Aeroshell Aerobatics Team returns to Columbia for another thrill

Friday, May 28, 2010 | 5:03 p.m. CDT; updated 5:59 p.m. CDT, Friday, May 28, 2010
The Aeroshell Acrobatic Team flies four North American AT-6 Texans, a plane originally designed as a trainer aircraft for pilots in World War II. Mark Henley, a pilot with the team, bought his plan 22 years ago and said it costs about $25,000 in maintenance every year.

COLUMBIA — Two weeks after his first child was born, aerobatic pilot Mark Henley bought himself an airplane.

When his wife, Anna Laura Henley, found out, she gave him "down the road about it," so he made her a deal. If he couldn't pay for his daughter's education by the time she was old enough to go to college, he would sell the plane.

At the time, flying was just a hobby for Henley, who owned a wholesale parts business specializing in small engines. Gradually, however, the appeal of flight drew him away from his career, and eventually he sold the business to take up flying full time.

His brother, Alan Henley, had started an aerobatics team in 1984 with former crop duster Steve Gustafson and slot pilot Gene McNeely, and Mark joined them to form what would later become the Aeroshell Aerobatics Team.

Since then the team has been working the air-show circuit from April to October each year, performing at more than two dozen shows per year from El Salvador to Nova Scotia, "and a lot of places in between."

They will perform Saturday and Sunday at Columbia Regional Airport for the 22nd Annual Salute to Veterans Airshow. Their performance last year won an "on the spot" request to return.

Henley credits the team's success to the technical skills of his fellow pilots and their ability to give the audience "noise, smoke, speed and excitement."

"There are similarities between what we do and what the jet teams do," Henley said. "We do loops and barrel rolls and head-on maneuvers just like they do, but the difference is that we do it in World War II-era propeller planes, while they do it in jet planes."

All four teammates fly North American Aviation T-6 Texans. The vintage warbirds were basic training aircraft more than 70 years ago, but their reliability and low maintenance costs make them popular among pilots today.

There's been little turnover on the team since Henley joined 15 years ago. But recent health problems have prompted new additions.

Founding member Gene McNeely, 72, recently had bypass surgery, and Alan Henley broke his neck playing at home with his kids on a pull-up bar. Both team members still own their aircraft, but they hired contract pilots Jimmy Fordham and Bryan Regan to fill the vacancies.

"This is by far the most challenging flying I've ever done," said Fordham, who flies full time for Northwest Airlines when he's not doing aerobatics. "It's gotta be right. It's gotta be the same every time. They're relying on me to maneuver the same so they can follow me the same."

Fordham said experience is key factor when doing difficult maneuvers in formation.

"These guys are unbelievable," Fordham said. "(Henley) has done 17 years of this kind of flying. They've got a ton of experience doing what they do."

Henley said the team has performed for 26 years with no accidents. He's been flying his plane, "Miss Tanner," for 22 years without mishap. He named it after his daughter, Tanner Henley, who got her biology degree from the University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa in May. She plans to begin pharmacy school at Sanford this fall.

Henley laughed as he recalled the deal with his wife.

"Now I'm off the hook, and I don't have to sell my airplane!"

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