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Stunt pilot giving it up after friends' deaths

November 30, 1998

By RICHARD F. BELISLE / Staff Writer, Waynesboro

photo: RICHARD T. MEAGHER / staff photographer




GREENCASTLE, Pa. - The deaths last year of four of his stunt flying buddies have convinced Charlie Parsons to give up the glamor and excitement of the death-defying aerial ballet. He said he may even quit flying altogether.

Parsons, 40, a Greencastle optometrist, wants to trade his powerful 1993 Russian-made Sukhoi 29, a hot, maneuverable two-seater, for a civilized, family sedan kind of airplane.

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He said his stunt plane is like a Harley Davidson motorcycle, "all play and fun."

It's for sale.

Parsons was flying at age 16, did his first solo at 17 and started stunt flying in 1989 with a Citabria high-wing two-seater. He has since owned a couple of Pitts biplanes, one of which was destroyed in a February 1993 fire at Washington County Regional Airport in Hagerstown.

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He saw his first SU 29 at a stunt flying competition in Wisconsin. It was being flown by a Russian pilot.

"Its performance was amazing," Parsons said. "In the right hands, nothing can beat it, but no American has mastered it yet. It takes a long time to learn how to fly it. About every 20 hours it does something it never did before. That's OK if you're high enough."

With its bold, round nose, three-bladed propeller and slim fuselage, the Sukhoi looks fast sitting in the hangar. It has 330 horsepower and its stainless steel and titanium frame is covered with a space-age carbon fiber and Kevlar skin.

The plane has no heater and is controlled by a stick, not a wheel. "It's not a real airplane it if doesn't have a stick," Parsons said.

Parsons said he was shaken by the three deadly crashes that killed his friends.

One was killed in a Virginia air show, one while flying too low in Ohio, he said, and two were killed in the same plane in an Alaska accident, the cause of which is still under investigation.

Most stunt flying accidents occur close to the ground, or "on the deck," as pilots call it. With no air space to maneuver, there is little room for mistakes, Parsons said. "Up high you have a chance, room to maneuver. If something goes wrong or your engine quits, you still have time."

Parsons is certified to fly that low in shows and competitions but said he quit doing air shows since his friends died.

"I've reconciled myself that I'm not going to do any more low-level flying," he said. "Once you remove that from the equation, statistically it's a lot safer."

He said he knows of no pilots killed in acrobatic competitions. "They don't fly low," he said.

Written in white letters under the canopy on Parsons' plane is his name and that of his wife, Lisa. He also has three daughters: Jennifer, 9, Rebecca, 8, and Christina, 7.

His wife let him fly any way he wants, but she's relieved he's giving up stunt flying, Parsons said. "I have family responsibility now."

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