Pilot Patty Wagstaff aka “Aerobatic Savant” – Once strapped in, the tigress comes out to play

Fire and Air: A Life on the Edge 

Chicago Review Press; First Edition edition (May 1997)

Patty Wagstaff. Her name should be as familiar to us as Jackie Cochran or Wiley Post.

“Patty Wagstaff is a national treasure,” says Louie Schwartzberg. “She is the first woman to have won the National Aerobatic Championship, and the only woman to have won it THREE times. Aerobatic flying is an art and a skill that would cause most of us to blow lunch in the first minute or so. She is a role model for all of us. Plus, you gotta love the hair!” (Louie posted a YouTube interview with Patty that gives us a view from the cockpit as she goes through her aerial ballet and art-in-motion speed show.)

Gotta love the smile too: 

To quoted excerpts from Budd Davisson in SOMETHING EXTRA!

Most of the airshow-going world by this time at least knows what an Extra 300 looks like, courtesy of Clint McHenry. He acrobats the hell out of that two-place bigger brother of Wagstaff s 260. Some of the more acrobatically enthusiastic might even know the Fxtra 230, the 200 horse single -place Extra often mistakingly thought of as a Laser clone — which it definitely isn’t. Patty’s airplane is the best of the two. It’s basically the smaller airplane with a modified wing and 300 hp engine. The aircraft is, however, the only one in the States and, therefore, something of a secret – or at least it was until the 1991 airshow and competition season.

By the time you are reading this, any aerobatic enthusiast will have already seen Wagstaffs throttle-to-the-wall, floor-to-ceiling hyperkinetic aerobatic show. …Those who have not seen Patty’s show are going to be first impressed by the show with its rudely artistic geometry and the razor-like precision. Secondly, they will be taken aback when Patty opens the canopy and steps out. The image of the flight and the image of the young lady seem at odds. Where the show is frenetic and nearly brutal, the pilot is a pretty and petite lady with none of the visible savagery she demonstrates in the air. Patty is also only seen by her public after she’s been standing out on the ramp for several hours. This, of course, always ensures the appropriate airshow look – sunburned, windblown and tired. Patty appears to be an interesting contradiction: On the one hand, there is an initial almost-shyness which fades to a broad smile once the ice is broken. Once strapped in, however, the tigress comes out to play.

Patty Wagstaff is full of surprises. She’s more than an athlete, strong and super-physically fit; she’s philosophical without sounding obnoxiously intellectual. Sh quotes  Zen masters, philosphers and sages such as Sartre, Eugen Herrigel and Krishnamurti, along with sports writers and motivational speakers, and she’s developed her own philosophy. Put her in a novel, and critics will say the heroine is “unbelievable.” Sad to say, novelists are taught that real life is “too good” for fiction, i.e., cliches and stereotypes are easier to believe than extraordinary people like Patty.

Patricia Rosalie Kearns Combs was born in 1951. Her mother, Rosalie Patricia Dorey, had been a New York city model. Patty also did some modeling in her youth. Robert Thomas Combs, her dad, was an Air Force pilot who later flew for Japan Air Lines. Sister Toni Combs flies for Continental. Patti was nine when Toni was born weighing three pounds and spent a month in an incubator. Both girls grew up to shatter expectations and that glass ceiling that held back women of that era (and still does today).

Patty hated being sent to Catholic schools with strict nuns, and she was expelled from an all-girl boarding school in Switzerland. Patty spent the first 30 years of her life surviving a dysfunctional family, the counterculture, an abusive first marriage, and more. Patty is a six-time member of the U.S. Aerobatic Team, the 1993 IAC Champion, a six-time recipient of the “First Lady of Aerobatics” Betty Skelton Award, and winner of numerous medals in Olympic-level international aerobatic competition.

Patty Wagstaff

Patty Wagstaff  Image Number: NASM-94-9327 Credit: National Air and Space Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution

This internationally acclaimed air show pilot is also dedicated to helping preserve wildlife in Africa. Click here for a great, informative, comprehensive essay with photos by Chuck Weirauch. Somewhere, I recall seeing she was or still is active with Pilots N Paws — pilots volunteer to fly animals from kill shelters to rescue groups nationally  pilotsnpaws.org  -Twitter:@PilotsNPaws What a great cause! Their Facebook site has fantastic photos.

Today Patty has short blonde hair, but 1980s photos of her with a wild mane of long, wavy dark hair, European features and that killer smile (Mona Lisa, you got competition) reinforced my image of Kate Eisen in Ironwolf (a novel I started writing in 1990, finished in 1999, revised endlessly and still haven’t gotten published, mostly because I set it aside for years a time, come back, and revise again). My own sisters first inspired Kate’s character.


Type “Patty Wagstaff” into youtube’s search engine and you’ll come up with several videos and interviews, e.g.

  Patty Wagstaff Interview and Flight — Glenn Pew and Patty Wagstaff conspired for this in-cockpit insight into Patty’s air show life. Ride along with Patty as she flies her airshow routine at Sun ‘n Fun, 2008. Or close your eyes and listen to the post-flight interview with Patty about how it feels to fly the maneuvers and what it’s like to perform. Special thanks to Cirrus Design, maker of the SR20 and SR22. And special thanks to Bose and Aircraft Spruce & Specialty Co., whose good people stepped up at the airshow in Lakeland to help out with some last minute parts used for the video. Contact Glenn @ gpew@glennpew.com for a higher-resolution

Find Patty at twitter: @pattyaerobatics  airshow pilot, aerobatic savant, writer, adventurer, yogi, creator of Patty Wagstaff Aerobatic School. Horses, dogs, birds, beach, music.  about.me/pattywagstaff

 Patty Wagstaff has flown several aerobatic planes over the years, including a Pitts S-1S biplane she owned half-interest in during the mid-eighties.

Patty Wagstaff has flown several aerobatic planes over the years, including a Pitts S-1S biplane she owned half-interest in during the mid-eighties. http://airportjournals.com/wp-content/uploads/0503009_3-300×226.jpg

Host BenChiu says:
If you’re a Flight Simulator veteran, you know that Patty’s been involved Flight Simulator for a while. (Yes, that Extra 300S you’ve been abusing is Patty’s airplane!!)  http://www.flightadventures.com/mag/00/12.htm

More to come, when I take time to organize more information about Patty. For now,  I’ll repeat here what I already said about Julie Clark: I first heard of Patty and Julie in 1988, when my office mate, a walking aviation encyclopedia, showed me Julie’s picture in an aviation magazine. “This,” he said, “is the woman pilot you want your novel to be about.” Later I found articles on Patty too, and I knew my heroine would be a composite of several people from real life. My sister had secretly gotten her pilot’s license and flown home in a Cessna with the Iranian pilot who helped her buy and sell cars at auctions to pay for flight time. (Dad would’ve done his best to talk her out of it, had he known what she was up to.)

So… I appropriated (stole?) from Julie Clark the idea of a woman pilot who buys and restores a T-34 Mentor and flies it at airshows, timing her aerobatic ballet in the sky to patriotic music. Julie flies to Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to Be An American” while Kate flies to a medley of military anthems. My rebellious sister Julie (Patty’s memoir reminds me of her in so many ways), my sister Kelly (who really did learn to fly), Heidi Porch (still meaning to google what she’s up to these days!) and countless pilots I’ve read about in magazines and books have “informed” the character of Kate.

I’m intrigued to read that both Julie and Patty, the toughest, bravest women in the sky, look dainty, petite, even shy and vulnerable,  on the ground.  Both are model-beautiful. Both remind me of my sisters. (The oldest of us five, Julia Ann Benning, was murdered at almost-19, before she ever got to fly even as a passenger. She dreamed of being an Indy car racer and a lot of other things she never had the chance to be. By the way, in the profile photo-collage of this blog, Julie is the little girl on the right; our dad is in the middle; his sister, our spinster Aunt Malita, on the left with the pony she and Julie never got to own.)

Both Patty’s and Julie Clark’s books mention the paralysis of losing a loved one too soon. Pilots are interconnected by their love of aviation, and “its a huge loss when something happens to any one of us,” Patty writes. The list of great, talented pilots who died in aviation accidents might scare anyone away from flying, but Patty explains it beautifully in “Fire and Air.”

I cannot honestly write that disclaimer you see in the front matter of novels: “This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real-life characters is coincidental.” Uh-huh. Authors are liars. We pillage real-life people, put them in our stories, change names to protect the innocent (and guilty), and–

Who better to transform into a fictional heroine than real life models like Patty Wagstaff and Julie Clark?

About carolkean

novelist, reviewer, editor, book critic for Liberty Island and Perihelion Science Fiction; native prairie/guerilla gardener; champion of liberty, indie authors & underdogs; one of the top two reviewers in Editors &Preditors Poll 2015; Amazon Vine, NetGalley Top Reviewer
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2 Responses to Pilot Patty Wagstaff aka “Aerobatic Savant” – Once strapped in, the tigress comes out to play

  1. Pingback: Julie Clark | carolkean

  2. Pingback: Jackie Cochran: one of history’s most accomplished {female} aviators | carolkean

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