Pilot Melissa Pemberton maneuvered her bright blue Edge 540 airplane through loops, tumbles, and every angle in between at a July 6 performance in the Truckee Tahoe airspace. Before she could fully peel off her leather flight suit upon landing, she was met with applause from locals crowding around the gates facing her aircraft. I had the opportunity to speak with Pemberton, a respected, award-winning female aerobatic pilot who lives her dream, working and flying alongside her husband, Rex. This dynamic duo — Rex in his squirrel suit and Melissa in her aerobatic plane — was the highlight at this year’s 2013 Truckee Tahoe AirFair and Family Festival.

Moonshine Ink: I really enjoyed watching you this morning.
Melissa Pemberton: It was definitely an extra challenge up at these altitudes with those winds. It’s crazy. This is an airplane that is so high performance, and when I run out of energy, I’m like, ‘This is weird, I never run out of energy.’

MI: So when did you become interested in flying?
MP: My grandma was a pilot so I grew up around it; she lived on an airpark. So I would say that I always had an interest in it. My senior year of high school was really the year when I made the decision I wanted to learn how to fly and applied to college at Embry Riddle [Aeronautical University]; it’s really what I went to school for.


MI: How did you come to specialize in aerobatic flying?
MP: It was again with my grandma. She had an aerobat, a Cessna Aerobat. I did some basic aerobatics with her, and then my grandfather took me to Oshkosh, Wis. right after I finished my license, after I graduated high school. I was absolutely blown away by the air show there. I thought, ‘I can’t believe people get to do this for a living,’ and I started to pursue aerobatics on my own after that.

MI: What is your favorite maneuver when you’re up there?
MP: That’s a tough one. With the air shows, it’s a lot of fun because we’re doing more gyroscopic maneuvers, like the tumbles. They look pretty wild, but they feel pretty comfortable inside the airplane. I started doing ribbon cuts this year; I really enjoy doing that. We couldn’t do it [in Truckee], but I think the ribbon cuts and the tumbles are probably my favorite.

MI: What exactly is a ribbon cut? How would you describe it?
MP: So a ribbon cut is where you have two poles and then a piece of ribbon strung between them at about 23 feet. Then I come down the runway inverted and cut it with my propeller.

MI: The word aerobatics is interchangeable with precision flying. I read that you’re a rock climber and that requires precision. How would you compare your approach to both?
MP: It’s a really good comparison between climbing and flying. All through high school and college, I was real competitive in climbing. I think the mental power and the focus it takes to do some tough routes is very similar to the mental state that you have to approach precision aerobatics with. You have to play the mental game. You have to be able to visualize and kind of walk through, think through your sequence before you get up there and fly it, and just be prepared to react instantly to whatever comes your way. So I think some of the attraction to the aerobatics for me was that mental part of the sport.

MI: So, I saw that helicopter earlier come down close to where you were performing.  Did that freak you out? How do you normally react to that?
MP: The thing about aerobatics is that you’re focusing on your flying, but you have to be really situationally aware as well. I’m always looking around me, looking at the environment I’m flying in, looking for other traffic. Just because we close the airport doesn’t mean everyone is going to realize that the airport is closed. Sometimes you have traffic fly through, so for me, it was okay. Before I came diving in, I saw them there, and the air boss talked to them, and got them to land. And I just took a break until they were clear, and then came in and finished up my routine. It’s a hazard, but we have a good, safe team to keep us from getting into too much trouble.

MI: Which pilot impacted your flying career most?
MP: My grandma did basic aerobatics, but she was a flight instructor for 30 years, and that was her big thing, she loved to teach people to fly. They say it runs in the blood, and I think I inherited every ounce of that from her.

MI: How would you like to grow as a pilot in the upcoming years?
MP: I suppose with the air shows I’m always striving to make a more entertaining show, but with the competitions, my goal is to be woman’s world champion some day. I’ll have a shot at it this October at the world championships. That’s a real big goal of mine. As far as my professional career goes, I went to school for aviation and have yet to work for an air carrier. I’ll probably have the airlines in the picture in my not so distant future. 

Info: sportsgal.com


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