He was a self taught aerobatic pilot.

The industry transition from “stunt flying” to “precision aerobatics” happened on September 15, 1951 in the small town of Flagler Colorado, population 800. Flagler was 100 miles east of Denver on the plains of Colorado, the crowd was estimated at 1000 people. Lt. Norman Jones was stationed at Lowry AFB in Denver. Jones was a bomber pilot and served in the Pacific theatre in WWII. He was flying a borrowed Timm N2-T-1 Tudor (similar to a PT-19), he arrived at the show late and missed the pilot’s briefing. He started his performance upon arrival at the field. The CAA (forerunner of the FAA) put a floor of 500′ on the show with a requirement of 500′ separation from the crowd. He started a barrel roll at 150 feet high and 100 feet from the crowd line. He hit the ground inverted with the wreckage going into the crowd. Ultimately 20 died of which 13 were children and 17 more injured (numbers vary a bit depending on the report). The airplane’s engine even destroyed the town’s only ambulance.

At the least, Jones didn’t have a CAA waiver to fly aerobatics below 1500 feet, at the worst nobody ever witnessed him practicing the routine that turned to a disaster. The CAA was justifiably disgusted beyond words over the tragedy. They instituted crowd safety rules to make sure pilots are qualified to fly low level aerobatics as well as direct energy away from the crowds. No more maneuvers could be performed in the direction of spectators.

The amateurs were out of the air show business now which cut down the number of active performers in the country to what Bill Adams once called a “handful”. The business got a fresh start in 1952. The Cole Brothers gave him the opportunity to fly his first show in Boscobel, Wisconsin in the summer of 1952. Marion Cole flew with Bill in a solo and dual act in 1953/54. For the 1955 season Marion Cole stepped aside from headlining his own show to make Bill Adams the headliner. Duane Cole used to announce at every airshow that “Wisconsin is famous for beer, cheese and Bill Adams!”

Bill flew with the Cole Brothers from 1952 to 1962. When Bill’s busy schedule allowed during that time, he flew for Bill Sweets “National Air Shows”. Bill Sweets had Harold Krier who was the 1958-1959 A.A.A. Precision Aerobatic Champion as well as Charlie Hillard. Charlie would eventually be the first American to win the World Aerobatic Title; he also flew with the Red Devils and later the “Christen Eagles Aerobatic Team”. Charlie was just getting his start then in 1959 at 21 years old.

Finally in the winter of 1962 the “Bill Adams Air Show” was born. This rapidly became the most sought after airshow in the country. This wasn’t one pilot and a plane appearing at a show, but a group of planes and ground support personnel. They even brought their own announcer. A Bill Adams Air Show ran for two hours and ten acts. Featuring not only Bill Adams but also, but also Bob McCoy a famous skydiver. In 14 years from 1953 to 1966 Bill flew in over 450 airshows.

In the 1950s, purpose built aerobatic airplanes were nonexistent, there simply were no factory made aerobatic planes. Everything was custom built. Duane Cole flew a special “clipped wing” 150 HP Taylorcraft BF-50 (in the EAA Museum at Oshkosh). Marion Cole had one of a handful of 450HP Stearmans. The Stearman was a WWII primary trainer and was cheap and available in the 1950s. They sold surplus for less than $100, and had a 220 HP engine. If you flew it upside down, the engine quit for a lack of “inverted” systems for getting fuel to the engine. Doubling the horsepower made it a great airshow performer. Of course there wasn’t a precisely engineered conversion for it. All the ones converted were different based on who did the conversion work.

In 1950 Bill bought his first Stearman and spent two years converting it to a 450 engine based on the one Marion Cole built. He kept that plane until about 1959. He bought Marion Cole’s 450 Stearman in May 1958. At that time it had been sitting for three years and it took 6 months of hard work to get it into air show shape.

Bill made the inverted oil and fuel systems and even created the smoke system for his Stearman N53234. I read a detailed report on the modifications made to Bill’s 450 Stearman and remarks about flying it. The improvements are too numerous to list here, but one thing came through and that was that the airplane required constant attention when you were flying it. This was not a “hands off” flyer, it was unstable to the point that it was a superb aerobatic aircraft. In an era when Stearmans were worth less than $2000, a new Corvette in 1966 was $4300, Bill’s Stearman was valued at $55,000.

Bill’s modified Stearman allowed him to do a lot of maneuvers that didn’t exist at the time. A snap roll on takeoff. On takeoff, climb to 10 to 20 feet and snap roll a Stearman. I watched the video on YouTube, several times. Simply amazing. He could do a four point hesitation roll on climb out. Start at knife edge, do a snap and a half. Half snap back to knife edge. From knife edge execute a 3/4 snap to inverted followed by a half snap to level flight and the list goes on. There was even an inverted ribbon pickup, which wasn’t done in those days. For his last three seasons, he started doing a square outside loop, another maneuver that wasn’t done in that era. It was always near the end of his act. His son Bill Jr. told me when he landed his face was always beet red, presumably from the sustained high “G” load from the outside square loop.

Bill Adams was a great ambassador of aviation. He helped other pilots learn to fly complex aircraft, solve mechanical problems, he gave rides to kids, etc. He could fly anything with wings and was a safe and cautious pilot, living the “no old bold pilots” saying. He always kept his right hand on the stick.

Bill Adams once said aerobatics “is a precision performance. Everything must be done with perfect timing. A pilot must know his limitations and those of his airplane. Recklessness isn’t part of the game.” During the late 1950s up to the end, he was the face of airshows and aerobatics in the United States. Bill performed in the same program with the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels. He was featured in many magazines, including True, Popular Mechanics, Enquire, and Cavalier. He was even on TV when CBS’ “Sunday Sports Spectacular” devoted most of a 90 minute show to him in 1961. NBC’s “Sports in Action” featured Bill and his wingwalker, Lee Marlin, during the same era.

On July 23, 1966 the Bill Adams Airshow performed at the Porter County Airport in Valparaiso, Indiana for the dedication of a new runway. There was an estimated crowd of 35,000 in attendance. He performed his show flawlessly, when a crack in the crankshaft caused the propeller to depart the engine. A blade went through the left wing destroying flying wires. The wing collapsed and the Stearman went in from 500 feet. Bill didn’t have time to get out. He was 40 years old. He left behind his wife Joyce; his mother Frances, two brothers, two sisters, and children William Jr, Diane and Susanne. He was laid to rest in Menomonee Falls Wisconsin.

Bill was ultimately honored by being inducted into several Aviation Halls of Fame

  • 2012 International Council of Air Shows Hall of Fame
  • 2013 International Aerobatic Club Hall of Fame
  • 2013 Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame

Bill once told his son that “what he most wanted to learn was to fly straight and level”. Surely, Bill could fly straight and level, but if he did that, flying wouldn’t be fun or require the skills he had. If he did that, we wouldn’t have airshows like we have today. If it wasn’t for Bill and a handful of other real airshow pioneers, we wouldn’t have events that morphed in AirVenture at Oshkosh. This year the show runs July 20-26, 2015. If AirVenture didn’t exist; we’d all be at home cutting the lawn. Thank you Bill Adams.

I’d like to thank Bill Adams Jr, for allowing me access to the Adams Family Archives, as well as answering countless questions, and also supplying all the illustrations here. I would also like thank Zach Baughman of the EAA for his assistance. Rare videos of Bill performing at shows can be found on Youtube.

You can contact the author Mark Hrutkay at TNMark1@GMail.Com

Mark Hrutkay

Mark has been a member of the International Association of Aviation Photographers (ISAP) for several years and attends all their events and seminars. He has won several awards for his work and has been published in several aviation magazines, domestic and foreign. You can contact Mark Hrutkay at TNMark@Me.Com.

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