POINT MUGU — Pilot Gene Soucy knows it's time to ease up when the tunnel vision comes. From the ground, the flips, rolls and tumbles he performs in his sleek, red show plane look like an aerial ballet.
From Soucy's seat, it's a violent, gut-wrenching ride. The gravitational pull created by the hard twisting and turning of the plane forces the blood from Soucy's head, producing tunnel vision. To avoid passing out, he must ease up on the control stick to right his aircraft.
"The airplane will do so much, it's tough on the pilot," he said. But for Soucy, stunt flying is play, not work.
"There's nothing like it in the whole world," he said.
The 51-year-old award-winning daredevil will be among the featured performers who take to the skies today to kick off the 37th annual Point Mugu Air Show, which runs through Sunday. More than 200,000 visitors are expected. Gates open at noon today and at 8 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free.
This year's show will include displays--including the Stealth F117--and performances of more military hardware and aircraft than any show the base has hosted before. Nearly 150 aircraft will perform or be displayed.
Morning fog and low clouds are expected through Sunday, leading to partly cloudy skies in the afternoon, according to the National Weather Service. Midday temperatures should be in the 60s.
Although this year's air show failed to attract a major jet team such as the Blue Angels, who performed at last year's event, officials hope daring acts like Soucy's will be enough to drop some jaws in the crowd.
"It's the equivalent of not having Elvis in the building, but having a great concert," said Don Lewis, who has coordinated the air show since 1990.
Soucy's Extra 330XS, a German-built high-performance aircraft, is considered the Indy car of airplanes. And Soucy knows how to make it scream.
As his plane performs flips and loops across the sky, it produces forces great enough to snap a pilot's neck, he said. The Extra exerts up to 10 Gs on Soucy's body, more gravitational force than some jets produce.
"It's a God-given talent," Soucy said. "Some guys are born to play the guitar. . . . For me, it's these airplanes."
During his performance, Soucy spends 15 minutes putting the Extra 330XS through its paces. "As soon as I leave the ground, I flip upside down," he said.
Later, Soucy switches to a Showcat biplane for an altogether different routine. His girlfriend and business partner, Teresa Stokes, stands on the wing of the old plane while Soucy pilots it through gentle rolls. She also does head stands on top of the old aircraft.
Pilots come from all over the country to participate in the annual air show, and planes began swooping out of the sky Wednesday--with Soucy, based in St. Augustine, Fla., one of the first to arrive. He is among a tightknit community of pilots who sped west this week toward Point Mugu.
Earlier this week, flying just west of El Paso, Texas, Soucy came across a squadron of biplanes called the Red Baron Stearman Squadron, which will also perform at the air show. Soucy turned on two streams of smoke that flow from his wings and, just for fun, ripped past the four biplanes at breakneck speed.
"I've never seen a guy so eager to fly," said John Bowman, 55, the Red Baron squadron's lead pilot. "Gene is an incredible performer."
Soucy had a flight log book before he was even born, Stokes said. His mother, also a pilot, began recording her own flight time for him while he was still in the womb. As a kid in Kentucky, he washed and gassed planes at an airport in exchange for flight time. At 14, he first soloed a glider. At 16, he soloed in a propeller-driven plane.
Soucy's father, who died in the 1970s, was a flight instructor. His mother, now 72, still pilots planes. His brother flies passenger jets for Northwest Airlines. A sister works for the FAA. Soucy's two daughters, one a college freshman, another 16, also pilot planes.
Soucy made a career of competing in high-profile airplane competitions, where pilots are scored on precise aerobatic maneuvers. He won both the U.S and Canadian national championships three years in a row. In 1970 he flew with the winning U.S. National Team in England. He competed with the same team in France in 1972.
He flew at air shows for 25 years with a small biplane squadron called the Eagles. When his partners retired, he bought his first Extra 330XS and moved to his current home in Florida to be close to the plane's assembly plant. These days, his airline pilot career for Northwest and countless air shows keep him in hotels nearly 300 nights of the year.
"He loves it," said Stokes, 38, of Houston. "Every show that we do is like his first show. He does thousands and thousands of shows. He loves it every time."
Soucy and Stokes have dated and worked together for nearly 12 years, she walking on the wings of his biplane, him slicing through the sky at incredible speed.
Stokes said walking on the wings of an airborne plane is risky, but not as harrowing as some think. The force of wind braces her against the plane's structure and, even if she slips, she said she isn't likely to fall.
"It's even better than [being] a bird because birds can't go upside-down," said Stokes, who is also a pilot and well-known aviation artist, who paints pictures of planes. "I'm laughing and screaming the whole time."
The attitude is pervasive among the couple's friends, whom they see throughout the year at air shows. The pilots love speed and the sensation of looping a plane through the clouds.
"It's a different world we live in," Soucy said.
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Air Show Schedule
Noon Gates open 3 p.m. Welcoming ceremonies 3:15-8 p.m. Demonstration flights 8:15 p.m. Fireworks
8 a.m. Gates open 10 a.m. Welcoming ceremonies 10 a.m.
4 p.m. Demonstration flights 4 p.m. Gates close