Flying high after the tornado

Last March 31, Mike Stewart, founder and flight lead of Team RV, and Tad Sarent, flight lead, were in the airshow briefing at Sun ’n Fun, eagerly anticipating the team’s debut at the nation’s second largest airshow.

“This was a big deal for us,” Stewart recalled. But as the briefing got underway, he got a text: One of the team’s planes was upside down, destroyed by the F1 tornado that roared through the grounds.

“I went up front and showed Wayne Boggs (the air boss) and then everybody’s phones went off,” he said. At that moment, he realized that the airshow — and Team RV’s SUN ’n FUN debut — wouldn’t be happening that day.

What soon became apparent is that two of Team RV’s 12 RVs were totaled in the storm, including the one Sargent had spent two years building with his son.

“When I got that text, I had a lump in my throat,” Sargent recalled Monday as the team prepared for its “second” debut at this year’s SUN ’n FUN. “When I got the first view of it, the reality hit home. It was mangled metal that represented years of sweat and money and it was never to be used again.”

While his wife cried and his son was upset, Sargent said he got right down to business, working with NationAir, the team’s insurance company, who “made us whole” and looking immediately for a new airplane.

And he wasn’t the only one. Also totaled in the storm was the RV-3 owned by the team’s crew chief, Tony Spicer, while six other planes were damaged.

It was then that the team’s motto, “No Wing Man Left Behind,” sprang into action. The teammates worked with each other to repair the planes they could, look for new planes, and deal with the myriad maintenance issues caused by the storm. “The whole team rallied,” Stewart said. Amazingly, the 12 pilots of Team RV were performing again within a month of the SUN ’n FUN tornado, thrilling crowds at an airshow in Vidalia, Ga.

As the team prepared for its second debut at SUN ’n FUN earlier this week, there were a few nerves, Stewart admitted. But he said those would soon disappear once the 12 pilots were in their RVs and ready to take off.

“When I crawl in that airplane and strap it on, nothing else in the world matters,” Stewart said.

One of the most unique airshow performers in the country, Team RV began 10 years ago at an airport near Atlanta when Stewart approached Bob Goodman, an Air Force pilot who had flown F-15s, and asked about formation flying. “He took me under his wing and I was completely hooked,” Stewart said.

Soon other RV pilots were joining in and before they knew it they were asked to do a fly-by at a parade. In the past decade, the team has evolved and now performs in about 15 airshows a year, recently adding aerobatics to the formation flying.

But while they are airshow stars, the pilots of Team RV are down to earth, based in the homebuilt area.

“We get to perform in planes we built in our garages,” Stewart said. “This is an average guy’s plane, not a Citation or an Extra. We hope to inspire people to continue working on their plane or start building one of their own.”

As he looked around the homebuilt area, he mused, “This is our home. We want to share our love and passion for aviation. We love what we are doing and we love these planes.”

Team RV will be performing in today’s airshow and will be in the homebuilt area, ready and willing to talk airplanes with all comers.

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Photo by Ben Sclair




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