Plane Crazy

Air Show flyer is nuts about aerobatics.

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Cleveland National Air Show Burke Lakefront Airport, 1501 North Marginal Road 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday, September 3, through Monday, September 5; $15 to $19; call 216-781-0747
The aviator: Michael Mancuso takes flight  at the Cleveland National Air Show this weekend.
The aviator: Michael Mancuso takes flight at the Cleveland National Air Show this weekend.
From the comfort of the cockpit, Michael Mancuso can picture the stunned looks on the faces in the crowd below as he pilots his Klein Tools Extra 300.

In the 23-foot plane, he executes stunts he's rehearsed for two years with aerobatic partner Matt Chapman. There's the "mirror pass," in which Mancuso flies in parallel formation a mere three feet above his teammate's plane. Fans also applaud the "head-on pass," in which the planes fly at each other until it looks like they'll collide. At the last minute, Mancuso pulls up his craft for a near miss.

"The crowd wants it to look dangerous, wild, and exciting," says the 35-year-old Mancuso. "But they don't want to think you're going to die. It's a delicate balance between making it exciting and intense without [them] thinking they're going to see tragedy."

Scratch-free after more than two decades of flying, Mancuso brings his two-man performance to the Cleveland National Air Show this weekend, where other attractions include the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, the U.S. Navy's Super Hornets, and the U.S. Army's Golden Knights Precision Parachute Team.

Mancuso has been flying since he was a kid. When he was 11, his father let him co-pilot the family plane on flights from their Long Island home to his grandfather's Virginia farm. He'd even taxi the plane on Grandpa's horse track. But his first solo flight happened by mistake, when a then-13-year-old Mancuso accidentally accelerated. "My dad yelled, 'Close the throttle and let it land!' But when it lifted off, it blew off the runway," recalls Mancuso. "I had to add power to fly it back and land it. It scared the crap out of everyone."

The fluke only fueled Mancuso's enthusiasm. By 16, he'd earned his private pilot's license. At 18, he enrolled at Ohio State, graduating in 1993 with a degree in aviation management. Three years later, he performed at his first air show.

This season, he's partnered with Chapman for a program of aerial rolls, vertical drops, and side-by-side formations. "There are a couple maneuvers designed to make it look like we're going to hit," says Mancuso. "Purely an optical illusion."

Which isn't to say that he doesn't sometimes get the jitters. "To be honest, the more time you're on the ground, the more you can get your head going on the danger," he says. "Or when you get the phone call on Monday morning that one of your friends got killed over the weekend. That can scare you."

Mancuso has spent most weekends this summer at air shows from Rhode Island to Texas. The more flight time he logs -- he has more than 7,000 hours under his belt -- the less potential there is for accidents. "You've gotta follow a plan perfectly, because execution is key," he says. "When you design these maneuvers, you don't come up with a plan that's going to kill you."

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