For all his love of things mechanical, the man behind the famed AeroSuperBatics Stearman wingwalking team might have left flying behind him were it not for a fateful meeting with an aerobatic ace…
My pal Jon rang me the other day. He’s a motorcycle journalist, and was tapping me up for some names of biking celebrities for a column he writes in one of the bike mags. My first suggestion, former MP Lembit Opik, Chairman of the Motorcycle Action Group and well-known for being an eccentric, was shot down
My next suggestion didn’t fare too well either. “How about,” I suggested, “Vic Norman, the pilot?” Vic has a great collection of motorcycles, including a prototype Suzuki GSX-R750 signed by 1993 500cc World Champion Kevin Schwantz and a bike that used to power the generator in a Californian gold mine that was previously owned by stunt man Bud Ekins. (Bud was the bloke who actually did the jump in The Great Escape.)
“Vic Norman sounds interesting but no one will have heard of him,” replied Jon. “They might,” I suggested “because he runs a wingwalking team−biplanes, girls in tight-fitting outfits an all that…”
“Ah, Utterly Butterly,” exclaimed Jon who, it turns out, is one of the tens of thousands who have seen Norman’s AeroSuperBatics Stearmans at an airshow.
Known to hundreds of thousands?
Perhaps my maths is out, it could be hundreds of thousands, as I muse later. “Oh, many more,” says Vic Norman. “We did a show in China and a million people tried to show up. The army had to be called in to hold back the crowds.”
We’re sitting in the warm sun outside one of Norman’s new hangars which also house his office. He used to operate out of what was the engine shed at RFC Rendcomb but that has now been sold to a fellow Cub owner. I have temporarily lost photographer Whiteman who, as a lover of all things mechanical like Norman himself, is poking around the adjoining hangar peering under car covers at classic Porsches, a Ferrari 550 Maranello and work in progress, a ’30s Ford roadster hot rod. There’s also Vic’s restored Piper J3 Cub−a great love of our Editor’s life too.
One of the many wonderful things about being a pilot is the logbook. However dizzy the memory gets, you can always navigate back through your past life using your logbook as an aide memoire. Proposed to your wife on a trip to France in your Luscombe but can’t remember the year? Look it up in your logbook! Vic Norman has many, including number one, in which is noted his first lesson, in an Alon Aircoupe at Stapleford.
“I loved it right from that first flight,” he says. “My dad, who ran a successful engineering business, got his licence after the war and owned a succession of aeroplanes, including several Miles Geminis and a Miles Marathon that he used as a flying showroom to publicise his juke box business . He’d often let me take the controls on flights to France for holidays. I suppose that’s why I found flying easy. I went solo in six and a half hours.
“My second lesson was very memorable. The instructor was a great guy called Neville Browning who’d flown Spitfires in the war. He leaned over, pulled the throttle and then said ‘You have an engine failure and must prepare for a forced landing’. I put the nose down to maintain flying speed and selected a field. I’d been expecting Neville to tell me to power up and go around but we were down to twenty feet when he finally said ‘I have control’ and landed in the field. He then climbed out and asked me to follow him. We walked about a hundred yards from where we’d landed to a village shop
where Neville collected his daily loaf of bread.”
Piper or Ferrari?
Young Vic, who was now involved in running the engineering business (his father died when Vic was fourteen years old) persuaded the directors that a light aircraft would be very useful for flying around the country to meet customers. A look in his logbook shows that many of the flights that he made in the brand-new Piper Arrow were to Le Touquet for lunch and to Silverstone to watch motor racing. Like his father, Norman loved anything mechanical and while twisting the arms of the directors for the Arrow, he was also contemplating nudging them in another direction and buying a Ferrari 275GTB/4, which would have cost a similar amount to the £6,000 paid for the Piper PA-28R. Interestingly, the Ferrari would now be worth the fat end of a couple of million quid; that Piper−still flying−I suspect rather less.
Wings might have taken preference over wheels on that occasion but in 1970 Norman stopped flying with only a couple of hundred hours is his logbook and then spent the following decade racing vintage cars of the finest pedigree, from Jaguar D Type to Maserati 250F Grand Prix car via BRM P25. One of his racing pals was Patrick Lindsay, who as well as owning a Spitfire, had a Stampe. “Patrick took my wife Anne and I up in it, and it dawned on me that you could have an aeroplane just for fun.
“I met Richard Goode at a party and he happened to be selling his Stampe for only £7,500. My pilot’s licence had expired, so I had to do a refresher course with an instructor but I couldn’t wait to fly my new toy. I was still racing cars and was about to race my Maserati at Silverstone, which in those days still had a runway. Knowing that flying a taildragging biplane would be a bit more of a challenge, I flew to Silverstone with a friend who flew transport aircraft in the RAF and Anne went ahead in a car with the children and a picnic
“I certainly found out how tricky taildraggers could be. I ground looped after landing and smashed a wing, the prop and undercarriage. My friend had flown 20,000 hours and this, he told me, was his first crash.”
Goode role model
I’ve known Vic Norman for several decades, having met him in the car world, and when I started learning to fly in 2006, he became my mentor−a rôle that Richard Goode played previously for Vic himself. “Richard was displaying a Pitts at the time but suggested that he could also display the Stampe and that I could position it at the shows. Not only did I learn a lot about display flying from watching, I completely got the bug for flying. Not long after, I sold the Maserati and bought myself a Zlin Z-50. I’d been practising aerobatics under Richard Goode’s eye and also by reading Neil Williams’ fantastic book Aerobatics. I spent a year flying almost every day and was eventually able to fly the aeroplane reasonably well and had built up a display routine.”
Norman’s skill at the joystick is more than matched by his business acumen, or more accurately, his understanding of marketing. (Or, bluntly, the art of getting someone else to pay for your fun.) Having cracked flying the Zlin, our hero now goes knocking on the door of the Colt Car Company, importers of Mitsubishi motor cars, that happens to be just around the corner from the Normans’ house in Cirencester.
“I sold them the idea of sponsoring the Zlin which, because they were rare in the West, attracted a lot of airshow interest. But before any ink was going to hit a contract the directors wanted to see a display. This we did at South Cerney but to be absolutely sure of them being impressed, in a bit of sleight of hand Richard Goode actually did the display. They were happy and we went on to do eight years with Colt.
“I never got into the air show and display flying business to make money,” says Norman “but as a way to keep flying and to keep the family under a roof”.
Inspiration in the USA
Vic Norman’s knack of finding sponsors and keeping them happy saw him working his way through the motor industry from Colt to Seat, to Yugo. Then came the masterstroke; wingwalking. “My wife Anne and I had been at an airshow in Salinas in the mid ’80s where we saw a wingwalking act using a Boeing Stearman. I was captivated and started thinking about doing the same in the UK, where the only wingwalking going on was on the top of a Tiger Moth.
“As soon as I got home, I had a go in a 450hp Stearman that Ray Hanna had just bought. That really got me fired up, and shortly afterwards Ray sold me the aeroplane.
“Art Scholl, the American aerobatic champion and stunt pilot had built a wingwalker rig and had it certified for use with a Stearman but he was worried about the responsibility if anyone were to be hurt using a copy of it.
“In 1985 Art was tragically killed during filming Top Gun. His wife Judy very kindly let me have the plans for Art’s rig which we were then able to replicate. I was still displaying the Zlin, but I got a guy called Bob Thomson to fly the Stearman that I’d bought, and he and a girl called Lesley Gail did the wingwalking display (although in fact it turned out that this wasn’t her real name− just one of the unusual events that have happened throughout my life of meeting and mixing with amazing people).”
Yugo cars were the first sponsors of the wingwalking team that eventually became AeroSuperBatics, and were then followed by Cadburys, St Ivel, skin care experts Guinot and then finally Breitling. “Cadburys were amazing sponsors,” reports Norman “they came on board in 1989 and we moved up to two Stearmans with them. I learned everything about sponsorship and marketing through them.” Ultimately, Aerosuperbatics would display up to five aircraft in one airshow act.
Norman went full-time as a wingwalking pilot with the team in 1992 but that didn’t stop adventures off piste or even a steady flow of non-Boeing aircraft. His logbook is littered with a variety of interesting types that include a de Havilland Dove and a Curtiss Jenny . The latter was the brainchild of one of Vic Norman’s greatest heroes. “Glenn Curtiss was one of the first truly brave aviators and he combined in his life two of my greatest loves: aviation and motorcycles. Curtiss set the fastest speed ever attained on a motorcyle using a V8 that he designed himself−an engine that led to the development of the Jenny’s OX-5 water-cooled V8. The Jenny is a big aeroplane with a wingspan that’s almost half as much again as a Stearman’s.”
Preferring the simple pleasure…
One thing Norman has never owned is a warbird. “I came quite close to buying a Hurricane at an auction once, but they’ve never appealed. They’re too much hassle to own and operate–the exact opposite of my J3 Cub, which I can pull out of the hangar on my own on a summer’s evening, swing the prop and go off for a gentle flight. A simple pleasure.”
Not surprisingly Norman has plenty of moments in the air, one of the most dramatic occurring while flying back from the Dordogne in an Antonov An-2. “It spat off a cylinder over northern France,” explains Vic “while Anne was flying it−she, like the rest of my family, also flies. I quickly took over, by which time the windscreen was covered in oil. Anne opened a side window and gave me directions as I got the thing down in a farmer’s field.”
Not surprisingly, Covid has put the mockers on the air display circuit but that doesn’t mean that on a fine day you won’t hear the noise of a Pratt & Whitney radial at Rendcomb, because the team is busy giving wingwalking experiences to the general public. (I should add that while journalists are famous for trying to get things for free, I’ve never tapped up Vic for a free ride on top of one of his Stearmans.)
And he is showing no signs of losing his appetite for buying and selling aircraft, bikes and cars. A V-tail Bonanza has just departed for a new home and in its place has arrived one of the most beautifully made Vans RV-7s I’ve ever seen. “It’s come from Switzerland,” explains Norman “where it was built by an engineer. I can’t wait to fly it, once the paperwork is done.”
While Vic Norman denies that he was inspired to fly by the barnstormers of the 1920s it would be difficult for him to argue that he hasn’t become one himself. There must be very few people, certainly in Europe, that have earned such a good living from display flying. And none that have done so colourfully.
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