High and Mighty
Patty Wagstaff: The Aerobatic Pilot
April 2023 Issue
By Elizabeth Skenes Millen
Photography submitted by Patty Wagstaff
“She was not quite what you would call refined. She was not quite what you
would call unrefined. She was the kind of person that keeps a parrot.” - Mark Twain
Mark Twain would be surprised to know Patty Wagstaff, who uniquely redefines refined and unrefined. Not only does she have a parrot, but she takes it flying with her. And she is not a passenger, rather she is an award-winning, upside-down, barrel-rolling, low-flying, nose-diving aerobatic pilot.
To Patty Wagstaff the sky represents beauty, freedom, and challenge. A six-time member of the US Aerobatic Team, she is the first woman to win the title of US National Aerobatic champion and one of the to few win it three times.
Energetic and spirited from early childhood, Patty has built a life of adventure, risk, and courage. She grew up in and around airplanes. At 9-years-old her family moved to Japan, where her father was a captain for Japan Air Lines. At 10, her father let her take the controls of his DC-6, and thus, her lifelong love affair with airplanes began.
Following her dreams even when no reward was in sight, her dedication pushed the limits of aerobatic flight. It was only three years into flying that she was called to aerobatics. “I wasn’t looking for a career, but I saw aerobatics and thought that’s what I want do. It was exciting, fast, and entertaining. It looked like a lot of fun! You don’t really choose it, it chooses you,” Patty said.
But how does one get in a plane and learn to fly it upside down?
And what about fear? Isn’t it terrifying?
“I’ve never been scared, except maybe getting to an air show, but in the plane—never. You start slow and build up. It takes a lot of practice, and it is very methodical. You have to stay in shape for it all year long. It’s definitely a lifestyle and a commitment,” Patty explained.
What does it feel like, though? A giant rollercoaster?
“Yes. It’s a lot like a roller coaster, but I’m so focused on what I’m doing, it’s a controlled rush. It’s not adrenaline. You have to stay focused. I’m built for it.”
Her breathtaking air show performances give spectators a front-row seat to the precision and complexity of modern, unlimited, hard-core aerobatics. Her smooth, aggressive style sets the standard for performers the world over. Patty has flown aerial displays in such exotic places as South and Central America, China, Russia, Europe, Singapore, Kenya, and Iceland.
She has also earned her Commercial, Instrument, Seaplane and Commercial Helicopter Ratings. She is a Flight and Instrument Instructor and is rated and qualified to fly numerous airplanes, from World War II fighters to jets. Patty’s sister, Toni, interestingly, is a commercial pilot for United Airlines which frowns upon turning the plane upside down. In other words, she leaves the aerobatics to Patty.
Patty’s skill is based on years of training and experience. She is a six-time recipient of the “First Lady of Aerobatics” Betty Skelton Award; an inductee into the National Aviation Hall of Fame and was the recipient of the National Air and Space Museum’s Award for Current Achievement. She is proud of receiving the air show industry’s most prestigious awards, the “ICAS Sword of Excellence”, and the “Bill Barber Award for Showmanship”. Recently she was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Air Force Association.
Patty’s dedication to aviation has helped empower women to find aviation as a career. “There is a big push for more women in aviation. It’s a great place for careers right now, and it’s good for women to see other women flying. And, the airplane doesn’t know the difference,” she said. Patty has never looked at her gender as a barrier to success. “You just have to make it work for you.” And, she has done that through hard work, focus, and serious dedication.
Patty shares her expertise across the world. Each year she and her team travel to Kenya where she leads a training program to give bush, recurrency and aerobatic training to the pilots of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) Airwing, who protect Kenya’s wildlife and other natural resources from poachers. She also flew for Cal Fire for several years as an Air Attack pilot in the OV-10 Bronco, helping to keep California safe and supporting firefighters on the ground.
In 2013 she launched an aerobatic school, “Patty Wagstaff Aviation Safety” in St. Augustine, Florida. In addition to aerobatics, flight instructors at the school teach advanced aviation, training pilots how to stay out of trouble in the sky and how to recover if trouble occurs.
However, on April 22 and 23, Patty will be the only female flying and performing in the Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort Air Show.
“I’m happy to be back in Beaufort, happy to be invited back. The Marines do a great job there with the show,” Patty said. “Air shows are a wonderful way for people to get exposed to aviation and the smaller planes. I want spectators to have a great time and gain a better appreciation for aviation. Airplanes are wonderful!”
If You Go:
The MCAS Beaufort Air Show will be held Saturday April 22 and Sunday April 23 at the Marine Corps Air Station on US 21. Be prepared to have an exciting day with the US Navy Blue Angels, Patty Wagstaff, the MAGTF, Franklin’s Flying Circus and so many more.
In addition to the air performers, patrons can visit exhibitors and partake in a Top Gun experience, helicopter rides, a Blue Angels cockpit experience, Monster Trucks, and Precision Driving.
For a complete line up of performers and everything you need to know before you go, log onto www.beaufortairshow.com. The air show is free, special seating tickets are available. (if not sold out)