Sunday, September 6, 2009

Bob Carlton

xxxxxxxxxxxxxBob Carlton with his Jet Salto

Bob Carlton is not your typical glider pilot. He is part mad scientist, part entertainer and part adventurer. When I first started flying gliders, I discovered that there were basically two types of glider pilots: those who just enjoy it as a hobby, and those who are seriously competitive. Bob brings glider flying to a higher level by turning his hobby into a profession. He is a serious aviator who does not compete, but chooses to perform in air shows and entertain people all over the world.

When Bob isn’t performing in air shows he works as a mechanical designer for Sandia National Labs, where he started his career in the machine shop. He had taken machine shop courses both in high school and at Albuquerque’s Technical Vocational Institute (now called CNM), where he also taught while a student. After he graduated, he gave a friend a ride to the state employment office so that the friend could apply for a job at Sandia. While he was waiting, he decided to fill out an application. He ended up getting the job, but his friend didn’t.

Bob is a native of New Mexico. He went to Highland High, which is famous for two of its alumni, Beavis and Butthead. He married another alumnus from his high school, Laurie, in 1983. She is more than a wife; she is also his business partner. Laurie makes covers for his airplanes, assists with the air shows, creates and maintains his air show website, handles the advertising, and can often be seen on the runway watching him test his new inventions.

Laurie is very confident in Bob’s abilities and supports all his adventures. Recently at a dinner, Bob showed me his latest sketch of a new invention he is working on, a flying suit. When I asked Laurie if she was nervous about Bob flying this jet suit, she responded, “No. It’s Bob. He will be fine.”

You can read more about Bob on his website:

Interview, January 2009:

How did you get started in aviation?

My mom says that when I was about 4 she rescued me off the top of the refrigerator. I thought I could fly off. Growing up I was always building models and throwing them off the roof and thinking I could jump off with a bed sheet or something like that. I have sort of had aviation in my blood for as long as I can remember.

When did you actually start flying?

When I was 19 there was an ad in the newspaper for a hang glider for $25.00. So I bought this thing. The sail was sun rotted and all the wires were loose. It was a real mess but I repaired it on my mom’s sewing machine and with whatever hardware I had. And I basically taught myself how to fly it.

How long did you fly hang gliders?

I flew hang gliders from 79 or 80 through the mid to late 90’s.

When did you make the transition into gliders?

I actually got my power license first. Right after Laurie and I got married we lived near the airport and since I worked on base I had access to the Kirtland Aero Club. So I went there and got my airplane license.

Then I ran into Al Santilli and some of the others in the soaring club. It was a pretty straightforward operation. There weren’t a lot of rules and things that you had to do in a military flying club. And that really appealed to me along with the idea that I was getting old enough that jumping off the mountains wasn’t as much fun any more. My knees weren’t in as good shape as they use to be. So I joined up the next week and have been doing it ever since.

You have flown power planes, hang gliders and gliders. Which do you prefer?

There is nothing like hang gliding. Especially some of the places I have flown a hang glider. I have flown off the cliffs in Acapulco, Mexico and ridge soared the condominiums on the beach. There is a certain freedom with hang gliders that is hard to match with anything else. You know as you get older that sort of adrenaline…you just change. You get a little older. So the sailplanes are probably right now my favorite, although I have also been flying helicopters for about the past 4 or 5 years. And I have to say helicopters are an awful lot of fun.

What kinds of planes have you flown?

Of course I started out in a Cessna 150 and 172.
The first aircraft I owned was a Bowers Fly Baby. It’s a single seat, low wing, wood and fabric, pretty slow…65 horsepower engine, no electrical system, no starter. I bought it for about $4,000.00. That was my first excursion into tail-wheel flying. And I had someone check me out for tail-wheel. So I flew the Fly Baby for 3 or 4 years, built up some tail wheel experience. Actually, the engine on that airplane quit on me in flight, so that was my first dead stick landing into a field in South Texas.

Then I had a Skybolt Biplane that I flew in air shows. And odds and ends…a little bit of everything.

Santa Fe Air Show 2008

What got you into air shows?

I saw Manfred Radius fly a glider air show routine at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta sometime in the mid-eighties. That looked like a pretty interesting way to make a living. I also had seen Jimmy Franklin fly air show routines at the Balloon Fiesta for many years when I was a teenager. I couldn’t believe someone could make a living flying aerobatics in an airplane. It looked really easy and I thought I had to try it. Little did I realize exactly how much work it was going to become.

How many air shows have you done?

This is my 16th season and it has to have been 150 maybe? I don’t know.

So what is it that you like so much about air shows?

The air show business is a lot of work. But you show up in a new town, and this is an exciting event for the town. So you are meeting people when they are having fun and they are showing off the hospitality of their home town. You come in as…I use this word carefully, a little bit of a celebrity and people want you to think good things about their town so you meet them at their absolute best. And the people that I fly with in this business are just some of the craziest, most fun people in the world. So just to be able to go around the country or around the world and hang out with people like that and have people welcome you into their homes and their hometowns is just a really fun experience.

Now this isn’t your only job, you also work at Sandia Labs. Do you think you will ever quit your job at the Labs and do air shows full time?

Yeah, my days at the Labs are numbered. When I started at Sandia Labs it was a really fun place to work… but I don’t know if it is just me getting older or if things really have changed, but it seems like there is so much more bureaucracy and we aren’t nearly as cutting edge as we use to be. So I see leaving the Labs in not too many years and making some sort of flying activity including air shows into a full time living.

Mad Scientist in his lab.


You are also an inventor. What are some of things you have designed and how did you came up with the ideas?

I was probably about 9 years old when I designed my first airplane from scratch from scrap lumber and whatever else we had around. It was a model airplane with a pretty good size wingspan but it did fly.

And I remember when I was probably 11 or 12 years old my dad worked in a sign shop. A lot of times on the weekends the guys would go down and work on personal projects.

I had been reading up on boomerangs and I thought I could make one. So I was on the belt sander with a piece of lexan plastic, it had just come out at the time, it was the hottest material on the planet. And I remember that one of my dad’s friends came by and asked “What are you working on?” I told him I was making a boomerang. They thought that was just great sport. My dad came in as they were all making fun of me and says “Well is this going to work?” And I said “Yeah.” Then I explained leading edges and trailing edges and certain angles that cause it to fly the way it does. My dad said “Come outside and fly it.” And I said, “But there are windows and cars and things all around.” And he said, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of that.” So, I threw it and it came back.

So anyhow, I have a good touch for mechanical contrivances and was always fixing bicycles and motorcycles and I can’t even name all the weird things I have invented over the years.

Carousal Hangar
How did you come up with the idea for the Carousal Hangar?

The Carousal Hangar started out as a drawing on a bar napkin. I have always been one to try to take an idea and work it into its best form, to optimize it. The standard T-hangar didn’t look efficient because you have to have paved ramps at both sides of it and you’ve got to have a lot of doors. So while it is space efficient, from a cost stand point it is very inefficient. You have to space the planes far apart.

So I started playing with the idea of some way you could get a bunch of airplanes into a hangar and get them back out again from a single door without the building costing a lot. Ned Godshall and I were kicking that around in a bar one night. A couple of months later he calls me and says “You better get to working on that because I just put the down payment on the hangar.”

We started that project in October and the first plane went into it about the middle of December. It went together pretty fast. A lot of it was sort of designed on the fly.

How many gliders does it hold?

This one holds eight. The hangar is 84 x 84 feet, or 7,056 square feet.

Tell me about your first jet glider.

Most of the crazy ideas I come up with I can remember the moment when I saw two particular things and thought this would fit together nicely…but I know Jimmy Franklin’s Jet Waco was absolutely involved in the thought process for the first jet glider. Originally I had plans for a J-85 powered Skybolt biplane, but the cost of that was going to be really high and I just wasn’t sure it was going to be worth it. Somewhere along the line I saw that the model airplane guys were starting to use jet engines. So I called around.

Then in the summer of 2001 I was talking with one company that built a jet with about 100 pounds thrust. They were fairly interested in working with me. We set up a conference call so I could talk to several of their people and some other guys that were going to sit with me and help me ask the right questions. We were sort of working a deal on the engine. That was in September of 2001. That conference call was scheduled for September 12th, and of course we all know what happened on September 11th, and they absolutely backed out. Their lawyers got cold feet. They decided it was too closely related to something that might be a terrorist attack. And they absolutely shut down and wouldn’t talk to me. So the project got put on the back burner for a couple of years.

A few years later I met Leo Bennetti-Longhini the Alisport dealer. He and I were sitting in a Waffle House watching it rain and kicking around ideas and we drew up the jet glider on a napkin (again), a Waffle House napkin this time. He said “If you buy the engines I will let you use the aircraft.” That was the beginning of the first jet glider project. That went from concept to first flight in under a year.

Where did you get the engine from? Did you buy it from Leo?

Leo was the dealer for Alisport gliders. He agreed to furnish the airframe and eventually I bought it from him.

The engines came from a model airplane engine manufacturer. They came from a company that was called AMT, Aviation Micro Turbines, but now it is called US Micro Jet.

What was the engine originally designed to do? Fly model airplanes?

Yeah, large scale, jet-fighter looking radio control airplanes.

How much thrust did it have?

I had two engines on the Silent and they had 45 pounds thrust each.

How much does a Silent weigh?

The Silent weighs about 400 pounds with the engines.

Jet Engine from Czech Republic
Then you moved on to a big engine that you bought in Europe?

Well, I have owned a Salto glider for years. That is what I flew in air shows originally. With its V-tail it sort of lends itself well to being jet powered.

The Silent project took off and was working well. So any ideas of using the Salto got put on hold. But a couple of years ago someone sent me an email and asked me if I had heard of this engine that was built in the Czech Republic. It looked like a really nice engine so I called the factory and explained to them what I had done with the Silent. They said, “Oh no, no, no, we know who you are.” So they had heard of me and heard of what I had done and were fairly anxious to have somebody put one of these on something and get out and fly it a lot and give them some feedback on how it worked in a manned aircraft.

That project went from initial contact in about October to the first flight the following August. So that went pretty fast.

What year was that?

October of 2007 to August, 2008.

So you have been flying this for about a year?

I flew it the first time on August 1, 2008.

You did some additional modifications for special effects. Tell me about those.

In the air show business you have to have smoke. So I have wingtip pyrotechnic smoke and I also do a night show with a lot of pyrotechnics tied to the plane. So I basically fly upside down at night with the airplane on fire and get paid for it.

What’s not to like?

The airplane is not really on fire?

Parts of it are. There are an awful lot of pyrotechnic effects on the plane for that night show.

Where did you learn how to do that? Or is it just something you researched and came up with on your own?

One of the good things about working at Sandia Labs is there are a lot of crazy scientist types. A couple of those in particular, whose names I will leave out, have been instrumental in teaching me a lot about pyrotechnics, how it works and how to do it safely.

Your wife travels with you to these air shows and she appears to be someone who gives you a huge amount of support in the stuff that you do. Tell me how she has contributed to your success in your flying.

It’s actually funny. When I first started doing air shows Laurie did not think this was a good idea. The idea of hanging out at an airport every weekend just didn’t appeal to her at all. But we had a show back in 95, in Page, Arizona. It is a pretty interesting area, a lot of pretty interesting rock formations and things. We got an opportunity to do a show with the Canadian Snowbirds on a Tuesday.

The Snowbirds were between shows and they basically called and said if you will put on a show on Tuesday we will come out. I told Laurie, “This will be a lot of fun, We will go tour Bryce Canyon and things over the weekend and then go do the air show on Tuesday.” She replied “No we won’t, we will go hang out at the airport for 5 days in a row.”

So we went to the show and it actually turned out to be a really fun week. We did go see Bryce Canyon and Zion and Lake Powell. We got to the show on Monday and the Snowbirds sort of recognized that this was a test weekend. So they took Laurie and just treated her like royalty. They would let her sit in the jet when they moved from one place to another. Anytime they were going to do anything they would invite Laurie along like one of their crew. She came away that week with a whole different attitude about how much fun it could be at an air show. Ever since then she has been an integral part of the crew and the air show family.

Other than air shows do you ever get to do casual flying?

I use to do a lot soaring but the air show business keeps me pretty busy these days. I don’t get to do a lot of soaring. If I am out here (Moriarty), I am usually working on the planes and if not I am usually on my way to an air show.

I have done a fair amount of helicopter flying these past few years. Hopping rides and helping out a friend of mine, my instructor. That’s been kind of fun. It is fun to get out and fly some other things too.

Do you eventually plan to teach or just keep doing the air shows?

I like to teach people who are already pilots. I like to teach aerobatics, spins, and things the basic instructor just didn’t have time to cover before they got their license and moved on. I enjoy that aspect of teaching people how to fly but I don’t like primary instruction.

I was a hang-gliding instructor for a couple of summers and luckily I got that out of my system. I found out that I really don’t like teaching people the basics of flying. After you have been flying a long time you sort of forget how difficult it was when you first started learning. And you forget how hard it is to push your right foot down while you push your hand to the left. Or to coordinate all these things that seem so natural now.

I have watched a lot of instructors burn out after 4 or 5 years. A lot of them never get to go flying by themselves anymore. They end up leaving the sport. So I never did get my instructor rating. I don’t know if I ever will.

Tell me about the most interesting flight you have ever had.

My most interesting flight? Wow… man that’s a tough one.

It could just be the most memorable.

There are so many fascinating flights, it’s hard to sort of nail it down to one. But, if I go back through I could pick 4 or 5.

In 1986 I flew a hang-glider 102 miles from Sandia Crest to Santa Rosa. That was certainly a memorable flight.

And hang-glider flights down through Mexico, launching off volcanoes at 13,000 feet. And flying out across the top of Mexico was pretty exciting.

I have been 31,000 feet over the Sierras in California.

In a hang-glider?

No, in a sailplane.

And I have gotten to fly in so many places and so many different types of aircraft that it’s hard to go back and pick.

Did you ever have a flight that scared you?

I’ve scared myself a few times.

I remember one hang-gliding flight. I was flying out of Silverton, Colorado and there were a couple of storms coming in. The day before the storms had come in I decided not to fly. I spent a couple of hours on top of a peak above tree line with the lightning crashing all around throwing rocks down on us.

So the next day when the storm started to come in I decided I was going to bail and get back on the ground. I didn’t quite get landed before the storms hit the landing area. It was a very tight landing field and it’s nearly 9,000 feet in elevation. The wind was coming around the mountains and through the passes. I was making 50 foot excursions up and down. I was travelling backward because the wind was blowing so hard. I really wasn’t sure I was going to get on the ground safely that time. Several guys saw me coming in and ran out. On one excursion when I got close to the ground they just yanked my glider and pulled me down to the ground. That was a bit scary.

I have been up a few times where I got myself into a position I wish I hadn’t.

What did it feel like the first time you jumped off a cliff in a hang-glider?

In hang-gliding you don’t just start off jumping off a big cliff. I started on the little sand dunes just south of Albuquerque. I worked my way up to about 100 feet.

My first big launch was probably off of Tetilla Ridge, near Cochiti Lake. Very often in movies they will do a scene where the helicopter flies over a cliff and you just have this huge expanse in front of you and that is what it feels like. The view goes from just being able to see what you see on the ground to being able to see in every direction with nothing impeding. Of course with a hang-glider you hang below the glider so you see everything around you. You can actually spin around and look behind you. It is hard to describe.

Did you have flying dreams when you were a child?

I always had flying dreams, and still do. I dream of emergency procedures about once a week. I will be flying something and it will be in some situation that I have to try to figure out how to get out of.

Do you always get out of them in your dreams?

I am still here.

In your dreams.

Of course, in the dreams sometimes I actually come up with interesting ways to get out of a situation. Sometimes I magically move things…it’s a dream.

Are you rated in helicopters now?

Yeah, I have my commercial helicopter rating now.


I am proud of that one. It is a hard one to get.

Are helicopters harder to fly than airplanes or gliders?

Helicopters are not harder to fly but a helicopter can think of 1,000 ways to kill you that an airplane never dreamed of.