Thursday, October 16, 2003
Photos by Richard Pitnick: Cockpit Ace: Local aerobatics champ Wayne Handley flies his Raven biplane in Salinas again after a back-breaking crash in 1999.
What could possibly make a man want to return to the sky after a devastating crash shatters his spine and wrecks his airplane? In the case of Greenfield pilot Wayne Handley, the real question is, what could keep him away?
In October of 1999, during a stunt at the California International Airshow in Salinas, the engine of Handley''s Turbo Raven flamed out as he was finishing a loop and preparing for a steep landing. Too low to the ground for Handley to recover, the Turbo Raven slammed hard onto the runway.
The impact shattered one of the vertebra in Handley''s spine. Surgeons had to use pieces of the broken vertebra to fuse together the two surrounding vertebrae, a procedure that shortened his height by three inches.
Handley spent the rest of 1999 and 2000 recovering from his injuries. In 2001, he began flying in support of another air show performer, and has since performed himself at about a half dozen airshows. This weekend, Wayne Handley makes a heroic return to the Salinas airshow, his first time back to the scene of his tragedy. The Discovery Channel will be there as well, researching a story they''re preparing on the Wayne''s survival and return to the skies.
Handley''s fascinating with flying goes back for as long as he can remember. Two weeks after he was born in Carmel in 1939, his parents moved the family to the Soledad Mission District. Growing up as young child out in the country, Handley had few playmates, so he used his imagination to keep himself company. "I was always making airplanes out of orange crates, with a board across the top for the wing. I''d sit there in my little airplane and fly."
As he got older, he built model airplanes and chased after crop dusters with his bicycle. But it proved difficult for him to actually take the controls and get into the air. "My father would not allow me to fly or ride a motorcycle as long as I lived under his roof," says Handley with a grin.
In 1957, he enrolled at Hartnell and immediately joined the college''s flying club. His first flight lesson was also his first time in an airplane. After college, he entered the Navy flight program. During his five and half years in the service, he got his first taste of aerobatics flying some of the Navy''s earliest jet fighters.
When Handley returned to the Salinas Valley after his military service, he went to work as a crop duster for Greenbelt Aviation in Greenfield. In 1968 he started his own crop-dusting business, which by 1983 had grown to nine aircraft. Some of Handley''s friends were involved in competition aerobatics and they rekindled his interest in aerobatics. Handley traded about $17,000 worth of helicopter parts for a Pitts Special aerobatic biplane, figuring that in six months he would grow tired of the biplane and sell it.
Instead, a few months later one of his hired pilots brought him a newspaper clipping about an aerobatics contest in Paso Robles. Handley entered the contest, but despite his 25 years of flying experience, he managed to place only 19th out of 21 flyers. "I had to laugh at myself because I had more hours than everyone there," says Handley. "There was a young fellow, probably 18 or 19 years old, with about 300 hours who came in sixth. Okay, I thought, better learn the rules of this game."
That didn''t take long. In 1984, Handley won an intermediate points series competition. The following year he skipped over the advanced level, competed at the highest level, and captured the title of California Unlimited Aerobatic Champion. Handley claimed this title two more times before beginning to fly airshows fulltime.
Although his flying style shifted to performing for a crowd, he still remained competitive. A few years later, he set a world record by completing 67 consecutive inverted flat spins. In 1990, he traded his Pitts biplane for a single-wing airplane called the Raven. For his performances in the Raven, Handley received the two top airshow recognitions: the Bill Barber Award for Showmanship in 1996, and the Art Scholl Showmanship Award in 1997.
The following year, Handley went for an upgrade again. The Turbo Raven was a turboprop engine with wings. In no time, Handley broke two different time-to-climb world records and also topped his first world record by completing 78 inverted flat spins in a row.
It was the Turbo Raven that crashed four years ago with Handley inside; this weekend in Salinas, he''ll be flying the original Raven.
Handley''s flying career has spanned 46 years and more than 26,000 flight hours. Still raising the bar in his field, he''s created new maneuvers such as the "boomerang" and the "dink" for his performance this weekend, a return eagerly anticipated by his fans and himself.
"I want to show everybody that I''m fine," he says. "I''m in no pain. I''ve made a 100 percent recovery. And it will also give me an opportunity to say thank you to the community. The community was just fantastic after the accident. Because of their support, I never had a down day."
The California International Airshow takes place Oct. 17-19 at Salinas Municipal Airport. Call 1-888-845-SHOW or visit www.salinasairshow.com.